• Sarpeye dancers from 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment perform at the Australian War Memorial.
    Sarpeye dancers from 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment perform at the Australian War Memorial. Defence

In the aftermath of NAIDOC Week 2019, Indigenous Australians continue to be recognised for their valuable and longstanding contribution to the ADF.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have participated in almost all battles and peace keeping missions that have taken place since the Boer War, more than a century ago. Around a third of those who served in overseas conflicts have been killed, several have been captured, and many continue to serve alongside a plethora of new recruits.

“Considering that Indigenous Australians were not officially recognised as citizens until 1967, the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the defence of our nation is a remarkable historical footprint,” Colonel John Papalitsas said.

COL Papalitsas is the Commander of the Regional Force Surveillance Group (RFSG), the Army’s newest Formation and one which has been instrumental in paying forward the contribution Indigenous people have made to the ADF.

Alongside the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Programme and Army Cadets, the RFSG is one of three important initiatives that support the Army Indigenous Strategy (AIS), implemented in 2008.

Through various IE&D programs, the RFSG has been helping the Army honour its commitment to the AIS and supporting whole-of-government efforts to “Close the Gap” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens.

This work complements its operational role: to provide situational awareness and understanding on prescribed threats to Australia’s national interest, through the conduct of remote-area, land and littoral, reconnaissance and surveillance operations, to maintain national sovereignty and border protection.

“IE&D is a main effort task for the RFSG and is central to the strategic value we present to Army, and the generation of operational capability within the RFSG. Border protection operations (BPO) and IE&D are equivalent priorities for the Group and are mutually supporting ‘lines of effort’,” Papalitsas said.

The Regional Force Surveillance Units (RFSUs) - NORFORCE, 51st Battalion and the Pilbara Regiment - enlist a large number of Indigenous soldiers, many of whom are employed on a part-time basis or via the Regional Force Surveillance List. Between 2018-19, the RFSG enlisted more than 133 Indigenous personnel and 25 more were registered onto related programs this year.

NORFORCE is particularly known for its IE&D efforts, but other units are also closely involved with local communities and focussed on Indigenous employment.

The RFSG realises meaningful IE&D outcomes via pathway programs such as the Army Indigenous Development Program – Northern Territory (AIDP NT); employment opportunities; on-going educational opportunities, and support to community engagement and development.

The Pilbara Regiment is presently supporting the work of the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program (AACAP) in Jigalong, WA via the provision of Local Observers to assist with community liaison and engagement for ongoing opportunities to serve with the Pilbara Regiment.

NORFORCE has recently undertaken community engagement in Borroloola and the Barkley region, working to re-establish links into the area with communities seeking to realise opportunities for their youth. They have also supported scoping for AACAP 2021 across Arnhem Land so it can integrate ongoing support to Army’s community assistance program once the community is selected from the shortlist.

51 FNQR has engaged heavily in Wujul Wujul over the past two years, working collaboratively with the elders to provide opportunities for service. In 2018, this saw the first members of Wujul enlist in the Army since WWI, with multiple students from this community on the recent RFSG Education & Development Course.

All of these examples are seeing enhanced capability for the RFSG and Army, while also realising ongoing employment, education and self-development for members of the community.

“The establishment of the Group by the Chief of Army (CA) demonstrates Army’s key focus on providing opportunities for Indigenous Australian’s and a recognition of the primary role played by the RFSG in IE&D,” Papalitsas said.

“At our Formation parade the CA in his speeches noted that the RFSG was Army’s ‘vanguard’ of Army’s Indigenous Strategy, which links to the Defence Reconciliation Action Plan in supporting the ‘Closing the Gap’ Strategy.

“Army recognises the benefits of posting personnel to units of the RFSG as it develops their cultural competence, emotional intelligence, and their ability to work in complex human and physical environments. This assists in developing our personnel to face the challenges of the modern battlefield and meets with the CA’s strategic guidance: ‘Army in Motion’.”

RFSG delivers IE&D outcomes as a priority, generates capability to protect the nation’s borders while providing greater opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to serve within Army. In doing so, it sets a precedent for the wider Army and community.

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