When Tracey Graham started with the Pormpuraaw Aboriginal Shire Council in 2013, the local government group was struggling with a host of audit issues, constantly changing management and lack of staff training.
In the past decade, Ms Graham managed to turn it around, and today (26 January), is being recognised on the Australia Day 2024 Honours List as a Public Service Medal (PSM) recipient.
The PSM is awarded twice a year by the Governor-General and recognises outstanding service by employees of the Australian Government.
“I had been nominated and I accepted, not thinking anything would come of it because there’s so many people who work in government who tirelessly serve their community,” she said.
Ms Graham entered the public sector world as a finance accountant for Pormpuraaw Council, not knowing she would stick with it for the next decade.
“Initially coming into it, it was just another finance role for me,” she said.
“But I started to understand that what each and every one of us do serves our community members. We’re not just working for a CEO and pushing papers.
“My first year was just understanding what local government was all about and building that connection to the community and realising the potential of what we can do.”
In just 13 months, Ms Graham was offered the corporate service management position.
The PSM recipient said in the past decade, the Council has built up their investment funds by $50 million and the community equity by $18 million.
“We’ve really focused on building financial sustainability and I believe we’re just under $200 million in community equity at the moment,” Ms Graham said.
“At this point in time, we’ve probably got a good four years worth of operational funds.
“It essentially means if there was a change in government or some global disaster that impacted the funding that was available for the community, we could continue to operate and provide services without relying on government funding,” she said.
Rebuilding the finances of the Council was no quick task, with small changes and improvements being made across the board gradually.
“It was really looking at what we were doing and how we could do it better by ensuring all of the services we provided were either covered or there was some kind of cost recovery,” Ms Graham said.
“Our council is fortunate to have a really supportive CEO and he is the foundational pillar of the Council and the community.
“He encourages us employees and our community members to be the best that we can be and to look at every opportunity for improvement,” she said.
Pormpuraaw Council CEO, Edward Natera, was also a recipient of the PSM in 2019.
With pride for his team, Mr Natera said Ms Graham’s recognition this year “speaks volumes about Pormpuraaw Council’s strength and impact”.
“When she came in, we had a lot of audit issues, management was changing every three to four months and the people in the office weren’t trained very well, so she really trained them up,” he said.
The CEO spoke highly of Ms Graham as a firm and focused yet empathetic leader.
“She understands that especially in the Indigenous community, there can be a lot of problems at home and sometimes that can come into work,” he said.
“She’s always emphatic about that and has a good connection with the staff, but also provides guidance on needing to leave it at home and do your job well.
Ms Graham sadly lost her husband in 2021, but she has continued to remain strong for her community.
“My late husband, Bruce, who was my ultimate supporter and rock, reminded me everyday that we can make a great difference and that there’s 700 odd people in Pormpuraaw relying on us coming into work and doing our best each day,” she said.
“It’s great when we see particularly some of the local Indigenous employees who just thrive in entry-level roles and then want to go on to become supervisors or team leaders or coordinators or managers.
“I hope in 10 years time, most of the executive team within Pormpuraaw Council will be local Indigenous people leading the way.”
Looking back on the decade she has spent with the Council, Ms Graham said the improvements would not have been possible without the team she had alongside her.
“I’m absolutely honoured and blessed to be recognised personally in receiving this award, but it’s not just my contribution,” she said.
“In local government, the whole team has to be wanting to achieve the same thing, so I’m receiving the award in recognition of all the work that Pormpuraaw Council have done over the years.”