Australian organisations are increasingly recognising the importance of reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and taking steps to engage in meaningful dialogue and action.
As Australia progresses in its journey towards healing and unity, businesses and institutions must continue to explore ways to build stronger relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and its employees.
I would like to begin by first acknowledging the Whadjuk people of the Noongar Nation and their Elders past, present and emerging as the traditional custodians of Country (Boodja) on which this article was researched and written.
2023 marks the referendum on an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament – a momentous year for all Australians.
We’re also in the midst of National Reconciliation Week – a time to reflect, educate and make strides towards reconciling the realities of our nation’s shared history.
In this context, reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is at the forefront of conversation within family homes and nationwide organisations.
At the organisational level, effective reconciliation efforts can increase the employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, create more culturally responsive and productive workplaces, and strengthen ties within local communities.
Reconciliation done with a lack of drive or purpose exposes companies as disingenuous and insincere – wanting to be seen as doing good, rather than actually doing it.
This National Reconciliation Week should mark the highlight of a company’s reconciliation efforts, and not encompass them.
Reconciliation cannot be achieved in a week – it is confronting, it is dynamic and it takes genuine commitment. This is why companies must take a holistic approach to reconciliation.
Reconciliation Action Plans
For companies, reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples manifests in the form of Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs).
“A RAP is a set of guidelines an organisation can put in place to help them take meaningful strides towards reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” The Fred Hollows Foundation Social Justice and Regional Engagement Director Jaki Adams said.
“It should work to build cultural responsiveness into everything an organisation does by mobilising staff, policy and activities towards collaboration, knowledge sharing and listening, fostering strong relationships and being accountable to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“Essentially a RAP turns good intentions into practical, measurable actions.”
According to Reconciliation WA Chief Executive Officer Jody Nunn, RAPs are built upon four foundational pillars – respect, relationships, opportunity and governance – with the tiered system comprising four levels, which include Reflect, Innovate, Stretch and Elevate.
Ms Nunn said each level built momentum and embeddedness of the RAP, with companies that have achieved an Elevate RAP – the top tier – mentoring organisations with earlier career RAPs, so they can learn from their experience and take those learnings into their own environment.
Effective organisational reconciliation
According to Ms Nunn, the positive effects of RAPs will only be experienced by organisations in which leadership passionately drives progress.
“RAPs are as good as the companies leading them,” she said. “Any plan will sit on the shelf if the leadership doesn’t drive it, so this is absolutely pivotal.”
For Ms Adams, RAPs which are neglected by leadership conveys a lack of genuine desire for change.
This can be particularly prominent during events such as National Reconciliation Week.
“It is possible to be disingenuous when celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ days of commemoration if those celebrations don’t translate to tangible benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at other times of the year,” Ms Adams said.
“True allyship isn’t seasonal and must go beyond good intent and empathy if it is to move beyond the tokenistic approaches.
“It is about transcending performative celebrations and actively engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a way that is meaningful and respectful, supporting their self-determination, as led by them, even when the public isn’t looking on.”
Ms Nunn said there were three steps involved in an effective RAP:
1. Co-design – collaboratively developing the plan with input and guidance from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
2. Co-decision – agreement making, where companies jointly make decisions about the actions and outcomes included in the plan. Those who are involved in these decisions understand why the decisions are being made and ensure all voices are being heard.
3. Co-action – standing together and stepping out together to implement the plan.
“If you only engage Aboriginal people in the first step, you potentially will still get a very white-centric view,” Ms Nunn said.
“It’s important that it’s a journey together – not just a one-off consultation, which then leads to an average outcome.”
RAPs can be lengthy and require considerable groundwork.
According to Ms Nunn, reflecting and understanding the starting point of your organisation is pivotal to planning your RAP.
“Get your baseline data sorted, so you know where you’re starting your journey,” she said.
“This is both in your maturity as an organisation and where you are at with your employment of Aboriginal people, and if you do have people, are you retaining them?
“It’s really important to lay the foundation first, and then come back and set your target based on it.
“Most importantly, you commit to building deep and respectful relationships with Aboriginal people.”
Reconciliation WA offers a free RAP Ready program, which is a two-hour seminar for organisations looking to begin their reconciliation journey.
Tracking your success
There are a few ways to ensure that a company’s RAP is meeting its targets.
According to Ms Adams, reporting to Reconciliation Australia is mandatory.
“As part of the commitment to the governance section of every RAP, Reconciliation Australia requires an annual reporting process through a RAP Impact Measurement Questionnaire,” she said.
“This is designed to measure progress against the minimum standards of the RAP program and that an organisation is being held accountable for their commitments.”
According to Ms Nunn, companies will know their RAP is succeeding through the ongoing changes they see throughout the organisation.
“For organisations, what gets measured gets done – boards need visibility of what is getting measured in relation to their RAP and to see their powerful stories of change,” she said.
“If the accountability and the commitment is there at the highest level that will cascade down through organisation.”
Achieving holistic reconciliation
Through dedicated commitment to their RAP, companies can demonstrate a holistic approach to reconciliation, which does not span a week or a month but is interwoven into the organisation’s DNA.
“Ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ perspectives are considered at all stages of the decision-making process is crucial,” Ms Adams said.
“For reconciliation to be meaningful, it must be incorporated into the fabric of an organisation – not a tick box or something a decision is to be retrofitted around.
“It must be built into day-to-day operations.
“It requires ongoing, concerted effort to amplify Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ voices throughout the entire year not only when public pressure mounts.
“It requires continuing conversations, listening, education and visibility.”
Case study: Stockland
An example of an effective and holistic nine-year RAP journey is Stockland – one of Australia’s largest diversified property groups.
According to Stockland National Indigenous Engagement Manager Maree Ansey, the company recently completed its Innovate RAP 2020-22.
“Our recent Innovate RAP 2020-22 challenged us as a business to explore new and improved ways of operating to ensure we were delivering meaningful outcomes with, and for, local traditional owners and the broader Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities we work with,” she said.
“We had to look at our business and the way we operate, and it became evident our RAP wasn’t anchored in our business strategy.
“Therefore, we embarked on the development of the Stockland First Nations Strategy 2022-25, which is now core to our business and centred around five strategic priorities.
“These were Indigenous employment and procurement, cultural learning, designing with country, cultural heritage and land management.”
Ms Ansey said throughout the duration of Stockland’s RAP, the company had partnered with universities to offer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander internships and scholarships, collaborated with – and increased spending towards – Indigenous businesses, worked with local traditional owners, Elders and storytellers to deliver significant Designing with Country outcomes across key developments, and appointed its first National Indigenous Engagement Manager and team members to ensure an Indigenous-led approach to Stockland’s RAP commitments.
These achievements serve as examples of the benefits of effective, purposeful and committed reconciliation initiatives across industry.
Speaking from the experience of Stockland’s Innovate RAP, Ms Ansey urged businesses to not hesitate and just make a start.
“Start internally and look to elevate the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in your organisation,” she said.
“Ensure you seek advice from Indigenous experts and consultants to conduct a review and cultural capability audit of your organisation to help you understand your baseline, then connect with your local community, traditional owners and Elders to understand their values and aspirations to ensure your RAP commitments aligns and supports the community.”
A time to reflect
This National Reconciliation Week is a time for organisations to demonstrate their willingness to co-design, co-decide and co-act with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples towards reconciliation.
As the Uluru Statement from the Heart states, this important time in our nation’s history marks an invitation “… to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”
Through the committed and purposeful undergoing of RAPs, Australian organisations can do their bit in working towards this future.