Telstra CEO vows to ‘rebuild trust’ with Indigenous Australians after company loses reconciliation status

After a five-month investigation, Reconciliation Australia says it has decided to revoke the status of Telstra as a partner of the Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).

The initiative encourages businesses to report on measures they are taking to develop respectful relationships and create opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In a statement, Reconciliation Australia said its investigation concluded that Telstra “has not met its own aspirations to be a leader in the reconciliation movement nor the expectations of an Elevate RAP partner”.

“As a consequence of our investigation, Reconciliation Australia has revoked Telstra’s Elevate Reconciliation Action Plan,” it said. 

Telstra will appear in court on Wednesday as part of a formal process to settle Federal Court proceedings initiated by Australia’s consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). 

The case relates to the sales practices of five licensed Telstra-branded stores, which signed up 108 Indigenous consumers to multiple post-paid mobile contracts, which they did not understand and could not afford between January 2016 to August 2018.

The tactics in the five stores located in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia – remote locations where Telstra is the only mobile provider – signed up individuals who spoke English as a second or third language, were unemployed and lived on government benefits. 

Telstra has agreed to a fine of $50 million, after the ACCC alleged the actions are a breach of the Australian Consumer Law.

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Telstra CEO Andrew Penn conceded the actions were “unconscionable”.

“I’m deeply and personally disappointed that we have let Indigenous Australians down.

“It is just not okay. These communities need to know that they can trust us.

“And it’s heartbreaking to learn that when you think you’re helping. In fact, the exact opposite is happening,” he said.

“We should have been more attuned. We should have listened harder to what was happening. Because we could have picked this up earlier.”

Mr Penn acknowledged Reconciliation Australia’s action to revoke the company’s status as a partner of the RAP initiative, saying he doesn’t “blame them”.

In a video message addressed to Indigenous Australians, he promised to work to rebuild trust.

“I want to stress that Telstra and myself personally are 100 per cent committed to reconciliation because it acknowledges and begins to address profound historical wrongs.”

“I am personally saddened by what has happened. It does not represent who we are. It does not represent who I am.

“What is important is to rebuild the trust of the Indigenous community.

“That means spending time listening to communities and realising that words are easy, but living up to them is a daily test.”

Reconciliation Australia said it notes Telstra’s commitment to rebuild relationships and will be working with the company on a new RAP plan outside of the Elevate RAP initiative. 

“Taking this into account, we have invited Telstra to discuss the development of a new RAP that addresses the concerns raised by the ACCC investigation,” it said. 

“We will remain in conversation with them as we do with all RAP partners and hope this is an important turning point in their reconciliation journey.”

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