Reconciliation Australia is the national organisation promoting reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader Australian community.

Our vision is for an Australia that recognises and respects the special place, culture, rights and contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and where good relationships between First Australians and other Australians become the foundation for local strength and success; and the enhancement of our national wellbeing.

In the lead up to the 2013 Federal Election and beyond, Reconciliation Australia calls for all political leaders to make reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians a priority and to adopt the well-documented lessons from past experience.

Reconciliation Australia knows from experience that stronger relationships built on trust, shared knowledge and respect for culture lie at the heart of creating a more prosperous and reconciled nation for all Australians.

Constitutional reform

During this campaign, all political leaders have made clear commitments to support constitutional recognition of the first Australians. Reconciliation Australia looks forward to working, through the “Recognise” campaign, in support of a successful referendum in the next term of Parliament. We will seek further support from Government to take the campaign to the next levels of public awareness in order to prepare the ground for a successful referendum in the coming years.

Ongoing government investment

While critically important, a successful referendum represents only part of the change that is required to achieve our vision of reconciliation—sustained government investment remains critical to improving the life outcomes and opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

If government investment is to deliver sustained, positive outcomes that are consistent with our vision for reconciliation it must be based on:

  • Genuine partnerships and collaboration, built on sustained, respectful engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, communities and representative bodies.
  • Improving the accountability of all parties to reform through good governance and community involvement in decision making and implementation, i.e. empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
  • Building on existing strengths and capabilities to address not only current challenges but build better opportunities for future generations.
  • Consistent, long term policy and investment—across political parties and electoral cycles—that builds on programs that are working.
  • Recognition that barriers to employment are multiple and complex and require an equally sophisticated response.

1. Genuine partnerships and collaboration.

Respectful and sustained engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is the cornerstone for successful policies and programs. A solid body of evidence, and our work at Reconciliation Australia shows that policies developed in a respectful way, through genuine collaboration and partnerships, are more likely to succeed and be sustainable because they create a sense of ownership and empower those affected.

Engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and representative bodies is about listening and developing trustful and respectful relationships. Such engagement must lie at the heart of any government’s approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs and should:

  • begin early and be ongoing to enable meaningful participation in all stages of policy and program design, implementation and evaluation, as outlined by the Australian Human Rights Commission; and
  • be underpinned by the principles of the United Nations’ Declaration on the
    Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, as the national independent representative body, should be a key focus of government’s engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

2. Improving accountability and good governance.

Since 2005, Reconciliation Australia, in partnership with BHP Billiton, has run the Indigenous Governance Awards. The Awards showcase the success and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander initiatives and promote effective Indigenous governance.

Effective Indigenous governance is about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people making and implementing decisions about their communities, lives and futures. The Awards demonstrate that effective Indigenous governance is the foundation stone for real outcomes and sustainable change in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Good Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and projects incubate leaders, build community capacity, employ large numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, play a pivotal role in Indigenous economic development and role model success for the community.

The stories of the Award finalists over the years provide strong and tangible examples of the impact of effective Indigenous governance in action. They show that strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and initiatives are effective at finding solutions to complex issues—issues that have long confounded governments and mainstream organisations.

Investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and governance is crucial to ensure communities are equipped with the tools to build their own solutions.

Improving the governance around government service delivery, policy development and implementation also remains an important priority. Governance and leadership is now embedded in the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Closing the Gap agenda to address Indigenous disadvantage. However, it remains the area least invested in, with small and ad hoc efforts from governments. Improved coordination across jurisdictions, clarity around accountability for service delivery and program outcomes, and robust program evaluation are crucial to ensuring that future investments are well made and deliver the desired results.

3. Building on strengths.

Historically, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs and policies in Australia have been premised on a persistent deficit-based view—in other words how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander outcomes and opportunities fall short of those of the wider community.

While there are significant social and economic challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, many of the answers to addressing these gaps lie in the strength, innovation and resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities themselves.

Reconciliation Australia believes there needs to be more emphasis placed on the identification and recognition of community-led organisations and programs that are delivering positive results and more effective and efficient funding for them.

Wherever possible government investments and programs should seek to:

  • reinforce and build on existing strengths and capacity;
  • empower communities;
  • promote the evolution of locally based and relevant solutions; and
  • enable the participation of other sectors, notably business.

Better measurement of outcomes, and more consistent program evaluation is fundamental to enabling this.

According to latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is young and growing at a much faster rate than the non-Indigenous population. A tangible outcome to a strengths-based approach is to invest now in the leadership and capacity of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

There is a well-established body of evidence which suggests investment in early childhood development translates into better social and economic outcomes down the track. From birth through to adulthood, we need to invest in the health, education and resilience of the next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

4. Consistent, long term policy and investment.

Policy consistency in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs is critical. Too often the search for short-term outcomes sees policy ground shifting unpredictably. Changes to social and economic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will occur over the course of a generation and require patient, long term investment and policies. Such policies must be based on what is a now a solid base of evidence and experience.

The COAG Closing the Gap agenda provides a common framework for all governments and the wider community to improve health, education and employment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The latest independent report from the COAG Reform Council shows that we are making progress but much more needs to be done.

Since the targets were set, fewer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies are dying at birth, more young children have access to early childhood education and more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are finishing high school. But, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children continue to have much lower levels of reading and numeracy, the gap in employment is widening and there is still much work needed to close the gap in life expectancy.

Continuing these efforts, through a common, transparent and evidenced-based framework, including annual reports on progress is critical. Significant ongoing funding from governments with strong leadership from the Federal Government is also essential.

Achieving equal life chances for Australia’s First Peoples needs to be an objective that unites the nation. It is above and beyond politics and for this we need non-partisan support

5. Sophisticated approach to economic participation and employment.

Reconciliation Australia believes that economic participation is a key accelerator to achieving better life opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In approaching employment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples it is not a matter of simply providing jobs and training. Understanding the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the barriers that prevent participation in the workforce is crucial.

Lower levels of education and health, locational disadvantage, lack of access to services, higher rates of incarceration and interactions with the criminal justice system, discrimination, lower levels of job retention and security, and the intergenerational effects of trauma are some of the multiple and complex barriers to employment participation which require an equally sophisticated response.

Reconciliation Australia has had success in promoting a holistic, community-wide approach that provides a framework for action for all sectors of the community, including employers. The Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) program looks beyond governments as the sole actors in moving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment indicators and gives employers wanting to get involved a way to make progress in their spheres of influence.

The RAP program is built on the philosophy that sustainable economic opportunities require good relationships and mutual respect.

RAPs must address each of these three areas—respect, relationships and opportunities—through clear actions and commitments that are reported against.

Our research and practical experience shows that this model of respect, relationship and opportunities is leading positive social change and is having a real impact on the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the nation as a whole.

Based on the 2012 RAP Impact Measurement Report, RAP organisations:

  • currently employ almost 19,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with plans to increase this to over 25,000 in coming years;
  • procured nearly $60 million in goods and services from accredited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses – businesses which themselves employ a high proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and
  • provided $14.7 million in scholarships for Aboriginal an Torres Strait Islander students – increasing employability.

Not only is the RAP program creating economic opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples but it is also transforming the attitudes and behaviors of employees and creating workplaces that welcome and support diversity.

Reconciliation Australia believes that employers need to continue to build relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander job-seekers and develop culturally inclusive workplaces in order to achieve their Aboriginal employment commitments. Our Work Place Ready program is assisting employers to achieve this.

The program provides organisations with the tools, strategies and information to create the right internal culture to attract and retain Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees. Organisations that embed work practices that demonstrate respect and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are more likely to create an environment where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff can enjoy the positive benefits of work over the long-term.

Based on our programs and experience, we believe that increasing the economic participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comes about through partnerships between governments, the business sector, communities and individuals based on trust, cultural understanding and respect.

Conclusion

Five years after the historic COAG statement on Closing the Gap, the 2013 Federal election takes on a critical importance to the future of reconciliation and improving the life opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

As outlined above the known success factors start with the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at all stages of policy design and implementation. They involve place-based solutions and investment in capacity building. They recognise the diversity of the Indigenous population. They recognise the role of respect, relationships, rights and recognition in addressing economic exclusion and genuinely providing for participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the economy. And they recognise and invest in the role and potential of young Australians.

We hope that the goodwill demonstrated by both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians towards reconciliation and national unity will be reflected in the policies and commitments of the next Australian Government.

Through developing respectful relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and investing in their capacity to manage their own solutions, significant progress can be made in closing the gap in social and economic outcomes between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians. Reconciliation Australia looks forward to working with the next Federal Parliament to achieve this vision.

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