25 November marked the 25th anniversary of a formal reconciliation process in Australia through the formation of The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Despite the progress since then in closing the gap between Indigenous peoples and the wider community, the relationship between us is impeding substantive change.
The Australian Reconciliation Barometer, published by Reconciliation Australia analyses the relationship between Indigenous Australians and the wider community. It shows, “the vast majority of Australians believe the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians is important”. But it also reveals we don’t trust one another, and we don’t agree on some fundamental facts about Australia’s shared history.
So are our well-meaning, strategic efforts shadowed by our inability to understand Indigenous cultures and peoples clearly, as well as our lack of insight into the reasons behind the life opportunity gap? And when it comes to considering the position of our First Australians, do we feel a lethargy of engagement?
In recent years, increasing employment numbers has seen as the answer with job creation at the heart of many organisation’s Indigenous strategies.
But if the relationship is broken due to a lack of knowledge or interest, how can we successfully engage, employ or procure from Indigenous Australians, or work on projects with an Indigenous imperative?
Increasing our cultural competency is a vital part of reducing unconscious bias and racism. It allows us to understand diversity and breaks down the misconception that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the same.
This involves more than just an acknowledgement country, or an awareness of Australian history or the customs of our Indigenous Australians. It requires us to be personally challenged by questioning our values, beliefs and assumptions. When we get these things right, the outcome is a more effective, safe and collaborative workplace where risk and poor workplace behaviours are being managed and where diverse points of view become part of the rich fabric that we weave across our teams.
Tim Bugg, the President of the Law society in 2006 noted two very important points in building and maintaining a business relationship with Indigenous people; respect and recognition. These two points are still as relevant 10 years later and form the basis of cultural competency training.
They involve respect for who Indigenous peoples are and their unique culture, recognition of their history (where they have come from and what they have endured) and recognition that they too have knowledge and experience to bring to the business relationship.
And while these principles stand strong in purpose, they must be delivered with generosity and patience.
Business now has the opportunity to move away from viewing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a philanthropic cause or a special initiative for the diversity team to manage. Now is the time to engage in a genuine partnership with the First Australians, where each contributes to realising its goals. By growing our cultural competencies our organisations will thrive with the knowledge, skills and confidence to work more effectively with our Indigenous colleagues, customers, companies and communities.
Shelley Reys is KPMG’s first Indigenous partner
Catherine is a Partner and Head of Corporate Citizenship
Read the media release on KPMG’s Indigenous investment