True reconciliation requires engagement, awareness and action.

29 May 19

Together, we can help to close the numerous gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians writes Community Sector Banking CEO Andrew Cairns.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to live with unacceptable gaps in health, education and living standards. But it doesn’t have to be this way – the Australian community, and in particular the business community and government, hold the power to make a difference.

Take education as an example. The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enrolling in university is rising. But heartbreakingly, having overcome significant socio-economic hurdles to make a start in tertiary education, Indigenous students are twice as likely as their non-Indigenous counterparts to leave during their first year. In doing so, they often close the door to real opportunities for meaningful careers and financial independence.

Among the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students who seriously consider withdrawing from university, financial difficulty is the most commonly reported reason. If ever there was an situation that highlighted the need for sustainable action to make a tangible difference to our First People’s lives, this is it. It’s not good enough for us to see one statistic – enrolments at university, for example – and think “job done”. The situation is far more complex.

Both small and large organisations can take a positive role by supporting Indigenous students during their education and their transition into work. This may happen directly, through initiatives such as offering scholarships, employment or paid internships – or it could extend as far as procuring goods and services from Indigenous enterprises and other businesses that are building the number and capacity of Indigenous employees.

Strong relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians are the cornerstone of reconciliation. Businesses that are leading the way are taking an inclusive approach and are consulting with existing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees to develop and implement Indigenous employment and retention strategies. They are working every day to enact change.

True reconciliation requires engagement, awareness and action. Respect and understanding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, histories and cultures are key to making a positive impact.

Increasing the cultural awareness of individuals, businesses and organisations through formal training helps to promote equality, creates recognition of past injustices and paves the way to embedding meaningful actions across business practices.

At Community Sector Banking we have had a formal Reconciliation Action Plan since 2015. One of our initiatives is to offer scholarships to young Indigenous people studying at university or TAFE, including students who are working in an apprenticeship or traineeship. Aimed at helping to lower the number of students withdrawing from study due to financial difficulty, the scholarships provide support for course fees, accommodation expenses and textbooks.

Last year we were overwhelmed with the high quality applications and are now proud to have expanded the number of scholarships to nine. We look forward to seeing the young scholars complete their studies and excel in their careers.

There are a range of strategies that can help to narrow and one day close the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Australia needs a long-term commitment and investment from government, private enterprise and our broader society to address the gaps. There will be no quick fix. Achieving equality will require an intergenerational approach that provides greater employment and education opportunities for Indigenous Australians. It will need less talking from government and businesses and more investing.

We need to empower individuals and communities by providing financial literacy training and we need to ensure no Indigenous person is being held back by conscious or unconscious bias. This can be achieved through comprehensive education and support for employers and through formal initiatives such as Reconciliation Action Plans that help organisations shine a light on their inclusion of Indigenous Australians.  

There have been positive steps forward. At the end of last year, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to a genuine partnership with Australia’s First Peoples on the refreshed Closing the Gap strategy. This constructive decision paves the way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to take an integral role in making key decisions that will affect their lives and their communities.

Many people are watching to see how this newly forged partnership will impact Indigenous communities in the long term. Let’s hope that it will, as promised, deliver a community-led, strengths-based strategy that enables Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to move beyond surviving to thriving. We should not just watch and wait, however. We should look to ourselves, our organisations and our communities to see where we also can make an impact. We should also continue to call on governments of all levels to take meaningful and sustainable action. 

This article was originally published in NITV.

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