Recognising a shared history: leading a genuine partnership with the First Australians

Shelley Reys AO, Partner, KPMG Arrilla Indigenous Services

There was a time when closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians was almost exclusively in the hands of government. These days, everyone including private enterprise, public companies, government and individuals can play their part. The challenge for companies is to move their mindset from a philanthropic contribution to a sound business decision. This is important if it’s going to remain as a line item on the budget, year on year.

The responsibility for change resting with all Australians is clear from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s
comments in the latest Closing the Gap Report. It is clear that closing the gap is a national responsibility that belongs with every Australian. Ending the disparity is complex and challenging. This will not lessen our resolve or diminish our efforts, even when some problems seem intractable and targets elusive.”

1967 referendum paper

This year marks three significant anniversaries in the shared history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The first is 50 years since the 1967 referendum where 99 percent voted ‘yes’ to change the Constitution to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be counted in the Census and enable the Commonwealth Government to make laws for Aboriginal peoples. The second is twenty five years since the High Court of Australia rejected the notion of ‘terra nullius’ in Australia and opened the way for Aboriginal land rights. Third, it’s also twenty years since the Bringing Them Home report highlighted the tragedy of the Stolen Generations, bringing the need for urgent change to the attention of all Australian people and leading to the National Apology in 2008.

All these events are shared history for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and well within living memory for many Australians.

In the words of Professor Mick Dodson AM, “the lives of Indigenous Australians today are affected by what has happened to us and our ancestors since Europeans arrived. This can be hard for non-Indigenous people to understand, particularly if you haven’t learned much about Australian history at school. When people have some knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and the history of our contact with non-Indigenous Australians since 1788, they have a much better feel for our achievements and our persistent problems. They are more likely to share our pride and to want to improve relationships between us as fellow Australians”.

I call this cultural-readiness and it is the beginning of being culturally competent in our personal and business relationships with Aboriginal peoples.

Becoming culture-ready is complex but there are valuable lessons to be learnt. More importantly, this knowledge needs to fuel our action rather than making us feel the task is too hard.

There are five ‘truisms’ that are important in cultural learning:

Raising awareness alone is not enough. You need to translate this better understanding into action.

Raising skills alone is not enough. But it inspires confidence to lead, to try something new or to enact change.

Understanding our difficult and shared past is not enough. You need to clarify the link between legislation and the competitiveness of Indigenous people in the workplace, and in life, today.

Understanding culture is not enough. This understanding needs to clarify how the cultural information is relevant to your workplace.

Delivering a Reconciliation Action Plan or an Indigenous strategy is not enough. Actions and measurements need to embed into all areas of your business to enable evergreen outcomes. With evergreen outcomes, special initiatives become redundant by virtue of the closed gap between us.

Cultural understanding, leading to cultural competency, makes good business sense regardless of your sector or core business activities.

Sound work practices and behaviours help you to manage risk. It helps you to meet staff and shareholder expectations, it enhances your brand and reputation, it decreases unconscious bias and increases your capacity to develop great leaders. It enables you to stay competitive and relevant.

In words taken from Recommendation 290 of the National Report Overview and Recommendations of the Royal Commission Indigenous Deaths in Custody, “Australians of today are not directly responsible for what happened in the past. But it is part of our shared history as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and, together, we are responsible for what happens in the future.”

Nearing the beginning of Reconciliation Week I urge you to learn about and acknowledge our shared history and together with Indigenous Australians, be responsible and take action to change the future.

by Shelley Reys AO, Partner, KPMG Arrilla Indigenous Services and CEO, Arrilla Digital


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