First Nations directors have observed that some companies, shy of putting a foot wrong, are missing the mark with Reconciliation Action Plans — others are biting off more than they can chew.

    Reconciliation Action Plans are becoming more widely adopted, but their genuine impact varies. Reconciliation Australia says this can hinge on a number of critical factors, chief among them being meaningful consultation. The theme for National Reconciliation Week 2022 is Be Brave. Make Change — a challenge to tackle the unfinished business of reconciliation to make change for the benefit of all Australians.

    “Some businesses still don’t know where to start,” says Cath Brokenborough GAICD, a proud Wiradjuri woman from Central West New South Wales, who is chair of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre, a member of the Queensland Building and Construction Commission and Queensland North West Hospital and Health Service boards, and executive lead for First Nations Engagement and Reconciliation at Lendlease. “They’re afraid of causing offence, or saying or doing the wrong thing.”

    Others may be intimidated by the concept of reconciliation. According to Brokenborough, they have a fear of appearing as though they are value- signaling or opening themselves up to conflict, scrutiny and controversy. “To make change, you’ve got to be brave enough to go past that conversation,” she says.

    Since 2006, Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs) have been helping organisations take sustainable, strategic and meaningful action to advance reconciliation. “RAPs were built around the core pillars of relationships, respect and opportunities,” says Karen Mundine, CEO of Reconciliation Australia, who is from the Bundjalung nation in northern NSW. “We began with a pilot program of eight trailblazers and it’s grown from there. Over the past 18 months alone, the number of organisations with active RAPs practically doubled to over 2000.”

    Four different RAPs— reflect, innovate, stretch and elevate — allow organisations to continuously develop their reconciliation commitments. “A RAP can last anything from one to four years,” says Mundine. “Part of the initial commitment is that, at the end of each plan, we’ll come together to review what worked and what didn’t — and build a new plan based on those results.”

    Doing it well

    Yorta Yorta man Ian Hamm MAICD holds a number of board positions, including chair of the First Nations Foundation and the Koorie Heritage Trust, and directorships of Yarra Valley Water, Australian Red Cross and the National Trust of Australia (Victoria). He believes boards that do reconciliation well start by asking themselves what they are trying to achieve, what they can do and what their prime reason is for taking action.

    “They also understand that the RAP process is nothing more than a helpful tool,” says Hamm. “A lot of organisations get lost because they see completing one level of the RAP and moving up to the next as an end in itself. Those who do it well have given careful thought to how they can bring value to the Aboriginal and wider Australian communities, as well as their organisation.”

    For many organisations, the most meaningful action is an extension of their business. “Early on, NAB did this well,” says Hamm. “They decided to focus on two areas where they could make a measurable difference — giving more First Nations people access to good financial services and employing them in the branches close to where they lived.”

    Australian Red Cross links acts of reconciliation to its purpose. “Our primary mission is bringing relief to people in distress from events such as fire and flood,” says Hamm. “Our RAP focuses on how we can work with the Aboriginal community so that when we have an emergency response, they feel safe to work with us.”

    In Brokenborough’s experience, some business leaders remain cynical. “I’ve had CEOs ask me how, if billions of dollars of government funding haven’t made a difference, how can I? The answer is that where you put the money and effort is more important than the size of the investment. A lot of money gets wasted. And a lot of those big- dollar programs funded by government weren’t properly evaluated. They weren’t wanted or needed by the community.”

    By contrast, smaller, localised changes can be very powerful. “You could just go out and meet the local community, introduce yourself, acknowledge you’re on their country and talk to them about possible opportunities for coming together and doing business,” says Brokenborough. “That can also have a positive impact on your employment and procurement because the community will support you.”

    Reconciliation Australia makes it clear that simply having a RAP is not enough to make a difference, and that RAPs aren’t ideal for every organisation. There are other approaches, such as Indigenous engagement strategies, Indigenous participation plans, Closing the Gap plans and reconciliation strategies — although only RAPs can provide external accountability.

    Falling short

    RAPs can provide a structured framework to help organisations address reconciliation and broader human rights. Could they also be used as window dressing — a way to make the ESG report look good?

    “You have to look at whether these strategies are embedded into the culture of an organisation or just part of the annual NAIDOC morning tea and strategy launch event, with a few symbolic gestures added for good measure,” says LOGiT Australia and weavr. co-founder/managing director and Biripi man Kieran Shirey.

    Brokenborough has no doubt that some organisations get a RAP to help them secure certain contracts. However, she adds that Reconciliation Australia keeps people honest. “They won’t give an organisation the stamp of approval of a RAP unless they believe they’re serious about it – and those who aren’t, generally get found out.”

    There have been three notable occasions when Reconciliation Australia has flexed its muscles. The first was in 2020, when Rio Tinto blew up the Juukan Gorge rock shelters, a 46,000-year-old sacred site. This was the first time an organisation was actively removed from the program. “We also stripped Rio of its Elevate status,” says Mundine.

    The second was Telstra’s admission that it had acted unconscionably towards 108 First Nations people living in remote parts of Australia by selling them phone plans they could neither afford nor understand. The Federal Court ordered Telstra to pay a penalty of $50m plus costs — and, once again, Reconciliation Australia revoked its Elevate status. However it did allow Telstra to remain part of the RAP program.

    “Clearly, there was a disconnect between Telstra’s cultural awareness and intent, and their practices, which meant their RAP was no longer fit for purpose,” says Mundine. “We invited them to stay in the program, but to come back to us with a plan that addressed these issues. We also made it very clear we wouldn’t be reinstating their Elevate status, so they would have to work their way through the levels again.”

    The third incident was Woolworths’ proposal to build a Dan Murphy’s liquor outlet close to three dry First Nations communities in Darwin. “At the time, they had an Innovate RAP,” says Mundine. “They hadn’t been part of the program for as long as Rio Tinto and Telstra, and the requirements were less stringent. Also, after listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community health groups and other people in the area, the board and management intervened before the final decision was made. They undertook an independent review and committed in full to everything in it. 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.”

    Hamm believes Woolworths’ proposal highlights a common misconception — that a RAP is an add- on that won’t interfere with business as usual. “A genuine commitment to reconciliation will affect everything a business does,” he says.

    The report made it clear — if you claim to be standing up for vulnerable communities you must be prepared to give their voices precedence. “The majority of people in Darwin wanted the DanMurphy’s,” says Mundine. “In the beginning, the people who would be most negatively impacted had less of a voice.”

    No silver bullet

    Every second year, Reconciliation Australia publishes the Australian Reconciliation Barometer — a survey of attitudes and perceptions in the First Nations and broader communities. The Workplace RAP Barometer is a parallel survey of employees in RAP organisations. “We found that for most, if not every measure, the RAP community is more aware of issues around First Nations people and can see more value in working for reconciliation,” says Mundine.

    In practical terms, more than $2b of goods and services were procured through First Nations businesses from RAP organisations in the past financial year. Also, during the last reporting season, nearly 64,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were employed by organisations with a RAP. “But a RAP isn’t a silver bullet that will fix 230 years of colonisation and marginalisation of First Nations peoples in this country,” says Mundine. “It’s a business plan and a way for organisations to think about what is important when it comes to First Nations people and how that is embedded into your policies and processes.”

    Developed by LOGiT Australia in collaboration with the CSIRO, Microsoft, Advance Queensland and MEGT, weavr. is a tool designed to support a reconciliation or First Nations engagement strategy. “Weavr. collects data around Indigenous employment, engagement and relationships in real time,” says co-founder Shirey. “This can give organisations a better understanding of how they can contribute to closing the gap and where their contributions can have the most impact for Indigenous communities. It can also help to keep reconciliation in the spotlight by encouraging people to contribute to their organisation’s reconciliation journey and be celebrated for their efforts.”

    Visible support from the board

    Until recently, RAPs were generally driven by management. However, Mundine believes the most effective organisations have an actively- engaged board. “Boards should be very visible in their support,” she says. “That includes making sure the right checks are in place. If there’s no KPI for reconciliation and it doesn’t affect someone’s bonus or salary outcomes, nothing will happen.”

    Directors also need to know what best practice looks like. “Many boards in the RAP community have access to an external advisory body or senior Indigenous people,” says Mundine.

    She would also like directors to undergo diversity training, and to consider the diversity of their boards. A recent Queensland University of Technology report found that just 0.0002 per cent of ASX directors identify as First Nations. “This is a concern, but if a board is looking for an Indigenous person, the first thing I ask is what for?” says Hamm. “You’d be surprised how many can’t answer that question. Wanting to increase diversity isn’t a good enough reason on its own.”

    Brokenborough believes we need to break through the stereotypical misconception that there are no educated First Nations people. “There’s nothing to stop boards from finding an Aboriginal when they need an accountant or lawyer and skilling them up,” she says.

    Boards must also be culturally safe. “I was part of a cultural diversity focus group with people of Asian heritage who had experienced exactly the same racism as the First Nations people — both casual and overt,” says Brokenborough. “Organisations that want to attract and retain good people need to address cultural safety at every level.”

    Hamm urges directors to find the moral courage to effect meaningful change. “Directors’ responsibilities extend beyond their fiduciary duties to the society in which they operate. Reconciliation is the best example I can think of.”


    The AICD is currently developing its second Innovate RAP, with chair John Atkin FAICD and MD and CEO Angus Armour FAICD serving as RAP co- champions. This work is informed by an external review commissioned into AICD’s first Innovate RAP, following an invitation from the board for the institute to “challenge itself” with a renewed vision for reconciliation. Key principles include increased First Nations engagement and RAP initiatives targeting AICD’s sphere of influence.

    The AICD is also aiming to lift services and engagement with First Nations directors. Justin Agale MAICD has been appointed AICD Indigenous Sector Lead to support greater impact and focus across AICD’s work in First Nations governance.

    Atkin outlined the AICD’s ambitions at AGS 2022: “We are interested in the governance of our society and it’s entirely appropriate we have a focus on the values of the society we live in as we work towards achieving reconciliation. We will be far stronger as a society when we achieve reconciliation with our First Nations people. We must go about that task with humility and respect for each other and the communities in which we work.”

    What is reconciliation?

    Reconciliation is about strengthening relationships between First Nations and non-Indigenous peoples for the benefit of all Australians. For First Nations peoples, Australian colonial history is characterised by land dispossession, violence, and racism. However, during the past 50 years, significant steps towards reconciliation have been taken. It is an ongoing journey and while generations of Australians have fought hard for meaningful change, future gains are likely to take just as much, if not more, effort.

    Reconciliation is based and measured on five dimensions — historical acceptance, race relations, equality and equity, institutional integrity, and unity. These are interrelated. Reconciliation is not a single issue or agenda. The modern definition of reconciliation must weave all these threads together. Historical acceptance of the wrongs done to First Nations peoples can lead to improved race relations, in turn leading to greater equality and equity.

    Source: Reconciliation Australia

    The RAP framework

    Four RAP types allow for continuous development:

    1 Reflect

    Scoping capacity for reconciliation

    Reflect RAPs set out steps to prepare your organisation for reconciliation initiatives in future RAPs.

    2 Innovate

    Implementing reconciliation initiatives

    An Innovate RAP runs for two years, and outlines actions for achieving your organisation’s vision for reconciliation.

    3 Stretch

    Embedding reconciliation

    A Stretch RAP is best suited to organisations that have developed strategies and established a very strong approach towards advancing reconciliation internally and within the organisation’s sphere of influence.

    4 Elevate

    Leadership in reconciliation

    An Elevate RAP is for organisations with a proven track record of embedding effective RAP initiatives in their organisation that are ready to advance national reconciliation.

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