Treaty director at the Northern Territory Treaty Commissioner's Office Steve Rossingh FCPA has worked in the top end for 25 years. Now in his dream job, it took a few twists and turns in his career to get there. Before there was politics there was sport, and before that, accountancy.
In the mid-1980s, Steve Rossingh FCPA, who’d “always been good with numbers”, finished school in Perth and did the “typical Aussie thing”, moving to London. Working as an accounts assistant, he realised how important the piece of paper signifying the CPA Australia designation was. “I realised how much more I would have earned, for pretty much doing the same job, if I had been qualified,” he says.
Returning home, Rossingh got a job at the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and completed a bachelor of accounting degree at Curtin University part-time over six years. “They had a fantastic studies assistance program,” he says of the ATO. He then went straight into the CPA Program.
“We then moved up north to Kununurra, which is right at the top of the East Kimberley, in Western Australia, and I worked for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission [ATSIC].”
A Kamilaroi man from Northern New South Wales, Rossingh is one of only about 50 known Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians with a professional accounting designation. Aside from sport and his family, he says his other great passion is Indigenous advancement.
“What I’m really passionate about is the role accountants who are working in an Aboriginal environment can play in improving people’s lives.”
Rossingh says the skills he’d acquired through the CPA Program were really applicable to his role at ATSIC. “One of that organisation’s key roles was as a provider of grants to Aboriginal organisations.
When you provide grants, there’s a significant accountability side of it that organisations have to report on. Understanding the complex financial reports and audit reports that were coming in was a significant advantage and help. It also allowed me to train other staff and develop their skills.”
A role as corporate services manager at the Northern Land Council in Darwin followed, then a general manager role at Cridlands Lawyers: the biggest law firm in the Northern Territory. From there, Rossingh saw a natural progression into government, and moved into a position as executive director of corporate services at the Department of Local Government, Housing and Sport.
“As far as the CEO of the department was concerned, a CPA Australia designation was mandatory for the holder of that role,” he says, “and luckily, in my case, they were looking for an MBA as well, and I’d recently acquired one of those [at Deakin University].
It was a bit of being in the right place at the right time.” However, after a year, Rossingh felt unfulfilled. “We got a new CEO and I told him I wasn’t finding it very challenging and was probably going to start looking around.
Two weeks later he came to me and said, ‘Would you like to be the executive director of sport and recreation?’ and I pretty much jumped at the chance.”
Career skills revisited: decision making. Listen now.
Rossingh, who calls himself a sports tragic, says he and the new CEO made a connection through sport. Apart from tennis and soccer, Rossingh is also a fan of Australian Rules Football, supporting the Fremantle Dockers.
“Especially out in remote communities, it’s almost a religion,” he says. “You can’t walk around without seeing at least half a dozen kids with a footy in their hand, just bouncing it when they’re walking along – and kids fashioning footballs out of empty plastic Coke bottles and things. It’s really important out bush.”
As a bureaucrat working in sport, Rossingh worked hard to ensure that community voices were heard. “One of the first restructures I did when I got the job was make the Indigenous sport unit report directly to me, so I could have personal, direct input and put my own stamp on it.”
In 2012, Rossingh went back into accounting for four years, and says it has always been a great career to fall back on. He did, however, miss making a difference in public life.
After a change of government in the Northern Territory in 2016, Rossingh was offered the role of chief of staff for then minister for primary industry and resources, Ken Vowles.
He later became senior advisor to the Chief Minister on Aboriginal Affairs. He was responsible for setting up the framework to progress the government’s promise it would have a conversation about a treaty with Aboriginal Territorians.
“The government and the four land councils signed a major Memorandum of Understanding called the Barunga Agreement.”
They then appointed a treaty commissioner, Professor Mick Dodson AM, and Rossingh was asked to support him as treaty director. “That’s how I ended up here.”
According to Rossingh, at 57, he’s reached the tail end of his career – and he couldn’t be happier. “To be part of this is a dream come true, not only in contributing to something that should make a significant difference to Aboriginal Australians’ lives in the Northern Territory, but also to work with an absolute legend, an icon like Mick Dodson.”
One piece of advice
Respect staff, nurture and appreciate them. Really work hard on making them feel genuinely valued. Involve them, listen to them. If you’re employing them, either as a staff member or as a volunteer, it’s because they’ve got expertise. Give them the opportunity to firstly be heard, and secondly to see that their thoughts and ideas have been listened to and are being actioned and put into practice.”
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