Reconciliation action plans can bring meaningful accountability to corporate Australia

Reconciliation action plans can bring meaningful accountability to corporate Australia

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Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

In 2006, it was almost unimaginable that mainstream Australian businesses would spend $2bn in goods and services with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-owned businesses and employ close to 64,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

If in 2006, you’d told me that Reconciliation Australia’s reconciliation action plans (RAP) program would grow from the eight organisations that stepped up at the program’s launch to the more than 2,000 with active RAPs in 2022, directly reaching almost 4 million Australians, I would have applauded your optimism.

But here we are.

Related: Reconciliation action plans let settlers take up more space, not relinquish it | Ben Abbatangelo

The process of launching, developing and steering a globally unique initiative that embeds reconciliation throughout an organisation’s business has involved a lot of challenging work and has been far from plain sailing.

In the Australian context, recognition of the need for reconciliation and social justice is now a fundamental element of any company’s approach to measuring their social and environmental impact.

A RAP is much more than ticking a box in annual reports. They are increasingly used by investors to judge corporate performance, decide who will withhold capital, and influence consumer choices unless minimum environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards are met.

Reconciliation is a long journey. It takes sustained leadership for an organisation to wholeheartedly embrace its RAP and commit to long-term transformation.

Karen Mundine, the CEO of Reconciliation Australia.

Karen Mundine, the CEO of Reconciliation Australia. Photograph: Rohan Thomson/AAP

The danger of disconnect

The times when leadership aspiration has disconnected with action, sparking well-deserved scrutiny, are worth revisiting.

Telstra has been a longstanding RAP partner. Its senior management has long embraced the principles and actions embodied in their RAP. Yet they became sufficiently disengaged with the seriousness of that commitment that they allowed Telstra-branded stores to sell vulnerable First Nations customers in remote communities phone plans they could neither understand nor afford.

Imposing a fine of $50m, the federal court described the conduct as “unconscionable”.

In response, Reconciliation Australia revoked Telstra’s “elevate” RAP, and today Telstra is grappling with how to rebuild trust and credibility among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities – and others appalled by the behaviour. This is the power of RAPs to bring meaningful accountability.

Innovate RAP partner Woolworths’ then-subsidiary Endeavour Drinks proposed to build an enormous Dan Murphy’s in Darwin on a site very close to three First Nations communities, which, at their own instigation, are “dry” communities where alcohol is both unwelcome and illegal.

Aboriginal health, community and advocacy groups responded robustly to this plan, which was completely at odds with the RAP Woolworths said it valued so highly.

In the face of the resulting campaign and controversy, including conversations with Reconciliation Australia, Woolworths commissioned an independent panel review. Woolworths responded to the panel’s findings by not going ahead with the store and returning the liquor licence.

Reconciliation Australia continues to work with both Woolworths and Telstra, as we do with all RAP partners, to equip and challenge them to continue to grow in their reconciliation journeys.

Rio Tinto was another longstanding RAP partner; working closely with us through a series of RAPs, including an elevate RAP. From being a corporate leader in reconciliation, by 2020 it would carry out the catastrophic destruction of Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara.

Rio Tinto lost their elevate RAP and is suspended from the program. If Rio’s RAP had been truly integrated and central to its operations and decisions, it would have been easier to find the bravery to question the decision. In fact, it should not have been needed. The company should have intrinsically known what to do with a site like Juukan.

In the end, it comes back to organisations to honour and deliver on their RAP. We know they don’t always get it right, but the framework enables them to measure, review, reflect and grow.

Related: Telstra stripped of reconciliation status over ‘unfair’ sales to Aboriginal people

The future of RAPs

As we enter the next phase of the RAP program, a couple of features stand out. The first is that for our longest-standing partners, this project of national reconciliation has developed an animating, self-perpetuating life of its own.

The leading 200 organisations are now fully networked among themselves, meeting quarterly to compare notes and offer advice to one another. They take this project very seriously.

The second is a phrase we adopted to describe how we see the program, and reconciliation, evolving further: “Safe to brave.” It signifies organisations and employees being motivated by the true meaning of their RAP, to make risky and brave choices to advance reconciliation – thinking long-term benefit rather than short-term loss.

It means taking on issues, entrenched practices – and sometimes superiors – to reinforce the commitment to reconciliation.

It’s important to remember that RAPs are not the sole solution to 230 years of colonisation.

Rather, they are an accessible and robust framework for organisations to commit to respectful relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and a useful starting point for organisations to embark on and measure their contributions to a more just, equitable and reconciled country.

• Karen Mundine is the CEO of Reconciliation Australia

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