“We are the ones who’ve been looking after this country for 60,000 years,” says Kariyarra and Meriam man and AICD Sector Lead — First Nations Justin Agale MAICD. He considers what sets First Nations governance apart, what boards can learn from First Nations directors and his ambitions for the sector.
AICD Sector Lead — First Nations (Governance & Policy Leadership) Justin Agale MAICD was a close observer of good governance from a tender age. A Kariyarra and Meriam (Torres Strait) man from Port Hedland in the Pilbara, Agale says bearing witness to his mother’s educational leadership establishing an Aboriginal College in Port Hedland was an early introduction to the work of directors. Heavily involved in Aboriginal education in WA, she was also an ATSIC regional council chair.
“I understood governance for the first time, attending a lot of meetings with my mother,” he says. “Sitting down at the back doing my schoolwork while she was having a board meeting or meetings about what needed to be done in the community. We’re a matriarchal society and women run everything. The role of the men is more to create the space for women to do the work they need to do, looking after and serving community.”
During year 12, Agale sat on the Queensland committee of the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, where the practical was paramount. “One of the main things I saw that really made a difference was having people in the room learning what to do, not just learning theory,” he says. “How do we apply the knowledge? What does it look like when we go back into our workplaces, into our communities and start doing the work?”
Community is central to First Nations governance, Agale emphasises. “That’s the main differentiating feature between First Nations and Western governance. Our priority is community and achieving outcomes for community.”
A one-size-fits-all approach to governance won’t work in First Nations communities. “There is a clear distinction in governance known as a separation of powers between the executive and the board,” says Agale. “However, that becomes a lot more blurred in First Nations communities because a lot of our boards are volunteers. They’re community members who are putting their hands up, not because they’re the most qualified, but because they’re the ones with the most passion to see change in their communities.”
Agale joined the AICD in January 2022, in a new role for the organisation, to lift the AICD's connections with First Nations directors and leaders, as well as growing awareness of First Nations concepts of governance. Non-Indigenous directors (he notes there are only two First Nations directors on ASX 200 boards) can learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s focus on long-term stewardship, particularly around community and the environment. “Not only worrying about profits, shareholders and dividends.”
Agale was part of the AICD’s first delegation to July’s Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures in the Northern Territory.
Hosted by the Yothu Yindi Foundation on the lands of the Gumatj people of the Yolngu nation in East Arnhem Land, Garma brings together a diverse group of leaders, directors, executives, artists, filmmakers and musicians from across Australia.
Much of the discussion at Garma centres on education and governance, with lessons for the AICD as it nears the launch of its second Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). Many speakers talked of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in two worlds, navigating traditional and Western frameworks of learning and governance. There was a call for the rest of Australia to engage in two-way learning with the First Nations world, a principle that underpins the AICD’s proposed RAP.
Agale calls the festival an “eye-opener”.
“I can’t praise the Yolngu enough. To create an event that’s not just culturally strong, but that showcases everything that is so brilliant and amazing about us, and brings all the major leaders to it to discuss where to next for the country.”
The Yolngu initiated the modern land rights movement in 1963, when they presented the Yirrkala bark petitions to the Australian parliament in protest at the Commonwealth’s appropriation of their land for bauxite mining without permission or consultation. To this day, Yolngu cultural traditions feed into their call for a more just Australia, as epitomised by Treaty, the famous song by Yothu Yindi. Yolngu elder Djawa Yunupingu, a director of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, quoted a line from Treaty — “writing in the sand” — when lamenting the history of broken promises to First Nations people by successive governments.
Agale says it is incumbent on leaders across sectors to understand the fundamentals of the Yolgnu missive — that we are standing on equal terms. “All you need to do is sit down and listen to what we’re saying. Our hand is extended, and we’re willing to show you a better way.”
In his first time at the festival, Agale was pleased to see AICD members interspersed through the iconic gathering’s activities beyond the formal AICD delegation, giving presentations (see page 34), running forums, covering the event as journalists, leading not-for-profits and speaking to philanthropic organisations.
“Our presence as an organisation is just the next step, because our members are already there,” says Agale. “Now, it’s about how do we harness our presence through our membership to contribute more to what’s going on, on the ground?”
Make it meaningful
Held for the first time in two years because of the pandemic, Garma was the scene of significant developments in the nation’s governance. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made headlines with a speech reaffirming the federal government’s commitment to adopt the Uluru Statement from the Heart, with a recommendation to add three sentences to the Australian Constitution to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice and to hold a referendum on a First Nations Voice to Parliament in this term of parliament. Albanese indicated that federal parliament will work out the key details of what the Voice would look like — to be modeled on the 2021 report by Professors Marcia Langton and Tom Calma to the Morrison government — and when a national vote would be held.
Under its proposed RAP, the AICD has committed to helping its members understand the Statement from the Heart as a national governance issue.
In recent months, there has been a groundswell among corporates announcing support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament. However, Agale emphasises there is real work to be done in ensuring First Nations engagement is not just a box-ticking exercise for corporate Australia. One of the main ways companies can contribute to the Voice is by demonstrating transparency.
“If you’re going to be doing work and conducting your business on First Nations country, then listen to the people,” he says. “We can give you advice about this. Don’t enforce decisions upon people that they’re not prepared to take, that they’re not happy with, that are going to offend them, that are going to have a detrimental impact upon community. That’s what the Voice is about. We want fit-for-purpose decision-making.”
The same applies to meaningful RAPs. The primary distinction between an impactful RAP and one that is there to tick a box is, if boards were to take RAPs away, would it make a difference to the organisation or the communities and peoples they deal with?
“If the answer is no, it wouldn’t make a difference, then you know that you’ve got a fake RAP,” says Agale.
AICD Reconciliation Action Plan
The AICD is developing its second Innovate RAP, to be launched next year.
“Reconciliation is a priority for the AICD, not just for us as an organisation, but also as a national governance issue,” says Matt Pritchard, AICD’s Head of Government Relations & Media and co- chair (with Justin Agale) of the AICD’s RAP working group. “The AICD board has challenged us to deliver an ambitious and impactful new RAP.”
AICD’s first Innovate RAP ran from 2017–19. While progress was made, there were also important lessons learned. In 2021, an independent review of the RAP, conducted by First Nations firm IPS Management, helped identify gaps and opportunities. The AICD’s new RAP is underpinned by three principles:
- A strong and continuing First Nations voice in development and governance
- Improved internal governance and accountability
- Impact in the AICD's sphere of influence.
“Our new RAP is being informed by consultation, including great input from the two First Nations AICD members who have joined our working group,” says Pritchard. “Deliverables will aim to improve services to our First Nations members, lift AICD’s cultural competence, and build on two-way learning in real partnerships.”
Look out for more in the AICD’s member communications and Company Director in coming months. The AICD’s sphere of influence is broad because of the size and diversity of the AICD membership.
The AICD and its members have a leadership role to play in the national governance conversation around First Nations self-determination and supporting reconciliation progress in their organisations.
Reconceptualising the economy
A lot of the discussions have been about Aboriginal people walking in two worlds, about us learning to adjust to the wider environment. Why not? We’ve been doing it for 65,000 years. We adjust to the environment we find ourselves in and we’re doing it again. And we will continue to do it — that’s what we do. That is who we are.
But one of the things that I’ve not heard from the conversation is non-Aboriginal people wanting to be like us, wanting to change to be as us, not just helping us walk in their world. Not even us helping them walk in our world, but to actually change their fundamental DNA to be like us.
So how does that work in the economy? The Western economic model is built on self. Self- enrichment, self-improvement, the individual. And the current paradigm of what’s been governing economic policy or economic thought for the past 40 years has been, in a corporate sense, profit maximisation, value to shareholders, and that’s it.
However, if you look at the Aboriginal model of the economy, what is the economy for and what is its purpose? It is to enrich everyone, to grow our communities. It is to bring everyone along, not a few; not some, but all. That’s how we do our economics.
And it should be about the economy or economic activity in the context of those other things that are important. How we live our lives, our social, cultural, environmental and economic wellbeing. All living together. Not one or the other.
I tire of this thing where people say we have to focus on the economy at the cost of everything else. All that means is you might have a really great economy. But if your planet is burning or drowning, depending on where you are, or in the health sense when everyone’s got COVID-19 and people are sick or dying, does it really matter what your GDP figures look like? No.
One thing that I don’t think happens enough is Aboriginal people not only making decisions for ourselves, but for others, for non-Aboriginal people. That will bring our world view to the decision- making that happens, not only in government, but in the private sector. What I really want to see is Aboriginal people in decision-making positions, to bring those values that we hold at heart, that very fibre of who we are, to bring those into the decision- making parts of the economy and use those to drive the Australian economy.
To use those as the values of what we’re trying to achieve by having economic outcomes, so that we all uplift, so we all benefit, so we all enrich. Having Aboriginal people in the boardroom just for diversity reasons, that’s not an argument for diversity. The argument you have is — what do people bring?
The banking Royal Commission and the aged care Royal Commission were relevant to everyone. The corporate sector had forgotten a primary obligation — that is, what is your contribution to the society in which you live? Not just a social licence, a social outcomes framework, but fundamentally in everything you do. What do you do to contribute to the society in which you lead?
It is a soft skill, but a specialist skill [that] I think is lacking in the private economy of Australia. That’s the place for Aboriginal people. Because who understands community, who understands obligation, who understands all above self? Us.
But we should also say what is our place in the wider economy to help lead it — not just be part of it, not just follow it, but lead it. And we need it because of the big challenges that are coming ahead. We’re going to have climate issues, we’re going to have health issues, the rise of artificial intelligence, digital and data economies, resource pressure and biodiversity. We are a people of great capacity and capability — all we lack is the opportunity. That’s all we should ask for is the opportunity.”
Time to stretch
Telstra should have been a poster child for effective action around Indigenous issues. As former CEO Andrew Penn pointed out in a statement, the company worked in many ways over many years to connect, support and celebrate Australia’s First Nations peoples. It had also attained Elevate status, the highest-level Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). Instead, Telstra had its RAP suspended after it was fined $50m by the Federal Court in proceedings brought by the ACCC. Telstra admitted to unconscionable conduct when stores in regional and remote communities sold more than 100 phone contracts to Indigenous customers, misrepresenting products and taking advantage of language and cultural vulnerabilities.
“What we failed to understand was that genuine effectiveness is much more than a series of, programs, it must include a deeper level of connection and understanding including for the profound sense of dispossession and injustice that still so often defines Indigenous Australia,” said Penn, who was replaced as CEO by Vicki Brady GAICD in September this year.
There are four RAP types — Reflect, Innovate, Stretch and Elevate. The three-year RAP that Telstra launched in July was its fifth, the first since its Elevate status was revoked 18 months before, and at the lower level of Stretch. This contains over 90 actions, including targets of 1.5 per cent of employees being First Nations Australians, $15m per year to be spent with First Nations suppliers, 150 remote community visits to be made this financial year, and investments in infrastructure, connectivity, training and sponsorships.
Telstra is also required to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart, an invitation from First Nations peoples to all Australians to back an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, enshrined in the constitution, and a Makarrata Commission for the purpose of treaty making and truth-telling.
Speaking at the launch of Telstra’s latest RAP, CEO of Reconciliation Australia Karen Mundine said it marked an opportunity to take ownership and embed reconciliation in Telstra’s operations.
“The value of the RAP program is that all RAPs are tailored to partners’ individual circumstances, needs and areas of expertise. In Telstra’s case, this Stretch RAP is tailored to where it is now on its reconciliation journey — at a moment of deep remorse and contrition, but also of reflection, awareness and hope. By taking ownership and accountability for its actions, and by taking the time to understand the profound ramifications of its mistakes, Telstra has paved the way for this Stretch RAP.”
Commitment and reparation
From the Heart director Dean Parkin believes corporates have a key role in engaging Australians from all walks of life in the movement for a referendum on a First Nations Voice. .
Woolworths, for example, took five years to decide against opening a giant Dan Murphy’s outlet near dry Aboriginal communities in Darwin. An independent panel review, commissioned by the board and headed by lawyer Danny Gilbert AM, concluded that the project should not go ahead, and that Woolworths should overhaul its governance and risk procedures.
Woolworths Group chair Gordon Cairns said, “The Gilbert review has made it clear... we did not do enough stakeholder engagement with a range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations.”
In this case, Reconciliation Australia decided not to revoke the RAP. “We felt they were learning, so we allowed them to stay in the program, but there were strong lessons in the report around corporate legitimacy and trust,” said Mundine.
Origin Energy launched its Stretch RAP in 2019. Its operations are located on First Nations land and the company says it is committed to working constructively, transparently and in good faith in all interactions with Traditional Owners. Origin is nonetheless pressing ahead with fracking in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin in the face of concerns that this poses a threat to First Nations culture and history. According to an ABC report, traditional owner Johnny Wilson told the March Senate hearing that mining companies had not gone far enough to adequately consult with traditional owners about the prospect of hydraulic fracturing on their land. “Our concerns have not been heard.”
Call for education
NAB has had no conflict in the 15 years since its first RAP. The first company to achieve Elevate status, the bank is currently writing its fifth Elevate RAP.
“We have been considering how best to support Voice to Parliament for some time,” says Eveanne Liddle, NAB’s head of Indigenous affairs. “It was really important to us that any statement we made was genuine, and we could back it up with action. To help achieve that, we developed a close relationship with the From the Heart campaign.”
Earlier this year, when the NAB board and CEO visited Darwin for discussions with First Nations leaders, they learned about the need for corporates to help customers, employees and other stakeholders understand why First Nations people are asking for this change to the constitution.
“We pledged public support and donated $200,000,” says Liddle. “Then, as we believe education and change need to start at the top, our board were the first to engage in personal discussion about the experiences and history of Indigenous Australians. We have extended the education process to our top 100 leaders and will keep drilling deeper into the organisation. When the referendum is called, everyone at NAB will be empowered to share honest and accurate information with their customers and their families. When people hear the full story, they’re genuinely shocked and motivated to take action. But at the moment, many people are searching for more information.”
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