Mark Scott and Jason Ardler discuss the 2018 Reconciliation Action Plan

In late June 2018, Secretary Mark Scott and Head of Aboriginal Affairs Jason Ardler held a two-way broadcast to all department staff to discuss the department’s efforts in creating a Reconciliation Action Plan. The recording and transcript are available here.

Following is a transcript of Mark and Jason’s conversation. It has been edited slightly for clarity.

Video transcript

Mark Scott

Well, good afternoon. I'm Mark Scott, and I'm here with our colleague, Jason Ardler, and we've got a two-way broadcast under way now to talk about the development of the Department of Education's Reconciliation Action Plan. Shortly, I'll take you through what the next hour or so is going to involve, but I'd like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners on the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respect to elders, past and present. And I also want to acknowledge the ongoing connection that First Peoples have to this land, and recognise the First Peoples as the original custodians of this land. And I also respectfully acknowledge all First Peoples who are present here with us today.

So, this afternoon is really an opportunity for us to talk more about the development of the Reconciliation Action Plan for the NSW Department of Education. Now, we launched the RAP, our process, our walk towards creating the RAP in the Department a few weeks ago at our new offices at 105 Phillip Street, Sydney, and that was a great event. I spoke at that, Jason spoke at that. There was cake, there was quite a lot of cake. I'm sorry, there's no cake in the broadcast this afternoon. We've got to roll up our sleeves and get down to business to talk about why we're creating a Reconciliation Action Plan, what a Reconciliation Action Plan involves and what we hope it means for the Department.

Now, in developing the Reconciliation Action Plan we're following the advice and guidance of Reconciliation Australia, which is a national organisation that works with groups like us and the Department and companies all over Australia in developing their Reconciliation Action Plan, and they suggest, they indicate that there are five real areas that we look at when we think about reconciliation.

The first one is race relations, and the idea of that is that all Australians understand and value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-indigenous cultures, rights and experiences which results in stronger relationships being formed based on trust and respect, mutual understanding that's free of racism. So the goal of this is really a positive two-way relationship which is built on trust and respect between everyone who works in our Department, between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and non-indigenous Australians throughout society and, of course, that is just an absolute key to reducing any racism that may exist in our Department or also our impact in broader society.

The second area is equality and equity, and just a commitment that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples participate equally in a full range of life opportunities and are treated equally and equitably in all areas of life. And I think this is important for us, as an organisation, as an employer, as a workplace, but also, very importantly, in our work in educating young people and ensuring that Aboriginal students in our schools and our educational institutions receive educational outcomes that are the same, that are equitable with all students who are in our schools. This is clearly a key focus of the closing the gap work.

The RAP and reconciliation also talks about institutional integrity, the active support of reconciliation by the nation's political, business and community structures, and creating opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in all aspects of life. And, clearly, this is a very pivotal piece of work for an organisation like the Department of Education educating young people and ensuring that they are able to flourish and reach their full and complete potential in life.

Another key aspect central in that diagram that you can see there is unity, an Australian society that values and recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage as a proud part of a shared national identity and that we understand and have a rich and deep appreciation of that culture, and that there is national unity as a consequence of that.

And then part of our work, as well, is a full historical understanding that all Australians accept and understand the wrongs of the past, understand their impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and make amends for past policies and practices and ensuring that these wrongs are never repeated, and so that there's widespread understanding of our nation's history, an agreement that these wrongs won't be repeated and that there is truth, there is justice, there is healing and historical acceptance. So these are all aspects that go to reconciliation, and there are elements of all of these that we'll need to consider and work through as we develop our Reconciliation Action Plan in the Department.

So what is a RAP? I mean, a RAP is a document, a RAP is an agreement, a RAP is a shared understanding and a shared set of commitments that will drive the way we work, the way that we operate together. And it includes practical actions, practical steps that will drive our contribution to reconciliation, both internally and in the communities in which we operate. We're looking to develop what is described as a Reflect RAP. There are different types of RAPs for different kinds of organisations, and organisations that have gone down this pathway, and a Reflect RAP allows us to collaborate on a vision for reconciliation and explore our sphere of influence, and we start off doing that before we commit to specific actions and specific goals.

The kind of challenge that we face as an organisation is far more important than the work the ABC did; to ensure that every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student in our school gets an outstanding educational opportunity, to ensure that they arrive on day one ready to learn, to ensure that there is no gap in literacy and numeracy outcome, to ensure that there is no gap in engagement scores around how students are engaged in schools, to ensure that the attendance rate, there is no gap there, to ensure that there is no gap in transition through to completing schooling and moving on to higher education, to ensure that we are delivering those outcomes, I mean, how important is that work?

And then even more, the way that we're educating young people to ensure that they have a full and complete understanding of the complete history of this nation going back 60,000 years, to ensure that they really have mutual respect and understanding, to ensure that we are eradicating the cancer of racism right at the start in our schooling system so it doesn't permeate into our society. How important is the work that we have to do, and how transformational would that work be if we did our job well, how important it would be for individuals, how important it would be for our society, how important it would be for our nation.

We are the biggest and the most important schooling system in the country. We are one of the biggest employers in the country. We have an impact on millions of families. This is important work. This is important stuff and, as the executive sat around the table and looked at our priorities for the year, we just all recognised that we are falling way short in our important ambitions in delivering the kind of educational outcomes we want for Aboriginal children in our care. And so work needs to be done, but the starting point was really to start that work with us and to develop this Reconciliation Action Plan and get to a point where we can confidently go forward with this work.

The key thing about this work is that it is co-designed. We do use the voices that exist within the Department, we value your insights and your expertise and your experience on the ground and that you help us develop the right kind of strategies that we can then prioritise and execute and, finally, change the way we are as an organisation, and as we change the way we are as an organisation, change the outcomes that we achieve for the students in our care.

So what we're going to do is we're going to establish a working group, and this working group will coordinate the development of our inaugural RAP, and the working group is made up of Department staff from all across the organisation.

Jason Ardler

I can't speak more highly about the importance of a RAP to the Department of Education and really what it means beyond us. Developing a RAP is an important opportunity for us to reflect on what reconciliation means to us as individuals, what it means to us as an organisation and what it means to the communities that we live in. It's an opportunity for us to raise our understanding of our shared history, the good, the bad and certainly the ugly, but also it's an opportunity for us to re-imagine what our shared future might look like.

So much of what we hear and what we read about Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture is in the negative. It's formed, it's framed in the negative. We're constantly compared to non-Aboriginal people through the measurement of gaps and deficits. What isn't measured is Aboriginal people's strengths, the strengths inherent in our language, the strengths inherent in our culture, the strengths inherent in our connections to each other, the strengths inherent in our kinship systems and what other people and other communities can draw from these strengths. There are commentators out there who'll have you believe that it is because Aboriginal people hang onto their cultures, that is the reason why the gaps aren't closing, but these commentators have so missed the point.

Unfortunately, the context in which many people live, many families live, is defined by disadvantage and dysfunction that dominates the discourse. I think about the harm that is done every day to communities by the media, the mainstream media, who are constantly defining those communities as the worst elements of those communities, the most dysfunctional, the most disadvantaged in those communities. So we need to take a strengths-based approach, and that means raising expectations, it means fostering aspiration, it means supporting personal agency and personal accountability. It's not, as some would have you believe, turning a blind eye to the problems that Aboriginal communities face by any stretch, but it is creating the ability to see beyond those problems. As Chris Sarra said, it's about nurturing hope, not despair. It is education that changes attitudes. It is education that creates understanding of tolerance and tolerance of difference. It is education that will create aspiration and purpose. It is education that will break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage in Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal families.

Mark Scott

A few questions coming through. The first question is, "What does a successful RAP look like?" Well, as I think we indicated at the beginning, it's really an agreement, isn't it? It's an undertaking that we make as an organisation, it's a set of commitments that we make and what we first do is explore and understand the issues better, but over time, as RAPs develop, and most organisations do a series, what you get to is a series of commitments about things we want to do, practices and processes we want to change, perhaps an education process that we want to go on together. But it's a series of commitments and undertakings that, like other aspects of our strategic plan, we put down and we measure and we report back on and we hold ourselves to account to.

Often, you work with Reconciliation Australia, they have a lot of experience in working with organisations and helping them fine-tune and finesse their plan but, basically, it will be a statement, it will be an agreement, it'll be a set of commitments that we make about things we're going to do and we will review and track our progress against those outcomes over time.

Two years from now how might things be different in the Department with a RAP in place? I mean, that depends a little bit about what the RAP is that we come up with, but I think a really interesting test, within the People Matters survey at the moment - we do that every year - I would hope in two years' time that our Aboriginal staff would be saying that this is a better place to work and this is a place that they would recommend for their friends and families to work because it's supportive and encouraging and has created an environment where people can flourish and do their best work, that there is strong support for the protocols and practices that we put in place. And I would hope, as an eventual outcome of this work, we'd be seeing an improvement in those really important measures we've got there on the educational outcomes that are being achieved by young people in our schools.

Now, there's a question here about cultural safety. What does that mean, cultural safety and what's a good example of practicing cultural safety, in your opinion?

Jason Ardler

Yeah, so, again, cultural safety, for me, really is about valuing and respecting and safeguarding peoples' diversity of experience, diversity of culture, diversity of perspective, and so that is about, well, even going to things like understanding that Aboriginal people are not homogeneous people, that there are differences and to respect those differences. It is about flexibility in our working arrangements, understanding that people have cultural obligations to fulfil and that they are important parts of remaining connected to country, remaining connected to community, and that ultimately will benefit the organisation because they are connections and relationships that Aboriginal staff bring back into the organisation.

Again, we've talked about the physical environment and making sure that that is welcoming and respectful and reflective of the diversity in our workplaces. So it's everything from very tangible, very physical things to attitudes and policies towards these things but, ultimately, comes down to understanding.

Mark Scott

In such a big department like this there is great practice that take place. When you've got such a big organisation operating across 2,000 different sites with so many staff, there's great stuff that's happening. Part of our challenge is to find it and then to tell that positive story and whilst - and I started off by saying we are very challenged by some of the outcomes we're seeing for Aboriginal kids in our schools - there are extraordinary things that are happening out there. There is great initiative, great practice, some wonderful outcomes. We need to find those stories and tell those stories better.

Jason Ardler

We do, and they're on the ground. Too often I think we think we have to come up with something new, something innovative, the new program, and a lot of times this stuff is happening on the ground, it's happening at a community level or at a school level or a district office level and we just need to find that stuff and back it in often, and we're not good at that.

Mark Scott

And so, hopefully, today's conversation and the way we've been able to kind of flesh it out a bit and talk a little bit about the shape of what it involves, might give you more ideas. And so we are hungry, and the committee that Meg and Jason and others are going to be leading, we are really hungry for your insights, for your ideas, for your on-the-ground experience to help us shape this work and where the intent of this work needs to be.

So we'll be sending you details, sending you information. Again, a reminder about how to complete that survey, we value your views, and then the work of that committee will take place. There will be further opportunities for smaller consultation groups to meet and talk as we develop what our first RAP is going to be, and then when that work is complete and when we've had the advice from Jason and others and experts on the ground, we've got all your ideas together, we'll develop that first RAP and then we'll share that and then, again, the work will begin to change who we are as an organisation and then to change the great outcomes we can expect on behalf of all the children in our schools and on behalf of the society that we serve.

Thanks, Jason, for your time today. I want to thank the team here that's helped us organise this, and I hope you've found this a valuable conversation, and we look forward to meeting with you in person and talking with you soon about this important work. Thanks.

End of transcript

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