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Podcast – The path to true reconciliation with Rhys Collins of Melbourne Water

In the inaugural episode of the Accelerating Action podcast, Rhys Collins, Traditional Owner Relationships Manager with Melbourne Water sits down with the Australian Water Association to discuss National Reconciliation Week, engagement with First Nations communities and his workshop at Ozwater’24.

This week May 27 – June 3 marks National Reconciliation Week, an important time for all Australians to tackle the unfinished business of reconciliation. Supporters must stand up to defend and uphold the rights of First Nations people. The work continues with many water utilities looking to make a difference with their Reconciliation Action Plan, but this is just the beginning.

Listen below!

“It’s a great role that I get to play at Melbourne Water, we’ve got a great team that encompasses work on Reconciliation Action Plans and soon to be around the procurement of Aboriginal businesses and supporting and employing Aboriginal people.” Rhys said.

“Melbourne Water has encouraged a culturally safe workplace and while yes, there’s a huge emphasis on cultural awareness training, we’re also making sure our buildings are culturally safe places where [indigenous] artwork is prominent and language use is common.”

Reconciliation and Partnerships are the two core parts of the team at Melbourne Water.

The Traditional Owners Workshop

One of the highlights of Ozwater’24 was the Traditional Owners Workshop, held on the last day to explore stories and impacts the ‘Water is Life: Traditional Owner Access to Water Roadmap’ policy has had on Traditional Owners in recent times with speakers including Birrarung Council members Wurundjeri Elder Uncle Andrew Gardiner and Erin O’Donnell from Melbourne University, water officers from Wadawurrung and Djaara including staff from Melbourne Water and DEECA.

“To be honest, I think the design of the program for Ozwater needs to really go with the movement where traditional owners are really becoming more Central to planning and decision-making around water” Rhys said.

“I'd like to see a whole day set aside in one stream at least for traditional owner participation”.

One limitation to the workshop happened to be the timing of the workshop itself.

“We're the last workshop on the last day and it's always hard to draw an audience at the end when people are getting pretty fatigued and thinking more about going home than participating so if we're going to put a focus on traditional owner considerations and commitment to a conference, it would be good to have it in in a core part of the program” Rhys said.

Reception to the workshop

Despite the late time frame, reception was overwhelmingly positive for the workshop with attendees remaining passionate and committed.

I think [the workshop] was helped by the great talk that was on the Tuesday from Dr. Kirsten Shelly from the Victorian Government talking about the Water is Life strategy. That led in well to having that discussion followed up with a workshop which I think is a good structure because people raise questions in their minds when they hear a talk and when they came to our workshop later in the conference, they talk about those things with the people present, it’s a great structure”, Rhys said.

True engagement with first Nations people

Reconciliation Action Plans and workshops are just the beginning for many businesses, organisaitons and people looking to build reconciliation.

“Your relationship is the key and it can't be based on one individual, it needs to be an organisational approach so that if someone leaves your business that has the relationship [to First Nations people] you've got others there that are familiar with what you've been doing with that Community but over time, I think it's just about developing trust, doing what you say you'll do and committing to it” Rhys said.

“Over time just as that relationship builds, the engagement is easier because you know each other and I think a lot of relationships are in there infancy or staff leave and then others are too nervous to follow up on it, so being consistent, being familiar, doing what you say you'll do will help. It’s also important to know you're engaging with the right people and that could be critical to some communities.

Interested in learning more about reconciliation? Join our National Reconciliation Week Webinar this Friday 31 May from 12pm – 1pm AEST co-hosted by the AWA and the Water Services Association of Australia.

Find out more and register

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Catch up on previous podcast episodes.