Air Vice Marshal Steven Roberton didn’t know much about Indigenous heritage until he became Commanding Officer of No. 75 Squadron and arranged an awareness day with Nitmiluk and Jawoyn people.
Later, as commander of Middle East Air Task Group 630, he overheard airmen talking to international counterparts about Aboriginal communities and their connection to land.
“These two young Australians, neither being Aboriginal, talking about Australia’s incredible cultural heritage in this way gave me the realisation – Air Force has a really key role to play,” Air Vice Marshal Roberton said.
A close and growing relationship with the Worimi community later led Air Vice Marshal Roberton to become lead champion for the inaugural Air Force Indigenous Champion Network this year.
Champions are nominated by the Senior Indigenous Leadership Circle (SILC), based on background and interest in promoting relationships and opportunities.
“We want to become a fifth-generation force that’s far more than just really cool airplanes and high-tech wizardry,” Air Vice Marshal Roberton said.
“It will leverage the most capable people. We can’t do that without having a group representative of first Australians.
“There are also government and Defence directed targets and Air Force needs to find ways to get there.”
Air Vice Marshal Roberton will support the network and commanders with resourcing, prioritising Indigenous affairs and mentoring.
“We’re all on a spectrum of cultural awareness; it’s actually about people who are passionate, see the value in it and want to support the initiatives,” he said.
“Having been through most of the different levels of command, I can support them or have conversations to help make things easier.”
For the next 10 years, the network will support Air Force’s recently launched Indigenous strategy 'Our Place, Our Skies' and 'Common Ground' action plan, with champions changing every two years.
“They’ll advocate for Indigenous issues across the organisation, promoting awareness and defence-wide commitment to closing the gap,” Air Vice Marshal Roberton said.
“Champions will be hands on and drive, advocate and lead streams from the action plan, such as the Indigenous youth and Jawun programs.
“The network is separate from command, but they’ll help influence and support commanders in promoting and rolling out these initiatives.”
As shown by the Indigenous Liaison Officer network at RAAF bases, Air Vice Marshal Roberton said it was not about numbers.
“We’re not after hitting certain numbers or targets, but trying to establish relationships with communities and if we get this right, then the numbers and targets will happen,” he said.
The Indigenous Liaison Officer initiative started at Williamtown in 2014-15 from a relationship Air Vice Marshal Roberton established with (now Wing Commander)Jonathan Lilley through the Worimi community.
“Rather than Air Force people trying to establish links, the concept was to work with and get the endorsement of the SILC; have them identify Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to become fully fledged Air Force members and represent their needs,” Air Vice Marshal Roberton said.
Air Vice Marshal Roberton said he learnt more than expected from seeing their connection to country.
“As somebody who grew up on an island and surfed since I was four, I learnt more about the sea and sand dunes from the saltwater Worimi people than I did in a life of living near the beach,” he said.