Commerce and economic development are the only way to close the gap and enable Indigenous communities and cultures to survive and thrive into the future.
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine, Executive Director of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce
The only way to move people out of poverty is education and employment. This is true whether you’re an Indigenous person living in a small community in remote Australia or an Indian living in the slums of Mumbai.
Poverty isn’t solved by welfare or by giving communities money. Poverty is solved by economic development – by individuals within a community making money. Whilst, governments lay down the conditions under which economic development takes place, jobs and economies are created by commerce and private capital, not by government.
This means Indigenous affairs policy has to tread a fine line between two conflicting forces.
On the one hand, Indigenous disadvantage can only be turned around through commerce. On the other hand, a huge amount of time, energy, debate and discussion focusses on things that are not commerce – like welfare and government services.
Look for example at the public discussion about the Forrest Review. This report is about how to get Indigenous people into jobs and businesses and how governments can establish the conditions for economic development and commerce to thrive in Indigenous communities.
But what does public discussion focus on? Cashless welfare.
Rather than discuss the report’s proposal for getting unemployed Indigenous Australians into a job, discussion is skewed to a welfare card that, in time, nobody should even need. The whole point of the Forrest Review is to get people off welfare and earning their own wage which they can spend however they like.
While people in capital cities sit drinking their coffees and tweeting about the injustices of welfare reform, Indigenous people out there on country want the chance to grow their communities as they see fit.
Take the Alyawarr people for example, who live in and around Ampilatwatja where John Pilger filmed his documentary “Utopia”. In August they released a statement welcoming the Forrest Review’s themes of self-reliance, Indigenous training and employment, local decision making and cultural authority. They called for greater decision making rights over their own lands and to develop the region through business and tourism partnerships. They said this is the only way to create training and job opportunities and to enable Alyawarr people to remain on country.
The statement didn’t even mention cashless welfare.
The Alyawarr people know that the future of their communities depends on them participating in the real economy, through jobs, business and enterprise.
This is true for all Indigenous people, whether they live in the central desert or in the suburbs of Sydney or Brisbane or Perth.
Perhaps it’s unavoidable that Indigenous affairs policies revolve around government assistance, because so many Indigenous people are entirely dependent on governments for everything.
Personally, I’m not interested in devising new ways to structure government assistance or demanding that spending decisions are made by communities instead of Canberra. What I care about is who is performing the government contracts, who is doing the real work on the ground
I’ll illustrate with a fictional example.
Imagine you have a portfolio of Indigenous housing managed by a government. The government employs department staff who make decisions on maintenance spending. However, government doesn’t do the maintenance itself. It engages contractors – almost always non-Indigenous people who travel to the community at great expense because there are no locals with the skills or training to do the work.
Some would argue that government should “empower” this community by devolving responsibility for housing management to a community-based Indigenous organisation.
But this is not empowerment. Sure, Indigenous people would become responsible for the housing (which you can bet will be in an appalling state of disrepair). But if the locals are still not skilled enough to perform maintenance work, the Indigenous organisation will do exactly what the government department did – bring in contractors from outside the community to maintain the housing.
Indigenous communities will not be truly empowered until community members are skilled and trained enough to do these and other types of jobs themselves. To be plumbers, electricians, builders and pest controllers; teachers, health professionals, bookkeepers and transport drivers; hairdressers and tourism operators. Earning their own money. Setting up small businesses that can provide those services in their own communities and beyond. In time, buying a house of their own.
That’s why I don’t really care on who the contracts are awarded by. I care about who the contracts are awarded to.
Indigenous people don’t need government’s permission to gain the skills and training necessary to win these contracts. They can do it now. Many already are, often partnering with established service providers to build business experience and skills. Commerce and economic development are the only way to close the gap and enable Indigenous communities and cultures to survive and thrive into the future.
An edited version of this article was published in The Australian on 2 December 2014 under the headline “Jobs and education are the lifters”