Forging a long-overdue path to a self-determined Australian First Nations economy

By Peter Yu

June 21, 2022

aboriginal dot painting
It is time for a self-determined Australian First Nations economy. (natalyon/Adobe0

While Australia is on the cusp of a new era — post Mabo, post-Native Title determinations, Treaty negotiations, truth-telling processes, Constitutional reform and a new partnership agreement on Closing the Gap — alarm bells are still ringing on an issue vital to the future of Indigenous Australians. We must urgently heed its call.

Frustratingly, the approach of successive Australian governments to address the massive economic inequality of Indigenous Australians has remained unchanged for the past 40 years. As a nation, we are perpetuating the same approaches — focused mainly on rolling out mandated training, employment and business programs for First Nations people to participate in the mainstream economy — but expecting a different result.

No doubt these schemes and systems were created with the intention of generating economic opportunity, but the evidence is they have effectively created a form of economic apartheid.

There is no better example than the Commonwealth’s Community Development Employment Program (CDEP). Originally designed by remote communities to respond to their social problems caused by ‘sit-down money’, it provided part-time wages for our people to work on community development projects. A success for a time, the program has ended up being a failed work for the dole program that is due to be replaced again by yet another remote jobs program. This is the result of constant ideologically motivated changes made by successive Labor and Coalition governments without having regard to evidence.

At a fundamental structural level, Indigenous Australians have less opportunity to determine and control their economic destiny than other Australians, and many outside the mainstream economy have limited avenues to pursue economic development.

It is time for a new approach by Australian governments, particularly the commonwealth. It is not just about achieving economic parity for our people. The taxpayer deserves a break from the endless cycle of new programs that fail.

Self-determination, including economic self-determination, is a fundamental right of all peoples, and is recognised by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and several other international conventions to which Australia is a party. Evidence, particularly in English settler states like Australia, suggests economic self-determination should become the driving principle for responding to this massive challenge.

In addition, Australia remains the only commonwealth country to have never signed a treaty with its Indigenous people, which indisputably correlates to the fact the Australian First Nations economy is much smaller than those in comparable nations.

Unless this changes, Indigenous Australians will continue to be second-class citizens in their own country, destined to manage a portfolio of rights and assets that are the subject of deliberate development constraints, working only in the mainstream economy in mainly conventional jobs for which, in most circumstances, they are not the ultimate or main beneficiary.

To address these issues, a new nationwide strategic approach is immediately required. To this end, The Australian National University’s First Nations Portfolio is hosting two seminal events — a First Nations Wealth Forum (21 June) and the Marramarra murru (creating pathways) First Nations Economic Development Symposium (22-23 June).

These events will gather leading thinkers and practitioners from Australia and around the world, who will seek to reframe national policy discussions, reset policy landscapes and identify mechanisms for policy implementation by canvassing new approaches from communities, government, and industry.

Now is the time for us to create and lead change that results in a more economically productive and socially adept society. A self-determined Australian First Nations economy will help get us there.


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