Indigenous Social Business and
Address to the Indigenous Enterprise Summit
, Cape York
, Cape York Land Council
me first acknowledge the traditional owners of this land.
To the Ngunawal and to all of our friends here today, I bring
warmest greetings from our people in
I visited the Social Entrepreneurs Network web site, I saw that a big
picture of Noel Pearson is currently displayed.
Then I saw that there was a picture of me, and I felt like I was
portrayed as the main attraction of this summit.
It feels intimidating, but it is testament to the fact that
Noel’s efforts in
Pearson, winner of the inaugural “Social Entrepreneur of the Year
Award”, has opened up new opportunities for indigenous people like me. I don’t mean career opportunities in yet another “Aboriginal
industry” that is preoccupied with servicing our dysfunction.
Noel has added a new quality to our lives.
Let me explain how.
used to talk about “smoothing the pillow of the dying Aboriginal
race”. The racism of that
idea has been thrown on history’s scrap heap, but the underlying
pessimism of that attitude survived in a strange way.
Most people who accepted us as equals in principle, still didn’t
expect any solution to our endemic problems.
Least of all a solution worked out by indigenous people.
I have always been working in the real economy and have had real jobs.
I belonged to a people that were by and large irrelevant to the nation’s
to imagine belonging to people that by definition is a burden on the
are still bad in indigenous
must remove Aboriginal disadvantage with improved service delivery, they
say. But I maintain that
having high expectations of somebody is the greatest service that can be
done to him or her. And a lack
of expectation kills.
hope I don’t sound like a “motivational speaker” who believes that a
change in non-indigenous and indigenous people’s attitudes will lead to
quick results. Let me be the first to say that we in
vision include the following two ideas:
that we have an inalienable right, as one of the two peoples in this
country, to take our rightful place in the social and economic life of
this country. We disavow a
right to dependency, we have the right to economic independence as far as
active citizens in our society can be independent and responsible for
their own destiny.
that we want our children to be bicultural, and bi- and multilingual, and
that we retain our cultural heritage in its fullest vitality, whilst at
the same time being fully educated and engaged in the opportunities of the
is an ambitious vision. But
ambitious it must be. It would not seem so ambitious if our people were
functional. After all
bilingualism is well known in
when it comes to education and economic participation we don’t have the
same ambition and expectation of the capacity of our people that we have
for our achievements in sports and the arts.
Our young people thrive in competition, discipline and high
expectation – be it artistic or athletic – but in education,
employment and enterprise we nurture a culture of low expectation and
excuse making, which really betrays a lack of belief in our own
people and ourselves.
pessimism, this lack of belief, this resignation, is a culture amongst our
people and in the wider Australian culture.
It is reinforced and perpetuated by our own people and the wider
society. It infects the
expectations of the whites and the outlook of the blacks. This culture is
so pervasive and powerful that it convinces our people that economic
participation and wealth creation is not for our people.
It amounts to a fatal conclusion: capitalism and black fellas are
mutually exclusive to each other. And
worse than that: the idea that the cultural challenges facing our
people’s participation in market society represent cultural
contradictions that are insurmountable.
We should just resign ourselves to welfare dependency, because we
can never develop economically and retain our identity and culture.
To change this thinking is what Noel’s work is about.
It is this outlook that we utterly reject in
do not believe that there is any fatal contradiction between our culture
and identity as an indigenous people and the development of a real
economy. Indeed we argue that
the greatest threat to the long-term survival of our culture is our
passive welfare economic condition. It
is our situation of dependency, which is breaking down our social fabric,
and this social breakdown is resulting in the loss of our languages and
our culture. The cultural
traditions of socially dysfunctional people will not last long in this
world – they will soon pass away. Cultural
survival therefore makes economic development imperative.
is not to say that we do not acknowledge enormous challenges facing our
people in confronting economic development in the modern world in which we
hunter-gatherers now find ourselves. We
are keenly aware of them. We
know that we must find solutions to these real challenges, problems and
dilemmas. This morning I will
discuss some of these fundamental barriers to enterprise and economic
development facing our people, and I will outline some of the strategies
that we are in the process of developing in response to these realities.
Before talking about these barriers I will first answer the
Why enterprise and
the Social Entrepreneurs Network home page there is a link to a speech I
made last year to the Fred Hollows Foundation conference. I was surprised
to see the Sydney Morning Herald’s coverage of that conference.
Most prominence was given to some comments critical of Noel.
“Noel Pearson view comes under fire” was the headline.
think it is dishonest and will prove to be another self-sabotaging,
was more important to focus on the crisis in education which perpetuates
poverty and poor health, she said.”
literacy levels, and the fact that most small businesses fail within five
years, showed that those pinning hopes on entrepreneurship as a solution
were going to be sadly disappointed".
need emergency remedial programs. If you are going to overcome
socio-economic disadvantage in Aboriginal communities, it has to come back
to education, she said”
lack of political will, combined with poor resourcing, were the real
causes of a failure to bring about real change.”
is happening in this country is genocide by neglect.”
thinking is needed, such as that behind a Fred Hollows Foundation primary
school nutrition program at Beswick.”
breakfast and lunch at school, was largely paid for with contributions
made by families from their family support payments, she said.”
course I agree that it is excellent that parents are contributing to
making the children able to attend school.
Noel said last year that the government can’t feed hungry school
children the first thing in the morning and relieving parents of such
fundamental duties. There are
other things that Olga Havnen said that are more problematic. What is
happening is not only “genocide by neglect” and insufficient funding.
Indigenous dysfunction has increased in a way that can’t be
explained by dispossession and lack of funding.
There has been an explosion of passive welfare and substance abuse
wrote recently that for the last three and a half decades, we have blindly
made one decision after another that fuels those fires.
Many of those new factors, such as entitlements and the right to
drink are unavoidable if we remove discrimination, as Bill Jonas pointed
we have failed to develop a regional indigenous leadership that could meet
this challenge. Progressive
white people correctly supported our rights but also failed to se the
emerging disaster. Improved
service delivery with indigenous participation will not be enough when the
hurricanes of substance abuse and passive welfare dependency are turning
our communities upside down. The first step towards restoring social order
is to acknowledge that it is not enough to “work in partnerships with
communities and improve service delivery by taking a co-ordinated, whole-of-government,
holistic approach to service delivery".
society is so strong so it can provide services for addicts and other
dysfunctional people without a long-term strategy.
The economically and socially functional majority is sufficiently
large. And in spite of
scandals, political and corporate leaders are by and large honest.
But we have to acknowledge that in indigenous communities, the
policy must be to be biased in favour of a struggling group of functional
community members and to be determined in our resistance against abusive
people. We have to acknowledge that our vulnerability has attracted
non-indigenous parasites. Imagine
living in a community where the white council clerk produces illicit
drugs. We have to acknowledge
that there is an Aboriginal industry that is dependent on the perpetuation
of our dysfunction like farmers depend on rain.
It includes passive
welfare services delivery industries in government, non-government and
indigenous organisations. I spoke about that
last year I will not repeat it here.
of people are talking about health funding that matches need and renewed
efforts in education such as the project Olga Havnen described.
But in spite of Noel, there is too little discussion about the
internal and external threats I mentioned.
It is true that “the Aboriginal industry” is a common
expression, but I think it is regarded as being the property of
assimilationists of the political Right. Olga Havnen also said that it is
wrong and dangerous to say that remote communities can achieve economic
self-sufficiency by becoming entrepreneurs and small businesspeople.
work with small business development in areas as remote as the west coast
opportunities for jobs, income and careers will lie outside of
of the Bennelong society have suggested large-scale migration to cities
and large towns. It is true
that many nations have experienced mass emigration.
However, I don’t think that is realistic to expect an entire
people leaving their homes. How
could we survive such a collective heartbreak?
has been talking about the concept of ‘orbits’ as a solution to the
fear that we will we lose our culture and identity if we embrace western
education and move to economic growth centres.
our policy must be:
social order. Noel had opened
people’s eyes to the fact that social order is in many places not a new
concept, or something that’s missing since dispossession.
Many of our grandparents and parents built a new life in the
mission, but these achievements have been squandered during the period of
passive welfare. Using every
opportunity we can find to develop a real economy, because we cannot break
our connection with the land. But
our home must be a home base for mobile, functional people rather than a
me now turn to:
The barriers to
economic enterprise by our people
since the people of
more than 100 years numerous enterprise endeavours were tried.
Some were successful for a time, many struggled, many more failed.
All of the communities of
many of the old impediments still remain, there are many more
opportunities available to our people today.
These opportunities began to open up after citizenship and there
was more focus on our problems by government and the wider community.
This was also the time when passive welfare provisioning became the
predominant government response to our social and economic
the biggest difference between our situation prior to passive welfare and
our situation today is that we have had a couple of generations of our
people disengaged from work in the real economy. This has meant that many
of our people have failed to gain work experience and skills.
Whilst the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP)
counteracted some of the effects of our passive welfare dependency - this
has not been the same as real jobs in the real economy.
So many of our young people have little experience of work in the
mainstream and they lack skills, confidence and the habits necessary to
take and keep jobs.
large and small, have proven very difficult to develop and sustain.
Whilst many enterprises have failed, many more have not been able
to get off the ground. Even
obvious and straightforward enterprises cannot get started.
In my address this morning I will briefly identify those key
factors that impede Aboriginal enterprise development.
The focus is on those factors that are particular to Aboriginal
enterprise development. Of
course there are other factors relevant to enterprise success –
viability, markets, remoteness etc – which are also relevant.
These factors would result in enterprises struggling or failing
regardless of whether they were undertaken by Aboriginal people.
What I am concerned with here this morning is identifying those
factors that are barriers to Aboriginal enterprise.
Our governance, ownership and decision-making
structures as a barrier
to sort out ownership is a frequent reason for enterprise failure.
In the wider community, people who have a business idea and the
means to develop their idea can develop their own enterprise at their own
initiative. It is not as
straightforward in Aboriginal communities.
This is because Aboriginal people are invariably members of wider
family groups and communities, and individuals are not completely free to
undertake private enterprise. Many
assets (land being the primary example) are not capable of being privately
owned by individuals – they are communally held.
Similarly, opportunities are frequently seen as communal assets –
belonging to clan groups or to communities, not to individuals.
is therefore a frequently unresolved tension between private enterprise
and communal assets and opportunities.
This often results in privately owned enterprises being resented or
opposed by community members or organisations.
It results in many enterprise opportunities not being developed
because of disputation or opposition on the grounds that the opportunity
that is proposed to be taken up "belongs to the community, not to the
private enterprises do operate, it is frequently because the operator is
influential within the community, and is prepared to withstand opposition.
Private enterprises are therefore the subject of sometimes intense
community politicking. The
usual and least controversial approach to enterprise development is for
the community to own enterprises for the benefit of all members. But
countless community-owned enterprises have failed.
are enterprises, which are successfully owned and operated by communities:
such as supermarkets, canteens and service stations.
However many community-owned enterprises have failed because, at
the end of the day, no one took responsibility for them and the necessary
effort, diligence and extra necessary work was not put into them.
One of the reasons for the frequent failure of enterprises is the
lack of incentive arising from the ownership of the enterprise.
Insufficient thought is given to incentive and reward when
Aboriginal community enterprises are conceived.
ownership often has the following results:
are many failed enterprises owned and operated on behalf of a community,
which are likely to have succeeded if they were privately owned.
This is not to say that community ownership of enterprises is not
workable and appropriate for many enterprises.
Community ownership will be appropriate with some enterprises,
however, where there has been perennial failure in certain enterprises –
it is likely that the lack of incentive explains the failure.
The point is to ensure that in planning enterprises in Aboriginal
communities, the issues of incentive and reward need to be properly
this respect, Aboriginal enterprises differ little to mainstream
enterprises – incentive is still a key ingredient to motivation and
match – make wealth like white fellas, distribute wealth like black
is a lot of talk nowadays about the need for “cultural match” in
indigenous governance that is that the structures should match the
cultural arrangements and realities of indigenous groups if they are to be
successful. There is no doubt
much truth in this. However, I
would temper the idea that our governance structures must be made to suit
our social and cultural arrangements.
In relation to business organisation, we must also ensure that our
governance structures suit successful enterprise operation and management.
Indigenous social and cultural imperatives often result in the
creation of decision-making and ownership structures that make enterprise
ownership and management inefficient, unwieldy, impossible.
In fact I am prepared to argue that the overwhelming majority of
indigenous enterprise structures are unsuited to successful business –
and are completely unrealistic about commercial realities.
decision-making structures are about social and political representation,
whereas optimum business decision-making should be about expertise,
experience, knowledge and talent. Indigenous
decision-making structures are large and exclusive, whereas optimum
business decision-making is exclusive, lean and aimed at efficiency.
Indigenous groups contemplating enterprise find it hard to face up
to the business realities concerning decision-making and management –
and therefore develop community governing structures instead of
are two solutions to this issue. Firstly,
we must separate ownership from management, so that even if a group or
community is the ultimate owner of an enterprise – the management
structure is established along business lines.
In this way we let the best cake-makers operate in the kitchen and
we stay out of their way. The
rest of us – the owners – only get involved when the cake is made, and
it’s time to work out how the dividends are to be distributed for the
benefit of the group.
we must be prepared to recognise talent, experience, education, skills and
passion – rather than political and cultural considerations – when we
select those who are charged with the management of our enterprises.
This is about getting the best people as directors to run your
business. It also means that
external directors who are independent and disinterested should be
attracted onto the boards of indigenous enterprises.
The point is that we should separate functions so that we make
wealth like white fellas, but we distribute wealth like black fellas.
best example of an optimum enterprise-owning structure is the Morr Morr
Cattle Company – formerly called Delta Downs – near Normanton in the
brings me to the underlying caution that I have about making families
respectable in indigenous policy.
Families have been largely overlooked in Aboriginal policy.
Whilst the extended families of traditional Aboriginal society are
viewed positively, more often ‘families’ in Aboriginal communities
conjure up images of organisational nepotism and family disputation and
rivalry in community politics. This
family versus that family. The transformation of families from a positive
to a negative image, is a recent phenomenon in
the intensity of community politics has risen in recent years –
especially when we took over the management of our own organisations and
affairs with self-management – ‘families’ have gained more and more
pejorative connotations. Families
are associated with bias, unfairness, blind loyalty and corruption.
Critically, families have come to be seen as innately anti-community
because family imperatives (loyalties, obligations) make impartiality
impossible. It seemed that
successful community required the suppression of families.
Where families were dominant, the community suffered.
is no doubt much truth to the aspersions cast on families in the conduct
of community affairs. However,
these well-known problems with family politics in Aboriginal communities
should not lead us to the view that families are hopelessly problematic.
Rather we should look to the problems that arise from an approach
to governance in Aboriginal society that has an overwhelming emphasis on
‘communities’ and no recognition of families.
The proto-communist conception of Aboriginal society that dominated
Aboriginal affairs policy in the past, was simplistic and wrong.
It ‘flattened’ Aboriginal society into a homogeneous community
of people – like inmates of an institution.
Whilst obligation to the common good and concern for and
identification with a community wider than one’s family, are, without
doubt, most important values, the ‘community’ became the sole focus of
formal policy and family motivations became increasingly illegitimate.
with the transition to self-management, resources were granted by
government to, and came to be controlled by, community structures,
principally the Community Councils. These
community structures came to be the repository and distributor of the
great proportion of the resources and opportunities available to community
transferred resources through grant funding to these community structures.
Control over these community structures became the subject of
increasing importance as contests over resource and opportunity
allocations (jobs, houses, use of community assets and so on) became more
intense. Bias towards family
members in the allocation of resources became the subject of more and more
complaints against those controlling community structures.
Great pressure was brought to bear on family members in positions
of responsibility to prefer family members.
Community leaders were said to be torn between community
responsibility and family obligation, which were at odds with each other.
Disputation between families increased and the politicking around
community structures has grown to torrid levels.
Most tellingly, the word ‘nepotism’ entered into the lexicon of
community politics very early in the self-management process.
the family politicking and distrust focused on community structures is one
of the most debilitating features of community governance.
Families are forced to behave in ways destructive of community
interests and values – because
that is what the systems through which the community is expressed and
operates, necessarily requires. There
is a dysfunctional relationship between family and community when the
sole focus of policy is on the mechanisms of community.
Families do not have their own independent means of taking their
own responsibility and accessing resources without negotiating through the
political hoops and stresses of community. They are necessarily
jockeying with other families for these resources and opportunities.
Under the current system, successful community requires an unnatural
suppression of family – and this has not led to successful community.
It has in fact turned family responsibility into family selfishness
lack of expertise, experience, support institutions and networks as a
course our people also lack expertise, experience, support institutions
and networks that make for successful enterprise.
This is well appreciated by everyone here today.
all of our assets are in the form of dead capital is a barrier
barrier is that we lack capital. The
great majority of our assets are tied up in dead capital.
We can’t use our buildings, land, resources and other assets in
the same way as other people in the Australian economy.
Land and buildings represent capital in the Australian market
economy. For our people land
and buildings are just that: land and buildings.
They don’t represent what is normally the hidden dimension of
assets – they don’t represent capital.
There are strong cultural and policy considerations that have led
to this reality. Indigenous
land for good reason is inalienable. It
must remain so.
inalienability represents a huge difficulty for our economic development.
It is a difficulty we must overcome.
We must develop alternative ways in which we can access capital.
But it is not just a matter of raising and accessing capital.
It is also relevant to the decisions we make about where we invest
our capital. For example, if
we were going to invest in a hotel. If
we invest in a hotel on our own land, we must keep in mind that the
building and the business operating within it, are not going to represent
“capital” in any market sense. The
building has no market value and neither has the business upon it – if
the land upon which it is situated is inalienable.
We are probably better off investing in a hotel in
culture as a barrier
relation to Aboriginal economic development there is frequent reference to
the need for "culturally appropriate" enterprises and ways of
conducting enterprises. It is
never clear what is meant, however. It
is true that enterprise development presents new dilemmas and problems for
Aboriginal society and culture. The
usual assumption today is that enterprise must be adapted to the
requirements of Aboriginal society and culture.
There appear to be problems with this assumption. Firstly, how
"culturally appropriate" can enterprise be made to be?
Secondly, are there requirements of enterprise development, which
are culturally universal – in that Aboriginal enterprise cannot avoid
these requirements if they are to be successful?
is not the time to resolve these questions.
It is sufficient to recognise that "culture" is
frequently cited as a reason why enterprises need to be approached
differently in Aboriginal communities – and why Aboriginal enterprises
do not succeed. The fact is
that we now live in a market economy where the people with whom we coexist
and deal with daily, make their livelihoods and accumulate wealth through
enterprises. The goods
and services we utilise in our daily lives are provided by enterprises
owned by other people.
means that whilst, for cultural reasons, enterprise development may seem
foreign to our people – we are clearly a part of it.
But we are part of it as passive customers: we contribute our
resources to the livelihoods and the accumulation of wealth by other
people, and we seem unable to do it ourselves.
of private ownership
enterprise presents significant dilemmas to Aboriginal people. Private
enterprise may not be problematic for Aboriginal entrepreneurs operating
in the mainstream, but it becomes problematic in the community context,
where communal ownership of assets, resources and opportunities and
communal relationships and obligations are significant issues that have to
be dealt with. Private enterprise not only presents dilemmas to
entrepreneurs and their relationship with the community in which their
enterprise operates, it presents dilemmas to the community as a whole. On
the one hand private ownership may be the only feasible way of
successfully structuring and operating a number of enterprises, and on the
other hand they present dilemmas that are not easy to resolve.
are significant barriers to private enterprise development.
These barriers are not just manifested in the policy and political
difficulties involved in developing private enterprise within communities
– the barriers are psychological and cultural, in the sense that there
is an undercurrent of suspicion and misgivings in relation to private
enterprise within our Aboriginal communities, and frequently a belief that
it is foreign to our culture and society.
does not need to deny that these dilemmas are real in order to also make
the observation that it results in our people being unable to operate
enterprises – whilst other people are.
Indeed we seem to have no psychological and cultural problems
utilising private enterprises that are owned by strangers – but our own
people cannot own and provide these same services through their own
enterprises. It is a
situation, which condemns us to allowing others to profit from
opportunities within or involving our communities, but not our own people.
It is a situation, which we must confront.
I have sought to outline today is the political case for enterprise
development in indigenous
dilemmas and problems enterprise development present to our people, we
must face the fact that unless we succeed with enterprise development, our
people will be trapped in impoverishment and dependency. And we will
continue to fail to develop an economic base for our people.