Approx Reading Time-10In order to solve Indigenous issues, it’s time whitefellas stop forcing solutions and start listening to what’s needed – Jeremy Goff


As I write this, Malcolm Turnbull is on NITV expressing his distress at the plight of Indigenous culture and language in Australia, and the importance of connection to country and culture.

Meanwhile, across the country, Dennis Jensen’s recent comments about remote Aboriginal communities stand in stark contrast.

Jensen says remote communities should not receive government funding because they are not economically sustainable. What’s more, all Aboriginal service provision should be mainstreamed because years of “special” programs have achieved nothing.

Some people say Jensen’s ideas are racist. Other’s say, “too right!”.

But that’s all politics.

The reality is more nuanced for remote Aboriginal communities; a one-size-fits-all solution does not exist.

Many of the communities in Jensen’s sights are in the Kimberley, in far northwest Western Australia. Like the marginal farmers and graziers Jensen’s happy to subsidise, remote Kimberley Aboriginal communities are turning to enterprise to create income where jobs are hard to come by.

A couple of years ago I went to the Kimberley to help set up a portfolio of independent Aboriginal-owned businesses operating without government.

What I found is that the existing government funding programs force Aboriginal businesses to break, bend or go around the rules if they want to succeed.

One of the first outfits I worked with was a long-established Aboriginal business unit running cultural heritage surveys for mining companies. Consistent with established practice it was operating on a “cost recovery” basis rather than charging a market price. As a result, it was making a $500,000 annual loss.

But what could they do? What price do you put on protecting cultural heritage?

Turns out the answer was $20,000 per day.

We spun the business unit off into a Pty Ltd company owned by traditional owners. Then we started charging on a “fee for service” basis.

The miners soon adapted and, in our first year of independent operation, the all-Aboriginal outfit made a $1 million profit for traditional owners to invest in health, education and other community development programs.

Not bad, eh Dennis?

Most Aboriginal businesses on remote traditional lands can’t change the rules like that. But they sure can bend them!

One old man – a very senior traditional elder – lives on one of the communities in Jensen’s sights. He lives on country. He maintains his culture. He takes young men into the desert every summer for proper initiation.

And he sends his kids to private school in Perth because he sees no reason why they can’t have a first-rate education and maintain their culture. To do that he’s got to bend the rules.

A while ago he needed $16,000 to spruce up the facilities at his popular remote tourism site. But there wasn’t a government program for improving campsites.

There was, however, funding for “Tourist Information Stands.” So he built one – five hundred clicks from the nearest township, with a large outdoor kitchen, gas cookers, a shade cloth, wooden tables, wash-up facilities and improved camping sites!

The number of tourist visits increased, as did his profitability.

Another traditional man, strong in his culture, runs one of the Kimberley’s most successful civil works companies. His kids go to good schools too.

The roughly $1 million worth of plant and equipment with which he started his business looks a lot like the kind of plant allocated by the government to the now defunct Community Development Employment Programs (CDEPs).

The CDEPs – dotted around remote Australia – were never allowed to use their assets to make a profit. The rules said they could only train people for “jobs” that didn’t exist.

But when the Howard government reviewed the CDEP program, it didn’t extend the program’s remit to help generate private wealth like you’d expect of a Liberal government. It just shut the program down and the economic opportunity evaporated.

What then is the answer?

Well, there isn’t one, but there is a truth that needs to be followed. Governments and Politicians need to get out of Aboriginal people’s way.

They definitely should provide resources, support, skills and training, and certainly ensure the proper use of public funds by monitoring the agreed long-term outcomes and milestones. But beyond setting the means, let Indigenous people get on with it. They’ll tell us when the system needs tweaking, and we should listen.

I can hear the chorus of outrage from the left (who find private enterprise inconsistent with their view of Indigenous culture) and the right (who don’t think Aboriginal people can be trusted with money). I can feel the patronising head-shaking whitefella bureaucrats knowing better.

In one sense they’re right. There will be winners and losers. The “gap” won’t close consistently across Aboriginal Australia.

Which raises an interesting question. Why shouldn’t remote Aboriginal people develop a middle class? It works for the rest of the nation!

We need to let Aboriginal people create the economies that work for them and we need to get out of the way.


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