Booking the Indigenous success dividend

This opinion article by Jennifer Westacott was published in The Deal magazine on 19 May 2017.

Australians share a hardwired belief in fairness and progress. Yet for much of our history, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have not come close to fully sharing in our national prosperity.

Countless well-meaning programs have tried to close the persistent gaps in life outcomes experienced by indigenous people, but all the best evidence indicates that economic advancement is the key to overcoming entrenched disadvantage.

Without downplaying the important cultural scars that our country must address, economic progress – a good job, good health, a good house and a bright future – remains the catalyst

for the advancement of indigenous and non-indigenous alike.

Boosting the long-term capacity of indigenous Australians will require an investment mindset, rather than one of welfare government intervention. Rather than only deploying resources to an indigenous community to address the symptoms of disadvantage, an investment approach boosts the capacity of communities and individuals to manage their own needs, delivering economic multipliers throughout the community.

The lesson is clear – invest in indigenous people’s opportunities to succeed and the dividends will flow.

We need a more business-like approach to taking risks. Instead of seizing on every stumble as an example of indigenous incapacity, we should accept that there will be setbacks and manage those risks accordingly.

Governance structures around indigenous-targeted schemes also need an investment mindset. When venture capitalists take a risk and invest in a start-up, they don’t hogtie the company with one-size-fits-all red tape and compliance hurdles that limit their options.

You wouldn’t micromanage Google as an investor, so why impose on indigenous people a patchwork of onerous short-term grants and programs? This doesn’t just go for governments; large companies are also capable of creating vast amounts of red tape within their organisations.

Instead of relentlessly focusing on what hasn’t been achieved, I would focus on indigenous people’s potential.

For too long we’ve typically only seen indigenous people succeed in sport and the arts – areas where their excellence is clearly evident and barriers to entry aren’t blocked by bias or the lens of low expectations.

Indigenous businesspeople should be encouraged to shoot for the stars and become role models not only for indigenous Australians, but for the rest of us. They should be encouraged to take advantage of global supply chains to offer competitively priced, market-leading products.

The ground is shifting, and I’m more encouraged about the opportunities for indigenous businesspeople than ever. The number of indigenous professionals has increased by 75 per cent in the past decade.

Among Business Council member companies in 2016 there were more than 20,000 indigenous employees, reflecting growth of 30 per cent since 2014. In the past three years, our members have spent more than $2 billion with indigenous businesses.

Companies achieve the most when they put indigenous programs at the heart of their business models, rather than off to the side as a well-meaning act of charity.

Coles has achieved remarkable indigenous employment outcomes, employing more than 1100 new recruits this financial year alone, by setting performance indicators to drive change internally.

The Commonwealth Bank, recognising it had a significant customer base in remote communities with unique characteristics, launched its Indigenous Customer Assistance Line in 2009.

The line, staffed by specially trained operators, assists remote-living customers not only with banking but through financial literacy support.

Today it services more than 100 remote communities, handling more than 3000 calls per week.

Qantas, along with its successful indigenous employment program, helps create jobs in some of Australia’s most remote areas through its carbon-offset partnership with the Kimberley Land Council. This partnership is a good example of the way indigenous land management and carbon credit programs are creating new models for economic advancement, deriving income from land stewardship. In remote areas, indigenous rangers use scientifically tested techniques to produce a commodity – carbon credits – to trade with business and governments. Indigenous carbon projects have generated $90 million for remote peoples in recent years.

The annual conference and tradeshow of Supply Nation, the country’s peak indigenous business body, recently attracted more than 1000 buyers from our largest businesses and government, making it their biggest ever.

Messagestick’s Michael Macleod, who was a leading advocate in establishing Supply Nation, is now joined by a growing cohort of impressive indigenous entrepreneurs.

There are promising signs that the indigenous talent pipeline is growing. There are more indigenous tertiary students and graduates than ever

before. Indigenous university graduates are getting jobs faster than their non-indigenous peers, with higher average commencing salaries. In 2016, more than 74 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander graduates were in full-time employment, compared with 70.9 per cent of non-indigenous graduates.

I commend The Australian for its focus on indigenous success, not just in The Deal today, but over many years. The media has a powerful and important role to play in shaping a narrative that celebrates indigenous achievement, pushing back against an outdated deficit discourse.

Indigenous children deserve to see powerful indigenous people in their newspapers and on their television screens – not only sportspeople and actors, but entrepreneurs, doctors and rangers.

They deserve to see inspiring indigenous leaders such as Professor Marcia Langton, who understand that the burden of low economic growth falls most heavily on the disadvantaged.

“Unfortunately electoral politics disguises the seriousness of the (economic) problem from ordinary people who think that … a tax cut to the corporates is somehow an assault on ordinary people, and that is not the case,” she told ABC’s Q&A last year.

Questioned by Tony Jones whether she accepted that cutting company tax would generate more jobs and economic activity, she answered: “It will. Yes. That’s what history tells us over and over again.”

This is a hard-headed approach, not a hard-hearted one.

Jennifer Westacott is chief executive of the Business Council of Australia and a non-executive director of Wesfarmers