Reconciliation at St Vincent’s Health Australia

13 November 2020 by

The article below first appeared in Catholic Health Australia’s weekly e-news on 13 Nov 2020. It speaks of the good work of one of Mary Aikenhead Ministries’ works:  St Vincent’s Health Australia’s


To mark NAIDOC week CHA Health Matters sits down with the head of St Vincent’s Health Australia’s (SVHA) reconciliation plan to talk about what reconciliation looks like and what other organisations can do to take the first steps.

061120It’s been 10 years since SVHA  released its first reconciliation action plan – the name given to the practical strategy organisations can use to improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities, including providing equity of access to high-quality health and aged care services.

St Vincent’s Health is one of a growing number of organisations across Australia that are adopting such roadmaps, including mining companies and banks and superannuation funds. In the health sector, however, it is part of a smaller group of organisations.

Not that Darlene Dreise, the Chair of SVHA’s Reconciliation Action Plan, stands in judgement. She understands that SVHA is a well-resourced organisation with an established infrastructure and demonstrated commitment to reconciliation, which may not be the case for other organisations.

The 40 pages that make up SVHA’s RAP document covers everything from employment of Indigenous Australians and the provision of culturally appropriate health services to the procurement of services from Indigenous businesses and providing skills, training and strong career pathways for existing staff.

It is no mean feat and getting to this point has not been without its challenges. At its heart, this is about changing hearts and minds and the culture of teams and communities. The success of new targets and deadlines with the best of intentions can stall if education and training around why these measures are right and necessary are not also considered.

And of course, there is the reporting to Reconciliation Australia which is there to hold SVHA accountable. While considerable, it’s this reporting and accountability that assists in helping make this work a lived expression of SVHA’s mission.

She questions whether the Catholic sector is ready to develop a sector-wide RAP, given the different levels of maturity of some organisations.

Rather it would be better for the sector to pause and reflect on the extensive good work and established programs they already have in place, and learn more about RAPs to see how they work before taking the next step.

“Consider this document – our third formal RAP statement – there’s been a considerable amount of time, energy and resources invested in that. And there’s a lot of reporting that goes with it as well. So I can see why some of our ministries might shy away and feel overwhelmed by the formal RAP approach. It is important to recognise and work with this hesitancy though – that too is the Spirit at work.

“But what I would say is how wonderful it is: that we recognise the sanctity of reconciliation and dedicate our ministries to working for justice and right relationships. I believe the word – reconciliation – and this movement in our country has its origins in our faith tradition and issues an additional call to understand, that in turning to each other and helping each other to rise, we also demonstrate our desire to turn to God.”

For those wanting to take the next step Darlene offers these words of advice:

“Look at the core work of your ministries and examine front and back of house capacity for the support of reconciliation initiatives. Opportunities never considered before may arise – from making a decision to work with an Aboriginal-owned office supply company to hosting a school based trainee. “Recognise what you already doing, learn from that, and then build it up. But do one more thing. That’s important, I think, to allow ourselves to be stretched. And it may not be a reconciliation action plan, it could be a memorandum of understanding. Say to yourself: ‘This year we will do one thing or two small things, but we’ll do them. We commit to that’.”

In fact the Catholic sector is well established in working towards reconciliation via its advocacy, particularly by bishops and their diocesan agencies, actions that are of course rooted in the tradition of Catholic ministry.

Darlene can point with pride to the ongoing support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, in particular during the height of the COVID pandemic when she says many staff were feeling increasingly isolated and scared.

She learned that the size of SVHA (it is Australia’s largest for-purpose health and aged care service provider) was a double-edged sword: people could potentially get lost among the 20,000 people the organisation employs, but it also has the capacity and resources to support them.

“You can have the best employee support programs in the world, but if people aren’t tapping into them for whatever reason, then that identifies a gap. Our first call is to be pastoral. We acknowledge the gap and think outside the square to enable approaches that feel culturally safe to staff. We then reviewed what happened and whether our strategies worked or could be improved. It is all about the journey.”

To ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander staff were supported, Darlene and other staff spent time listening and talking to staff and reassuring them it was okay to feel the way they did.

“Most of the time it was just listening, and being present and then when they were okay I was able to say: ‘It’s okay I hear you, I understand what you are saying and is actually very real.”

“We ask ourselves how can we work together to make this right? Considering that this person’s life trajectory may have been slightly different to the majority of staff? What can we do differently to show that we are genuine about this? Let’s make this an inviting space.”

“And if you come to work for us, it’s not just ‘You’re in the door, that’s it. Fend for yourself.’ It’s actually we want to hear these people’s stories as we go. We want to know about struggles and joys alike and understand that it is through the call to vulnerability, the sharing of story, and the building of right relationships that we truly work for reconciliation.”

Darlene is originally from Cairns and is of Torres Strait Islander and Chinese Australian origin and trained as a teacher in the Catholic education system before moving to tertiary education. She became a patient in a Catholic hospital where she received “exemplary care” during a traumatic time, an experience that “spoke” to her and guided her in her career. She applied for a role in Mission and stayed there for 10 years before moving into her current role.