NAIDOC Week this year carries the theme Heal Country and here directors share how organisations can better build meaningful long-term engagement with First Nations stakeholders.

    When the community gathered for the 1770 Cultural Connections festival in central Queensland in October 2020, First Nations director Angela Huston MAICD was pleased when Gladstone Mayor Matt Burnett began his address with an apology to local First Nations communities.

    “He acknowledged the unique status of Aboriginal elders as the original owners and custodians of the lands, he recognised the land and waters were invaded without treaty or consent, he reaffirmed the human rights of traditional owners and paid respect and recognition to the continuing customary laws, belief and traditions,” recalls Huston, business development manager at Gidarjil Development Corporation.

    It was a wonderful example of how leaders can engage well and build trust with First Nation’s stakeholders, says Huston, who in 12 years at Gidarjil has seen staff numbers grow to 70, including 17 land and sea rangers who work over 20,000sq km kilometres of land and 26,000 sq km of sea country around Gladstone and Bundaberg.

    “What doesn’t work when trying to engage with stakeholders is ticking a box,” says Huston. “Meaningful engagement means recognising that traditional owner language, lore, culture, land and people exist as one. The health of one relies on each and every component.”

    The AICD stakeholder guide published this year recommends boards “ensure an organisation fosters genuine, ongoing connections with First Peoples, mindful of the historical actions of their organisation and broader injustices suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. The guide recommends boards engage with leaders “on Country” and that minders be left behind.

    “With trust comes understanding. Boards should never use Indigenous languages without first seeking permission from traditional owners and never seek to engage Indigenous people without appropriate compensation,” says Huston. “Indigenous knowledge is sacred and if you seek to obtain knowledge, it’s important to understand that ownership of that knowledge does not belong to you or your organisation — so not only do you need to compensate traditional owners you are seeking knowledge from, but you must always seek permission to use that knowledge.”

    Huston, a chartered accountant who is also a director on the board of Aboriginal Community Housing, a not-for-profit with a majority Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander board, advises directors to engage with First Nations stakeholders early on a project and respect the knowledge of elders. She recommends directors build ongoing engagement with First Nations stakeholders by:

    • Creating a foundation in the organisation for traditional owner engagement by first determining on whose traditional land directors are conducting business
    • Making board members aware of language groups, native title groups, First Nations protected areas, First Nations land use agreements and traditional use marine resource agreements
    • Ensuring management and staff are culturally competent by investing in cultural awareness training — preferably from traditional owners who are stakeholders
    • Establishing culturally appropriate protocols — such as acknowledgement to country, or having a traditional owner do a welcome to country,and raising the Aboriginal flag
    • Seeking out traditional owner businesses your organisation could partner with or include in procurement and other policies

    Reconciliation action plans

    First Nations director Brian Wyborn MAICD works with traditional land owners on native title claims around Australia as a senior wealth adviser and as head of the Indigenous advisory team at JBWere. He advises directors to be “patient, curious and listening” when engaging with First Nations stakeholders. “It’s really important to understand that, particularly for First Nations people, decision-making takes time,” he says. “Where we might sit down with board members from their community, the decisions they make impact their families, so they carry a lot of responsibility for their communities. They often have to go back and consult with their families and get an informed decision before they can respond.”

    Wyborn, who is also deputy chair of Brisbane performance space Metro Arts and a director of Barayamal, a national NFP that support First Nations businesses through education, entrepreneurship and technology, says directors should realise that silence “doesn’t always result in consensus”. “If there’s a silence and a non-response, it’s important to park it and come back to that conversation because they not only need to internalise it, but might need to speak with family or elders to make an informed decision for their communities.” 

    Wyborn says key to positive relationships with First Nations stakeholders is a reconciliation action plan (RAP), which he advises all boards and organisations to create. Metro Arts is creating a RAP and is looking at how to diversify the supply chain to support First Nations suppliers. “RAPs are a practical framework to apply a First Nations conscience in your organisation,” says Wyborn.

    Huston agrees with the value of a RAP, but warns that “putting the plan in a cupboard to never look at again” is not helpful. “For culture to survive, we need organisations and people to understand these social concepts and from organisations a recognition of trust and trustworthiness, obligations and expectations and identity and identification,” she says.

    Boards wanting to ensure consistency in their engagement with First Nations stakeholders over time should keep a record of key contacts and community profiles and make them available to directors and staff. “Boards and management should develop guidelines that include assessment and allocation of appropriate engagement levels, proper use of images and intellectual property and methods to document consent and other formal arrangement agreements,” says Huston.

    Wyborn says Rio Tinto’s blasting of 46,000-year-old caves in Western Australia’s Juukan Gorge in May 2020 was “a travesty”. However, it had served as a  wake up call for boards and directors and heightened  awareness of boards and directors to the importance of engaging with First Nations stakeholders.

    “It has started to bring to the surface all these conversations that had been bubbling away for a long time,” he says.

    “Directors should do everything they can to understand their (First Nations stakeholders’) view of the world and that might take a bit more time than the usual transactional business arena we tend to work in. Boards should be conscious when interacting with different communities that some might have different cultural protocols. It’s like any relationship or like when we go overseas. You make an effort to understand people and communicate with them. It’s exactly the same working with First Nations organisations and communities.”

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