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Learning from First Nations engagement in the energy sector

As the water sector continues on the reconciliation journey, there are plenty of learnings to be gained from the energy sector when it comes to First Nations engagement and partnership – particularly as both sectors work through the energy transition.

Earlier this month, the Water Services Association of Australia and the Energy Charter facilitated a Community of Practice webinar on First Nations engagement in energy and water, offering the opportunity to share experience and learnings across sectors.

Co-hosted by TasNetworks Aboriginal Community Engagement Advisor Graeme Gardner and Yarra Valley Water Aboriginal Partnerships Manager Nina Braid, participants heard from Queensland’s CS Energy Indigenous Engagement Adviser and Waka Waka man Neville Hoehne and South Australia’s SA Power Networks Stakeholder Engagement Manager Alex Lewis.

Joining CS Energy 18 months ago, Hoehne shared his experience of coming on board as Indigenous Engagement Adviser and the work he’s been doing connecting with the community to identify First Nations business partnership opportunities.

“My work is about how we can start to build the capability to procure the services of Indigenous businesses in a way that has a good impact for the communities where we work,” Hoehne said.

“Another part of my work as Indigenous Engagement Advisor is to start to build a pathway for Indigenous and First Nations people to be represented more at CS Energy. We have already some great First Nations employees, but it's now about enhancing and building on that.”

Discussing SA Power Networks’ Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) journey, Lewis said that while the energy provider has a huge scope to make a positive impact, it’s important to ensure what’s being implemented is effective.

“SA Power Networks supplies energy to 1.7 million people, or about 900,000 homes and businesses. We have 2400 employees across dozens of work depots or sites across the state. We have a really large footprint and therefore a really large sphere of influence,” she said.

“Through our RAP journey, we’ve learned about the importance of building a strong foundation, and not trying to take on too much. It’s also crucial to have support from the top; with senior leadership and executive buy-in being crucial if we're to move forward together and build trust.”

Connecting for opportunity

With a corporate office in Brisbane, CS Energy also operates two large power stations in Biloela on Gangalu Country, and Chinchilla on Baruŋgam Country, and Hoehne said the company is undergoing big transformations and opportunities to connect with Indigenous businesses.

“As with all energy companies at the moment, we are going through a big transformation into renewable energy. We’ve started to build assets and engage with other organisations to construct solar and wind facilities. We're also heavily involved with constructing a hydrogen plant and gas peaker power plant,” he said.

CS Energy’s Reflect RAP was recently endorsed by Reconciliation Australia and Hoehne said the process has helped the company identify opportunities to connect more closely with communities and find pathways for engagement with First Nations’ businesses.

“This is a big milestone for CS Energy. Not so long ago, we had an Indigenous consultant do a gaps analysis on the business. This helped CS Energy identify what was being done well and where there were opportunities to do more,” he said.

“We work in rural areas, so we’ve been asking how we can take advantage of that for our people and our Indigenous businesses to get back to the community. Our aim is to create opportunities that benefit the First Nations business, but also their mob.”

In order to connect and engage genuinely, CS Energy got involved with Black Coffee, a grassroots Indigenous company that holds business networking events in regions around Australia each month.

“There's a lot of opportunity for indigenous businesses to take advantage of providing some of the services that work out in the regions. The Black Coffee events have been fantastic for us. They have given us the opportunity to meet those companies and for us to get to know one another,” he said.

“When meeting with new businesses, it can be hard to know how to act on those opportunities. But what’s important is the relationships that you develop. It's about getting familiar with one another, knowing each other. This is so important for our mob.”

Hoehne said the Black Coffee events have also helped CS Energy generate more of a presence within regional communities, as well, and to let local businesses know the company is open to exploring opportunities.

“It was great to see the business starting to become more known to the community. We serve the community, but we don't spend a lot of time there,” he said.

“But through this process we have made a lot of connections, created many opportunities to meet again, get more familiar and share ideas about how we might work together.”

RAP journey

In 2021, SA Power Networks and Enerven committed to developing a RAP as part of their inclusion and diversity plan, and partnered with Reconciliation South Australia.

“In September 2022, we undertook a staff survey to gather insights around reconciliation opportunities. The results have helped shape our understanding of where we are as a business and the opportunities and challenges to guide the development of our RAP,” Lewis said.

“With the help of Reconciliation South Australia, we held a First Nations workshop in June 2023, which was really successful. There was a real sense of empowerment and our First Nations employees who participated felt that they had an opportunity to have their say and help shape the development of our RAP.”

Lewis said that one of the key barriers that was identified through the RAP process was the importance of staff retention, and how it connects closely with providing training and mentoring for First Nations staff, as well as cultural support.

“We have 40 to 45 depots across the state. If you're a First Nation employee, you could be the only First Nations staff member in a depot. We need to make sure there's support in place for our First Nations staff. There is a real need and opportunity to provide cultural awareness training for staff,” she said.

“The need for us to rollout cultural awareness training across the business is identified as a key target in our inclusion and diversity action plan. By 2025, 90% of our staff need to have been trained in cultural awareness.”

While SA Power Networks is moving on opportunities, Lewis said the process has provided plenty of learnings and insights around how to implement changes.

“One of the key lessons for us has been about the importance of ongoing communication with the business and maintaining constant rhythm. We want our communications to avoid oversaturation and stay relevant,” she said.

“Education and raising awareness is fundamental and there are different ways of doing this. We took a step back from our initial idea to roll straight into cultural awareness training and decided to start with depot visits in order to inform the design of our training program.”

While SA Power Networks hasn’t officially launched its RAP yet, the company has revealed the plan’s artwork, which was created by First Nations artist Presten Warren. SA Power Networks worked with Country Arts SA to commission a First Nations artist following an expression of interest process.

“Presten hopes that this piece and what it stands for combined with our first RAP will be embraced by the people of SA Power Networks and can be integrated seamlessly into the workplace culture to create better outcomes and a better future for everyone,” Lewis said.