How boards need to work collaboratively for better outcomes for First Nations people


    How can boards and directors lead on engagement with First Nations staff and stakeholders? Holding reconciliation conversations with staff, developing a RAP plan and setting up a First Nations Advisory Committee to report to the board can be good places to start, a recent AICD event was told.

    The relationship Australia has with its First Nations people is one of the most, if not the most, important issues facing the country today, according to Colin Carter AM FAICD, senior adviser at The Boston Consulting Group. He was speaking at the 26 May webinar, National Reconciliation Week: How organisations can create lasting social impacts, moderated by Louise Petschler GAICD, General Manager, Education & Policy Leadership AICD. Joining Carter on the panel were Cath Brokenborough GAICD, executive lead for Indigenous Engagement and Reconciliation at Lendlease, and Emma Garlett MAICD, Industry Fellow, at the Sustainable Minerals Institute, University of Queensland.

    As we approach the Voice to Parliament referendum, many companies are considering taking positive action towards reconciliation. The panel agreed that, for those unsure of exactly how they can make a meaningful difference, a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) is a good place to start. RAPs are built around core pillars of relationships, respect and opportunities and, as described by Reconciliation Australia, provide tangible and substantive benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, increasing economic equity and supporting First Nations self-determination. However, acquiring a RAP is just the first step of a journey requiring both commitment and patience.

    “There has to be an appetite to implement the RAP effectively,” said Garlett. “The right resourcing must be available and the RAP must be embedded within current business-as-usual practices as much as possible.”

    “If the CEO isn’t very interested, there will only be limited progress in the company,” said Carter. “Where individual directors see reconciliation as an important path for the company to follow, the trick is to introduce their colleagues, particularly the chair, to other companies that have travelled this path. You have to recognise that this is not a straightforward process. As a director, you don’t have any right to force an organisation into any particular course of action. So your ambition should be to see your company accepting reconciliation as a priority and, where the management team does get involved, letting them know that the board is very supportive of what they’re doing.”

    Garlett believes that one of the most important things an individual director can do is undertake a personal journey. “Directors need to understand their inherent biases and why they have them,” she said. “Many were born at a time when Australia had laws in place that divided Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. They may also have been born into families with a very different worldview from those society holds today. Do the work, familiarise yourself with the history, trauma and dispossession, and you’ll be far better placed to work collaboratively with Indigenous people to achieve good outcomes.”

    She added that businesses have a duty of care to make sure that their people are not being overworked and that the workplace is a culturally safe space. 

    Carter believes in trying to understand the story. “I recently read the life story of William Cooper, an Indigenous leader born in the 1860s,” he said. “When you understand that the disadvantage we imposed on these people has a huge amount to do with the disadvantages Indigenous people find themselves in today, you can see that this needs to be fixed. It’s a lifelong journey, but very rewarding because you’re dealing with issues that are central to the sort of country we want to be.”

    Stewardship as a governance matter

    When Petschler raised the subject of stewardship as a principle of good governance, Brokenborough noted that First Nations people have survived on Australian soil for more than 65,000 years. “A lot of skill, knowledge and practice has gone into our stewardship of Country,” she said. “We know that if we care for Country, it cares for us. By Country, we mean not just the people, but the land, water, animals, trees, biodiversity, climate and cultural practices.”

    Most corporate organisations in Australia were built on the concept of terra nullius — land belonging to no-one — with little thought for the concept of stewardship.

    “Historically and unwittingly as a developer, Lendlease has had a detrimental impact on First Nations peoples’ Country,” said Brokenborough. “We’ve reshaped and laid concrete on what might have been virgin ground. So we talked about the truth of us as a developer and we saw a unique opportunity to build back First Nations culture, language, thinking, visioning and imagining by making sure that at the very early stages of our project development, we engage a panel of First Nations leaders to influence the way that project is carried out.”

    “It’s really important that companies have representation to make sure they're working in the best interests of the First Nations groups on whose lands they operate, and to manage any associated risks,” said Garlett. “Where a company may have a major effect on First Nations people, it would be prudent to establish a First Nations Advisory Committee to report to the board.”

    Connecting with the community

    Connections are fundamental to reconciliation. However, as Carter pointed out, many Australians have little or no everyday contact with First Nations peoples because their paths simply don’t cross. As Brokenborough said, some organisations only deal with traditional owners when there’s a problem, something to fix or something’s gone wrong.

    “You need to be building relationships with traditional owners in areas where you have a footprint or where your business has an impact well ahead of any issues that might arise,” she said. “Getting out into community is a really practical way for boards to get to know and understand the issues, the first-hand lived experience, and the aspirations and needs of First Nations peoples. If you don't know who the traditional owner group is, Supply Nation has a whole list of Indigenous businesses that can help you to make those initial cultural connections. Or have a look online during National Reconciliation Week and you’ll find lots of events.”

    Again, Garlett believes a First Nations Advisory Committee can add value. “Putting people on the committee who have the knowledge, expertise and community standing to provide advice on First Nations issues directly to the board of directors will be the most effective way to deal with engagement if you need a quick and timely response,” she said.

    It’s also important that directors don’t lose sight of the needs of their First Nations employees. For example, acquiring a RAP could actually make life more difficult for them.

    “There can be an expectation that, as well as doing their job, they will take on voluntary tasks such as organising cultural immersion experiences for staff or events for NAIDOC and National Reconciliation Week,” said Garlett. “It’s also common for a First Nations person to be sought out as a mentor or to give guidance.”

    “Some people expect you to be an expert on all things Indigenous,” said Brokenborough. “They say things like ‘You’re a First Nations person, what do you think about the referendum?’, or ‘You’re a First Nations person, what’s the Aboriginal word for this?’”

    Brokenborough finished the event with a call to action. “Whether your organisation is big or small, whether or not you’ve got a RAP, start somewhere,” she said. “Do something small and manageable. Are you going to be called ‘woke’? Probably, but other organisations have done that and did the sky fall in? No. So be brave.”

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