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New push to find self-reliance

AS Federal politicians sound the death knell for Australia’s peak Indigenous representative body – the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Commission – a different  kind of will is slowly emerging to advance indigenous Australia’s plight.

Governments since the 1960s have tried patching up or reversing the low employment status of Aboriginal Australians by implementing policies and programs.

However, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics research fellow Boyd Hamilton Hunter in his 2001 analysis of the Indigenous labour market, a situation may actually have been created that has limited future options for Indigenous economic equality.

Shark Bay community group Yadgalah Aboriginal Corporation chairman Ben Bellottie, talking about the group’s recent purchase of a stake in a local resort, perhaps best echoes this sentiment.

“We could go forever and a day, for as long as ATSIC was around and sit on their funding program, but it was sort of going nowhere,” he said.

After functioning for almost 20 years as a small community group administering community programs, Mr Bellottie said the purchase had given them the hope of becoming self-sufficient without having to rely on government programs.

“Not too many people were interested in the story at the time but it was a real big deal for us,” he said.

While he admits they still have a long way to go and not everybody is supportive, a growing number of policy makers and business people are looking down this road.

That is, assisting Indigenous Australians in gaining business skills through participation in owning or managing commercial projects.

The Yadgalah Aboriginal Corporation was assisted in purchasing the resort with ATSIC loans and grants alomg with the support of ATSIC’s quasi-private sibling, Indigenous Business Australia.

Returns from most Indigenous investments flow back to communities, firstly to repay debt and then into the community groups or into further investments.

Although he could not say whether Indigenous participation in business was up or down in WA, State Development Minister Clive Brown agreed there was a growing support for this type of controlled market approach in WA.

“I see it regularly. There is a real determination in Aboriginal communities, in non-Aboriginal communities and in government to really advance the economic interests of aboriginal people,” he said.

While there are wide ranging opinions on what form this should take, evidence that indigenous interest in the ownership of commercial projects is growing.

Indigenous Business Australia, a statutory authority that has been likened to an Indigenous commercial bank, is very much a part of this move away from welfare.

IBA general manager Ron Moroney said there had been a lot of talk about a move away from welfare but there has been little movement so far because few people knew how to do it.

“It is going to take time,” he said.

“Most people tend to look at Aboriginal issues and look at the effect and not the cause.

“But if you look at problems in Aboriginal communities, it is largely about poverty and low incomes which effect people’s health and people’s lives in a significant way.

“What we are trying to do is to create an asset and wealth base through business development.

“That has happened in Canada, the US and Maoris [New Zealand] are heading down that track in a significant way.”

He said, as a result these countries had found, as they moved down the commercial path, social problems common to many Indigenous populations begin to decline.

For the moment, solo operators such as successful mining entrepreneur Daniel Tucker are sparse while indigenous partnerships seem the way to go.

Mr Moroney said IBA recently partnered with a commercially sophisticated indigenous partner in Fitzroy Crossing and had already sold out of a number of joint ventures with communities around Australia.

However, while WA is quite well represented in IBA’s investment portfolio the organisation’s investment has been somewhat constrained because of its attachment to the Federal Government.

One Indigenous Western Australian who is really testing the market is University of Western Australia finance graduate, Joe Procter.

Mr Procter recently moved to Sydney where he is heading up proposed Indigenous private equity fund Indigenous Capital Austalia,

Mr Procter is a firm believer in Indigenous ownership.

In the meantime, however, increasing numbers of Indigenous Australians are completing school and going to university.

Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Committee deputy chair Karen Jacobs said it was important to champion high achieving Indigenous Australians to encourage the younger generations to go that step further and do their graduate diplomas or masters.

“They are doing courses they feel comfortable with at the moment so what we are doing is encourage them to step outside their circle,’ she said.

 

 

 

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