Affirmative action in buying: are bureaucrats brave enough?

Public servants could have a profound impact on indigenous employment and welfare — but too few even know about the procurement rules that can make it happen.

For several years now there has been support across the political spectrum for affirmative action in government procurement. In 2008, the Council of Australian Governments agreed it was an efficient way to help close the gap between the first Australians and the rest of the community. But more can be done to encourage and support the public servants expected to put good intentions into practice.

As Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Northern Territorian Senator Nigel Scullion assured The Mandarin that procurement policy is “a key area of focus” for him. “It provides a mechanism to take the development of indigenous business on a quantum leap,” he said via email:

“A key part of that is ensuring that there is an understanding of the policy across the public sector and that existing, and any new policies, are utilised to drive the sourcing of goods and services from indigenous businesses.”

One element of existing policy that is not well understood, and has barely ever been used, is exemption 17 to the Commonwealth Procurement Rules. It means the normal requirement for all procurement worth over $80,000 to go through a competitive tender process does not apply to suppliers that are at least half indigenous owned, and have under 200 employees. There is a similar exemption for disability service providers.

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