tape over crack on wall

These are the words of Burchell Hayes, a director of the PKKP corporation and a descendant of Tommy Ashburton, who was also known as Juukan, after whom Juukan Gorge was named, to the parliamentary inquiry into Rio’s destruction of the 46,000-year-old caves at the gorge.

It is now more than a year since Rio Tinto blasted the heritage sites, which included two rock shelters of great cultural significance, causing a national outcry. The incident inspired this year’s NAIDOC Week theme — Heal Country! — which calls for greater protections of First Nations lands, waters, sacred sites and cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction, according to the NAIDOC website. As part of the theme, NAIDOC is asking Australians to embrace First Nations cultural knowledge and understanding of Country, which is about more than place. Country is inherent to the identity of First Nations peoples.

The governance community can learn from the First Nations concept of Country. Hayes’ testimony to the parliamentary inquiry reflects a notion of long-term custodianship. Connection to Country comes with obligations. Traditional owners emphasise they are not averse to development on their land, especially when it empowers their communities, but it cannot come at the expense of long-term preservation. This long-term view has enriched Australia and is a powerful reason why organisations should listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders. An organisation that prioritises short-term outcomes can jeopardise its sustainability. Boards are custodians too, acting in good faith in the best interests of their organisation, not compromised by short-term interests when long-term vision is required.

While the approach will differ by organisation, in preparing our guide Elevating Stakeholder Voices to the Board, released earlier this year, we consulted groups that represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to draw out general principles. They emphasised four points when engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities impacted by your organisation:

  • Boards should ensure an organisation fosters genuine, ongoing connections with First Nations peoples, mindful of the historical actions of their organisation and broader injustices suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
  • Where possible, the board should engage with leaders “on Country” and minders should be left behind.
  • Boards should be ready for raw, direct feedback.
  • Organisations should have regard to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which calls for free, prior and informed consent.

Formalising commitments through a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) can help embed this engagement in an organisation’s governance framework, along with the other steps an organisation can take to contribute to greater equity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

While these formal steps to engage First Nations stakeholders and commit to reconciliation are fundamental, they are not sufficient. The type of cultural change NAIDOC is calling for will be incomplete without organisations becoming more inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. As Ian Hamm MAICD, a Yorta Yorta man, who chairs the First Nations Foundation, pointed out in these pages in July last year, representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on boards and in senior leadership positions is sorely lacking. The AICD does not hold itself out as an exception. As an organisation, we need to do more to be inclusive and to represent our First Nations members — and we are working on this.

The AICD is building on its first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), which it launched in 2017. In that RAP, we focused on supporting First Nations leadership and governance in keeping with the AICD vision and mission. We updated our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Governance Program and curriculum. We built relationships with many First Nations directors and organisations, and we told their stories through this magazine and other channels.

It has been a learning experience and we still have considerably more work ahead. We are recruiting an Indigenous sector lead, who will guide our engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and we have begun to prepare our second RAP.

Meanwhile, we are continuing work to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander directors and leaders. In February, we launched our Indigenous Leaders Scholarship Program. We also continue to work with Perpetual on broadening access to governance education for leaders of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations.

The AICD vision is to strengthen society through world-class governance, which includes taking up the learnings from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures that have sustained society on Country for more than 60,000 years. To achieve this ambition will require the full inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands peoples.

AICD governance review

Last month, we commenced an information and feedback process to update the AICD’s Constitution. We are seeking to modernise our Constitution so it is fit for purpose as the foundational document of a not-for-profit organisation aimed at raising governance standards through education and strengthening society through world-class governance.

Notably, under the proposed Constitution:

  • the AICD’s Charitable Purpose of “advancing education” is clearer;
  • members’ existing rights are preserved;
  • the requirement to hold an annual general meeting (AGM) has been included to ensure effective engagement with members; and
  • the eligibility criteria to be a director of the AICD have been strengthened.

If you have not yet had a chance to provide feedback on the new Constitution, there is still some time to do so. You can find more information at aicd.com.au/governancereview Your feedback will be considered in finalising the proposed Constitution that will be presented at the AGM on 17 November 2021 for adoption.