During his 43-year engineering career and into retirement, Bill Lawson AM has been an ally of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and a vocal advocate for Indigenous rights. With many Reconciliation Week activities cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he says education is more important than ever.
Based in Hobart, Tasmania, Lawson worked as a civil and structural engineer, building his own firm, LPH Consulting. This merged with Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) in 1996, where he worked until his retirement in 2013.
As principal of SKM, he managed its Indigenous sector and global corporate social responsibility program. Since retirement, he has devoted himself to working towards education and awareness for white Australians on Indigenous issues.
“I can’t help but reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic is showing our vulnerability as a species,” Lawson told create.
“I am told that I am especially vulnerable to [the coronavirus] as I am in my 70s. But I am also told that our First Peoples aged over 50 are also especially vulnerable. This fact reminds me of one of the many negative parameters which blight the lives of our First Peoples.”
Awarded the Australian Professional Engineer of the Year Award by Engineers Australia in 2003, from 2010 to 2012 Lawson was a member of former prime minister Julia Gillard’s Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians.
Following that, he was the first Tasmanian elected to the board of Reconciliation Australia, and established Tasmania’s own reconciliation council after discovering it was the only state in Australia not to have one.
“For the last couple of decades, I have been deeply involved in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs and projects,” he said.
“I was working all around Australia and what I saw would have the same effect on most people, who are fairly isolated from the poverty and circumstances of our First Peoples. It moved me, and I had to get involved.”
Lawson’s engineering career took him across urban and regional Australia, as well as to remote locations such as the Pilbara and Kimberley in Western Australia.
“Many of these projects have a level of remoteness that puts you in direct contact with and, if you don’t watch it, conflict with, the wellbeing of First Peoples,” Lawson said.
“It was my task to challenge our engineers to stop, pause and think about the impact of the project work we were doing on Indigenous communities.”
Engineering social justice
Lawson said he believes engineering and social justice work have far more in common than meets the eye.
“We get it belted into us at university that first you have to understand what’s causing something before you try to control or intervene,” he said.
“If I’m a structural engineer and I don’t really understand the physics of gravity, it’s not going to be a happy ending.”
In order to advance the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians, Lawson said he believes white Australians need to know and accept the truth of what happened during and after colonisation, no matter how ugly that picture may be.
“Most white Australians are so sublimely and innocently ignorant, simply because our education system didn’t tell us anything about it,” he said.
“There is a need for all adults to spend some time educating themselves.”
He also believes there is a strong role for business and industry to play in closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.
“Employers can help with reconciliation by working on action plans and cultural awareness and training. It profoundly changes people’s lives – it’s so inspiring to see it happening.”