I’m delighted to be here in Perth today and I’d like to thank Woodside for inviting me here to speak, and particularly Woodside’s CEO and Managing Director Peter Coleman – thank you for your introductory remarks – and members of the Woodside board and executive here with us. Also thanks to Adam Lees, Chair of the Woodside Reconciliation Community who has worked with me in preparing for this event.
Firstly I want to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land and waters of the country we are on today, the Noongar People. And I thank Walter McGuire for welcoming us today to the Noongar nation. I pay my respects to Noongar elders, past and present and also to my own elders from the Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yuin first nations of Australia.
We are here today in National Reconciliation Week to launch Woodside’s third Reconciliation Action Plan. The theme for today’s launch is Our Past, Our Story, Our Future. As we think about this theme we can reflect on the fact that that the Noongar nation is one of the oldest surviving nations of the world – around 45,000 years old in fact. And today it co-exists within our nation state, Australia which was founded in 1901.
The concept of “Our Future” is very much about that co-existence: the co-existence of the nation of Australia – one of the youngest nations in the world – with the first nations of this continent – which are the oldest nations in the world – and how those two worlds can continue to co-exist successfully.
Today I’d like to spend a bit of time talking to you about disruptive thinking. I borrowed this idea from the concept of “disruptive innovation” which was first conceived by Harvard Business School Professor, Clayton Christensen. In his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen described how new technologies and inventions can take hold in established industries and eventually displace the dominant players.
Disruptive innovations typically enter in the bottom of a market, the part that the market leaders have lost interest in or are not paying attention to. The established players have become complacent about the status quo and don’t realise that small players, targeting areas they don't regard as important, can dislodge their prevalence. Today the concept has very much entered the vernacular and barely a day goes by without some politician or business leader talking about disruption or innovation or both.
A few years ago I started using the term disruptive thinking to describe my approach to Indigenous affairs.
It seemed to me that Indigenous policy had become stuck. For 40 years Australian governments – and increasingly the Australian private sector – have been spending billions of dollars to improve the lives of Indigenous people. And after 40 years very little had changed. In some areas things were getting worse. Yet government after government kept doing the same thing and anyone who challenged the status quo would get howled down.
There are all sorts of reasons why people don’t want to challenge the status quo when it comes to Indigenous policy. But it is a very dangerous and damaging situation if people are too scared or hesitant to challenge what they know isn’t working or say what they know is true.
Humans have various allegories warning us of this danger – the Emperor’s New Clothes, the elephant in the room, the frog in the slow boiling water, the sacred cow. The only way to break out of this intellectual trap is to say what no one else will say but everybody knows, to challenge the prevailing wisdom.
In 2005 I spoke at the National Native Title Conference in Coffs Harbour and talked about how Indigenous land can be used as an economic asset. For Indigenous Australians, land has always been important for cultural and religious traditions. But land has also served Indigenous people for thousands of years by providing food and shelter, sustenance and plenty.
So I talked about how we can use our land today to sustain us in new ways – through economic development and through partnerships with resources companies and agriculturalists. I also said that private land ownership should be allowed on Indigenous traditional lands. This was about as disruptive a thought as anyone could possibly come up with in that forum at that time. I was booed and people screamed at me.
Today we have Indigenous leaders all over the country calling for private home ownership on their lands, championed by people like Djambawa Marawili of the Yolngu people in North East Arnhem Land. And government is now progressing towards making it a reality, albeit slowly and bureaucratically. That disruptive thinking is displacing the once prevailing wisdom.
Three years ago I delivered a speech at the Garma Festival in Northern Territory. I began my speech by saying:
“I want to talk to you tonight about the elephant in the room in Indigenous affairs. Actually, it’s not just one. There’s a whole herd of elephants.”
Now you can imagine that had a few people shifting uncomfortably in their seats, particularly when they saw the large wad of paper in front of me that I was about to read from.
I wasn’t booed or screamed at that night. Tony Abbott had earlier that day announced that I would be appointed as Chair of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council if he were to win the election. So perhaps people were being polite and booing on the inside. But I know I ruffled a lot of feathers. And the Twitter reaction was fiery.
The ideas I spoke about in that speech are much less controversial now. They are more widely discussed than before - in some cases championed and supported and in other cases debated and challenged. But the important thing is they’re openly canvassed and talked about. That process of open discussion – even if it is to disagree – is actually the most important and valuable part of disruptive thinking.
The Closing the Gap initiative was introduced by Minister Jenny Macklin under the previous Labor government. It too was an example of disruptive thinking.
In 2008 the Council of Australian Governments agreed to 6 specific and measurable targets to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in key areas with a 7th added in 2014. They targets are to:
close the gap in life expectancy within a generation (by 2031);
halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five by 2018;
95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025.
halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children by 2018;
halve the gap for Indigenous students in Year 12 attainment rates by 2020;
halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and other Australians by 2018; and
close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance within five years (by 2018).
Setting specific targets on key metrics doesn’t sound particularly radical. But it was. And I know from my involvement behind the scenes (as I then was) in the Labor Party that it was not immediately embraced as a policy by many in the party.
Minister Macklin showed a great deal of foresight and courage in bringing in the initiative.
Progress to the Closing the Gap targets are reported each year and the results are usually disappointing. Some targets are on track but most are not.
Some people might be tempted to point at the Closing the Gap policy and say “Well, that was a failure”. But it’s not the targets and the measurement that are failing, it’s the all the other policies that are supposed to be making a difference and are not. The Closing the Gap initiative itself is doing what it is supposed to be doing – telling us whether everything else is working.
The legacy that Minister Macklin left us that was so vitally important is the requirement that every year, every government in Australia has to confront in brutal transparency the fact that nothing is changing. And that, in turn, prompts other changes.
It has, for example, provided the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council - which I Chair - with the evidence-based data to push for changes to Indigenous policy. And one of the main things we have pushed for is the change in focus from welfare-centric policy to economic-centric policy focussed on education, jobs and commerce.
The corporate sector hasn’t been spared from my disruptive thoughts.
Four years ago I published an article in the Australian Financial Review where I called on the private sector to apply the same approach to solving the problem of Indigenous disadvantage as they apply to their own problems.
As we all know, the approach a company takes when it comes to its own problems is to develop a strategy, create a plan identifying exactly what has to be achieved and over what time period, prepare a business case, set up a team to deliver it and constantly monitor progress. Once the outcomes are achieved the team would move on to solving something else.
However, I observed that, when dealing with Indigenous matters, the private sector did not systematically apply the same principles and behaviours that make their own businesses a success.
I also said that - in both the public and private sectors - too many programs and policies designed to fix the problem of Indigenous disadvantage are actually structured as if the problems will never be solved. Instead of allocating fixed funding tied to an outcome, there are ongoing budgets. Instead of appointing a group of people to achieve specific outcomes and give them a deadline, there are whole departments or divisions dedicated to helping Indigenous communities where people have permanent jobs with indefinite terms and focus on activities not outcomes.
I know my comments upset some people in the private sector, particularly in the corporate social responsibility areas. And I can understand why some people may have felt my observations were unfair – after all, corporate Australia had genuinely embraced Indigenous issues and have devoted substantial time, resources and money towards initiatives intended to help eliminate Indigenous disadvantage.
But I was concerned that business had fallen into an intellectual trap of treating Indigenous problems as different from other problems. Of taking the lead from government rather than showing leadership. And I believed the private sector had an opportunity to set a different agenda, one based on the approach that it adopts so successfully in its own operations.
My message back then in 2012 tied in with the focus on measurable outcomes that was coming out of the Closing the Gap initiative.
This distinction between activities and outcomes is very important. I think it is far better to strive for a specific outcome and fail, than to settle for activities. The focus on activities may allow a company to more easily claim a success – “we said we were going to do this activity and we did it”. But in reality the company may waste a whole lot of money on something that didn’t make a difference. To me, an activity that doesn’t make a difference is worse than a failure. At least from failures, organisations can learn, improve and innovate.
Today we are seeing a far greater focus in the private sector on outcomes and setting specific measureable targets.
The mining and resources industry has been critical in leading this shift, particularly in the area of Indigenous employment and including Indigenous owned businesses in procurement supply chains. It has also championed the focus on economic development and using land and land-related rights as an economic asset.
We very much see this reflected in the Report on Woodside’s 2011-2015 Reconciliation Action Plan and in its 2016 Reconciliation Action Plan which we are here to launch today. Reading both of those documents we can see Woodside embracing the importance of real, measurable outcomes. We also see Woodside willing to stretch itself, critically assess its initiatives to date and implementing continuous learning and improvement.
We also see the emphasis on economic development, with Indigenous employment and procurement as central initiatives for Woodside.
Work is the single most powerful and effective way to move a person out of poverty and disadvantage. And when a person moves from welfare to work it’s not just them that is transformed. It’s also their children and grandchildren and generations more to come.
In remote and regional areas job seekers can’t merely rely on an employer giving them work. People also need to be able to find their own work by being self-employed or setting up a small business. This is also a common structure for people who complete trades.
That is why the governments Indigenous Procurement Policy – which targets 3% of government contracts being awarded to Indigenous-owned businesses – is so critical to closing the gap. Since the Indigenous Procurement Policy commenced in July last year, 911 contracts worth $154.1 million have been awarded to 274 Indigenous-owned businesses. By comparison, $6.2 million in Commonwealth procurement was awarded to Indigenous businesses in 2012 to 2013.
When we think of the billions that have been spent on Indigenous affairs in the past few decades with little to show for it, the Indigenous Procurement Policy is a clear game-changer for another reason – it costs the government very little. The government would have spent that money on procurement anyway it has simply redirected its existing commercial spend towards Indigenous-owned businesses.
For too many years, Indigenous policy has been welfare centric - trying to lift Indigenous people out of poverty through things that don’t deliver economic development like welfare, government programs and services and grants. All of these things centre on dependency and are costly.
Policies like the Indigenous Procurement Policy are about bringing Indigenous people into the real economy through small business and self-employment with a focus on independence and self-sufficiency, not dependency. The private sector equivalent to welfare centricity is charity and philanthropy. It’s not uncommon to find private sector Indigenous and other corporate social responsibility programs weighted to a charity or philanthropy focus.
Like government policies, a far more powerful and effective way for the private sector to help lift Indigenous people out of poverty is through economic and commercial activity – like hiring Indigenous employees, awarding contracts to Indigenous-owned suppliers and even focussing on Indigenous customer segments.
I’m pleased that Woodside’s 2016 RAP reflects the this shift from charity and philanthropy to commercial and economic initiatives.
I’d like to finish today by reflecting on another strong theme that stands out in Woodside’s RAP, and that is the importance of building long term relationships with Indigenous people and communities, both in implementing its Reconciliation Action Plan and in running its core business.
In describing itself and its business in the introduction to its RAP, Woodside says:
“We recognise that meaningful long-term relationships with communities are fundamental to maintaining our licence to operate, and we work to build mutually-beneficial relationships across all locations where we are active.”
Reconciliation Action Plans are a unique feature of doing business in Australia. But the fundamental principles that underpin them can be applied anywhere, in any situation and in any location.
At their essence Reconciliation Action Plans are about building a relationship between a corporation and a community of people. RAPs provide companies like Woodside with a template for relationship building and community engagement that it can apply in any of its operations across the world. This is especially important for Australian companies operating in Asia where building relationships and mutual respect come first in any commercial engagement.
I began my speech reflecting on how this continent is home one of the youngest nations of the world – Australia - and also to the oldest nations of the world – the first nations of this continent.
In working towards Reconciliation we look to a future in which those two worlds can co-exist. And we strive for a co-existence that is united, mutually respectful and mutually beneficial. In other words, Reconciliation is about building and strengthening relationships. Relationships between people. Relationships between communities. And relationships between nations. Relationships which will enable all of us to thrive on this great continent.
Thank you for listening and I look forward to discussing these and other topics in our Panel discussion.
This speech was delivered on 30 May 2016 at the launch of Woodside Reconciliation Action Plan launch and commemoration of National Reconciliation Week in Perth
Building a shared future
Nyunggai Warren Mundine
Speech at the Woodside Reconciliation Action Plan Launch and Commemoration of National Reconciliation Week, Perth
30 May 2016