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Interview: Tanya Hosch — Recognition a step towards good governance

by ZILLA EFRAT, Governance Institute of Australia

Tanya Hosch, the first Indigenous person and the second woman to be appointed to an executive position at the Australian Football League (AFL) speaks about the Voice to Parliament in an interview with Zilla Efrat of the Governance Institute of Australia.

‘We currently have a constitution that recognises coinage, lighthouses and Queen Victoria but says nothing about the first peoples of Australia’, says Tanya Hosch.

Hosch believes that business leaders have the responsibility to ensure they are abreast about the referendum on an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, to be held later this year, and to encourage their workforces to also be informed.

‘They need to understand the question that is being asked. We don’t have a lot of referenda in Australia, so do that work,’ she says.

‘People often want to make this political. This isn’t political. This gives Australians of voting age the rare opportunity to ensure that first Australians are recognised in our highest legal document, the constitution.’

So what does mean for Australia and its Indigenous communities?

‘I think it will be a great moment when millions of people go out and recognise the first peoples of the country in that document. That, in itself, will be significant,’ says Hosch.

‘Then, obviously, the Voice itself, which is the practical expression of the recognition, will enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to hold government to account for what’s working and what isn’t.

‘They will also be able to give advice that will make a positive difference to people’s lives and address the issues that people have struggled with for generations.’

Hosch continues: ‘When you look at the research done around the world and in Australia on Indigenous governance, it becomes clear that when people have to deal with the consequences of their own decision-making, they make better decisions.

‘That’s partly what the Voice is designed to do — to give that lived experience perspective to policies and programs that need to be much more impactful on the ground than they currently are.

‘You want people to live their best lives and to really strip away the disadvantage that’s become entrenched in some parts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia.

‘We are still seeing a lot of discrimination and so programs and activities to address it can only be helped if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who know about those issues have a chance to speak about how that work gets done on the ground and how their own communities are supported.

‘If that is the case, then we’re going only going to see improvements in terms of the lived experience of Indigenous people.’

It’s still early days for the campaign, but Hosch believes it is important to raise awareness about it and let people know that this conversation is happening.

If people are well informed, she says they are less likely to be affected by the sort of fear campaigns that can come out in referendums. ‘People often vote for no change as a result of fear, which isn’t based in fact, but just designed to confuse and make them think there are unintended consequences.’

For Hosch, the referendum on an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice has been a long time coming given the many years she’s been involved in Indigenous advocacy, policy, governance and fundraising.

She was a founding director of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre over 20 years ago and also helped create the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute.

From 2012 to 2017, she was the joint campaign director and public face of the ‘Recognise’ campaign run by Reconciliation Australia.

It was established on the recommendations of a government-appointed expert panel and aimed to bring conversations about constitutional reform and recognition into the mainstream.

It ended after government funding ceased. Nonetheless, it raised awareness of constitutional reform from 30 per cent to over 75 per cent of the population during its five years of existence.

It also attracted the support of more than 318,000 Australians. Plus, over 160 community and corporate organisations partnered with it to support change, including several sporting codes and the AFL.

This led to the AFL offering Hosch a job as its first-ever general manager of inclusion and social policy and with lots of delays impacting the Recognise campaign, she decided to seize the opportunity.

Her portfolios at the AFL include Indigenous issues, gender equality, sexuality and gender diversity, racism and sexism.

After nearly seven years at the AFL, Hosch believes the organisation is moving in the right direction.

‘I think we are stronger from an inclusion perspective, which is what you’d expect if I’m being successful in my role,’ she says.

She attributes this success to her not having an operational role. ‘That means other people in the business have to be doing things that make a difference and the appetite for that just keeps getting bigger and bigger.’

Hosch’s greatest challenges in the role included learning about the industry and the code. ‘I have followed rules football, but I hadn’t ever really given any thought to what makes it as great as it is,’ she says.

‘Learning about all of that and how I could try to positively impact it from an inclusion perspective took a bit of time, probably a couple of years.

‘Being in an executive role in an industry I’ve never worked in before came with a learning curve. And, I had to build relationships. It’s such a huge sector. There are 18 clubs. It’s a lot to get your head around.’

Hosch believes there is still way too much racism in Australia which the AFL can’t escape because it has such a huge footprint. ‘What’s pleasing from a progress perspective is that we have more people reporting on incidents of racism now than we did previously. That’s a good sign because it means that other people aren’t accepting it either.’

That said, she notes that the AFL needs to remain vigilant and must address systemic issues as well as the compliance process for dealing with incidents.

‘We definitely need to increase the amount of representation of Indigenous people and people of colour in the code,’ she adds, noting that a diversity of representation is necessary at all levels of the game, not just on the field, but also in decision-making roles.

‘When I started, out of the 18 clubs, there was only one Indigenous board member, but now we have an Indigenous commissioner on the actual commission, which is the AFL board. And I think nine clubs now have an Indigenous person on their boards.’

Hosch herself has extensive boardroom experience. She is a director of the Adelaide Fringe, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and the Australian Film Television and Radio School, among others. She is also a member of the NAB Indigenous Advisory Group and sits on the Australian National University’s council. And in 2020, she was named South Australia’s Australian of the Year.

‘I always want to be involved in at least one arts organisation just because I think you can always learn from creative people,’ she says.

‘I’d like to sit on boards where I know I’m going to learn something and hopefully contribute something as well.’

To learn more about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice campaign, visit its website at yes23.com.au.

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