President’s column

THE DEBATE around reducing indigenous disadvantage is usually so steeped in disappointment that it’s hard to see the upside, or to even consider how we in Local Government could play a key role.

It is true scores of review and audits indicate a decades-long trail of public policy failures and disappointments. However, there are also instances of real progress and advancement.

Some were spelled out in the 2018 Closing the Gap report delivered by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Monday. It showed three targets (childhood mortality reductions, early childhood learning measures, and Year 12 high school completion rates) were met in the past year, compared with just one a year earlier. Despite a further seven targets not being in track, these are the most promising results since 2011.

That’s why the Commonwealth’s apparent reluctance to negotiate a new long-term funding agreement for remote Indigenous housing is disappointing.

The National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing (NPARIH) has helped relieve the chronic overcrowding, homelessness and generally poor housing conditions that afflict many indigenous Australians living in remote places, and it has had a positive impact on many Closing the Gap targets.

It’s also significantly boosted indigenous employment, with hundreds of apprentices and trainees attached to the NPARIH building program. And it has opened the way for qualified indigenous tradespeople to be employed in maintaining new and improved housing stocks.

The news this week on another aspect of Indigenous advancement – that of stimulating employment, business and entrepreneurship – was more encouraging, with Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion announcing a new Indigenous Business Sector Strategy.

This initiative, which builds on the Coalition’s Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP), will provide advice and support to entrepreneurs and business owners, as well as microfinance options for people trying to start small businesses in rural and remote areas.

Many Indigenous leaders and advocates say market-based economic opportunities are key to improving the lot of Indigenous Australians. In simple terms, jobs and small business opportunities provide pathways to independence.

I’m sure you all remember your first job, and how it set you on the path to the financial stability you enjoy today. So, is it possible your council could play a positive role in providing the same foothold for others?

Local Government spends over $35 billion a year, and even in the regions is a significant economic player, being both a major employer and a buyer of goods and services.

Has your council considered buying services from an Indigenous-owned company, or one that’s committed to growing Indigenous employment?  Has it considered setting targets for providing apprenticeships or employment to Indigenous school-leavers or graduates?

Do your council's policies allow and encourage your staff to make these choices?

It is possible for procurement policy to play a significant role in changing lives, and communities. For example, the IPP’s target for awarding Federal Government contracts to Indigenous businesses has been reached three years ahead of schedule; it’s now passed the $1 billion mark. Hundreds of Indigenous Aussies have found their first job, started their first business or grown their business by employing more Indigenous workers.

That suggests there’s plenty of scope for Local Government to stimulate real and sustainable business and employment growth in remote Australia.

Your council's procurement policy, your recruiting policies, and your purchasing decisions can make a difference. Why not follow the Commonwealth's example and benefit from the competence and experience of Indigenous Australians by providing them their with first job or a new business opportunity? 

Remember how important and empowering these opportunities were for you?

David O'Loughlin

President, ALGA