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Creating conversations, healing Country

As one of the oldest water sector companies in Australia, GHD has been focusing on taking a leadership role in Reconciliation. And, with NAIDOC Week around the corner, two of its specialists say building a platform for conversation is crucial for leaning into learning.

The theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week is "Heal Country" and Andrew Olsen, GHD Indigenous Engagement Leader and proud Dunghutti and Anaiwan man from the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales, said that this theme can mean many different things to many different people.

“The theme is typically a very personal issue, but I think every one of us in the industry has a role to play in reconciliation,” he said.

“For example, it could be talking about healing and the role it plays in reconciliation by uniting our shared histories together; or healing the environment and the work that we need to do there.

“As an organisation, GHD encourages and supports our people to get involved. We aim to create greater awareness of our shared history and how we can create lasting community benefits for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

Olsen said connection to Country is fundamental to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and as such, acknowledging this is a critical step in the journey towards healing Country.

“When we talk about Country, it's not just physical land; it's a large part of our identity, as well. That connection is extremely important and needs to be understood. It's water, it's land, it's animals, it's food: it's everything,” he said.

Leading the way

Lindsey Brown, GHD’s Water Market Leader, Victoria, said that, in terms of reconciliation in the water sector, GHD’s role has been about creating a platform for conversation, one which is accessible for all water businesses.

“In terms of the role we play, our long association with the water sector adds to our deep sense of responsibility for leadership. We're really trying to elevate Aboriginal voices to create more access and opportunity in a range of ways,” she said.

“At Ozwater’21, we hosted a forum called Walking in Two Worlds, which was about promoting cultural safety for Indigenous people in the water sector. We brought Indigenous leaders from across Australia to talk about their experiences.

“Our aim is to use our capability to respond to the interest that our clients have in seeing progress and understanding it better, and to promote Indigenous knowledge.”

GHD is currently in the process of developing its third Reconciliation Action Plan. Giving the company invaluable insight into the varying elements involved in successful action.

“We have a unique position in the sector and an ability to provide a platform for the conversation around reconciliation and building cultural safety, as well as thinking about challenges such as Indigenous employment retention, and the benefits water businesses can get from that,” Olsen said.

Recruitment and retention

Olsen said when it comes to recruitment and retention, more than hiring people, it’s also important to ensure an appropriate level of cultural safety for employees.

“Cultural safety is about making sure that Indigenous employees are properly supported in a range of different ways. It’s about having a duty of care for their wellbeing and making sure non-Indigenous employees are culturally aware and sensitive,” he said.

“For example, at GHD we offer face-to-face cultural awareness training for our people, including a new online program which aims to build a deeper level of cultural intelligence.

“But we also focus on ensuring our Indigenous employees are supported by leaders within our business, leaders who are able to provide cultural guidance. When we talk about cultural safety, it's a holistic view of safety, be that physical or mental, emotional, or spiritual wellbeing.”

Sustainable procurement

As part of this, sustainable procurement is an important part of reconciliation within the water sector, Brown said.

“We're evolving as an industry to understand that we have a broader influence in driving outcomes in addition to providing water and wastewater services. Our sector spends a lot of money, billions of dollars in the economy every year. Where that money gets directed can help drive social outcomes,” she said.

“Sustainable procurement is something that's increasingly important. For example, we're seeing it come up more and more in terms of expectations in tender responses. It's become a real norm in the industry now, which is great.”

Olsen said it’s widely accepted that ethical social procurement has a big impact on Indigenous businesses. For example, Supply Nation has released data confirming that every $1 spent has a $4.41 social return on investment.

“Pleasingly the Indigenous economy is growing, and fast. And in terms of what the water sector could contribute as a whole, we estimate that to be in the order of a billion dollars annually. That's pretty powerful in terms of the ability that we have as an industry to help through social change,” he said.

“The other important point is that sustainable procurement is about long-term relationships, it’s not transactional. We often see companies viewing engagement with Indigenous businesses or communities as a one-off transaction. But for procurement to be sustainable, it needs to be viewed as a trusted long-term relationship.”

Recently GHD published Sustainable Procurement in the Water Sector, a white paper focused on sharing insights from leading water experts on how to foster positive change.

Brown is co-author of the paper, and said the document aims to create a platform for learning and establish a deeper conversation around how to take sustainable procurement further.

“The question we began with was: how can we scale this up? Everybody seems to be doing a little bit, but how do we get to that tipping point where we're seeing it become coordinated and pervasive?” she said.

“We invited leaders from a range of water corporations to participate in different webinars, each with a different lens on sustainable procurement. We explored a range of issues relating to procurement and the white paper was the product of that process.

“The paper discusses sustainable procurement in the water sector, in a range of ways, one of which is through increasing Indigenous procurement. I believe it illustrates the water industry’s potential in this space. Even though GHD doesn’t sell social procurement services, we know it's a conversation that our clients want to have.

“The paper aims to embrace our leadership role, to create a platform for discussions around how we can make a difference to Indigenous people, but also for Indigenous people to talk to us about what we should be doing, what we should be knowing, and opportunities for truth telling.”

Promoting learning and growth

While GHD is helping lead the water sector towards more substantial and effective reconciliation efforts, the company is also taking action towards supporting Indigenous businesses, having recently reached a significant milestone.

“We have recently been able to confirm that GHD has reached its goal of spending $1 million through Indigenous businesses in [financial year] 20-21,” Brown said.

“That's an achievement we are very proud of. While there’s always more we can do, we feel we're making an impact, and we're trying to help others to follow and really scale this up.”

Olsen agrees: “If we can raise the bar collectively as an industry, I think that we can empower so many others to do the same”.