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Is your business being brave and making real change?

Following the Federal Election, incoming Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s immediate commitment to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and this year’s National Reconciliation Week theme of Be Brave, Make Change have brought into sharp focus the priority business and governments have placed on closing the gap between our First Nation peoples and non-indigenous Australians.

But how often do we see this commitment translate into meaningful action?

In his opening address at the WA launch of National Reconciliation Week, Western Australia’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Tony Buti spoke of the Aboriginal Empowerment Strategy and his government’s commitment to better outcomes for Aboriginal people in this State.

Shortly after Mr Buti, Aboriginal leaders from around WA called on both State and Federal governments to stop talking and take action – for an end to government money wasted on fractured services, and for improved engagement with Traditional Owners so they can determine how precious taxpayers’ dollars are best spent to address challenges in their communities.

In his address, Griffith University’s Professor of Global Affairs, Stan Grant, implored Australians, governments and citizens alike, to honour the brave Aboriginal warriors who tried to defend their land against invasion, and the many leaders who followed them. The veteran broadcaster urged them – just like Grant’s own father, an elder of the Wiradjuri people, who brought his mob’s language back to life – to be brave and to make change.

Investors are now driving rapid change in the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) arena. We see regular announcements on the “E” front with plans for the transition from fossil fuels to green technology, including innovations from green hydrogen to electric locomotives, just to name a few.

The advancement of Aboriginal people in this country falls quite clearly into the social aspect of ESG, and the traditional Indigenous burning practices directed by Indigenous Rangers being reintroduced into the Kimberley were celebrated as both a social and environmental success story during Reconciliation WA’s launch.

But it’s important to draw a clear distinction between a business with good intentions writing and endorsing a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) – more than 2000 organisations now have one – and that business acting to drive real change.

In comparing meaningful outcomes, Shelley Cable, CEO of Minderoo Foundation’s Generation One, says it’s one thing to recruit Aboriginal employees, but quite another to keep, encourage and then promote them. Ms Cable launched Minderoo’s first Indigenous Employment Index 2022 in Sydney last week, headlining a panel of Indigenous business leaders hosted by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).

Indigenous Australians continued to be vastly under-represented or excluded from the workforce, with a 26% employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous working age Australians (49.1 per cent compared with 75.9 per cent). Worryingly, Ms Cable noted, this gap had improved only 1.3 per cent in the decade to 2018.

Generation One surveyed 42 companies, including some of Australia’s biggest, representing about five per cent of Australia’s workforce or 700,000 people across the private, public and not for profit sectors. It revealed the mean Indigenous employment rate was 2.2 per cent (ranging from 0.17 to 10.9 per cent across those surveyed), with some distance from reaching employment parity in line with the national Indigenous population rate of 3.3 per cent. However, among the 31 employers that reported the relevant data, Indigenous representation at senior leadership levels was just 0.7 per cent, with the report noting “Indigenous senior leadership is critical to elevating Indigenous voices and perspectives and supporting Indigenous employees.”

The survey also found half of Aboriginal respondents had faced racism in the workplace. While more than 37% of those had experienced direct racism, for the remainder it was more insidious and indirect.

As one survey respondent noted: “We experience racism every single day. Unfortunately for my workplace, I think because of the lack of Indigenous people that work in the workplace, it’s very hard. And I work with a lot of older people as well. It’s very hard for them to understand what they’re saying is racism. It’s more just, “Oh, it’s just a comment.”

Companies were generally doing well in recruiting Aboriginal graduates, but it was clear from the survey results that most are not creating the safe spaces needed for them to stay.

The survey results also revealed a persistent issue of Aboriginal talent “hiding in middle management” and “hitting some kind of glass ceiling” with an apparent reluctance to take a chance on Aboriginal talent for more senior positions.

According to panellist Jody Broun, Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Government’s National Indigenous Australian Agency, this situation meant business and government departments were now poaching each other’s senior Aboriginal talent.

“We know that RAPs alone are not enough to solve 230 years of [colonialism]. We need constitutional reform, treaty and truth telling,” said panellist Professor Deen Sanders, Deloitte’s Lead Partner for Integrity.

Noting it had been five years since the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Professor Sanders said Aboriginal employment needed to move away from being a “compliance obligation”.

Professor Sanders urged companies to embed Indigenous employment practices and procurement policies from the ground up. He said workplace transformation strategies needed to focus less on making Indigenous employees “more corporate” and more on “Indigenising corporate Australia.”

Noongar Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NCCI), a partner of Cannings Purple, says while the State Government’s Aboriginal procurement policy has led to an increase in Aboriginal businesses getting work, there is a lack of genuine engagement by many companies and the will to put in effort to help build capability and capacity.

The NCCI maintains that only through economic empowerment will Aboriginal people be able to lift themselves up. NCCI Chair Gordon Cole says it’s a win-win scenario. “The range of Aboriginal-owned businesses is as broad and diverse as our community and the interests and passions we have as individuals and families,” he says. “We are more than just beneficiaries of the economy; we are major contributors.“

At a recent Aboriginal Press Club event in Perth, BHP’s Head of Indigenous Engagement, Allan James made the point that there was “enormous opportunity to create prosperity for generations to come “but we have to get this right. [With] reasonable investment in jobs and training there are business opportunities and more and more pathways for Aboriginal people to enjoy long and rewarding careers in mining.”

In keeping with the theme of this year’s National Reconciliation Week, and the increasing focus on companies not to just tick a box but to embrace real change in the ESG space, now is a good time for companies to reflect and consider their engagement with Aboriginal stakeholders, employees, customers and communities.

Now is the time to listen closer, to better understand what is needed, and to make the change required to deliver better and lasting outcomes.