When it comes to the tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal history, there are few areas more significant than Botany Bay.
It was here that James Cook had his encounter with the Gweagal people in what would become the prelude to European settlement.
It was also here in 1919 that aviation pioneer Nigel Love would establish an aircraft manufacturing facility that a year later would become the Mascot Aerodrome.
Those two key influences have now joined forces to showcase the importance to Australia of Indigenous history and culture with an Innovate Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).
Sydney Airport chief executive officer Geoff Culbert says the plan is part of a broader focus of supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and “making a tangible, positive and lasting contribution to reconciliation”.
Formally endorsed by Reconciliation Australia, the RAP acknowledges Sydney Airport’s gateway status and the fact that it has a unique opportunity to shape visitors’ first impressions of Australia, as well as the culture and heritage of its first inhabitants.
The airport joins more than 1000 corporate, government and not-for-profit organisations that have committed to the RAP program since it began in 2006.
The program gives organisations the ability to advance reconciliation in their sphere of influence by building trust and increasing pride in Australia’s first peoples.
Reconciliation Australia is able to do this in their own unique way based on international research and benchmarking encompassing principles such as institutional integrity, unity, historical acceptance and equality.
Of particular importance to the airport are the Indigenous communities close to its 907-hectare site.
“Sydney’s Airport is one of the world’s oldest continually operating airports and this year, celebrates its hundredth year,” says Sydney Airport corporate affairs general manager Sally Fielke.
“Before the first flight took off in 1919, thousands of generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples lived on and managed the land across today’s coastal area of Sydney, including in and around the airport and Gamay (Botany Bay). This coastal area is rich in natural, cultural and historical significance and Sydney Airport recognises the meaning that land in this area holds for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
The RAP was the next step in strengthening the relationship between the airport and local Indigenous people and is part of a broader focus “to build respect, understanding, unity and equality” with the community.
The airport has made substantial investments in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork since 2000.
This includes a striking art installation dominating the departures area at the international terminal titled United Neytions by Kamilaroi artist Archie Moore. The artwork was commissioned in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art and unveiled in 2018.
It has also boosted its support in recent years for Indigenous communities through a variety of initiatives including internships, support for education programs and grants to health services.
The RAP program saw airport officials work closely with Reconciliation Australia and grow their connection with the La Perouse Land Council and Metropolitan Land Councils to develop a unique Acknowledgement of Country.
It also commissioned Charmaine Mumbulla, of Mumbulla Creative, to develop a bespoke reconciliation artwork for the cover of the plan.
“The artwork represents the airport as a vibrant hub connecting communities, travel, trade and social interactions as well as the surrounding waterways, which were a vital part of the lives of the coastal First Australians,’’ Ms Fielke says.
The process took about 12 months and the airport says it represents a continuing commitment “to foster positive, strong and lasting relationships”.
It began with the establishment of a Reconciliation Action Plan Working Group that drew expertise from across the organisation.
Members were passionate about reconciliation and Ms Fielke says they understood that a successful RAP would require commitment from across the business.
“The group spent time researching, discovering and learning in order to outline the purpose of the RAP and the airport’s vision for reconciliation,’’ she adds.
“Following that discovery phase, the group worked on identifying the reconciliation journey of the airport, the future focus areas, the opportunities and most importantly, the governance, tracking and reporting.
“The plan outlines 14 actions across relationships in the community, respect, opportunities and progress reporting. “
The working group continues to interact with key internal and external stakeholders on showcasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and the significance of country with an eye to generating respect and understanding.
It is also building further relationships and supporting Indigenous communities.
Ms Fielke says the reconciliation journey has been positive for Sydney Airport.
“The process has been a very rewarding experience and has made the business think deeply about the unique opportunity it has to shape visitors’ first impressions of Australia by showcasing and supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage,’’ she says. “We are really proud of the work we have done to date and are excited about what’s ahead.”
And as Reconciliation Australia chief executive Karen Mundine points out in the foreword to the Sydney Airport RAP, all sections of the community have a role to play in this issue.
Encouraging Sydney Airport to embrace the journey and challenges “with open hearts and minds”, she quotes the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation’s comments that reconciliation is hard work and “a long, winding and corrugated road, not a broad, paved highway”.
By Steve Creedy
About Steve Creedy
An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.
Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.