Reconciling disadvantage with opportunity

Growing up in Ireland, I rarely encountered the term indigenous. When I moved to Australia in the early 2000s, it was almost five years before I formed a personal relationship with an Indigenous Australian. But even before then, I learnt that I had misconceptions about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and their history as the world’s oldest continuous culture.

Historically, governments have had a mixed track record in building meaningful and productive relationships with Aboriginal people in this country. Since 1788, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s culture has been so badly damaged that building Reconciliation today is a major challenge. Consequently, Aboriginal Australians are more likely to be in poorer health, unemployed, imprisoned and live ten years less than non-Aboriginal Australians.

Professionally, I have been involved in initiatives to improve the recruitment and retention of Aboriginal staff. In defence and tertiary education roles, I learnt that it was difficult to meet employment targets beyond 2% representation and to achieve better results, we needed to integrate Aboriginal engagement within all business operations instead of solely focusing on recruitment.

I also learnt that it’s always important to engage with Aboriginal stakeholders in developing recruitment or educational programs to benefit from their unique insight.

Now, I am privileged to be in a position where I can help lead efforts to address inequity and improve the lives of Aboriginal South Australians. Health, education and employment are key areas where the South Australian Government can make a difference and I think we are progressing well so far.

With the Premier’s support, I am leading the implementation of the state’s first South Australian Government Aboriginal Affairs Action Plan 2019 – 2020.

Developed in consultation with Aboriginal leaders, the plan aims to:

  • create opportunities for Aboriginal jobs and businesses
  • improve the quality and the delivery of services to Aboriginal South Australians
  • build strong and capable Aboriginal communities.

Soon, all South Australian Government agencies will have a current Reconciliation Action Plan. This is a strategic document to help us support national Reconciliation and achieve our own vision for more just, equitable and productive organisations.

In addition, my department’s Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation division will oversee the development of a state government Reconciliation Action Plan.

My desire is to foster strong and meaningful relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people through several departmental initiatives including:

  • a Reconciliation Action Plan to be endorsed by Reconciliation Australia
  • a Diversity and Inclusion Framework with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Plan
  • an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Competency Strategy
  • an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Pool that gives applicants priority consideration when vacancies arise within the department.

Statistically, the department is approaching 5% Aboriginal employee representation.

During National Reconciliation Week, my department is participating in a variety of activities to encourage us to consider how we can make a difference. We are promoting a calendar of events that includes exhibitions, cultural events and educational programs in support of National Reconciliation Week’s theme, Grounded in Truth: Walk Together with Courage.

I am excited that stakeholder consultation is underway for the creation of an Australian National Aboriginal Art and Culture Gallery at Lot Fourteen. The project has already secured federal funding via the Adelaide City Deal and will become an excellent facility to showcase more of South Australia’s expansive Aboriginal collections. I envision an innovative, interactive and iconic institution that interfaces beautifully with the Botanical Gardens.

Comparatively, I admire the Anti-Racism and Reconciliation efforts underway within sport, notably in the Australian Football League. As a board member of the Adelaide Football Club, I have insight into the league’s initiatives and have seen the success they’ve had in advocating for respectful relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal players, fans and all Australians. That doesn’t mean they don’t still have challenges to address.

A great partnership example that merges sport, advocacy and business is Adam Goodes’s Indigenous Defence & Infrastructure Consortium, assisting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander owned and operated businesses in tendering for defence and other related industry contracts and sub-contracts. I’ve come to know Adam well through his work off-the-field and not long ago, we both received honorary doctorates from UniSA on the same day! My experience with him and UniSA’s Aboriginal engagements, has broadened my understanding of Reconciliation and Aboriginal affairs.

On a personal level, I want to be more culturally informed and to do that, I’ve got to ask questions. I encourage others to be curious, ask how to refer to people, ask about customs as you observe them for example.

Overall, I view Reconciliation and trust synonymously. It’s mutual, it can’t only go one way. For you to successfully reconcile with me, you need to feel as good about reconciling as I do. It’s not enough to be apologetic, we’ve got to be responsive to the created disadvantage.

Cultural background should not dictate access to opportunity.

By addressing inequity in employment, access to services and providing opportunities for redress, I am confident that the public sector will continue to make big strides towards Reconciliation.

NAIDOC week in July will be another opportunity for us to reflect on how far we’ve come and how much further we need to go.

Jim McDowell
Chief Executive