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Marcia Langton
The facts about redneck economic theory

There’s redneck economic theory and then there’s what works.

Take one example. During the 2023 referendum campaign against Indigenous recognition, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton decided to attack Indigenous relationships with the business sector. In July 2023, he accused major corporations of being “woke” because they supported the “Yes” campaign. In the same month, on Sky News, he accused them of lacking “significant backbone”, “craving popularity” and “trying to please people in the Twittersphere”.

In The Australian Financial Review, columnist Jennifer Hewett pointed out that “targeted attempts to improve and encourage diversity and inclusion are regarded as basic business these days, of course”. Dutton didn’t care. He attacked Rio Tinto, BHP and Wesfarmers, in particular, and has since moved on to other corporations, calling for a boycott of Woolworths this month to stoke further hatred of Indigenous Australians in the lead-up to January 26.

Stunned by Dutton’s ignorance of the work done by more than 200 major Australian corporations to engage with Indigenous Australians, going back at least two decades, I asked Rio Tinto chief executive Jakob Stausholm if he had explained to Dutton the legally binding land access agreements the company had settled with Traditional Owners and the employment and business opportunities these agreements provided to the Indigenous people in their mining regions. He had. It was obvious then that Dutton and his colleagues were, and remain, prepared to destroy Indigenous economic opportunities for their political ambitions, using rhetoric imported directly from the United States, from far-right spin doctors such as Steve Bannon.

It’s time to look at the facts of the economic status of Indigenous Australians. While two out of three Australians voted for Peter Dutton’s racist misinformation, two out of three Indigenous Australians have no chance of closing the gap in their lifetime. The levels of poverty and disadvantage for the majority of First Australians are the worst in the nation and vie with areas in developing countries for the worst in the world. So why is it that one in three Indigenous Australians have reached economic parity with other Australians? Clearly, education and geography factors are key. Most who completed Year 12 and obtained tertiary qualifications have achieved a kind of equality, especially women. Rarely, though, has anyone from a remote part of Australia achieved this.

The tyranny of remoteness reigns as the driver of disadvantage for Indigenous Australians. Typically, rural and remote Australians have incomes a quarter less than city dwellers. For Indigenous Australians, this income divide is much worse. While significant, the dependence on social security income is not the only reason. The absence of services and institutions such as schools, especially secondary schools, and medical services, as well as the absence of energy, telecommunications and infrastructure at sufficient levels, combine to deter normal economic activity. Large-scale projects in the mining and agricultural sectors offer a few opportunities, such as some employment and downstream small to medium business development.

Despite this, in 2021 Associate Professor Michelle Evans, head of the University of Melbourne’s Indigenous business research group, reported her research showing “Indigenous businesses contribute at least $4.88 billion to the Australian economy – more than the beer industry”. The research, which I contributed to as a chief investigator, confirmed Indigenous businesses were successful drivers of employment and income improvements: “The study examined data from financial year 2006 to financial year 2018. Over that time, it found there was a 74-per-cent increase in the number of Indigenous businesses, that those businesses recorded 115-per-cent growth in gross income and that the sector created more than 22,000 new jobs.” In the second report of this research, data revealed Indigenous businesses were thriving across all regions of Australia and all sectors of the economy.

This economic inclusion is the result of decades of collaboration between Indigenous and corporate leaders. The business sector, especially the top 200 corporations, recognised that across Australia their businesses were intertwined with the lives of Indigenous neighbours. Indigenous employment measures, procurement of Indigenous goods and services, Indigenous land use agreements and reconciliation action plans, were developed across the great diversity of Indigenous populations. The courts created a favourable climate for these changes and the recognition of native title, the recognition of other Indigenous rights, several racial discrimination decisions in the High Court and the Federal Court, and the growing sense of agency among Indigenous people, led to unprecedented changes in the development of an Indigenous business sector.

More than a third of Australia’s land mass is subject to Indigenous rights and interests, in formal legal arrangements. These private rights comprise land returned under Aboriginal land rights and exclusive native title, and a smaller proportion is subject to non-exclusive possession under native title. Many native title claims remain outstanding, but the legislation accords the claimants important legal rights to be consulted and involved in negotiations in many circumstances.

The value this presented to governments and Indigenous leaders in facing the enormous challenge in improving the lives of Indigenous Australians became apparent. It took time, but the realisation of the efficiency, innovation and improved outcomes that Indigenous engagement with the private sector brought to the national project of “closing the gap” heralded some new and welcome policies. The Commonwealth Indigenous Procurement Policy improved outcomes dramatically, while the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and Indigenous Business Australia have driven steady change, again across all regions.

Indigenous businesses offer jobs and training to Indigenous people at far higher rates than other businesses. Procurement policies and approaches that give Indigenous businesses opportunities to tender for the billions of government spending on goods and services created jobs and has brought marginalised Aboriginal people into the private sector economy. This is the most effective way to overcome disadvantage and close the gap. The gates were open. Indigenous Australia was allowed into the Australian economy.

Despite these benefits, and despite at least 16,000 Indigenous businesses operating in Australia, there has always been some politicised pushback. During John Howard’s time as prime minister, an ugly narrative was cultivated, deliberately depicting Indigenous Australians as inherently incapable of joining the Australian economy. Howard recruited culture warriors to his cause of shaping our presence as a threat to the “decent” Australians in his constituency. He was joined by contributors to Quadrant, the newsletter of the gentrified far right, and others who attempted to elevate a fundamentally hateful account of Aboriginal life into the respectable and acceptable normative view that persists today.

Keith Windschuttle, Geoffrey Partington, Gary Johns and others did the thinking and writing for the political class to breathe new life into the racialist myths of nation-building. The myths were reinvented by neo-conservatives to valorise the triumph of British values and to vilify and marginalise Aboriginal people. This mythologising, more than everyday racism and historical exclusion, worked to exclude Indigenous people from developing businesses and entering the economy on their own terms.

Refusing to be defeated by the relentless racism, however, Indigenous entrepreneurs and community leaders running non-profit corporations have succeeded in establishing businesses with positive outcomes that far exceed those of the many failed bureaucratic experiments, such as the Community Development Program that traps about 30,000 people in permanent poverty.

As the referendum outcome demonstrated, the heavy hand of government control and the endless, nasty culture wars lead to a massive failure – a failure to make progress in closing the gap on life-threatening levels of disadvantage and instability or to fix the labyrinth of absurdly complex government policy. While Dutton salaciously exploited claims of child sexual abuse in Alice Springs, aided by Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Nyunggai Warren Mundine, the goal of better lives for Aboriginal families and communities slipped away.

Redneck economic theory – “get a job”, “boycott Woolworths” – disguises the real advances being made by Indigenous entrepreneurs and community leaders who provide many of the essential services to Indigenous Australians. Instead of attacking the very corporations that employ low-income Australians across the country, Dutton and his colleagues should hail their successes. While the remote area Indigenous populations are small, sparsely scattered and disadvantaged, they are usually significant and often the larger majority. This is where hundreds of Aboriginal contracting, tourism, cultural, cattle, labour hire, training, employment, community service and other enterprises have been developed. They service the major rural and remote industries.

In northern Australia, Aboriginal corporations own about 20 per cent of the rangelands where the huge northern cattle herd is located. About 60 per cent of the mines in Australia are co-located with or near Aboriginal communities and populations. Many of Australia’s mining, energy and construction companies have found Indigenous businesses perform above par. They deliver important local social impacts, such as much higher employment opportunities for Indigenous people.

The benefits are part of the strengthening of the economic performance of local populations in remote and rural areas, groups historically excluded from economic participation. Many Indigenous groups are looking for long-term investment solutions to build wealth for the next generation and reduce dependency on government funding, diversifying and planning for a strong economic future for their regions.

Deception, confusion and fatalism are the key messages of the “anti-woke” brigade. They have no policies or plans. They seek only to wreak havoc and create more misery. Australian governments, notably the Albanese government, can help to overcome this, just as Indigenous leaders have, by changing the risk-averse bureaucratic chaos and investing in Indigenous innovation and engagement.

Only Indigenous people can truly change the circumstances of their communities. Engaging with them and their regions in a meaningful way, empowering them and investing in their successes, is the way forward.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "The facts about redneck economic theory".

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