Australian businesses that want to make a difference for First Nations Australians should pursue systemic changes while holding themselves accountable
National Reconciliation Week, held each year from the 27 May to 3 June, shines a spotlight on relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. And to date, the report card is mixed.
As highlighted by Dilin Duwa Centre for Indigenous Business Leadership Director and Associate Professor Dr Michelle Evans at a recent panel discussion, the work of reconciliation among organisations needs to move beyond “performative” displays and towards structural changes that truly make a difference to First Nations Australians.
“I get to look over a lot of corporations especially some of the major Australian corporations doing their reconciliation actions. Sometimes … it doesn't work because it's performative, instead of the real work of change that is systems and behaviour orientated” said Associate Professor Evans at the recent ‘Reconciliation, Change & Partnerships’, panel event held on 31 May as part of National Reconciliation Week 2022.
She calls for organisations to do the “hard work around policy and recruitment and behavioural change and budgetary reform and all sorts of things that matter to that organisation”.
According to Assoc Prof Evans, reconciliation actions of organisations need to continue to move past simply putting on a show, creating photo opportunities, and ticking checkboxes for Reconciliation Week then going back to business as usual. Rather than setting up a nice “mural in the foyer”, businesses should invest in “the deep, systematic work to change the organisation”, she said.
Evans acknowledged there is some great work taking place to promote reconciliation. But these can be overshadowed by organisations that “just implement a few small measures and get awarded for it when there is no systemic change actually happening … And that is a truly big failure of our nation.”
Organisations should hold themselves accountable
Assoc Prof Evans points out that one way for businesses to make change is to hold themselves accountable to their Reconciliation Action Plans (RAP). A RAP is a framework that guides an organisation on how to develop and strengthen relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“I see this happening in the business world. The use of reconciliation action plans as a self-regulation framework that helps to guide non-Indigenous-led organisations and corporations to do the work, to report on the work, to hold themselves accountable.
“But what happens if they don’t do it? What are the consequences? This is where RAP committees need to hold the organisation to account in dialogue with Indigenous communities, clients and customers,” she added.
Although many companies have made reconciliation a key part of their branding, Assoc Prof Evans said more work needs to be done. Referencing the Indigenous Employment Index 2022, she said First Nations Australians continue to be employed in low positions merely to fill numbers and meet targets.
“So how do you create structural change? That is the question. Not an incremental change. Not a performative change. A brave change,” she said.
“It has been 26 years since the start of Reconciliation Week ... Years and years pass. We do more reports, more consultations. And what happens? Nothing happens. The patience is running thin.”
Partnership a two-way street
Lamenting the need for more concrete societal action, other members of the panel also noted the importance of treating reconciliation as a “two-way street” between Aboriginal Australians and non-Aboriginals.
Panel member and Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher, a Wiradjuri man and Director of Research Capability at the university’s Indigenous Knowledge Institute, said, “It shouldn’t just be us driving this reconciliation to take action, yet here we are again.
“It’s something we need to do together. This is not just our job. We should have our non-Aboriginal brothers and sisters here walking the path with us, and we can’t just concentrate around one little part of the year.”
Fellow panel member Maddison Miller, a Darug woman, archaeologist, creative and researcher at the Faculty of Science, concurs.
“There’s a lot of truth-telling that needs to happen in the non-Indigenous community,” she said. Truth-telling is the process of sharing past atrocities brought about by European colonisation in Australia and its impacts to local communities.
Ms Miller adds: “We’re always having these conversations about authenticity, about who we are and what we’re doing. These conversations need to happen outside of our communities. … these are conversations that need to be had all year round.”
‘Reconciliation, Change & Partnerships’ was moderated by Siobhan Vivian from the Office of the Dean at the Faculty of Science and held at the Forum Theatre at The University of Melbourne.
The event is co-organised by the Dilin Duwa Centre for Indigenous Business Leadership — a collaboration between Melbourne Business School and the Faculty of Business and Economics — the Faculty of Science, and the Indigenous Knowledge Institute at The University of Melbourne.
Learn more about other National Reconciliation Week events that took place on campus this week by visiting this link. Learn how The University of Melbourne is taking meaningful action towards reconciliation by downloading the university’s Reconciliation Action Plan here.