Magazine article

Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs) are increasingly being used as a strategic framework for the actions organisations are taking to contribute to the reconciliation process with Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Reconciliation Australia, which administers the RAP program, has a vision for the majority of ASX 200 businesses to produce a RAP. It also encourages large private businesses, multinationals and local governments to follow suit.

RAPs are documents that set out how an organisation will build relationships with and opportunities for Indigenous people with the business. They deal with the progress businesses have made in terms of procurement from and employment, retention and cultural awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. According to the 2015 RAP Impact Measurement Report, 658 Australian organisations have produced a RAP since 2006. This has led to a $77.7 million investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education scholarships. Additionally, $32.6 million in goods and services were bought from Indigenous businesses in the 2014–15 financial year through the RAP program.

As Chris Schulz, a partner with law firm Allens and a member of its national RAP committee says: “If you’re a director of an organisation that doesn’t have a RAP you need to ask why. This is an issue that has been important for many years. It’s all the more important now as a community and business issue. It’s essential for every organisation to make an appropriate contribution to reconciliation.”

Karen Mundine is the deputy chief executive officer (CEO) of Reconciliation Australia. Her advice for businesses setting out on their RAP path is to ensure it aligns with their strategic plan.

“Part of the business of every organisation is how it engages and makes a difference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples so they are respected and have the same life opportunities as other Australians. All of that is about contributing to a more prosperous nation,” she explains.

There are four different types of RAP, which reflect an organisation’s level of sophistication and maturity around reconciliation. These are: Reflect, Innovate, Stretch and Elevate. Many businesses start with the Reflect RAP. At this point they consider where their relationships might lie, what they can practically do to make a difference and the actions that might shape their RAP.

Once relationships are mapped, businesses can move to an Innovate RAP and pilot and test programs. These might be around employment, procurement or engagement with an Indigenous organisation that works in the same industry.

Organisations implementing a Stretch RAP set hard, public targets. An Elevate RAP is for organisations with a successful RAP history and which have the capacity and inclination to push stretched targets and to think beyond their organisation and its impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Says Mundine: “It’s not just about what you can do within your organisation, it’s how you affect change outside that, through influence, engagement, innovative programs and new policies.”

She notes that while Reconciliation Australia was once the sole expert on the subject, many businesses that have implemented an Elevate RAP have very high levels of knowledge about the importance of engaging with the reconciliation process.

“It’s really nice to be able to partner with them, to help grow and improve the program as a whole, so it’s not just us leading the charge. We have 17 Elevate partners now, who have expertise in specific areas and they’re interested and willing to share that knowledge and information with the rest of the program,” Mundine says.

“At the board level, this is a really practical and tangible way for them to shape their companies and in turn, have an impact on national identity but also the prosperity of the nation through the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” she adds.

Case study: BHP Billiton: a worldwide approach

BHP Billiton has developed four RAPs since 2008. James Ensor, executive officer of the BHP Billiton Foundation, explains that in 2015 the business developed a global Indigenous strategy for the company, which has recently been released.

“Given our unique footprint we want to have a consistent approach to our engagement with Indigenous people, irrespective of where we work around the world and to benchmark that approach against global standards. Our aim is to be the partner of choice for Indigenous people and for this relationship to contribute to their economic empowerment, social development needs and cultural wellbeing,” he explains.

Governance is one of the four elements of BHP Billiton’s Indigenous people strategy. This ensures Indigenous people derive significant sustainable benefits from its operations through its governance and management of land access, the way it negotiates native title agreements in Australia and how the benefits of those agreements are shared.

BHP Billiton is now developing its fifth reconciliation action plan. “What we’re seeking to do is to align the RAP with our strategy. This will drive the RAP right into the core of the company. It sets out how we make agreements with Indigenous people, distribute benefits and enable economic empowerment. It also considers our supply chains and the number of Indigenous people we support through training and vocational development,” Ensor says.

“If you look at our global footprint, almost every land-based operation we have is either on or adjacent to Indigenous peoples’ lands. This is an enormous responsibility and opportunity for us to respect the rights of Indigenous people and engage with them to contribute to their needs, priorities and aspirations,” he adds.

Ensor’s advice for boards considering a RAP is to start by looking at the nature of the business and how it can maximise its contribution to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, whether through a RAP or other initiatives.

“Companies in different sectors have different opportunities to contribute. Businesses in the banking and finance sector can expect very different outcomes in terms of what a RAP looks like relative to a company in the resources sector. The commonality is that every business needs to think about how to integrate the RAP into day-to-day operations so it’s in no way seen as a semi-philanthropic adjunct. It’s important to approach it in a way that supports Indigenous people and provides appropriate business benefits as well,” he explains.

Case study: CBA: focused on Indigenous employment

The Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) was another early adopter of the RAP program and published its first report in 2008. It is working with an Elevate RAP.

“Many of our customers are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, so it just made good sense for us to do a RAP. In 2008 there was a lot for us to learn, and having a strategic framework like a RAP helped us to have a better understanding of how we go about providing quality service to Indigenous customers,” says executive manager of Indigenous affairs, Sharona Torrens.

“Now we have a much broader focus, especially around employment. We have a target to reach three per cent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment by December 2026. To achieve that we are investing in traineeships and working closely with Indigenous leaders to provide Indigenous people with a broad range of career opportunities,” she adds.

Like BHP Billiton, CBA appreciates that RAPs need to be embedded into business-as-usual activities. Its RAP feeds into its corporate responsibility plan and provides a roadmap for reconciliation actions the business needs to take.

“It underscores a common narrative, so everyone knows the direction we’re heading in, from the board and CEO down,” Torrens explains.

As a result, a number of Indigenous initiatives have been embedded into the business. For instance, the Indigenous business program sits within the business bank. CBA is also doing substantial work developing cultural capabilities within the business. “This is the foundation of being able to achieve our goals appropriately and respectfully,” she explains.

Case study: Lendlease: RAP drove Barangaroo development

Lendlease implemented its first RAP in 2010–11. It has a history of engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the reconciliation movement that goes back to the 1990s. The RAP is an opportunity to formalise that engagement and commitment to reconciliation. Lendlease launched its second RAP, an Elevate RAP, in June 2016.

Steve McCann, Lendlease group CEO and managing director, explains the business’s vision is “to create the best places.” He continues,“In working to achieve that we must learn, with deep respect, from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and recognise and value the fundamental place their culture, knowledge and history have in making Australia the best and most equitable place it can be for all Australians,” he says.

The Lendlease board oversees the RAP through the sustainability committee. Board members have been engaging with and supporting Indigenous organisations and communities for many years. They take an active interest in the business’s partnerships with Indigenous organisations, in the work it is doing to increase procurement from Indigenous-owned businesses and in developing an Indigenous recruitment and retention strategy.

Lendlease has a RAP advisory panel with equal numbers of Indigenous and non-Indigenous members, who are both Lendlease employees and external stakeholders. It guides the RAP’s development and monitors its progress.

The RAP was also part of Barangaroo’s development. It shepherded engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and the Sydney Metropolitan and La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Councils and local Gadigal Elders. The RAP was central to the way Barangaroo evolved culturally and as an employer of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For instance, Indigenous heritage and culture can be seen in the design of Barangaroo Headland Park and in the public art around the Barangaroo South commercial precinct.

In addition, most tenants at Barangaroo International Towers have RAPs and these businesses have collaborated with Lendlease to explore what can be achieved in terms Indigenous employment and supporting the growth of the Indigenous business sector. The business acknowledges it has a big opportunity to build greater Indigenous cultural awareness and competence in the Barangaroo precinct.

Case study: Creating Australia – cultural focus

Michelle Broun is now the manager of Indigenous community stories for FTI, a not-for-profit (NFP) organisation that supports the Western Australian screen sector. Previously, she was heavily involved in developing Creating Australia’s (CA) RAP. CA promotes community arts and cultural development and is now known as the Cultural Development Network following a merger earlier this year.

She explains the CA board determined the motivation and principles behind their RAP and what it hoped to achieve.

“We established it was best practice for our organisation to have a RAP and a way to re-affirm CA’s values. It guides activities and relationships, including partnerships, and aims to achieve a positive outcome for all, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” says Broun.

It also informed decisions around an event this year at Parliament House in Canberra, The Rights of Culture - a conversation about Indigenous freedoms.

The development of the RAP was a 12-month process. The CA chair researched the process, and appointed a working party to develop the RAP. The working party comprised four board members, including Broun.

“It took around 12 months for this process to be completed, with a number of drafts going back to Reconciliation Australia before it was fully endorsed,” says Broun.

Her advice for directors when doing a RAP is to be prepared to do a lot of work.

“There needs to be a strong commitment. A RAP is an asset, but it does need to be resourced. It also needs to be reported on annually to ensure its effectiveness. So a good understanding of the benefits of a RAP and a strong commitment to developing, delivering and resourcing a RAP is essential,” she adds.

Case study: Allens: multifaceted approach to indigenous engagement

Allens was one of the first top tier law firms to publish a RAP in 2009. It produced its fourth RAP in 2015 and is working on its next one.

Jodie Symes, who is part of Allens’ community engagement team, says the first RAP brought together and expanded on a number of programs that were already in place at the firm that contributed to Indigenous communities and organisations.

“Our RAP is built on five pillars, which are areas where we think we can make the best impact. These include pro bono work, building the cultural awareness of staff and our community, creating employment opportunities, building commercial relationships with Indigenous businesses and being a leader on reconciliation in our profession,” she explains.

At a high level, the plan demonstrates the firm’s commitment to reconciliation, as well as individual activities. For instance Allens contributes to Jawun, an organisation that partners corporate and government entities with Indigenous communities through staff secondments.

“We send people to North East Arnhem Land, Redfern, Shepparton and the West Kimberley to share their skills and assist in building the capacity of organisations in those communities. It’s a way of contributing to the development of those communities, but it’s also a great opportunity to grow the cultural capabilities of our people, and allows them to be a real part of the firm’s broader commitment to community engagement,” says Symes.

Schulz explains it’s up to individual staff members whether they wish to contribute to the RAP.

“Some are very heavily involved, there’s a group of us who have been working on constitutional recognition of Indigenous people. There are others who do pro bono work. Many partners have been to remote Australia on trips run by Jawun. It’s not something everyone gets involved in, but we have a strong structure that ensures we are progressing our RAP and that it has buy-in from our partners,” he adds.