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Annual Secretaries Dinner, Sir Roland Wilson Foundation

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News, speeches and media

Speech by Secretary Frances Adamson

National Museum of Australia, Canberra

Dhawura nguna, dhawura Ngunnawal.
Yanggu ngalawiri dhunimanyin Ngunnawalwari dhawurawari. 
Nginggada Dindi wanggiralidjinyin.

This is Ngunnawal Country.
Today we are all meeting together on this Ngunnawal Country.
We acknowledge and pay our respects to the Elders’.

[Acknowledgements]

Among other things, tonight is a celebration of two extraordinary Australian lives dedicated to public service, those of Roland Wilson and Pat Turner, both made possible, in large part, by the opportunities that only education can bring.

This Foundation – and the scholarships it provides – are fitting tributes to the enormous contributions made by these great Australians.

For the purposes of this audience, I’ll treat the biographies of both Roland Wilson and Pat Turner as assumed knowledge.

I do, however, want to talk about two enduring lessons from their lives.

The first is about the transformative power of education.

No matter the circumstances of one’s birth, proper and equitable access to education has a profound impact on an individual.

And when this is considered on a society-wide level, the effects are greater than the sum of their parts: a more prosperous, engaged, and tolerant society.

There is so much latent talent, hailing from so many backgrounds, right across the country and the Australian Public Service.

But sometimes that talent needs a source of inspiration, or a leg-up, to realise its potential – something that the Foundation helps provide.

As many here know, without considerable assistance when it came to his education, Roland Wilson could not have risen from very humble beginnings to become one of our most influential public servants.

He famously won a succession of scholarships, first to attend secondary school and then the University of Tasmania, before being propelled by a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and a Commonwealth Field Scholarship to the University of Chicago.

Less well-known, but perhaps more remarkable, is how the pursuit of education played a defining role in Pat Turner’s career, helping her overcome discrimination and hardship to become in 1994 Australia’s then most senior Indigenous government official as CEO of ATSIC.

Strangely enough, this story’s beginnings can also be traced to Oxford.  

Pat’s uncle, Charlie Perkins – yes, that Charlie Perkins – played semi-professional football in England in the 1950s before he became a successful activist and public servant in his own right.

It was while playing an away game against Oxford that a spark lit inside him.

Inspired by his surroundings and the power and credibility that education brings, Charlie made a big decision.

He turned down an offer to play with Manchester United to return to Australia instead to pursue an education so he could fight for justice for his people.

Old Trafford’s loss was Australia’s gain.

Recalling his thinking at the time, he said:
“I’ve got to go to university because when you do go, people listen to you…So at Oxford I decided that day, that game, during the game, that I would go to university.”

Fast-forward to the mid-1960s, 13-year-old Pat Turner travelled from Alice Springs with her grandmother, Hetti Perkins, to attend Uncle Charlie’s graduation at the University of Sydney.

Seeing her uncle graduate, the first Indigenous person to do so from an Australian university, had a profound effect on young Pat.

In her words: “If Uncle Charlie can do this, so can I. I’m going to get the best education I can.”

Uncle Charlie’s example, combined with a lifelong love of learning, pushed young Pat to win a scholarship to a secondary school in Adelaide, and then go on tertiary studies to pursue a career in social justice.

Pat rose from being the first Aboriginal woman to be a welfare officer in Alice Springs to holding senior positions in Canberra.

All the while, her commitment to learning has never tired.

She won the prize for Development Studies in her Masters at the University of Canberra, and was the Chair of Australian Studies at Georgetown University from 1998 to 1999.

I think, though, that Pat’s dedication to education extends well-beyond her achievements in educational institutions.

Her success as a public servant and activist is due in large part to her openness to listening and learning from those whom she represents…
…including, most recently, as Lead Convenor of the Coalition of Peaks, negotiating the landmark Partnership Agreement and National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

The second enduring lesson from the lives of Roland Wilson and Pat Turner – and this really goes to the mission of this Foundation – is about the APS having the breadth and depth of knowledge and experience needed to solve our nation’s biggest challenges.

One of Wilson’s lasting achievements was in driving the professionalisation of the Commonwealth bureaucracy and fostering greater intellectual heft in Treasury, first as Commonwealth Statistician and then as Secretary.

In a controversial move at the time, he created ‘research officer’ positions – the forerunner to today’s graduate programs – that allowed recruitment and promotion of recent university graduates.

At the time, most public servants started as base grade clerks aged 16 or were returned servicemen.

As the first economist, rather than accountant, to head the Treasury, Wilson was instrumental in transforming the department into the undisputed crucible of economic policy advice to government in order to implement modern, Keynesian concepts in Australia.

And to do this, he needed officers who could bring academic rigour and high-level technical skills to bear on policy.

Introducing a greater breadth of knowledge and experience into the APS has also been a hallmark of Pat Turner’s career.

One of Pat’s first jobs in Canberra was at the Public Service Board where her job was to identify roles across the public service that should be held by Indigenous Australians, as part of the recommendations from the Coombs Royal Commission.

As a junior officer, she pushed very senior officials to employ indigenous people with an understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and the issues facing Indigenous Australians.

In 1978, this was quite the task.

In one telling instance, Pat was told by the head of HR at the then-Department of Aboriginal Affairs that no more than 20 jobs in that agency – one that employed hundreds of staff – had been identified as appropriate for indigenous Australians.

Her response was simple: this wasn’t good enough.

Surely, in that of all agencies, she said, every position could be for Indigenous people.

The significant progress made since then boosting the numbers of Indigenous people in the APS is thanks in part to the ground-breaking efforts and courage of Pat and her colleagues back then.

Ever since, Pat has encouraged other Indigenous people to vigorously pursue education to advance their careers.

As CEO of ATSIC, for instance, Pat personally implemented a scholarship program that sponsored 10 Indigenous staff every year to undertake undergraduate studies while receiving their full salary.

To this day, those ATSIC scholars still tell her how that opportunity changed the course of their careers – and their lives – for the better.

Across her public life, Pat’s efforts have been aimed not just at raising the educational prospects of Indigenous people…
…but also to make policy more effective and more responsive to the needs of all Australians by introducing empathy, authenticity, and closeness to the issues being addressed.

As the APS now grapples with one the most difficult periods our nation has ever faced, we’d do well to heed both these lessons.

COVID-19 has generated a period of almost permanent crisis for government, dealing with a constantly evolving problem showing no sign of dissipating soon.

At times like this, it can be easy to adopt a siege mentality: with problems coming at us from every direction, hunkering down, just focussing on surviving the day-to-day.

But we need to look above the parapets, out over the horizon to see the second- and third-order effects of the virus and the other big structural forces shaping Australia’s world in coming decades.

We need to invest in the capability to influence these forces as a nation – and, of course, diplomacy is vital to this effort.

Indeed, as last year’s Independent Review found, the APS needs to nurture “the professionalism and expertise of its people and leaders, who are at the heart of its organisational capability.”

Even though our world has changed dramatically since that report was published, that message remains just as true.

We need to cultivate the skill- and knowledge-base to deliver on Australia’s public policy priorities.

To do that, we need to ensure our workforce has the right opportunities to develop the requisite expertise.

And by doing so, the APS will be an employer of choice – a priority destination for our nation’s best people.

Even though COVID-19 has presented some of the most novel and fast-moving problems my own department – DFAT – has ever faced, our deep reservoir of expertise has been an incredible asset.

Our experts and career professionals – people with sometimes decades-worth of professional development under their belt – have made possible key elements of our response.

Take our development specialists and diplomats who, at the Government’s direction, pivoted Australia’s development program effectively overnight to respond to our region’s most pressing needs.

Or our health policy people working on access to a vaccine for Australia, the Pacific, and Southeast Asia.

Or any number of country, region, or subject-matter experts who’ve harnessed their deep knowledge to advise government on the implications of COVID for their patch.

Once we get to “the other side” of COVID, as the Prime Minister described it in the early days, we will need this kind of expertise and leadership experience more than ever to secure Australia’s prosperity and security in the long-run.

I’m pleased, then, that two of DFAT’s best will be Sir Roland Wilson and Pat Turner scholars in 2021 – the first year DFAT has partnered with the Foundation.

This is a significant, multi-year investment in not just the individual scholars and DFAT’s capability, but also that of the wider APS, consistent with the impetus behind the findings of the Independent Review.

Our Roland Wilson scholar, Hannah Lord, will focus her PhD on ‘energy diplomacy’ in Southeast Asia, notably Australia’s opportunities to help the region transition to a low-carbon economy.

She sees the scholarship as a “3 year posting to the ANU” where she will not only develop deep expertise in this crucial field for Australia’s interests, but also generate an evidence-base to inform policymaking…
…something she couldn’t pursue without the scholarship.

Our Pat Turner scholar, Emily Pugin, is a proud descendant of the Kombumerri people of southeast Queensland and will be the first in her family to attain postgraduate education.

In studying a Masters of Public Policy, she hopes to further develop her policy leadership, motivated by seeing the intergenerational effects on her own family of poor policy decisions.

Emily plans to use her degree to build stronger bridges between DFAT and academia, and to better understand how the needs of vulnerable groups, including Indigenous people, can be addressed more fully by government policy.

I think we can agree that both Hannah and Emily’s academic intentions are fitting pursuits reflecting the lessons of Roland Wilson and Pat Turner’s careers.

Their stories are your stories in the making.

Thank you – and I wish all scholars the very best in your studies.

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