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Making reconciliation action meaningful

The theme of this year’s National Reconciliation Week is ‘More than a word, reconciliation takes action’, and one leading water professional says that while reconciliation certainly requires action, it must be meaningful and impactful.

SA Water Strategy, Engagement and Innovation General Manager Anna Jackson said water utilities are uniquely positioned to influence meaningful reconciliation actions that have a big impact by supporting Aboriginal communities.

“When I first started on the last SA Water Reconciliation Action Plan [RAP], I felt that we needed to pivot more towards what I would call meaningful action. There's a place for highly visible activity or symbolism, absolutely,” Jackson said.

“But, underpinning that, there needs to be very substantive actions that will shift people's lives. We need to marry up cultural visibility with Aboriginal employment and retention. We need to match it up with procurement guidelines.

“We spend a lot of capital dollars in South Australia. We have influence in terms of the contractors we choose to work with. This influence is incredibly important; we want to do work with contractors that take Aboriginal employment and retention seriously too.”

Jackson said the reconciliation journey is something SA Water is very sincere about, which is why the utility includes Aboriginal procurement terms within contracting arrangements.

“We put it in our contracts because we’re serious about it, which places expectations around reconciliation on other organisations,” Jackson said.

“I'm really impressed with the response we're getting from the contracting world. Everyone understands that it’s not a one-way street. It takes all of us.”

Stretching reconciliation

SA Water is now one year into its second stretch RAP, which is a RAP designed to push the utility’s reconciliation capabilities beyond the initial RAP.

“One of the main differences with this RAP is the level of consultation we did with Aboriginal communities, our key stakeholders and our own people to get buy-in for the RAP and its actions,” Jackson said.

“This reflects the maturity of our journey. The relationships get deeper, which allows for a deeper level of engagement. Our RAP is now referenced in our business strategy as well. We launched the new business strategy in October. Getting that high-level strategic direction is an important step.”

SA Water’s current RAP has four focus areas: respecting cultural and social recognition; community relationships; economic opportunities and improving life and liveability; and good governance and reporting.

Jackson said the current RAP includes both an outward and inward focus in terms of working towards reconciliation: “You need both”.

“From an inward point of view, there are some key ingredients, including increasing knowledge and awareness of Aboriginal cultures,” Jackson said.

“There's a lot of land that we are working on that has native title. And there are a lot of Aboriginal communities. Understanding that history, those cultures, that connection to Country, is incredibly important. We need our non-Indigenous staff to understand that land, that background, that culture.”

Moving forward

Jackson said two important initiatives that have helped SA Water develop further in their reconciliation journey are its move towards shared accountability and dedicated resources.

“How we take responsibility for things in the business is also very important. This is about good governance. We have a RAP committee that's made up of people from across the business,” Jackson said.

“Every general manager in this business, and there are six of us, knows that they have things to do as part of this RAP. Buy-in is really important and it's really visible. I'm ultimately responsible for the delivery of the RAP; however, we share that responsibility.

“This helps remind people that we actually have a shared accountability. If you have your RAP sitting in one team and the actions are all against one executive, you're missing the opportunity for everybody to understand how their day-to-day work can contribute to reconciliation.”

Jackson said dedicating resources towards advancing the RAP and supporting Aboriginal staff is not to be overlooked and encourages all water utilities to do it.

“The full-time job of one of our Aboriginal staff members is to support other Aboriginal staff members. He supports their professional journey, but also in their experiences. There can be cultural misunderstandings. This is a really helpful role to include in terms of meeting those misunderstandings. If you can do it, absolutely do that,” Jackson said.

“Reconciliation action cannot just be done when it's convenient for the business. There must be a constant dedication to facing controversial and difficult issues. Don’t shy away from it. Sit with it. Work through it. Dedicate to reconciliation.”