The 2021 NAIDOC Week theme calls on all of us to embrace First Nations’ cultural knowledge and understanding of Country. The theme also seeks substantive institutional, structural and collaborative reform.

    Many organisations consider it their responsibility to recognise and celebrate NAIDOC Week as crucial to better empowering their First Nations staff and communities, and as part of their Reconciliation Action Plans (RAP).

    Announcing the 2021 theme, Heal Country!, the NAIDOC week committee emphasise how Country is inherent to identity. “When we talk about Country it is spoken of like a person. Country is family, kin, law, lore, ceremony, traditions and language. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it has been this way since the dawn of time.”

    Directly inspired by the Juukan Gorge tragedy, the committee says the theme calls for action. “For generations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been calling for stronger measures to recognise, protect, and maintain all aspects of our culture and heritage for all Australians.”

    In support of this NAIDOC Week and its theme, it is timely to reflect on progress on this critical issue for the governance of the nation. This year marks 20 years since Reconciliation Australia (RA) was established to lead and report on Australia’s progress towards a reconciled country.

    In the State of Reconciliation in Australia 2021 report, RA tracks progress against five integral dimensions to measure reconciliation: race relations, equality and equity, institutional integrity, unity, and historical acceptance. The report finds a major catalyst for growth in institutional integrity has been the RAP program, which provides a framework for organisations to implement reconciliation actions. RA says more than 1100 organisations have developed a RAP.

    “There is little doubt that RAPs have uniquely facilitated the percolation of information and knowledge of First Nations histories and cultures, through workforces, in a way that has led to improvements in the institutional integrity of many Australian organisations. A number of the case studies bear this out,” RA finds. “However, some of the respondents, while recognising the positive engagements arising out of RAPs, suggest that there is an element of box-ticking and a lack of accountability for RAP organisations who do not practice institutional integrity.”

    The report calls for more accountability, particularly if organisations fail to meet their RAP targets. Some respondents pointed to the power imbalance between RAP organisations and First Nations partners, saying the RAP process should be designed around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander needs/ aspirations rather than those of the RAP organisation.

    Reconciliation Barometer, which in 2020 measured the “deficit view” many First Nations peoples still hold about institutions. “While there has been improvement since 2018, a considerable proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples feel they cannot be true to their cultures or personal beliefs in various different settings,” it says.

    Governance questions

    Co-chair of Reconciliation Australia Glen Kelly emphasises the importance of ensuring appropriate structures and systems of governance are in place for a RAP. He asks:

    • Does an organisation have a First Nations workforce and can they keep them? Are the commitments being met?
    • Does it contain action that would be considered substantive as compared to the capacity of the organisation?
    • Is an organisation’s RAP a business document embedded in management structures, properly acted upon, and bought into by the board, CEO and senior management?

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