Reconcilation Week 2018


I wish to acknowledge the Custodians of our land, the First Australians and their Elders past, present and emerging. I respect the Aboriginal and Torres Island peoples, their continuing culture, their heritage, their beliefs and especially their contribution to Australian life.

Big River Impact Foundation values the uniqueness of Aboriginal cultures. We accept the problem facing Indigenous Australia is multifaceted and understand it is spread across a diverse range of communities. To address these challenges, we are bringing together Australian intellectual, cultural and business expertise to generate sustainable solutions. We acknowledge our problems are complex and therefore our solutions must be diverse.

One goal is to transition Indigenous Australians away from welfare dependency towards wealth creation by encouraging participation in local businesses, employment and economic development. Our Foundation intends to achieve this by cooperating with Indigenous communities because we understand improvement in Indigenous wellbeing depends upon an integrated approach. We also understand there is a need to strengthen community functions by implementing improvements designed to empower, reinforce positive behaviour and improve governance. We know this depends upon quality housing outcomes.

We work closely with our Corporate and Indigenous partners. We aim to deliver innovative, long-term strategies designed to generate social impact measurement tools to ensure the monitoring of our programs. We intend to partner with governments to provide investment and social equity programs needed to achieve parity. We are committed to inspiring Indigenous communities to be able to make decisions about their future and henceforth encourage all of us to focus on eliminating Indigenous disadvantage.

The theme of Reconciliation Week this year will encourage us to learn more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture by heightening our National Story. It also presents us with an opportunity to learn about a sustainable approach to business from the longest continuing culture in the world.

What is Sustainability

Sustain and ability is said to mean ‘the capacity to maintain’. The first definition of sustainability emerged in 1987 at the Commission on the Environment and Development known as the Brundtland Commission. It was defined as I quote: ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

In some quarters modern commerce has been associated with social inequities, dubious financial practices, economic crises and climate change that has compelled leaders to re-evaluate the underlying assumptions guiding the longevity of our financial system. The Paris Climate Agreement has generated interest in sustainable finance at the same time it has emphasised its legitimacy with academics, industry and government. There has been a renewed push in some sectors to redesign the financial system by intertwining it with environmental and social impacts rather than attempting to sustain it in isolation. The Paris Agreement has also projected a renewed government commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Aboriginal culture is celebrated for its interconnectedness, social integration and management of the environment. These inherited customs also govern commerce, personal relationships and land ownership. I intend to offer a synopsis of our culture, in particular, its inherent focus on sustainability. I want to build upon our narrative by attempting to generate respect driven by an appreciation of our culture. Australia has a lot to gain from listening to its First Australians.


Sustainability theories attempt to make sense of the complicated forces driving contemporary business. For the past three decades, scholars have been compiling empirical evidence focused on the negative impact of human beings on our depleting resources, arguing it is taking place in part, as a consequence of increased productivity essential to meet the desires of the emerging middle class in the developing world alongside Western consumerism.

The changes needed to reverse this are compared with the technology revolution of the 1990s. This challenge could be argued to be the peak of human evolution. For others marrying sustainability with business is seen as an oxymoron because our financial market has not been designed to consider anything outside profit.

In a typical investment scenario, economic returns will usually win over environmental and social concerns.  Our global capital markets can act at lightning speed to increase productivity in industry and agriculture but unfortunately sometimes ignoring the long-term social and environmental consequences of their investment decisions.

Those of us who are converts to Impact Investing believe it can be accessed to speed up the way we solve problems as much as the financial sector might be able to use it to strengthen its public legitimacy and trustworthiness. We are naturally capable of applying more efficient mechanisms to solving global problems. I am confident impact investing will be able to contribute to closing the gap for Indigenous Australians.  There is no doubt the current service delivery model has failed. As we know, despite spending billions of dollars, there has been little improvement in outcomes, particularly for remote Indigenous Australians.

The Centre for Independent Studies Report, ‘Mapping the Indigenous Program and Funding Maze’ by Sarah Hudson outlines this failure, I quote: ‘there is much goodwill in Australia to improve Indigenous outcomes. However, too many programs have been implemented because of their perceived benefit, rather than a rigorous assessment of priori evidence.’ Hudson’s research estimates we spend at least $5.9 billion annually and less than 10 percent or only 88 of these 1082 programs have been evaluated either during or after implementation.  Hudson outlined numerous reasons including multiple service providers operating with overlapping priorities with little evidence of success.

Big River Impact Foundation has been addressing this by proposing to digitise social return frameworks in collaboration with the largest not-for-profit software engineering company in Australia Infoxchange as well as partnering with Google.

In 2016, Reconciliation Australia found six out of ten Australians had little or no contact with Aboriginal people.  It can be assumed fewer Australians understand much about Aboriginal culture and history. Others may feel they are not permitted to know anything which is untrue. In my view, this has been a lost opportunity and one that has undoubtedly led to misunderstandings. I am not suggesting we should return to the harshness of the past. We have all benefited from the technological advancements and in the evolution of universal Human Rights, particularly for the protection of women and children.

What can we learn from our Indigenous cultures? It is unfortunate we do not view Aboriginal culture as an Australian asset. Aboriginal culture is alive across our continent. Northern Australia is presumed to be the only place where traditional cultures have been continuous and unbroken. Indeed, some groups experienced their first encounters with Europeans as late as the 1960’s. Contrary to popular-belief, Aboriginal culture in Southern Australia was not extinguished. Yet the existence of our culture was denied and suppressed. Despite this, in the Southern States, you will find the most advanced language and culture revitalisation movements. Connection to country is similar in Southern and Northern Australia. It is common in the south for an Aboriginal person to ask where you are from in order to determine whether there is a kinship connection.

When I worked at Arnhem Land, I was privileged to be able to broaden my understanding of the interconnectedness and value of Aboriginal cultures. I worked across jurisdictions in different Aboriginal communities, and because I was from an extended and geographically diverse Indigenous family, I was sceptical about outsiders being adopted by clan groups.

After visiting small Indigenous towns and homelands around East Arnhem Land, I was eventually adopted into a clan and chosen to participate in a meaningful initiation ceremony. My adopted father and mother were leaders of their respective family groups, and their roles included mediation, organising family and communicating important news. After the adoption, I noticed a difference in the way the locals related to me. I observed this was because I could be placed within their ancient matrix system. Everything within this is interconnected.

After my initiation, I felt grounded and never alone because even the west wind was related to me from my father’s clan group. When I felt the west wind, I understood its connection to me. Within this way of life, I am related to everything in nature from my father’s clan, my mother’s clan, my mother’s mother’s clan and my child’s clan. After my adoption, I heard, ‘Hello, Yappa – Sister, Amala – Mum’, in recognition of my relationship to them.

Curiously, even the camp dogs are given a kin name. These dogs know they are connected and can be found spreading their bodies horizontally across the road ignoring the passing traffic. They know no one would dare run over a beloved Nephew.  At Elcho Island, there is a cheeky cockatoo that was adopted into a family. It could be heard swearing at everybody demanding food and even biting people. It learnt Yolngu Matha.

When you have a relationship with something, its value increases. You love it, protect it and use it wisely. As established, Aboriginal culture places a value on its surrounding social and environmental ecosystems. I think this is exactly what our financial system is advised to consider because it is obvious we urgently need to place a monetary value on the consequences of long-term investment decisions.

Big River Impact Foundation is committed to increasing the awareness of sustainable business practice as a potential pathway to institutionalise Impact Investing in Australia. We have been working towards placing a real dollar value on social advancement. In Aboriginal culture, every reaction has a negative or positive consequence because it has been built upon family lineages and social responsibilities.  This responsibility is passed down through an ancient oral tradition, and religious leaders are groomed from childhood to sing their country. I mean this literally.  There are no Title Deeds in hand. Those born into this role are taught from childhood to sing every part of their country in detail from the colours of the sunset to the brightness of the coral as has been reproduced in some Yothu Yindi songs. Every tribe has hundreds of songs and there many thousands of dances each connected to clan and country.

One of Australia’s most significant challenges is to make sure the first Australians do not remain the most disadvantaged. As a Nation, we are advised to feel compelled to work together in a respectful and informed manner and build upon our traditional strengths, so we can walk in a relationship of respect and mutual benefit.  We can only do this when our thinking has been challenged, and our understandings have been deepened.

Perhaps the key to unlocking global sustainability could lie here in Australia because of its natural reflection in the cultures of our First peoples. We should never forget our obligation to protect future generations. We belong to the Earth. It is time to celebrate what it truly is to be Australian.

This speech was delivered to Commonwealth Treasury,  Perpetual Offices in Melbourne and Sydney, by Josephine Cashman.

© Big River Impact Foundation 2018