National Reconciliation Week spotlight – interview with Elly Patira

During National Reconciliation Week (27 May to 3 June 2019) we speak with Elly Patira, director of Aboriginal affairs at the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Victoria.

The date of the annual National Reconciliation Week commemorates two milestones — the 1967 referendum and the High Court Mabo decision. We talk with Elly Patira, about how we can reconcile the relationship between the broader Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for a unified future.

National Reconciliation week 2019, 27 May - 3 June - Ground in Truth - Walk Together with Courage. Learn more at is it important for all Victorians to acknowledge this week?

National Reconciliation Week is a chance for all Australians to celebrate our collective histories and cultures. The 2019 theme is ‘Grounded in Truth: Walk Together with Courage’. Aboriginal Victorians have long called for truth-telling about our state’s history and this theme recognises that at the heart of reconciliation is a truthful relationship between all Victorians.

It’s 2019. Have times changed when it comes to reconciliation? 

Reconciliation must not be a process that happens throughout just one week of the year. Reconciliation today is about justice, healing, self-determination and equity for Aboriginal Victorians. While building stronger relationships between Aboriginal Victorians and non-Aboriginal Victorians remains central to a reconciled Australia, Aboriginal Victorians have made clear that this must occur within a treaty framework. I encourage all Victorians to understand what a treaty could mean for this state, and how it can and will benefit all Victorians.

How has your life experience impacted where you are today, making a difference nationally?

While I did very well at school, issues around colour and class weighed very heavily on how I interacted with the world, and with my sense of belonging. I spent much of my teenage years, my university life and working as a corporate lawyer asking over and over again, "Do I belong here?". When you don’t see yourself reflected in positions of power and achievement, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re an imposter.

It’s now very important to me as a leader that my work focuses on challenging the status quo and questioning existing power structures. What I love most about my job is that I have oversight of nation-leading work on Aboriginal self-determination and treaty. The Victorian Government is really grappling with questions about how it can transform so that Aboriginal Victorians have control of decisions about matters that affect their lives. Professionally, this is incredibly exciting, as I get to exercise my policy chops. We’re in green pastures, being led by Victoria’s Aboriginal communities in innovating new policy approaches and solutions.

Talk us through a day-in-your-life as director of Aboriginal Affairs at the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

The Aboriginal Affairs Policy branch provides policy advice across multiple domains – including land and environment, early childhood, education, employment, family violence, justice and health – aiming to improve outcomes for Aboriginal Victorians. We also liaise with other parts of government to ensure Aboriginal voices are central to policy making and service delivery, and support the aspirations and interests of Aboriginal Victorians nationally.

Throughout the day, I’m often meeting with key decision makers, including the minister and the minister’s advisors to brief them on policy issues. A key part of my role is setting strategic direction and guiding whole-of-government approaches to progressing Aboriginal self-determination and treaty. Underpinning this is strong engagement with the Victorian Aboriginal community – I consider my regular meetings with stakeholders from the Victorian Aboriginal community to be the most important part of my job. Of course, underpinning all of this is a lot reading, drafting and approving meeting papers, policy documents and briefings.

How is Victoria’s Aboriginal business sector tracking? And how is the Victorian Government helping them succeed?

It’s growing and becoming more visible. In 2016, there were 1307 Aboriginal business owner-managers in Victoria. Supporting Aboriginal businesses to thrive continues to be a key commitment of the Victorian Government. Just recently, the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions established an Aboriginal Economic Development branch, which is really driving support in this area. Tharamba Bugheen: the Victorian Aboriginal Business Strategy 2017-2021 and the Social Procurement Framework both set a one per cent Aboriginal procurement target to encourage government buyers to procure from Aboriginal businesses.

Government has also funded Kinaway Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce and the Aboriginal Economic Broker Grants Program, and LaunchVic’s funding round for Aboriginal entrepreneurial programs has also been well-received. The Victorian Aboriginal Economic Board also commissioned research to explore barriers and opportunities for Victorian Aboriginal women in business. This is incredibly important work.

Your advice to Victorian Aboriginal businesses?

There’s no doubt opportunities for Victorian Aboriginal businesses continue to increase, in government and the private sector. I absolutely encourage Aboriginal businesses to explore existing programs and initiatives designed to provide support. For example, under Tharamba Bugheen, Small Business Victoria hosts workshops targeted at Aboriginal businesses.

There are also several accelerator and start-up programs for Aboriginal Victorians, such as Barayamal (which delivers Victoria’s Indigenous Business Accelerator Program and seed capital), Global Sisters (which delivers workshops on start-up thinking and incubation for regional Victorian Aboriginal women), Ngarrimili (which runs a series of workshops to ignite the entrepreneur mind and an incubator program that looks at social impact), and Ngamai Moorroop Wilin (which runs regular meet-ups to build a community of Aboriginal entrepreneurs. I also encourage Aboriginal businesses to engage with Kinaway for support in establishing, maintaining and growing your business, as well as networking opportunities.

But rather than give advice to Aboriginal businesses, it’s equally important that the Victorian Government continues to listen, acknowledging that Aboriginal business people hold the real knowledge and expertise about how they can best be supported to thrive.

How can National Reconciliation Week help forge stronger, long-lasting ties between indigenous and non-indigenous communities? 

It provides a platform to celebrate and create awareness of Aboriginal culture; an important step in forging stronger relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. However, reconciliation without structural reform has less meaning and will be less effective in achieving better outcomes for Aboriginal people, and stronger, long-lasting relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

For true reconciliation to occur, we need to undertake truth-telling processes to develop a shared understanding of Victoria’s history. We need to grapple with the reality that colonisation involved the establishment of Victoria with the specific intent of excluding Aboriginal people, their laws, culture, customs and traditions. We need to acknowledge that this resulted in the exclusion of Aboriginal perspectives in the development of Victorian laws, policies, systems and structures. This has had a profound impact not only on Aboriginal Victorians, but on all Victorians, who haven’t been able to fully share in our rich, vibrant and diverse cultures.

National Reconciliation Week provides an important opportunity to have some of these conversations, but this must be continued, including by committing to treaty, to truth-telling and to structural transformation across government and other public institutions to enable Aboriginal self-determination. Deadly Questions is one way to continue the dialogue.