How many psychologists have an understanding of Aboriginal people? How many of you … have an understanding of Aboriginal culture, history and contemporary issues? For many of you, this work is crucial given the social conditions and your work environment in such places as prisons and the welfare sector and where there are large numbers of Aboriginal clients. It is your responsibility to seek that knowledge and understanding now, and to ensure that it is available for future generations of psychologists, in psychological training and education programs.

Rob Riley, Indigenous keynote address, 1995 APS Annual Conference

Rob Riley, an inspirational Aboriginal justice activist in WA and nationally, put forward this challenge to Australian psychologists in his inaugural Indigenous keynote address at the APS Conference in Perth in 1995 (Riley, 1998). He highlighted psychology’s key role in working with Aboriginal people and communities, and its responsibility to do so in a way that is respectful and informed. Tragically, Rob committed suicide less than 12 months after this keynote address, which was published posthumously.

As a peak organisation for psychologists, the APS represents a key professional group working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have experienced racism and trauma from multiple causes, including the Stolen Generations. Reconciliation is fundamental to our response to Rob Riley’s challenge to us all. It involves building mutually respectful relationships between Indigenous and other Australians that allow us to work together to solve problems and generate success that is in everyone's best interests (Reconciliation Australia, 2010). Reconciliation is everyone’s business.

The APS has already achieved some significant progress towards reconciliation: supporting the establishment of the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA); the 20-year history of member involvement in the APS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and Psychology Interest Group; the development of ethical Guidelines for psychological research and practice with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; the establishment of an APS Indigenous Education Reference Group; and the launch of Bendi Lango bursaries for Indigenous postgraduate psychology students, now formalised as a fund for APS member donations at subscription renewal time. The recent news that these member donations have already exceeded $30,000 in 2011 provides strong endorsement for the APS to take the next steps in its journey towards reconciliation.

Under the joint leadership of APS President Simon Crowe and AIPA’s inaugural Chair, Pat Dudgeon, the APS has now committed to developing and implementing a formal process of reconciliation that will truly be ‘everyone’s business’.

The reconciliation movement in Australia

The APS commitment to reconciliation forms part of a broader reconciliation movement in Australia, which began over 30 years prior to the formal establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. In 1965 the Freedom Rides led by Charles Perkins through north western NSW demonstrated to the public the disadvantage, discrimination and degradation experienced by Aboriginal people (Quiz: which former APS President was on board as a cook on the freedom rides?). On 27 May 1967, an overwhelming 90 per cent of Australians voted for constitutional change to recognise Indigenous people as Australian citizens, and in 1972 the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was erected on the lawns of Parliament House (and did you know some APS members were among its vocal supporters! See Cooke, 2000). In 1976, the first land rights legislation in Australia was passed in the Northern Territory.

The formalisation of the Australian reconciliation movement occurred soon after the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The Commission found disparities between the health and wellbeing of Indigenous and other Australians, and concluded that Indigenous disadvantage was due to the history of dispossession. The Commission recommended that political parties recognise the need for a national reconciliation process to bridge this divide. Soon after, the Commonwealth Parliament unanimously voted to establish the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, culminating in the May 2000 Walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge by more than 250,000 people in support of Indigenous Australians, and followed by large bridge walks in other capital cities.

In 2001, the Council established Reconciliation Australia (RA), the non-government, not-for-profit foundation with a national focus. RA works with government, private business and individuals to bring about practical change and promote examples of reconciliation in action. They also have a role in monitoring Australia’s progress towards national reconciliation.
Achieving reconciliation involves raising awareness and knowledge of Indigenous history and culture, changing attitudes that are often based on myths and misunderstandings, and encouraging action where everyone plays their part in building better relationships between us as fellow Australians (Reconciliation Australia, 2010).

The Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) program

A key strategy of Reconciliation Australia since 2006 has been to support and encourage organisations to sign up to their own tailored Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). The RAP program was launched as a forward-looking aspect of the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the most successful in Australia’s history. The RAP program aims to turn “good intentions into action” by encouraging and supporting organisations, large and small, to engage within their sphere of influence in the national effort to close the 17-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and other Australians (Reconciliation Australia, 2010)
Reconciliation Australia has two core principles for developing strong RAPs:

  • Ensure shared ownership across all levels of an organisation and involve as many people as possible in the process
  • Indigenous collaboration – listening to and learning from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is an essential part of the process.

The APS Reconciliation Action Plan

One of the four planks of the current APS Strategic Plan is to "actively contribute psychological knowledge for the promotion and enhancement of community wellbeing", which involves ensuring that the public interest is always prominent in APS policy and decision making, and also improving access to services for disadvantaged community groups. Clearly this is relevant to our dealings with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at all levels – as fellow and potential psychologists, service users, research partners ... and to the whole premise of reconciliation.

Working in partnership with AIPA and consulting closely with RA, the APS has begun to engage in its own reconciliation process. A Reconciliation Action Plan Working Group has been convened, a consultant has been engaged to progress the plan, and the National Office Public Interest team are currently scoping all aspects of the RAP.

A Statement of Commitment by the APS Board lays the foundation for all members of the organisation to turn our good intentions towards reconciliation into action. The Statement has been formally lodged with Reconciliation Australia alongside those of other organisations embarking on a RAP.

The RAP process is dynamic, involving all parts of the organisation. As a membership association, we need to consider how all operations of the Society can participate in the development of our APS RAP. A broad consultation framework has been developed and includes engagement with AIPA, the APS President and Board, managers and staff, and the general membership via Branches, Colleges and Interest Groups, as well as consultation and advice from RA. The processes, principles, resources, evaluation and review systems that other organisations have utilised in their RAPs will also inform the APS RAP.

The immediate next steps in the process of developing the RAP include:

  • A forum at this year’s APS Annual Conference in Canberra to report on the development of the APS RAP to date
  • The APS RAP webpage, where members will have the chance to post questions and share examples of how they are pursuing the aims of reconciliation at a local level and in their own psychological work, whether research, study or practice.

For further information on the APS RAP contact the RAP staff team at

Emma Sampson MAPS, Samantha Smith, Liz Orr and Heather Gridley FAPS, Public Interest team APS National Office


  • Increasing the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists and facilitating the ongoing training and support of Indigenous people in psychology
  • Enriching the discipline of psychology by incorporating the teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and perspectives into the curriculum
  • Working to ensure that APS members have an understanding of Indigenous Australian culture, history and people, and facilitating the cultural competence of psychologists to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
  • Reviewing APS governance policies and structures and creating a positive strategy to encourage the involvement and representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contributions across the APS
  • Developing and embedding cultural protocols for APS meetings and events, and assisting Branches to understand, develop and use local cultural protocols
  • Reviewing and affirming APS ethical guidelines for the provision of psychological services and conduct of research with Indigenous peoples
  • Facilitating and encouraging research in genuine partnership with Aboriginal and  Torres Strait Islander communities



  • Cooke, S. (2000). A meeting of minds: The Australian Psychological Society and Australian Psychologists 1944-1994. Melbourne: The Australian Psychological Society.
  • Reconciliation Australia. (2010). Reconciliation Action Plan program. Accessed on 21 September from
  • Riley, R. (1998). From exclusion to negotiation: Psychology in Aboriginal social justice. InPsych, 20(2), 12-19.