Get the priorities right

There’s a complete disconnect between the national public dialogue on Indigenous affairs and the priorities of most Indigenous Australians.

by Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO

Last month I spent a few weeks in remote and regional Australia talking non-stop with Aboriginal people. Meanwhile, a debate raged about statues. How many times do you think anyone mentioned statues to me during my trips? Exactly zero. No one talked to me about constitutional recognition either. Or about local councils who banned Australia Day, supposedly in their name.

In Kununurra, I addressed the Wunan Foundation’s East Kimberley Aboriginal Achievement Awards. I spoke about how the narrative of Australia today being a racist society holds Aboriginal people back. Many Aboriginal people thanked me for my comments, saying they’re sick of hearing racism is the cause of their communities’ problems. They were the only conversations I had about racism.

No doubt there’s a range of opinions on these subjects among the people I spent time with. But whatever those opinions, they’re not front of mind. People wanted to talk to me about work and business opportunities and economic development for their communities.

Small and medium enterprises are the backbone of the Australian economy, employing millions of people. They’re the biggest employers in remote and regional Australia where Indigenous people are disproportionately represented. In those areas there’s plenty of work but not always plenty of jobs. Starting a business and winning contracts can be critical to accessing the work and moving off welfare.

I met a many Indigenous people who want to set up small businesses. Many of their challenges are the same as for other would-be and new small business owners. Getting new business finance with no trading history. Securing equipment and premises. Riding out uneven cash flows. Grappling with supply contracts and finding reliable staff.

There can be additional challenges for Indigenous people, particularly those who’ve been reliant on welfare. If you live in social housing or on traditional lands where private home ownership isn’t possible, you won’t have a house to put up as security. Some people in remote communities have no assets or credit history. Some live in communities with no real economy, making it impossible to secure investment or finance on normal terms. Some haven’t grown up around people who worked at all, let alone run a business. Some are particularly prone to shame if they’re refused finance or experience cash flow problems and may not seek help until it’s too late. But all of these challenges have solutions.

Specific initiatives exist to address some of these challenges, including funds to lend to Aboriginal business owners where mainstream funding isn’t accessible. Indigenous Business Australia has been around for decades. More recently there’s the Indigenous Entrepreneurs Fund and the Indigenous Procurement Policy, which sets aside contracts in remote areas for local Indigenous owned businesses who can perform them for fair value. But government programs come with government red tape. Experience on the ground is that accessing loans from these sources is like wading through wet cement. The funding simply isn’t getting through. The Minister’s office is aware of this and wants to fix it. I’m currently visiting a snapshot of different communities to advise on how.

There’s a complete disconnect between the national public dialogue on Indigenous affairs and the priorities of most Indigenous Australians. Partly it’s a symptom of a broader disconnect between ordinary people and the political and commentariat classes. But in Indigenous affairs, public dialogue is also marred by the notion there’s some special, mystical, cultural force that drives Indigenous Australians in everything we do. This notion of “otherness” is peddled particularly strongly by bleeding-hearts and the Green-left and it ties in with their big government, pro-handout and anti-development agendas.

It’s nonsense. Go back 1000 years and see how Indigenous people spent their time. They used the land and sea to provide for themselves, their families and their communities – in other words, as an economic resource. No one sat around waiting for someone else to provide for them. If they did they’d die. And that’s what will happen to our communities today if people don’t get off welfare and into work and enterprise.

If you want to know what Indigenous people think, don’t listen to inner-urban local councils, Twitter keyboard warriors or “progressive” commentators who rarely venture outside the cities.  No matter where (or when) humans live, what they look like, their culture, religion or language, what food they eat and whether they live in a hut or a mansion, all humans want to provide for themselves and their families and live in safe and strong communities. People have different experiences and perspectives, many have different challenges, but ultimately what’s important to Indigenous Australians is the same as for anyone else.

Edited versions of this article appear in The Financial Review and The Koori Mail.

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Comments

  1. Dudley Jensen says:

    keep going Warren, you are much admired in my group of friends

  2. Joy Holbrook says:

    Keep telling it like it is Warren. Eventually, the bleeding heart lefty loons will begin to listen. Well, we live in hope.

  3. Andrew Clarke says:

    Good information, Warren. People need to hear this. While cultural warriors think they’re saving the world, real needs get neglected.

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