The importance of words: Changes to the Public Policy Taxonomy

There are welcome changes coming to policy surrounding First Peoples affairs, such as more First Peoples and First Peoples-led organisations being involved in policy-making, and changes in terminology surrounding First Peoples. First Peoples Editor, Carissa Godwin outlines the changes being made to APO’s Public Policy Taxonomy and expresses her hope that this language will become more commonplace in Australia, whether people work in policy or not.

Welcome changes

In Australia, over the last couple of decades, there has been some shifts in how First Peoples have been referred to. However, the biggest challenge is often policy-makers want one all-encompassing term to encapsulate the diverse First Peoples of Australia and the Torres Strait. ‘Indigenous’ became the common, catch-all term; which in itself makes it the problem as it does not respect the unique and diverse cultures of First Peoples. 

It might be difficult for some to understand the relevance of language when approaching the content of First Peoples. However, there is a long history of First Peoples being researched about, and not having a say in how we are referred to. This has led to harmful representations reflected in the language used and materials written about us and not with us.

The changes being made

With this in mind, we have updated APO’s Public Policy Taxonomy to better reflect more current terminology. Through consultations with our First Peoples Advisory Group, as well as working with our taxonomy experts, we’ve made several changes.

We are trying to capture self-identification data where it exists and reflect the diversity of language that is used. Where one term is required, we have chosen to use First Peoples in most cases. While it is still an all encompassing term, like Indigenous, there is inherent recognition of the first inhabitants in Australia, New Zealand and the world. In cases where ‘First Peoples’ wasn’t appropriate such as referring to children or elders, we have used ‘First Nations’ for example, First Nations children and First Nations elders

And while we were at it, we made a few other changes. 

‘Traditional knowledge’ is being removed and replaced by the more commonly used term ‘Indigenous knowledge’ because ‘traditional’ implies that it is an old or stagnant knowledge that isn’t growing and evolving.

‘Aboriginal Australians’ was not only a subject term itself, it is also used in relation to other terms. Some First Peoples in Australia prefer not to be referred to by the colonised name of this country. ‘Aboriginal Australians’ is being replaced by Aboriginal people (Australia), and under this term are more specific ones such as Aṉangu, Koori, and Murri. For other compound terms ‘Aboriginal Australians’ has been replaced by First Peoples, so that the term can be applied to all relevant resources such as housing and employment. And where relevant, the terms Torres Strait Islander people and Māori can be used.

We also know that it can be difficult to search our collection with so many different terms, so you should be assured that all terms have alternate labels that produce the same search results. So, if you search for ‘Indigenous’ your results will include resources tagged with ‘First Peoples’. 

A work in progress

It must be said that First Peoples is not a perfect term. It also feeds into rhetoric about the uniqueness of our people being traditional, or first here when our connection to Country or whenua is so much more than that. It is also a catch-all term that won’t be preferred by everyone. But First Peoples has increasing uptake, such as the First Peoples Assembly here in Victoria and our Collection, founded by ANZSOG, has used this term as well. Preferred language will change over time and APO will continue to review its taxonomy.

Personally, I think this is a great initiative because it will expose people using APO and the First Peoples & Public Policy Collection to these updated terms. People will still be able to search for ‘Aboriginal Australians’ or ‘Indigenous’ but the results will reflect our new First Peoples terminology. This offers a great learning opportunity for researchers and people working in policy and will help them become acquainted with the new language that is emerging when referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.

If you’re wanting to further understand the varying perspectives on this issue, there are some really useful resources available, including:

We are so appreciative of our First Peoples & Public Policy Advisory Group for guiding us in maintaining the cultural integrity of the Collection.

About the Author

Carissa Godwin was APO’s inaugural First Peoples Editor — a position founded by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), along with the First Peoples & Public Policy Collection. The First Peoples Editor is responsible for curating the Collection which is a valuable resource on First Peoples  affairs with a focus on diverse First Nations voices. If you are interested in sponsoring the Collection please contact APO Director, Brigid van Wanrooy