Text size: A A A

Indigenous people can’t simply trade their way out of disadvantage

Support for Indigenous business people is welcome, says the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, but the Turnbull government needs do a lot more if it truly wants to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities towards reducing social disadvantage.

“Supporting Indigenous business is not, in and of itself, a problematic aim,” a policy spokesperson from the peak advocacy group told The Mandarin.

“However, we need to take a realistic view of the likely limits of such projects, particularly in remote communities, in many of which there are challenges related to the education, health and disability status of residents, as well as to the logistics of commercially viable business activity as a result of climate, distance and infrastructure.”

The comments come after Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion and the Prime Minister announced a new plan to “supercharge the Indigenous business sector” on Monday, rolled up with publication of this year’s Closing the Gap report.

The National Congress is also sceptical of this week’s related decision to move the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, from the education portfolio. The body won’t support it unless there is belated consultation on the decision that achieves “widespread support” among its diverse constituents.

“We note that the move of Indigenous Affairs into PM&C was marked by disorganization; large funding cuts; the disenfranchisement of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations; the privileging of mainstream service organisations, many of which lack cultural competence; and large administrative overheads.

“National Congress lacks confidence that there would not be a repeat of these outcomes.

“Further, National Congress would like to see AIATSIS granted a greater degree of autonomy and protection from direct interference from government in the same way that universities and research organizations such as the CSIRO are treated. On the face of it, a move to PM&C would appear to be antithetical to this direction.

“Having said that, National Congress strongly supports the Government working in collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, leaders and organisations, and we urge an end to paternalistic policies and programs.”

Business support oversold

The view at the representative body is that encouraging Indigenous financial independence is a worthy aim, both for practical reasons and the “sense of self-determination and purpose” it brings. On the other hand, its policy team also points to a list of reasons why remote-dwelling Indigenous people are unlikely to benefit.

“Transport options are often very limited, and access by road and air may be very expensive and difficult, particularly during the wet season. There are often limitations to electricity and water supply, and to mail and internet services.

“Poverty in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities mean that disposable income is often very limited on the part of most residents.

“These factors provide exceptional challenges to conducting business. National Congress’ view is that such businesses should be encouraged and supported but any expectation that communities will be able to become self-sufficient in terms of employment as a result of the introduction of commercially-viable businesses should be tempered by realism.”

In these remote areas, the congress believes it is “excessively optimistic” to imply that Indigenous communities can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and essentially trade their way out of disadvantage.

The new programs are not designed to achieve that, but the decision to swirl the announcement into the launch of the CtG report while talking up the success of the equally tangential Indigenous Procurement Policy, which has similar aims, certainly seems designed to create that sort of impression.

This communications tactic carries the risk of overselling the new programs, much as the ministers regularly sell the IPP as a way to boost Indigenous employment. It is, but at nowhere near the scale required to close the jobs gap, as the minister and the PM’s department admitted last year.

Two different worlds

A fresh fact sheet pulled together by PM&C shows the Indigenous business sector is still vaguely defined. In 2016, PwC told the department there were between 11,760 and 16,260 Indigenous firms. However, only 1114 are listed in the Supply Nation directory, which says it is mandated as “the first reference point” for federal agencies looking to meet their IPP targets lists.

Source: PM&C.

Those 1114 companies are clustered around the main general-population centres. Their locations do not broadly correspond with most of the Indigenous population, as shown by a map produced by PwC on behalf of PM&C using Bureau of Statistics data.

Besides a lack of basic infrastructure in many of the rural and remote places where most Indigenous people live (darker shades on the map), the National Congress doubts business support will be much help there for several reasons:

“The ongoing failure to provide meaningful reforms to the justice system pushes against any attempts to provide our peoples with economic opportunities.

“For instance, high incarceration rates mean that many people of employment age are removed from communities and thrust into a cycle of crime and poverty.

“Failure to implement justice reinvestment programs, as well as those aimed to improve family and community safety and reduce dependence on alcohol and other drugs mean that the social environment may not be conducive to business enterprise.”

The peak advocacy body also wants to see these business support programs limited to organisations that are controlled by Indigenous people, and have a majority of Indigenous employees, as well as a similar tight restriction on funding for outsourced service delivery in the portfolio.

“National Congress would not support using the [funding] for businesses that focus exclusively on the provision of mainstream services, where a majority of employees are not Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, or which are not sensitive to the history and culture of the communities in which they operate.”

The organisation says “community inclusion, consultation and collaboration” should be the aim and adds: “Businesses should only be supported if they enjoy the widespread support in the communities in which they propose to operate.”

The peak body adds that it “would be concerned if a focus on Indigenous business supplanted or limited other programs to improve education, health and other services” in Aboriginal communities.

The Western Australian government, meanwhile, has fired another barrage of angry words at Turnbull and Scullion and demanded they re-commit to funding remote communities in WA, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

WA Housing Minister Peter Tinley says “the importance for many Aboriginal people of land, cultural practice and family” must be respected but “it will be extremely difficult to sustain services to these communities” if the feds stop chipping in.

“This decision — if it is not reversed — will represent an insidious attack on Aboriginal people and culture and will deny the important part they play in Australia’s national heritage,” he added.

Turnbull losing trust

The federal government and others have adopted the mantra of doing things “with, not to” Indigenous people, as the traditional view of one-size-fits-all public services for all Australians gives way to ideas like place-based approaches and co-design. To some, this should mean empowering Indigenous-controlled organisations as much as possible.

So far, “this commitment has not translated into meaningful engagement” in the view of Peter O’Mara, an associate professor of medicine and public health at the University of Newcastle who is chair of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at the Royal Australian College of GPs.

The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation joined with the RACGP this week to point out that according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the gap in life expectancy is actually still widening slightly.

“To find out we are going backwards when it comes to health equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is extremely disappointing,” said O’Mara, who is of Wiradjuri descent.

The professor says blank responses to the Redfern Statement and the Uluru Statement from the Heart reflect governments that have failed to genuinely come to the table. “The engagement and participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will decide the success or failure of future policy decisions,” he added.

In a similar vein, the National Congress policy team told The Mandarin: “When healthcare is not provided in a way which our communities understand and accept, it is not taken up. Similarly, when classes are taught exclusively in English and without acknowledgment of the richness of our cultures and histories, they are less likely to receive buy-in from both parents and students.”

Both O’Mara and NACCHO chair John Singer linked the lack of progress in closing the gap with Tuesday’s events marking the 10-year anniversary of the national apology to the stolen generation. Singer said the current attempt to “refresh” the CtG targets added a “special significance” to the anniversary.

A report that Malcolm Turnbull barely participated in a breakfast event at Parliament House only added to the sense that he isn’t really listening, and the opposition managed to play off that in question time, drawing furious condemnation from Noel Pearson and accusations of “deceitful” behaviour in relation to the Uluru statement.

“The Apology is an important part of healing for Indigenous Australians,” the NACCHO chair said. “It acknowledged the significant trauma and grief suffered as a result of past policies, particularly the removal of children from their families.”

“However, the Close the Gap strategy has never been fully implemented. There has been a decrease in funding over the past five years to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health services; the biggest impact has been to our members and affiliates.”

The RACGP and NACCHO jointly called for the “culturally responsive care offered by Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services” to be acknowledged in the refresh process. “This will play a vital role in addressing health disparity and ensure we finally make progress,” O’Mara added.

Incidentally, various staff changes at the Department of Health following the mandarin reshuffle that put Glenys Beauchamp in charge have included the departure of well-regarded Indigenous health lead Bobbi Campbell to the ABC, where she is now head of government relations. A spokesperson said nobody is officially acting in the role yet.

The National Congress says the 2018 CtG report shows some progress to be “pleased about” but is holding back on a cheer squad: “The quantum of improvements is limited and a majority of targets, and arguably the most important ones such as life expectancy and employment, are still not on track.”

On the refresh, the representative body says it still wants to see the current targets achieved on time, and the addition of new targets to close the gaps in incarceration rates and “the removal of children from their families of origin” under modern day child protection policies.

“Further, National Congress urges the Government to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, leaders and organisations to ensure that there is full support for any changed or additional targets.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.