ESG Matters: A yarn about reconciliation with First Nations people

ESG Matters bonus episode transcript: A yarn about reconciliation with First Nations people

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Trent Wallace:
We're delighted to be yarning with Commissioner Mason today regarding National Reconciliation Week, which is a time for all Australians to learn about our shared histories, cultures and achievements, and to explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia. I'm Trent Wallace, the First Nations' advisor at Ashurst. In today's episode, I'm joined by Commissioner Mason OAM. Here's a snapshot of our discussion. Commissioner Mason, welcome to the podcast.

Commissioner Mason:
Thank you, Trent.

Trent Wallace:
Would you like to give us an Acknowledgement of Country?

Commissioner Mason:
Oh, it'd be my pleasure. I want to acknowledge elders right across the country who are leading the legacy of their nation. I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which I live and work, the Central Arrernte people of Mparntwe, also known as Alice Springs. And of course I've been an Aboriginal person all of my life, and that's a result of the parents that I had and the First Nations people that we come from, and that's the Ngaanyatjarra and Karonie peoples of WA. And finally, to our First Nations young people, I want to say I believe in you and your place in that legacy today and tomorrow.

Trent Wallace:
Thank you so much for that, Commissioner Mason. Please tell me, what does reconciliation mean to you?

Commissioner Mason:
We know that reconciliation is a word that has different meanings. That's one of those peculiar things with the English language, isn't it? For example, it's an old Christian word about atonement and making amends of a wrong between God and the human family.

I really started to understand reconciliation when I was working for Reconciliation Australia in 2007. And I was heading to my office on a Saturday one day, and there was another staff member working there with me. She was a colleague, but she worked in accounts. And I asked her, I said, "What are you doing on a Saturday at work?" And she says, "Oh, I'm working on a reconciliation." And that made me chuckle a little bit because of the double meaning. But my understanding of reconciliation in the context of National Reconciliation Week is that we all, as Australians, have a desire to see peace and order across all communities in our nation, and of course we want to do all that we can to make that happen.

Trent Wallace:
Absolutely. I really appreciate that, and understand each First Nations person will determine what reconciliation looks like for themselves. In your opinion, Commissioner Mason, how can companies support First Nations peoples and drive change through that work?

Commissioner Mason:
I've been observing the increase of organizations, companies, getting on board with this ambition of reconciliation for many years, and particularly through the Reconciliation Action Plan program, for example, but there are other initiatives that we have across the country. And so sometimes companies are selecting the best and brightest young First Nations emerging leaders. And I speak for myself, because I was one of those young people who was selected, when I was coming through my studies, to take up opportunities. And that produces good for communities, for that individual person.

However, I've often thought about what companies could tap into in relation to this ambition of peace and order if they also connected to the broader story of that young person, and that's the story of their families and their communities. I think companies, if they bring along the young person along with their family and community, companies have an opportunity to multiply this concept of peace and order that's found in the solutions in First Nations communities and organizations. And I think that it's really important to acknowledge that a young person is a product of their upbringing, but also of the broader story of their nation.

We know, Trent, that often Aboriginal families work together and they're connected across the generations. So a simple model that I have to explain that is grandmothers, they carry the vision, mothers bring hope, and daughters are dreamers. And on the other side, for men, grandfathers carry the wisdom, fathers protect, and sons test and try.

And it's important for all the three generations to be interacting and engaging with each other, because through their experiences, they will also experience something richer in their relationships around that ambition of peace and order.

Trent Wallace:
Absolutely. I explain it to all law firms or all corporate entities, that having First Nations people on board actually enriches the organization and enlivens that hope and carries the dreams of our ancestors with us, so I really feel and appreciate that. As I sit here today, I know my ancestors are watching over, and they sit around me, and I really feel that today.

Now, Commissioner Mason, can you please tell me, what do you want to see more of from non-First Nations Australians?

Commissioner Mason:
Trent, I want to talk about what I am looking at and experiencing today. I really want non-First Nations people to listen and comprehend the evidence coming out of the Disability Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disabilities. It's an Australian Royal Commission. It's our nation. These are about our fellow Australians. It's also about responsibilities that we can take now in this generation to ensure Australians, including First Nations people with disability, have an opportunity to have a different experience of life living in Australia.

What I know is that for First Nations people who are 18 to 65, 48% of that group have a disability. That's a quite significant number. And so if non-First Nations Australians can build relationships with First Nations people, there's every likelihood that they will have conversations with those who have a disability. And of course we want the violence, the abuse, the neglect and exploitation to be something that is not part of our story here in Australia, because through that, we know people experience marginalization and exclusion. And of course, to me, this is closing the gap where it matters and can mean the most.

So I would really encourage non-First Nations Australians to really pay attention to what we're presenting and talking about and finding through this Disability Royal Commission. It's important work.

Trent Wallace:
Absolutely. And it's such an important issue that comes to light. As a person who lives with disability and has been a carer for people with disability, there are all kinds of obligations but also marginalizations that you experience, so thank you so much for that. Now, as you've touched on, disability is a huge crisis in First Nations communities. How would you like to see law firms support the mob with disability?

Commissioner Mason:
There's lots of really great work happening across law firms, particularly in their pro bono area of work. And I do know of organizations who receive that pro bono work from law firms, and they do reach out to First Nations people with disability. So we are not strangers in this relationship. People are really actively doing work. I just really encourage people who work in law firms to work as close as they can to the grassroots. These are people often that are in poverty, who are really marginalized. And we know that that story of First Nations disability, Trent, it's actually an unwritten story. It needs to be told.

And so anything that law firms can do to enable that story, that understanding, to be heard in the broader community and also in First Nations community, it's really critical, and we have to keep telling that story. As long as we have the significant numbers across the different areas of disability, as long as we have a young population, 23% of our children, 0 to 18, having disability, this is a story that continues to be really important in our community of support for First Nations people with disability.

So I thank those that are already working. I encourage those who may not have a story to tell, please, please build a good rapport and relationship to find a place to make that contribution.

Trent Wallace:
Absolutely. And you touched on grassroots, which is something I'm really passionate about, and it's about creating that infrastructure so that it can receive the rapport. Could you just touch on a little bit more about grassroots organizations and that kind of importance about really platforming and prioritizing those voices?

Commissioner Mason:
We've got a whole network of Aboriginal community-controlled organizations across Australia. And some of the early organizations work with health, and now we've got an amazing sector, an Aboriginal primary-health sector, that's also connected to the broader health infrastructure, if I can use that word. That's taken a long, long time to build. We don't have that infrastructure for First Nations people with disability. It's connected to that broader disability story. So the first place I would say in starting the conversation is around those community-controlled organizations. And one of the reasons for that to be a place to start is we know that those organizations are member-led.

So I say that because to have a member-led organization means that that organization is accountable to the membership of that community, that place, and that's important around learning and improving the way that services are provided. So I'd really encourage people to do that.

Trent Wallace:
Thank you so much for that, Commissioner. Now, you're the only First Nations commissioner on board with the Disability Royal Commission, so I understand and appreciate the constraints on your time, and I thank you so much for this. But in closing, Commissioner Mason, and in relation to National Reconciliation Week, what do you ask of businesses?

Commissioner Mason:
Well, I recently read that by 2028, it's predicted that we'll have about one million First Nations people living in Australia, which is not that far down the track. And what I wanted to leave as a final thought was, how are we deciding today what sort of country First Nations children, and First Nations children with disability, are born into? Because we can decide that today and think about that today.

We can determine the type of life experience, their trajectory they have, in all settings, for example, early childhood, education, work, health, housing, their experiences in youth detention, prison, and in relationships. This is in our hands to do now, to think about that.

Trent Wallace:
Absolutely. Commissioner Mason, thank you for not just this but for being an inspiration to me. As the first and only person in my role in a global law firm, and you being the only Aboriginal commissioner on such a massive, massive task, you've provided me with a lot of encouragement and inspiration, for you to continue what you do, and it really means the world to me. So I thank you so much for joining me, and I thank you so much for taking time out to yarn about these issues with me. So thank you so much.

Commissioner Mason:
My pleasure. And I just hope that your time in that workplace is not only a rewarding experience for you but for your colleagues, where they have had the privilege of working alongside a First Nations man who is proud and is passionate and I think ambitious, which is always a positive attribute, because we are really working incredibly hard to make that difference in our community. So I wish you well in all that you do.

Trent Wallace:
Thank you, Commissioner Mason. That means the world.

Commissioner Mason:
Thank you.

Trent Wallace:
Wow. What a powerful yarn that was. Thank you, all, for listening to this special episode of ESG Matters @ Ashurst. We hope you enjoyed the discussion. To find out more about the topics raised in this episode, head over to To ensure you don't miss any future episodes, subscribe to this podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And while you're there, check out our other episodes, and feel free to leave a rating or review. Thanks again for listening, and goodbye for now.

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