When is it time to act? Reconciliation actions businesses should consider

Indigenous Affairs, Politics, Reconciliation

Staff Writer 25 Jan 2023
3 mins

The release of a report earlier this month by the US-based Human Rights Watch highlighted again the over-representation of Indigenous Australians in our prisons and youth detention centres.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up almost 30 per cent of the population in those facilities while making up less than three per cent of the population.

The story led an ABC radio news bulletin and received some online news headlines for a day or two.

It took me back 30 years to the tabling of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report in the Australian Parliament, which I covered as a young political reporter, with the naïve expectation the scathing report would result in immediate action.

Fast forward to 2016, when ABC’s Four Corners broke the story about human rights abuses at Don Dale Detention Centre in the Northern Territory – where young Aboriginal boys were subjected to tear gas and physical abuse.

And then last year, six years on, I read a National Indigenous Times story about a massive increase in incarceration rates at Don Dale and an increasing incidence of self-harm.

According to that report, the acting NT children’s commissioner wrote to the Territory Chief Minister to raise “grave concerns” about a 200 per cent increase in children in detention in two years and a 400 per cent rise in cases of self-harm in one year at Don Dale.

Cross the country to Western Australia and Banksia Hill Detention Centre is in the news for alleged abuse of detainees and an increase in self-harm incidents, including those detainees moved to special unit 18 at the adult maximum security prison Casuarina.

According to former Children’s Court president Denis Reynolds and Neil Morgan, former custodial services inspector, in an opinion piece in The West Australian, “Banksia Hill and Casuarina are places of constant human rights abuses of children with disability and pre-existing trauma.”

Do we need to wait for political action?

There is no doubt the issues at play here are complex, but there is a different way of doing things and some of these alternative models have been proven in the past to work.

But change has not occurred at a systemic level. While we wait for governments to act, there are actions we can take at an individual level to support reconciliation and close the gap.

Emma Garlett, a successful Aboriginal lawyer, columnist for The West Australian and host of the YouTube series Paint it Blak, says inaction around the criminal justice system is deplorable.

She says it is common for Aboriginal children to see a relative in handcuffs at a family members funeral.

“Some of my earliest memories is of giving family members a hug at a funeral while they are handcuffed to a prison officer,” Ms Garlett says.

“It is not a normal occurrence for much of society, but for Aboriginal people, unfortunately it is many of our stories.

“I know there is an argument that some of the kids are in there for serious crimes but instead of reacting the same way, we need to look at what is going on behind the scenes and address those issues.”

But what can an individual or a business do about the criminal justice system?

Sadly, not a lot, but the business sector has led the way on many ESG initiatives, for example around decarbonisation, forcing governments to follow suit.

Business leads the way in social value

Business is also leading the way on important social and diversity issues. Recent articles in the media have highlighted how big business are allowing their staff not to celebrate Australia Day if they have concerns – they can take the public holiday leave on another day.

This is while governments wring their collective hands in anguish about the issue.

Purple is proud to be a trailblazer on the recognition of the concerns of First Nations people around Australia Day, giving its 40-plus employees the option to have January 26 off or work and receive a day of annual leave in lieu in 2021, well before big business captured media attention for similar initiatives.

Purple also has important partnerships with the Noongar Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Reconciliation WA. That’s because we are committed to taking action to make a difference where we can improve life in Australia for many of its Indigenous people.

We collaborate with both organisations to support WA businesses to develop their own Reconciliation Action plans, and more than that, to commit to taking real action.

What else can business do? Reconciliation in action

Ms Garlett details a few actions that businesses can take to support Aboriginal people.

“They can integrate social value and human rights initiatives and metrics into business as usual practices, create and implement a RAP and resource it adequately and conduct pro bono work to advance Indigenous affairs and combat issues faced by Indigenous people,” she said.

And it is also not solely the responsibility of corporate Australia, individuals can also make a difference.

Reach out to your local Aboriginal community and find out what support they need and whether it is something you could provide.

Or Ms Garlett says educate yourself about Australia’s history relating to its First Nations people through books, film, education at Indigenous centres at universities and through free resources online.

Through knowledge of our shared history, we are better positioned to make a real difference.