It’s not just government working at closing the gap
Every now and then life deals you a moment which overloads your emotions.
You’re not sure whether to cry or cheer or run and hide just to catch your breath.
That’s how I felt standing on the sixth floor of NAB’s Melbourne headquarters when watching Kevin Rudd’s apology to my people’s stolen generation.
It was a watershed moment as we finally, and officially, acknowledged the wrongs of the past. In a strange unexpected way it has also nudged a once concerned, but not involved, corporate Australia to look in the mirror and ask what role it has to play in addressing Indigenous disadvantage.
But in the interim what has really happened? Australia, like the rest of the world, was convulsed by the Global Financial Crisis and while our economy has held up well, the financial meltdown resulted in many companies reassessing their operations. Much of this navel gazing has centred on discretionary spending and, traditionally, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs have been viewed as such.
CSR has always been a rubbery concept, but in a nutshell, it is how companies engage with external groups and issues not related to making the company money. Typically this has covered environmental issues and community relations, and for some companies, Indigenous engagement.
The aim has been for organisations to participate or support selected issues and groups, position themselves as good corporate citizens and build a buffer around the company’s reputation.
But since the Apology, economic pressure has forced a rethink of CSR that has lead to budget cuts and inertia. Along with this, the proposed Emission Trading Scheme has meant promoting environmental credentials - one of the planks of CSR programs - is no longer optional. Now, a company’s green considerations are an issue of compliance.
Some corporations have seized this opportunity to make fundamental changes in their approach to CSR and refocus on what is really important. For some, that has meant embracing Indigenous programs and investing more, not less.
Indeed, some of Australia’s largest businesses, such as Qantas, Telstra and NAB, have decided they have a direct role to play in addressing the disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Most organisations formulate their approach through a Reconciliation Action Plan. The RAP program is run by Reconciliation Australia and aims to turn good intentions into action by supporting organisations to leverage their strengths and contribute to closing the 17-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and other Australians.
There are now 165 organisations with RAPs, compared with jut 33 in January 2008. Specifically, 17 of these are companies (compared with three previously) with another 14 companies due to release their RAPs this year.
What is more, approximately 1.48 million Australians work in an organisation with a RAP, which is around 14 per cent of our working population.
RAPs are many and varied but for NAB, we have focused on three areas: promoting financial inclusion; building access to long-term jobs; and supporting within our bank understanding and respect for Indigenous Australians.
These goals and the ways we achieve them will never make front page news but that is not what this is about. Indigenous programs are important to our staff and our customers and now are part of who we are.
These programs also make a practical, tangible difference to people’s lives. For instance, helping setting up a bush foods catering business in Sydney; or assisting a Year 12 student acquire skills through a School Based Trainee program which has now landed the student a full-time role.
Small victories like these are the building blocks of Reconciliation, but added together over the long term they will create a powerful social force and that can only be a good thing for all Australians.
I encourage other Australian organisations who care about a reconciled future to start their own Reconciliation Action Plan journey and see what difference they can make.
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