Opinion article

The Voice as a catalyst for change – increasing cultural awareness in corporate Australia

None of us can control the outcome of the referendum. What we can control is a commitment to seize the opportunity before us. We can create a legacy from the Voice, regardless of outcome, that mobilises our increased collective understanding to reset our approach to First Nations engagement, writes Topaz McAuliffe.

The upcoming referendum on a First Nations Voice to Parliament and constitutional recognition represents more than a critical milestone on Australia’s reconciliation journey. It presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset the country’s relationship with its First Peoples.  

The inequity experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is well known. Much of this stems from the absence of First Nations voices in government policy and law-making processes. In simple terms, the Voice to Parliament is a means to reduce this inequality by providing First Nations peoples with a say on policies and laws that affect our communities.

Early impacts of the Voice 

A positive by-product of the debate around the Voice has been the increased interest from corporate Australia in understanding more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories, knowledges and rights more generally.

Many First Nations business owners, myself included, are receiving weekly requests from the corporate sector wanting to understand more in the lead up to the referendum. Many are publicly backing the Voice and recent surveys conducted by Reuters and The Australian Financial Review confirm that many of Australia’s 30 largest companies endorse the proposal.

We are experiencing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to increase non-Indigenous Australia’s understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but how does this increased awareness become a catalyst for achieving more tangible and meaningful impact with and for First Nations peoples?

Cultural awareness with purpose 

First Nations cultural awareness training has increased considerably across Australian organisations over the last 15 years, predominately on the back of Reconciliation Australia’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) framework, which requires them to commit to delivering cultural awareness throughout their organisations.

Despite a significant increase in the number of organisations with a RAP (up from eight in 2008 to more than 1400 today), First Nations people in Australia still experience significant disadvantage across a range of social and economic indicators.

The reasons for Australia’s inability to “close the gaps” between First Nations people and the rest of the Australian population are varied and complex. However, one area that will lead to improved outcomes – which we can capitalise on in the lead up to the referendum – is the concept of cultural awareness with purpose.

For cultural awareness to be most effective, it needs to go beyond a one-off training session. The training must be tailored to an organisation’s core business and needs. It needs to provide participants with a solid background on First Nations cultures, histories and knowledges while also equipping them with the tools to apply these lessons in their workplace and their industry.

Effective cultural awareness provides recruitment teams with the skills to increase employment opportunities for First Nations candidates and help managers of First Nations employees create more safe, welcoming and inclusive environments. Effective cultural awareness training upskills procurement specialists and cost centre owners to increase meaningful engagement with First Nations businesses. Effective cultural awareness helps corporate affairs practitioners to create more equitable partnerships with First Nations community organisations.

As a nation we need to move from measuring the outputs of cultural awareness (i.e. how many participants have completed training) to measuring outcomes (i.e. how have participants applied the learning to increase tangible impact for First Nations peoples).

The legacy of the Voice

The urgency that the Voice has placed on organisations seeking to better understand issues relating to First Nations peoples presents a significant opportunity for First Nations engagement in Australia, regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

It is the perfect opportunity for Australian businesses and organisations to reflect on their past First Nations engagement and explore ways to reset their approach to achieve meaningful and tangible outcomes.

Organisations can use the Voice as a catalyst to go further than just public statements and generic cultural awareness. It must become a springboard from which we supercharge First Nations employment, supplier diversity and meaningful First Nations community partnerships to help close social and economic gaps.

We can’t waste this opportunity

None of us can control the outcome of the referendum. What we can control is a commitment to seize the opportunity before us. We can create a legacy from the Voice, regardless of outcome, that mobilises our increased collective understanding to reset our approach to First Nations engagement.  

In the lead up to the referendum I encourage all organisations to not only educate themselves about the Voice and First Nations cultures, but to ask themselves whether their own First Nations engagement activity is making a tangible, meaningful and sustainable impact with and for First Nations peoples.  

When history looks back on this moment, what do we want it to look like?

About the authors

Topaz McAuliffe

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Topaz was Indigenous Business Development Manager at Coles where she created and implemented their award-winning Indigenous affairs program, driving employment, supplier and customer strategies. She now leads 15 Times Better (15xB), a 100 percent Indigenous-female owned and led business that specialises in First Nations strategy and program development, evaluation and execution. 15xB exists ‘to empower every organisation in Australia to make their greatest contribution to Indigenous engagement’.