Indigenous commerce must come next

Remote indigenous communities will never achieve living standards equivalent to other communities until they embrace mainstream commercial activities.

By Warren Mundine
Executive Chairman, Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce


During my recent visit to Aurukun in Cape York, I saw firsthand the great work that has been achieved by the leadership of Noel Pearson and Cape York Partnerships who dared to propose and follow through with reforms that are transforming the lives of Aboriginal people in remote townships – a blanket alcohol ban, community-led welfare reform and the use of the Direct Instruction teaching method.

These initiatives are still regarded by many as controversial and radical. In fact they are common sense. It should not be radical for children to learn to read by being taught sounds and words and requiring them to master those before moving on, but in our society common sense ideas too often become mired in over-analysis and irrelevant agendas.

The next challenge for remote indigenous communities will require us to face another idea that seems controversial and radical but should also be common sense: commercial development.

I choose my words deliberately here. Remote indigenous communities will never achieve living standards equivalent to other communities until they become economically self-sufficient. This can only happen if they embrace mainstream commercial activities.

Indigenous people living in remote areas are treated differently under the law from other Australians. In most cases they cannot own their own homes. In regions subject to Land Rights Acts, government will not allow private title or make it so complex as to be almost impossible. To the extent that quasi-commercial ventures exist, they are often owned by government or statutory agencies, such as land councils, indigenous shire councils or other community not-for-profit corporations.

By contrast, remote non-indigenous communities can own property and operate their own businesses. Many have large economies which are not dependent on welfare.

Towns such as Aurukun were created when people were herded onto missions. The missionaries have gone but people in these communities are now locked into some kind of social and cultural museum, not able to develop like other communities. Many remote indigenous communities are conditioned to look to government and statutory entities to provide services and power their economy.

This stifles entrepreneurship and commercial activity. Remote indigenous communities have almost a complete absence of commerce. This needs to change.

Recently, I visited Arnhem Land for the Garma Festival held by the Yolngu Nation. The local traditional owners are embracing economic development through partnerships with mining companies and other initiatives.

Gulkula, a corporation owned by traditional owners, has established a timber mill that mills waste from nearby mines to produce hardwood for building and furniture and employs local Aboriginal people. In Baniyala, traditional owners have designed a private home ownership scheme under which people would be able to own their own home through 99-year leases and buy and sell land interests like other Australians.

It may take time for communities used to all activity being controlled by missions or government to adapt to commercial enterprise, but all human communities have had to experience this transition in one way or another. I don’t believe that indigenous communities are less able to adapt than anyone else. Commerce run by traditional owners – such as the Gulkula timber mill – can be a stepping stone to full private enterprise activity.

We often hear the mantra that there are no jobs in remote communities, therefore they should be closed. This is a myth. When the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour the people did not say, “There are no jobs here. Let’s go home.” Nor did they create a community frozen in a 1788 way of life. They created a vibrant city with an economy that adapted and evolved in step with the rest of society. It is absurd to say that resource-rich regions such as Cape York or Arnhem Land cannot be self-sustaining economies with jobs and commercial opportunities, economies that could be built on tourism, mining, retail, transport, agriculture and other industries.

Land ownership and commercial development are essential to this, removing laws that stifle private ownership and the ability to use land as an asset. Does Aurukun’s remoteness or small population preclude commerce? The NSW town of Bourke is a remote town with a comparable population, and an established township with commercial activity.

For too long Australia has held back remote indigenous people on the fringes of the economy, trapping them in a hopeless circle of poverty, with governments adopting a socialistic and “noble savage” approach. We must have the courage to treat remote indigenous populations like other human beings who can – indeed must – play a role in Australia’s economic future.

First published in The Australian Financial Review 10 October 2012

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