Indigenous Accountants crucial for Indigenous futures

To build prosperity from the assets we’ve fought hard to obtain, our communities need people with financial expertise, who know how to manage, sustain and build wealth. We need accountants just as much as lawyers and doctors, if not more.

Indigenous Accountants
Charles Perkins was the first Aboriginal person to complete a University degree, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Sydney in 1966. Since then, the number of Indigenous University graduates has steadily increased. In 2014 Indigenous students made up about 1.5% of all domestic students at Australian Universities, a little over 15,000. This is still well below parity but a significant change in a few decades.

A high proportion of young Indigenous people who pursue tertiary studies are attracted to studies in law, education and health. One of the attractions is the potential to use those professional skills helping other Indigenous people. The desire to be able to do something which can fundamentally help your people is a strong driver of career choices.

Another profession which is equally important to the future of Indigenous people, communities and nations is Accounting.

Indigenous people have substantial assets and funds across the country including land and land-related rights, community property and compensation funds for past dispossession. There are also royalty agreements and, increasingly, income streams from use and development of land and other assets. These are held on behalf of Indigenous people and communities by organisations such as land councils and native title bodies. The value of these assets and funds are in the billions often with vast potential to generate more.

In the same way we need to understand our country to sustain and take care of it, we need to understand how to sustain and take care of our financial assets too. At the moment we are not equipped.

Indigenous people are vastly underrepresented among the accounting profession. There are only 28 Indigenous Australians among the 200,000 qualified accountants in Australia. And there is no indication that this is changing. Only 0.9% of the domestic students in the Management and Commerce education fields (which include Accountancy) are Indigenous. Those Indigenous students who do go to University are opting for other fields of study.

By contrast there are more than 550 Indigenous solicitors out of 66,000 total solicitors and more than 200 Indigenous doctors out of a total profession of nearly 100,000. There are also another 300 Indigenous students studying to be doctors.

Managing your own assets and money is essential to managing your own life. It’s one of the main differences between adulthood and childhood and crucial to achieving independence and autonomy. This is true for individuals. And it’s also true for organisations, communities and nations.

Too often we’ve seen financial mismanagement, even financial misappropriation, cripple Indigenous organisations and deplete Indigenous-owned assets. Just recently, Johannes Joubert, an Alice Springs accountant, was imprisoned for 7 years for stealing nearly $800,000 from Indigenous organisations who he’d provided bookkeeping services to.

Now, I’m not saying that having Indigenous accountants will somehow shield Indigenous organisations from bad apples like Johannes Joubert. Nor am I saying that Indigenous organisations shouldn’t be able to rely on expertise from outside their communities. Every organisation should be able to source the best talent and advice accessible to it, regardless of whether that talent is Indigenous or not.

But I am saying that if we are going to fully participate in the mainstream economy and build prosperity from the assets and wealth that we have fought hard to obtain, then our communities need people with financial expertise and who know how to manage, sustain and build wealth. This is especially true in today’s globalised, digitised economy, where it’s more important than ever to understand complex and abstract concepts. We need accountants just as much as we need lawyers and doctors, if not more.

In many ways accounting is the ugly duckling of the professions. Law and medicine are much sexier. They even have TV dramas devoted to them. There’s no LA Accounting or Grey’s Bookkeeping and accountants in movies are usually nerdy, impractical or stuck behind a desk. We don’t think of accountants as saving people’s lives or bringing the bad guys to justice.  But let’s not forget it was accountants who finally brought American gangster Al Capone to justice. The government couldn’t pin him for murder or theft but they did get him for tax evasion. And in The Untouchables the accountant even got to carry a shotgun.

Accounting’s professional bodies and many accounting firms want to bring more Indigenous people into the profession. The law profession has achieved a great deal by actively assisting and encouraging Indigenous law students, led by the elite of the profession. I believe accounting can do the same. But we also need Indigenous people to actively pursue accounting and finance studies.

I expect many young Indigenous people don’t think of accounting as a career pathway that’s vitally important to the future of Indigenous people and communities, but it is. Because our cultures can only survive and thrive if our people fully participate in the real economy.

Accountant Thumnail

It was the accountants who finally brought gangster Al Capone to justice.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine is Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce. This article was published in the Koori Mail on 18 May 2016.

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