Living on the streets of Brisbane, Norman Laing found himself knocking on the door of a Defence Force Recruiting office in 1994.

The Dunghutti man, from Kempsey, New South Wales, had decided to join the Army.

“That decision, as well as the belief in me by Defence, literally got me off the streets and saved my life,” Mr Laing said.

From 1995-2003, he served with the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, which included a deployment to East Timor in 1999.

While serving with Defence, he obtained his law degree, but when there were no legal officer vacancies, he left the Army and pursued a legal career.

He was appointed as a barrister at the New South Wales Bar and also served as an acting commissioner of the New South Wales Land and Environment Court. In addition to his civilian legal roles, Mr Laing recently returned to where it all started and is working with Defence as its Indigenous Cultural Adviser.

Norman Laing helps to launch the fourth iteration of the Defence Reconciliation Action Plan in August at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Photo: Lauren Larking

He sees his role as helping Defence become more capable and culturally intelligent through the inclusion of Indigenous people, as well as working with and encouraging all sectors of Defence to play an important part in breaking the cycle of Indigenous disadvantage through employment and procurement opportunities.

“About three per cent of the Australian population is Indigenous; If that’s reflected in our workplace, we are richer for it,” he said.

“I’ve heard people say that Defence is just another tribe, or a series of tribes for our people. In some ways it is, but at the same time we want that tribe, or those tribes, to be culturally inclusive, safe and welcoming.”

His first priority is making Defence even more culturally intelligent, whether that be in the Australian Public Service or for Indigenous service members.

“The cultural knowledge they can contribute to the Defence of our country is not an academic exercise,” he said.

“We’re a dynamic organisation working in dynamic theatres around the world. So, having people of Indigenous backgrounds, like other diverse backgrounds, plays a significant part.”

He also wants Indigenous people to understand there are opportunities to join the Australian Defence Force and the Defence Department through affirmative measures, graduate programs and traineeships, which can lead to rewarding careers and to becoming a role model for the next generation.

“We live, work and play on the lands that have been occupied for 60,000 years,” Mr Laing said.

“Historically, some government agencies were, and in some cases are still, looked upon with a bit of trepidation by our mob. But, in my view I have no doubt that Defence is one of those organisations that our people gravitate towards due in part to our wonderful and proud history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service in Defence, but also the opportunity it affords our people to work on, protect and represent country.

“From a community perspective, the Australian Public Service is seen as a safe employer.”

Another area he’s passionate about is supporting Indigenous businesses through Defence’s Indigenous procurement policy (IPP).

“We must ask ourselves, ‘Where do we procure the goods and services of an Indigenous person or business in our current supply chain?’,” he said.

“In addition to employment, the continued implementation of the IPP by Defence will go a long way to contributing to closing the gap, as well as having positive impacts on the overall social, cultural and economic wellbeing of my people and their communities.

“It’s not about seeking new money for special programs. It’s about looking at what we do now and how we can do things better to improve the lives and life chances of Indigenous people.”