From hunting to contracting

Professor Marcia Langton’s Narrm Oration draws an intriguing picture of Australia economically transformed and enhanced by a brave but simple expedient: removing the obstacles to Indigenous economic development

Professor Marcia Langton, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne

Published 19 November 2015

The good news is that Indigenous Australians have been formally allowed into the Australian economy.

First the iron ore miners, then many of the top 200 Australian corporations, and now the Commonwealth government, have created an Indigenous supply chain by procuring goods and services from Indigenous businesses.

The growth in the number of these businesses is a core achievement of a new approach to engaging with Indigenous Australians.

The outcomes are overwhelmingly beneficial.

Indigenous workers carry out running repairs on giant machinery as part of their daily work at Christmas Creek mine in the Pilbara, Western Australia. Picture supplied

This follows the history of economic exclusion from colonial times to the 21st century.

Yet, in many ways, Indigenous people remain locked out of normal economic participation. So, with one gate open, we should now think about removing the fences.

Marcia Langton, Professor of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, is delivering the 7th annual Narrm Oration at the Copland Theatre in the Faculty of Business and Economics. Picture: University of Melbourne

If the benefits of Australia’s prosperity are to be fairly shared, a new paradigm of Indigenous economic development is needed. We need bold policy initiatives

A wealth of goodwill in the corporate sector has swept aside the negative attitudes of the past, resulting in innovative ways of engaging Indigenous people in practical economic ways, such as employment and enterprise development through procurement of Indigenous goods and services.

Australian governments have responded, somewhat belatedly, but the realisation of the efficiency, innovation and improved outcomes that Indigenous engagement with the private sector brings to the national project of ‘closing the gap’ has heralded some new and welcome policies.

Victor Parker and fellow workers at Christmas Creek mine, Pilbara, Western Australia. Picture supplied

In July, this year the Commonwealth Indigenous Procurement Policy became effective. It is modelled on a key recommendation of the Forrest Review of Indigenous Employment and Training, for which I was contracted by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet as an adviser.

Those familiar with my work on Indigenous agreements with mining companies would know that the Indigenous supply chain in the iron ore industry in Western Australia alone now exceeds $AU3 billion, achieved in less than five years.

In contrast, this new Commonwealth policy takes an incremental approach, one that requires a one percent increase, year by year, to reach three per cent in 2017, in value terms only, of a highly restricted proportion of the Commonwealth procurement expenditure.

The welcome but limited approach by the Federal Government to including an Indigenous supply chain in its business has pushed the gate a little further open.

Throughout the world, there is broad consensus that the only sustainable exit from poverty is economic progress, with development that is inclusive of the most disadvantaged.

In Australia, despite decades of unprecedented growth nationally, entrenched poverty remains a reality for about half of the Indigenous population.

Half the Indigenous population is likely to achieve levels of parity in their socioeconomic conditions, while the other half of our population are more than likely to remain in desperately poor conditions which give rise to their high levels of morbidity, low rates of life expectancy, education, employment and housing.

Half the Indigenous population is likely to achieve levels of parity in their socioeconomic conditions. Picture: Getty Images

Last year, I accepted Noel Pearson’s invitation to serve as one of three reviewers in a special inquiry into what we call ‘Tribal Wealth’, and the deployment of that wealth in pursuit of parity.

This notion of our assets must include native title recognition and rights and the major role these play in advancing Indigenous people’s development aspirations.

Maori leader Sir Tipene O’Regan, who famously negotiated the Ngai Tahu Settlement in New Zealand, and Australian disrupter and entrepreneur Mark Carnegie, also accepted Pearson’s invitation.

Our terms of reference address Indigenous enterprise development that can only come about if the policy obstacles to our participation in the economy are removed. We must defeat the welfare paradigm that impoverishes Indigenous Australians. We must challenge the idea that everything governments say they are doing actually aid Indigenous people in their development.

Because whatever their intentions, the incentives created by public programs, the red-tape and regulatory obligations can, and often do, work perversely.

More than a third of Australia’s land mass is now Indigenous-owned or is subject to Indigenous rights and interests in formal legal ways.

Land rights and native title June 2013, via Australian Law Reform Commission

These private rights comprise over 22 percent returned as Aboriginal land rights and exclusive native title; a further 11 per cent is subject to non-exclusive possession under native title.

The waste and the lost opportunity cost of our exclusion from the economy by virtue of an outdated policy paradigm is a burden on all Australians, not just Indigenous Australians. I address these challenges in my Narrm Oration.

In many ways, innovators in the Indigenous world have made sustainable progress in defeating the welfare paradigm.

The new Commonwealth procurement policy and the gradual adoption of this approach by the states and territories enable Indigenous economic development. The good news is that Indigenous Australia is open for business, and with the goodwill of Australian governments, this will benefit all Australians.

Indigenous workers contribute expertise across the board for mining operations at Christmas Creek

This opinion piece is based on the 2015 Narrm Oration delivered by Professor Marcia Langton at the University of Melbourne’s Copland Theatre on Thursday 19 November. Listen to the full oration to hear Professor Langton’s explanation of the perversity of the policies – historic and current – that hinder Indigenous economic development and, by extension, the health and wealth of modern Australia.

Marcia Langton is a Yiman descendant from Queensland. She is Professor of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, a director of ICRG Pty Ltd and Riverview Global Pty Ltd, and Chair of Guma ICRG JV Pty Ltd. (

Banner:Water truck at the Christmas Creek mine in the Pilbara, Western Australia/Supplied

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