This week through to June 3 is a time of coming together, regardless of your background, says Reconciliation Australia CEO Justin Mohamed. Departments and agencies across the country are taking part in various ways, such as raising the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, running art workshops or holding Acknowledgement of Country breakfasts.
The theme for this year’s NRW is “It’s time to change it up”, where Reconciliation Australia hopes to renew engagement and for Australians to move from being interested observers to active participants in reconciliation.
NRW’s dates are fixed each year — May 27 to June 3 — chosen to recognise two important anniversaries: the 1967 referendum to alter the Australian Constitution allowing recognition of ATSI peoples in the census and federal laws, and the 1992 Mabo decision of the High Court of Australia.
Mohamed told The Mandarin the activities held over this period will differ from NAIDOC Week, as they have important but distinct intents:
“National Reconciliation Week is all about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous peoples coming together to celebrate the respectful relationships they share.
“NAIDOC Week is time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples come together in different ways to connect to culture and country. NAIDOC Week is a time when non-Indigenous Australians can grow their cultural awareness, knowledge and skills, participating in Indigenous community events in a respectful way.”
Consequently, public sector agencies tend to do more around NRW than NAIDOC Week unless they have responsibilities for that education, but that education can be, and often is, one not limited to just these official dates.
Michele Bruniges, secretary of NSW Department of Education and Communities, acknowledged that role for education-related agencies earlier this week. Bruniges said:
“Reconciliation begins with respect for and understanding of the histories, cultures and struggles of Australia’s first peoples … Education, of course, has a powerful role to play in reconciliation and we all have a responsibility to make reconciliation a reality.”
The Department of Defence went a step further than transient, box-ticking events yesterday, making its contribution permanent with the unveiling of an Acknowledgement of Country plaque at its Russell Offices in Canberra, along with cultural events held around the country. A Defence spokesperson said: “Indigenous Australians have a long and rich history of contributing to the defence of Australia and many continue to proudly serve their country today, be it in the Australian Defence Force or the Australian Public Service. This will continue to be recognised at the highest levels of Defence.”
Nor are reconciliation activities in government agencies limited solely to this week. The Australian Public Service Commission held an art workshop with a member of the central Queensland Gurang Gurang community specifically for NRW, but was one of several agencies to have undertaken reconciliation activities through the year as part of agency Reconciliation Action Plans — APSC released a new reconciliation strategy last year. In March the APSC hosted a cultural discussion with local Ngambri-Ngunnuwal Elder Aunty Matilda House, with participants from IP Australia, Department of Health, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Institute of Criminology.
Reconciliation Action Plans
The other way public sector agencies take part in reconciliation is through Reconciliation Action Plans, in which federal agencies were the earliest adopters in 2006 and quickly followed by state and territory government entities. Mohamed said RAPs are the “catalyst in transforming attitudes and workplace cultures”, and leadership from departments and agencies is also needed to continue the momentum that the RAP programs have begun.
Last year, the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, AIATSIS, went a step further and became the first government entity to develop an Elevate RAP — the most ambitious of the models proposed by Reconciliation Australia, requiring an entity put ATSI engagement, employment and community and economic development into an organisation’s core business. Mohamed said AIATSIS could take a lead role to support the Australian Public Service in these issues, due to the expertise and relationships it has built through that commitment.
Do RAPs work? Surveys from Reconciliation Australia suggest those entities who have adopted RAPs have employed 29,500 ATSI people, purchased $20 million worth of goods and services from Supply Nation accredited businesses, contributed $55 million towards education scholarships for ATSI students, and provided $42 million worth of pro-bono support to ATSI organisations and communities.
Their Workplace Barometer — a survey of 4600 employees in RAP organisations — found compared with the general community, people in those organisations were less prejudiced (69% to 36%), more trusting of each other (77% to 26%) and enjoy more frequent interaction (45% to 30%).
Read more at the Mandarin: Fred Chaney: a road to real reconciliation with Aboriginal Australia