In this Q&A, former senior bureaucrat Michael Dillon offers some very thoughtful insights into the last several decades of Indigenous policy-making and the role of historical knowledge in the policy process.


 Michael Dillon is a graduate in economics and public policy. Early in his career he worked for Indigenous organisations in the East Kimberley and Central Australia. He has worked for three federal Ministers for Indigenous Affairs, and been a senior bureaucrat in both the Commonwealth and Northern Territory. He is the author with Neil Westbury of Beyond Humbug: Transforming Government Engagement with Indigenous Australia, Seaview Press, Adelaide, 2007. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, ANU. Michael’s irregular blog on Indigenous policy issues can be accessed at


1. Indigenous policy is one of the most complex and ideologically driven areas of public policy. Do you think that policy makers are sufficiently conscious of historical precedents in devising their policies? Would greater awareness of historical perspectives be useful?

I think the short answer is that policymakers are insufficiently aware and conscious of the history of policy particular domains, and a resounding ‘yes’ to the desirability of greater awareness of historical perspectives. These responses are particularly the case in relation to the Indigenous affairs policy domain. Public policy is developed in a huge complex machine, which at key points, like Cabinet and the Parliament, spans multiple domains. The policy machine is designed in large measure to respond to the pressures of competing interests and is consequently shaped most of the time by structural forces (both endogenous and exogenous) which appear to be beyond the purview or ken of individual policymakers to shape, influence or determine. In such an environment, the utility of historical perspectives is less useful and certainly is not innately valued. Of course, interest groups are the product of their histories, and exist because of particular circumstances in the past as well as the opportunities of the present. Understanding where an interest group is coming from is often highly important in understanding the basis of their current positions and stances and thus in understanding policy opportunities and outcomes, but in my experience it is fair to say that the policymaking machine values such perspectives quite minimally. Over and above the structural forces which shape policy, there are also potential opportunities for individual agency, whether at the level of interest groups, bureaucratic levels or at the level of parliamentarians and in particular ministers. Effective policy influence by individuals requires vision, policy skills, and persistence along with an ‘alignment of the stars’ in terms of the external operating environment. While perhaps not absolutely required, in my experience, individuals with the capacity to influence policy will envision opportunities with greater clarity and nuance if they have a sense of historical perspectives.

In my career in Indigenous affairs, I have been involved in a number of institutional reforms, some large and well known, others less known and forgotten. While I always had an interest in history, it was patchy and in many respects underdeveloped. For example, I have had a longstanding interest in the Kimberley, which arose because of my work as a ‘community adviser’ with a strong community development focus when I was 21 and straight out of university. I came to know the broad outlines of Kimberley frontier history, including the massacres, the subjugation of Indigenous populations, the syncretic adaption of western religions to Indigenous cosmology and the like. I mention this, because often during my later career as a public policymaker, I would informally assess policy options against what they would mean in and to the East Kimberley community where I worked ‘on the ground’ for two years. Yet years later when I read Mary Ann Jebb’s wonderful yet shocking history Blood Sweat and Welfare (UWA Press 2003), I realised that notwithstanding many conversations with Aboriginal people, and hearing many stories of the early days, some quite shocking, I had nevertheless not properly (or viscerally) understood the systemic levels of overt violence which were involved in the establishment of the Australian nation. Another hugely important issue which I came late to understanding (and which is of major ongoing policy significance in Indigenous affairs) is the process of inter-generational transfer of deep-seated disadvantage. Again, policy makers ‘know’ it happens, devise policies which seek to prevent it or short-circuit it, but I suspect, as in my case, they generally do not really appreciate and understand its visceral and systemic impacts on Indigenous families and thus its real structural significance. Gaps in the appreciation of the significance of these factors allow, or even encourage, resort to shallow or inadequate policy responses. Of course, one cannot really appreciate intergenerational disadvantage if one doesn’t understand the circumstances of former generations. Along with direct experience of working with Indigenous people, an appreciation of history (both by individual policymakers, but also amongst cohorts of policymakers) is crucial in my view to the development of effective policy in Indigenous affairs.

2. You were engaged in the design and creation of ATSIC. What historical perspectives and lessons contributed to the governance model for ATSIC?

The key insight which was at the core of the ATSIC model was the fact that Indigenous societies were heterogeneous and were essentially local and regional in nature. Accordingly, legitimate and effective Indigenous decision making needed to be based on local or regional decision-making entities. This was perhaps more of an anthropological insight than an historical one, reinforced in my case by my experience sitting in as a non-degree observer in a first year anthropology course and later from my experience working in and with communities. Arguably anthropology (along with disciplines such as pre-history and linguistics) is a window into the 65,000 years of unwritten Indigenous histories. A related insight derived from the fluid and dynamic nature of local indigenous politics, with its highly centripetal tendencies: Charles Rowley had prepared work for the Coombs Royal Commission which argued the case for the incorporation of Indigenous interests under a corporate ‘carapace’. The designers of ATSIC built on this insight, but proposed statutory entities at the regional level which meant that inevitable ‘small p’ politics within a region would take place within the statutory entity which was mandated to exist and thus not lead to break away bodies etc. This is an issue which remains of contemporary significance in the design of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament over coming months and years.

Another area where the history of Indigenous affairs (albeit a history which had been embedded in the popular imagination rather than one emanating from scholarship) was highly influential in the design of ATSIC related to the issues of accountability, nepotism, misuse of funds and corruption. I don’t have space to expound on all the nuances involved in these topics, but suffice to say that the different values of Indigenous societies combined with poor standards of public administration, corporate regulation and proactive oversight, and a view promulgated in the popular press that Indigenous organisations were particularly vulnerable to fraud, led to a public debate about accountability and corruption during the period the ATSIC legislation was being considered. As a result, the ATSIC legislation went through a major overhaul following a Senate Select Committee process which included the establishment of an Office of Evaluation and Audit (which I subsequently headed). I would argue, however, that the absence of any real historical analysis of Indigenous governance and accountability issues contributed to what was essentially a policy response designed to pander to populist pressure. These are not simple issues; Indigenous community leaders are subject to the same temptations and pressures as non-Indigenous directors, and effective governance and accountability structures are thus necessary and important. The history of Indigenous affairs is littered with poorly thought out and implemented accountability and governance frameworks, which are primarily the responsibility of governments and regulators. The result is that Indigenous organisations can in practice often be under-regulated and their members vulnerable to fraudulent behaviour by directors and/or senior staff. In my experience the biggest heists on Indigenous organisations have been perpetrated by non-Indigenous staff. There is a need for a history of accountability in Indigenous affairs to be researched and written.

‘Alcheringa Spirit’ an Australian limestone sculpture displayed in the foyer of the ATSIC Commission in Sydney was created by Australian Aboriginal artist Mundara Koorang

3. What historical lessons can contemporary policy makers and politicians learn from the demise of ATSIC and the course of Indigenous policy making since 2005?

These are huge questions! The demise of ATSIC, and indeed the history of its predecessor national representative bodies, the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, and the National Aboriginal Conference teach us that institutional innovations, even statutory based ones such as ATSIC, are vulnerable to abolition. Indeed, it seems to be a trend in Indigenous affairs that when an institution doesn’t work, or is alleged not to work, it is discarded and we start again, from the ground up. This is not good public policy. A second lesson which institutional designers need to bear in mind is that it is virtually inevitable that whichever design is chosen will both involve trade-offs, but will also be sub-optimal and will need to be refined and improved in the light of experience. Incorporating a process of incremental refinement at the beginning of an institutional reform is both good policy and common sense. This insight is particularly important at present because there is a strong likelihood that any change of government in Canberra will lead to a major process of institutional reform and development in relation to the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

A further example of this ‘ground zero’ dynamic relates to remote employment. We have recently seen the decade long abolition of the Community Development Employment Projects scheme which emerged around 1980, and while flawed, had significant advantages and universal community support. The last Labor Government replaced it across remote Australia with a scheme called the Remote Jobs and Communities Program (RJCP) which began in 2013, and upon its election in 2015, the Coalition Government immediately replaced it with a new program, the Community Development Program, without allowing RJCP to even reach its two year mark. CDP is now in the throes of its second major overhaul since 2015, and has been the subject of widespread criticism (including from the ANAO and many Indigenous groups) for its punitive approach to breaches of its rules.

Perhaps the single most apocalyptic policy event in recent Indigenous affairs history was the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention. Two facts stand out. First, the intervention involved the overt use of the Australian Defence Force, albeit in an unarmed and symbolic manner, to implement a major policy. Second, it involved the explicit legislative over-riding of the Racial Discrimination Act. Despite the Government’s intentions, which were probably misguided rather than malevolent, the intervention was interpreted by most Indigenous people and communities as an all-out attack on Indigenous people, communities and culture. While my personal view is that the policy ledger for the intervention was not all negative, the long-term implications for Indigenous peoples’ trust in government and indeed in relation to their perceptions regarding the benefits of citizenship were overwhelmingly negative. The further point I wish to make, however, is that the abolition of ATSIC cleared the path to the intervention. Had there been an inclusive structure within government which was part of the policy formulation and development process, it seems rather unlikely that the Howard Government would have seen the path they chose as feasible.

There are thus two key historical lessons to be discerned from the ATSIC experience. The first is that institutions and institutional frameworks are crucial determinants of outcomes, and thus Indigenous citizens need to create, develop, and participate at an institutional level if they are to shape systemic policy outcomes. Second, all institutions ought to be assessed against a simple criterion: are they inclusive or exclusionary in their effect. ATSIC and its associated legislation was fundamentally an attempt to create an inclusive institutional framework at the national level. Its abolition and the subsequent NT Intervention were fundamentally attempts to exclude Indigenous voices.

If we were to sum up the state of Indigenous policy over the longer term, and even over the past fifty years, we can discern an ongoing tension between greater inclusion and reversion to exclusion. There is much to celebrate: land rights, native title, the growth of hundreds of self-managed Indigenous corporations, the surge in Indigenous graduates across the nation, to name just a few advances. However, reversion to exclusion is still evident: mass incarceration, extremely high child removal rates, high rates of mental illness and suicide, violence against women and children, the failure to close the gap and the concomitant breach of trust with the Australian people since government rhetoric never matches the outcomes. The lessons I draw from history are that systemic and structural forces will play a major role in determining the parameters and shape of Indigenous lives and lifelong opportunities into the future; but history is also replete with examples where individual agency has made a difference.

4. Do you think that historical knowledge is sufficiently factored into policy making processes?

My answers to the questions above probably go a long way to answering this question. While historical knowledge will always add value to policymaking, it seems to me that it will very rarely be a determinative factor in making policy choices.

As I write this however, I immediately think of a counter-example. Surely better knowledge amongst policymakers of the impact of the child removal policies of the twentieth century, an understanding of the realities of the stolen generations, and of the way children were wrenched from their mothers and families, and the lifelong consequences not only for the children, but for the parents would lead to better child protection policies in the present. This seems irrefutable. Yet it underestimates the ways in which policymakers and particularly bureaucracies create their own cosmology, their own mindsets, their own rationales for courses of action which in retrospect appear entirely misguided.

Indeed history too can help us understand that our constructed mindsets can insulate us from recognising the most diabolical realities even when we are staring them in the face. For example, in the mid-1990s when I worked as an officer of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, in response to some litigation on foot at the time, we undertook some documentary research on past Commonwealth policies relating to child removals. One document unearthed was a report from the 1950s or maybe the 1960s, from two patrol officers involved in removing a ‘half-caste’ child from its mother in a remote community and placing the child on the weekly mail plane. The officers noted that the child and the mother were both crying inconsolably amid the din of the plane’s engines. Their undoubtedly well intentioned recommendation was that in future, to reduce the distress involved, the plane’s engines should be turned off, so as to allow a more dignified farewell between mother and child. Before we jump into judgemental mode, we might ask ourselves the question: what guarantees do we have that we are not making similarly misguided decisions in our current policies?

If knowledge of history can help policymakers question their constructed mindsets, question the framing of the issues they see as absolutes, and question the impact of their actions in shaping peoples life opportunities, then it is surely a good thing.

5. Do you think historians need to do more to insert ourselves into the policy debate? Through what mechanisms and mediums? British historian Niall Ferguson has suggested that a Council of Historians should advise the US president. Would such a proposal work in Australia?

My immediate response to these questions was that whatever the merits of greater involvement of historians in policymaking, the likelihood of Australian policymakers explicitly requesting advice from a professional historian in her role as historian is probably close to zero. Certainly, the likelihood of an Australian Prime Minister convening a ‘Council of Historians’ to advise the Government across the board is close to zero; and if for some reason an eccentric or idiosyncratic Prime Minister did so, such a Council is unlikely to last beyond the Prime Minister’s tenure.

However, as I thought about this proposition, an idea emerged which may well be worth pursuing. I would suggest that there would be merit in the history profession itself considering establishing a small group of professional historians who should reflect the diversity of approaches and scholars within the history profession, with a remit to focus on developing historical perspectives which encourage public dialogue and debate not so much on policy issues of the day, but on the more thematic and higher level issues facing society. For example, the risks of authoritarianism, the risks to democracy, the experience of surveillance states, the contributions and failures of religion to social stability, the role of the humanities, or the role of science in advancing societal welfare, and so on.

Such an approach would avoid the likely politicisation of a group appointed by governments and focussed on current policy issues. It would also retain a high degree of professional autonomy, and would aim to influence meta-policy issues with longer term horizons. The model in my mind was the Wentworth Group of concerned scientists which has existed for the last few decades. But then I realised, the Australian Policy and History (APH) group already exists. The next step is to make APH better known in policy and media circles.