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Reconciliation Australia: Working towards a reconciled Australia

Feature-Image-Karen-Mundine-Reconciliation-Australia-The-Australian-Business-Executive

A not-for-profit organisation founded in 2001, Reconciliation Australia is the lead body on reconciliation in the nation, promoting and facilitating reconciliation by building relationships, respect and trust between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

CEO Karen Mundine has over 20 years’ experience in community engagement, public advocacy, communications and social marketing campaigns, having worked in the public, corporate and community sectors across a range of portfolio areas including health, the arts, ICT, and Indigenous and foreign affairs. In addition to her job at Reconciliation Australia, she sits on the Boards of the Gondwana Children’s Choirs and the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre. The Australian Business Executive spoke with Ms Mundine recently about the five dimensions needed to achieve reconciliation, the importance of historical acceptance in moving forward, and the organisation’s Reconciliation Action Plan program which is bringing about real systemic change and benefitting the lives of First Nations peoples.

Everyone’s business

“At Reconciliation Australia we believe in a just, equitable and reconciled Australia,” Ms Mundine says. “We work to create the kind of environment where we can build trusting, respectful, positive relationships between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

The organisation’s goals are achieved through a number of programs, led by the Reconciliation Action Plan program, and including the Narragunnawali program, also known as Reconciliation in Education, and the Indigenous Governance program, which works with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to recognise governance excellence.

Reconciliation Australia supports a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations, believing that the communities themselves hold the answers to the issues its people face. There are also a number of public education events the organisation holds, the most well-known of which is National Reconciliation Week. 

“All of this work is about creating pathways for the broader Australian community to understand and learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, our communities, the issues that we’re facing, so they can then think about what kind of role they might want to play when it comes to reconciliation.”

One of the organisation’s key messages is that reconciliation is ‘everyone’s business’, highlighting how everybody in the nation has a role to play in building positive relationships between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“We think about reconciliation as being as much about the journey as it is the destination,” Ms Mundine explains. “When we talk about that journey, it’s still very much a work-in-progress. When we talk about education, when we talk about employment, these are [areas] where we don’t have parity with the broader Australian community.”

When defining reconciliation, the organisation has come up with five dimensions to outline what it feels is needed to achieve it: race relations, equality and equity, institutional integrity, unity and historical acceptance.

“It’s really when we start to achieve parity in these five dimensions that we start to get to this place of a reconciled Australia. Race relations is about First Nations peoples, and the broader Australian community understanding each other, and where the broader Australian community actually embraces First Nations cultures as special and unique.”

In terms of equality and equity, as citizens of Australia, First Nations peoples should be entitled to the same educational, employment and health opportunities as the rest of the nation, but it is clear this is still not the case.

“Equally, when it comes to equity, as First Nations peoples that don’t exist anywhere else in the world, we also have particular rights, whether it’s native title rights or cultural rights, and it’s really important that’s embraced as part of our fabric of society.”

Likewise in relation to institutional integrity, the building blocks of civil society, such as businesses, hospitals, police and educational systems, need to engage with reconciliation and work towards delivering positive change.

“When we start to think about that, then hopefully we start to see that as a country we’re embracing this idea of First Nations not just as this add-on, nice-to-have bit, but as fundamental to who we are as Australians. And that’s when we get to the unity piece.”

None of the above can be achieved without first dealing with Australia’s past, beginning with the acceptance of historical facts about First Nations peoples, a fundamental step in being able to move forward into a more just future.

“If we don’t understand where we’ve come from, and how the past continues to impact who we are today, it’s really hard for us to move forward, for us not to continue to make the mistakes of the past again and again.”

In thinking about this journey of reconciliation, all five of these factors need to be addressed together. They do not happen in isolation, and are all interlinked and equally important to making a positive changes in relations across Australia.

Closing the gap

A  government strategy called Closing the Gap aims to reduce disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with respect to life expectancy, child mortality, access to early childhood education, educational achievement, and employment outcomes.

“When we look at a lot of the ‘close-the-gap’ targets *,” Ms Mundine says, “we still lag behind in health outcomes and life expectancy compared to the broader Australian community. Our education outcomes still are quite significantly behind those of the general population.”

Equally out of proportion are incarceration rates, which are much higher for First Nations peoples than for the broader Australian population. The same can be said for the numbers of children taken out of home care.

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2020 Australia Day Breakfast hosted by Reconciliation Australia at Crown Plaza, Canberra, 25 January 2020. Picture by Sean Davey

“All these things are the building blocks for how you have healthy communities that are able to thrive and survive. When our kids are being taken out of home care and put into juvenile justice systems, they then find themselves in the justice system incarceration. When you’ve got poor health outcomes, no opportunity for jobs, poor and limited housing, it makes it really hard for you to get ahead.”

It is this combination of social, health and economic outcomes that are really important in terms of achieving some parity for First Nations peoples. Underlying all of that however, is the destructive concept of systemic racism, where institutions make assumptions about who First Nations peoples are. 

“We get turned away from an emergency room because people assume that you’re drunk rather than you’re actually having a diabetic episode; or there’s a bunch of young men just hanging out in a park, whereas the police look upon that as you’re up to no good; or kids that live here in my area get told they’re being disruptive, rather than actually they’ve got a hearing problem and because of that they can’t engage in class, so they get bored.”

These assumptions continue to set Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people back in, making it harder for their communities to move forward, continuing to prevent them from achieving their best possible lives.

Reconciliation Action Plans (RAP)

“When we started Reconciliation Australia, we grew out of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, which ran for a ten year period through government. One of the recommendations was to setup an independent organisation to continue that great work.”

One of the most significant acts from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was its engagement with many different areas of the Australian population, and this was the inspiration for much of Reconciliation Australia, and what it went on to implement.

“In 2000, when we started to think about what we do next, one of the things we heard a lot, particularly from workplaces and businesses, people who have really good intentions, was: ‘I really want to do something, but I don’t know how.’ So that’s where the idea for a Reconciliation Action Plan program started.”

By 2006 the plan was in action, with eight trailblazer organisations representing a broad mix of government, corporate, national and state-based, different geographical locations, all testing out the RAP to see how it would work.

“It’s a business plan. It’s thinking about how a workplace can actually do things within their sphere of influence – within their policies and procedures, within their business and who else they do business with – how they can actually make a difference collectively and systematically in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

The plan has taken off from there, with the number of involved organisations growing from those eight in 2006 to over 1,100 today, with a combined 2.3m Australians having worked or studied in an organisation with a RAP.

“It’s one of those great success stories, and we constantly are learning new things. What’s really amazing, and it’s such a strength, it’s not just these individual organisations, these are all organisations who are linking and connecting with each other, it’s all of those Australians who are working towards greater outcomes.”

The really impressive flip-side to this is that by following these plans and reviewing systemic prejudice, organisations are not only seeing greater reconciliation outcomes, but are actually experiencing benefits within their own businesses.

“Whether that’s through being an employer of choice, whether that’s increased young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people coming through as skilled employees, whether that’s doing business with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses or communities. It has great benefits back into the organisation.”

All Reconciliation Australia has provided is a framework. These organisations know their own businesses, and by utilising this framework can fill in the actions and think about what they can do that is unique to their business to change the outcomes for First Nations peoples.

The work done with businesses and in the workplace is only one component of the importance of the RAP program, with much of its vital work being done in education, particularly at school level.

“When we first began the RAP program, we always knew that education is such an important component of reconciliation, and while we had a lot of interest from schools, particularly those wanting to engage around National Reconciliation Week, we found that they weren’t really taking up the workplace RAPs.”

Because schools have different structures than other organisations – they are both workplaces and places of learning – they have a greater potential for impact on reconciliation than many other organisations do.

“As a workplace, their structures are somewhat different, so we needed to think a little bit differently. We took some time out and did a whole heap of research and as it turned out it validated the framework, and actually that idea of relationships, respect and opportunity still rings true for schools, both as a workplace and as a learning institution.”

The main difference was that there were opportunities to do different things in the classroom as well as at the school gates, both of which have a significant impact on what was going on outside the school gates in local communities.

 “It’s a great example of what reconciliation is about,” Ms Mundine says. “It needs to be felt where people live, where people work, where they learn, where they socialise. That’s one of the great things about the RAP – we have sporting hubs, hospitals, schools; we also have big businesses and corporations, and we have small community groups.”

There are now around 1,000 schools and early learning services that have published RAPs, with another 6,000 in the process of starting a new journey or renewing their RAP. Combined with the workplace RAPs, it is clear that the scheme is an incredible mechanism for learning, unlearning and relearning the concepts around reconciliation.

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Reconciliation Australia is doing vital work to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

“I think the goal is in the name: Reconciliation Action Plan. Creating awareness is absolutely important, creating a context of why we want things done, but ultimately we want people to be motivated towards action, we want people to create agency.”

The aim is get organisations thinking about what they know and what they have learned through the process, what they do in their everyday lives and how they can tweak things to do things differently.

“All of this builds to how we create better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and when that happens we have greater outcomes for all Australians. It’s about supporting them to create agency for their communities as much as us creating societies and systems that sit around that.”

Within the workplace framework of the RAPs, there are four stages that describe where each organisation is on its journey. This is known as the RISE Framework, and it moves through Reflect, Innovate, Stretch and Elevate.

“It starts at Reflect, when you’re just starting your journey; Innovate, where you’re starting to try a few different things; Stretch, where we’re looking for people to set some targets to really stretch their thinking and their abilities; then Elevate is where those companies and businesses that have their internal mechanisms right have a bigger role to play and they can affect change either individually or collectively.”

The firms the organisation works with include big accounting firms such as KPMG and PWC, mining companies like BHP, those in the banking sector like Commonwealth, ANZ, NAB, Telstra and Westpac, as well as the Insurance Australia Group, and building companies like Lendlease.

“All of these organisations are thinking on a much bigger scale, as big companies who can affect big change. Then we’ve also got broadcasters like the ABC and Foxtel. Media is such an important part of engaging the broader population around some of the issues that need to be raised.”

Together these organisations have procured over $billion worth of goods and services from Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander businesses, as well as supporting almost 12k partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. There have also been more than $44 million donations provided to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations.

The benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations is clear, but perhaps most important is the direct influence on employment, with the scheme seeing 41,496 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people employed by an organisation with a RAP.

“What we also know, because of what they do internally, in terms of creating a context, is employers working within a RAP organisation have greater knowledge, understanding and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples than those in the broader Australian community. They’re great places and networks to learn in.”

Historical acceptance

Ms Mundine is keen to reiterate the point of truth-telling, or historical acceptance, which really lies at the heart of what the organisation is trying to do – understanding where the nation has been in order to move into a better future.

“I think there’s a real appetite in the Australian community about how we talk about history, about how that’s shaped the communities that we live in and that we work in. Part of that comes in the naming of places, in the statues and the monuments that we choose to create and we choose to honour.”

For Ms Mundine, it is not about one side against the other, of right against wrong, good against bad. The bigger issue is that history is nuanced, with complex storytelling existing across all historical narratives.

“There are good things that have happened in our past, there are awful and terrible things that have happened in our past. If we want to be a mature nation, we need to embrace all of it. We need to be able to honour the good things, but we also need to own the negative things, the things that we’re not so proud of in our past.”

If Australians pretend that the bad things didn’t happen, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to be diminished and held back. This was seen with the Stolen Generations of children separated from their families throughout the 20th century, whose story was brought to light in the Bringing Them Home report in 1997.

“I did a lot of work with some of those survivors,” Ms Mundine says, “and one of the things that almost broke my heart every time I spoke to them, was these things happened to them when they were children and it’s taken many of them lifetimes to really unpack it and understand what that has meant for them.”

To find that the broader Australian community didn’t believe that these horrible things had happened made many survivors feel like it wasn’t real; it diminished their ability to engage with the Australian community and society at large, and had a significant impact on their lives, families and personal relationships. 

“Any society that can own the terrible things of the past, acknowledge them, and make that commitment that it’s never going to happen again, is a mature society that I want to be part of. I also think that’s a society that can look forward and face whatever comes at them, and that makes us a stronger society, it makes us a stronger country, and it gives us something to strive towards moving forward.”

With a strong purpose to inspire and enable all Australians to contribute to the reconciliation of the nation, and a vision for a just, equitable and reconciled Australia, Reconciliation Australia is doing vital work to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Find out more about Reconciliation Australia by visiting  www.reconciliation.org.au.

 *The Closing the Gap targets were broadened and updated just prior to publication of this interview.

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