What next for RAPs after the referendum?

In late October Reconciliation Australia hosted a webinar for Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) partners to talk about reconciliation after the referendum.

With over a thousand participants, CEO Karen Mundine and RAP General Manager Peter Morris discussed why RAP organisations must increase their work for First Nations justice. This is a summary of their thoughts.

The referendum is still fresh in everyone’s minds, and it will take time for us to come to terms with the result and what the next steps are.

While public figures reassured Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that the referendum was ‘not about them,’ the personal toll of the outcome is inescapable. It is therefore crucial that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – as well as non-Indigenous allies – are given space and time to process the outcome.

For the RAP program, this also means acknowledging that the RAP network is diverse and comprises of both people from areas with a strong Yes vote and people from areas with an overwhelming No vote. Consequently, the task for RAP partners is to not jump too quickly to ‘What’s next?’

Relationships led by listening

The national dialogue has provided conflicting commentary on the future of Australia’s reconciliation process postreferendum. This confusion comes down to inconsistent views on what ‘reconciliation’ means.

At its heart, reconciliation is about building stronger relationships between the broader Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That work was made harder by the referendum. But, now more than ever, the work to build respectful relationships is critical.

Many RAP organisations accepted the generous invitation in the Uluru Statement from the Heart and supported the Yes campaign because they had seen the positive results of listening. Thousands of RAP organisation have seen firsthand that listening has delivered more welcoming workplaces, better ways of doing business, more diverse supply chains, and better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader community.

It is now the job of non-Indigenous people to show up and bring more Australians with them. The 6.2 million Australians who voted Yes and the 60,000 volunteers are the potential for the future of this movement.

The referendum might mean the community expects organisations to move faster, be braver and invest more resources to drive change.

Ways forward

The referendum outcome does not change the aspirations of First Nations peoples. Voting patterns in remote communities all over the country showed overwhelming support for the Voice from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, affirming findings from the Australian Reconciliation Barometer and polling during the campaign.

In addition to the Voice, the Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for treaty: a process for ethical agreement making; and truth-telling: a process that underlines the truths of our shared history that is respectful, and First Nations-led. The principles remain deeply important to advancing justice.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is an invitation to the Australian people and, by extension, to Australian organisations. Every RAP organisation must reflect on how they listen and respond to the voices of First Nations stakeholders. They must consider their commitment to ethical agreement making with First Nations partners. And they must consider their role in telling the truth about their organisation’s history and our shared history as a nation.

Reconciliation Australia’s vision for reconciliation is based on five interrelated dimensions: race relations, equality and equity, institutional integrity, unity and historical acceptance.

While all five are relevant to the referendum outcome, race relations and historical acceptance stand out. The campaign laid bare the long road ahead for Australia when it comes to race relations. The referendum saw an upsurge in racism and clearly indicated the need for concerted efforts to address it.

We also saw the need for historical acceptance. We must acknowledge that a lot of people who voted ‘No’ did so because of their lack of historical knowledge and lack of relationships with First Nations people. Many do not believe that there is a discrepancy in the experiences of First Nations and non-Indigenous peoples in Australia.

The role of RAPs

As a nation, we have yet to reach that tipping point where most Australians understand our history and how it impacts the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

We know that when employees are engaged in their organisation’s RAP activities, that begins to change. Cultural awareness training helps them understand truths about our history. Aboriginal and Torres Strait employment and procurement strategies provide pathways to build relationships with First Nations people. Engaged employees are more active, brave and passionate about reconciliation.

For those newer to the RAP network, it is important to understand that the framework is sound. It has delivered better outcomes for thousands of diverse Australian organisations for almost 20 years. The referendum does not change the relevance of those strategies. But it might mean the community expects organisations to move faster, be braver and invest more resources to drive change.

For those leaders in the RAP network, the referendum outcome poses an existential question: what does your leadership truly mean? Are you committed to transforming your business, your sector, and our country? Will you lean into your leadership? Will you redouble your efforts to listen to the voices of First Nations peoples? Will you tackle racism head on? Will you commit to truth-telling?

And to every individual employee of a RAP organisation, the referendum outcome is a challenge to be courageous and take reconciliation beyond your workplace and into your communities, friendship groups and families. Education is vital – encourage the schools and early learning services in your area to develop a RAP.

These next steps will be difficult, but it is critical that RAP partners play their part. The referendum has shown us the scope of the barriers, but every one of us has the power to listen to, and hear, the voices of First Nations communities and partners in every aspect of our work.

Despite the recent setback, the work of reconciliation is needed now more than ever.

The Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) Impact report measures the extraordinary impact that RAP organisations are creating for reconciliation. Read the full 2023 report.

This article is from the 50th edition of Reconciliation News magazine. Read the rest of the issue.

Paul House with gum leaves and smoke
Paul Girrawah House

Paul Girrawah House has multiple First Nation ancestries from the South-East Canberra region, including the Ngambri-Ngurmal (Walgalu), Pajong (Gundungurra), Wallabollooa (Ngunnawal) and Erambie/Brungle (Wiradyuri) family groups.

Paul acknowledges his diverse First Nation history, he particularly identifies as a descendant of Onyong aka Jindoomang from Weereewaa (Lake George) and Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams from Namadgi who were both multilingual, essentially Walgalu-Ngunnawal-Wiradjuri speaking warriors and Ngunnawal–Wallaballooa man William Lane aka ‘Billy the Bull’ - Murrjinille.

Paul was born at the old Canberra hospital in the centre of his ancestral country and strongly acknowledges his First Nation matriarch ancestors, in particular his mother Dr Aunty Matilda House-Williams and grandmother, Ms Pearl Simpson-Wedge.

Paul completed a Bachelor of Community Management from Macquarie University, and Graduate Certificate in Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage and Management from CSU.

Paul provided the Welcome to Country for the 47th Opening of Federal Parliament in 2022. Paul is Board Director, Ngambri Local Aboriginal Land Council, Member Indigenous Reference Group, National Museum of Australia and Australian Government Voice Referendum Engagement Group.  

Paul works on country with the ANU, First Nations Portfolio as a Senior Community Engagement Officer

Acknowledgement of Country

Reconciliation Australia acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing  connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website contains images or names of people who have passed away.

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