Speech at the Supply Nation CEO Member Luncheon

Release Date: 
5 February 2015
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Thank you so much Charles for that introduction and welcome everybody.

I’d like to pay my respects to the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and to their elders past and present.

I see so many familiar faces here of people that I’ve dealt with over the last few years. Particularly Leah Armstrong who is on the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council and is perhaps the most relaxed woman here in the room, having recently retired from RA. I don’t know if Justin Mohammed is here who is perhaps the most stressed man in the room having taken over the role from Leah.

Michael McLeod, obviously a fantastic entrepreneur in his own right. Geoff McMullan who is going to be leading the discussion, and so many other distinguished guests that we have here that we hope to hear from during the panel discussion.

Can I at the outset congratulate Charles and your board and your staff for the work that you do. I believe now that you connect up to $45 million worth of Indigenous businesses each and every year and that’s just going up.

You mentioned your annual dinner, which I went to last year for the first time and I wish that every single Australian could go to that dinner because it is such a fantastic celebration of Australia’s Indigenous people.

I think if more people saw things like that and the tremendous successes which are going on, we wouldn’t always have the deficit model which sometimes we tend to revert to.

I just want to make a few remarks here, before we have our lunch, and I think we’re then having a panel discussion which will delve into some of the topics in more detail.

As you know, each year the Prime Minister of the day tables the Closing the Gap report in the first week of the parliamentary session. This will occur next Wednesday.

In some ways, the report this year will not be too dissimilar to the report last year. We have six indicators in that report and last year we reported that three of the indicators were going well – year twelve attainment, child mortality and accessibility to early childhood education.

On two of the indicators we had largely flat lined– literacy and numeracy and life expectancy.

And on one of the indicators though, we are going backwards, still. And that is employment.

In my mind, employment shouldn’t be the sixth listed indicator, it should be the first listed indicator because I think it is the most important one above all else.

Why? Because in some respects, if you’ve got a job everything else tends to take care of itself.

I call it the great organising principle in your life. It provides structure. It provides economic independence. It tends to provide some stature for individuals in society.

But when you look at that data, we are going backwards in the employment gap. Indeed the gap of the Indigenous employment rate versus the non-Indigenous employment rate is now 30 percentage points.

Perhaps even more disturbingly, when you look back at the figures in the early 1970s, the Indigenous employment rate, at least amongst men, was 66 per cent in 1971. So we’ve actually collapsed since 1971, in large part I believe due to the advent of welfareism.

Unless we get that employment rate up to similar to the non-Indigenous rate, I think it’s going to be so difficult to be truly reconciled as a nation.

Lifting that rate must indeed be a shared enterprise. It’s a shared enterprise from business, from indigenous people themselves and from government.

On the business side, there is already some tremendous things which are going on, particularly amongst some businesses which are here today and we’ll certainly be hearing from Steve McRae from Lend Lease later on. But obviously more can be done.

Many Indigenous leaders are absolutely standing up and demanding greater employment. Leah has been one of those people.

On the government side, where I think we have to lead when we want to improve social indicators and in this area we do need to lead and we will be leading.

I don’t want to go through everything that we are going to be doing in this space and announcing in the next few weeks and months ahead, but let me just touch on one area which is particularly relevant to this audience, which is in respect to Indigenous business creation and growth.

I think this form of employment through Indigenous businesses is actually the best form of Indigenous employment.

Why do I say that? Firstly because Indigenous businesses employ Indigenous people at a rate 100 times that of non-Indigenous business.

And secondly, I personally believe that starting and creating your own business is almost one of the great acts of individual self-determination, where you’re creating your own business, you’re generating your own wealth and you’re employing other people in the process.

That is something that we need to strongly encourage as we go further and our vision should be that there’s Indigenous people in all walks of life in our society and our economy including in the business sector and including in the entrepreneurship sector.

There are indigenous entrepreneurs out there. We know that and Charles will tell me there’s something like 9,000 Indigenous businesses exist currently in Australia.

We can support them and the government has a role in supporting those businesses through our own procurement practices.

In some respects, we’ve got the policies in place to do that. We have an Exemptions Policy in place which allows us to engage Indigenous businesses.

We have the Indigenous Opportunities Policy in place which encourages companies who receive contracts from the Commonwealth to engage Indigenous businesses.

But we don’t seem to monitor it or enforce those policies. Consequently when you actually look at the data in terms of how many Indigenous businesses get supported through Commonwealth procurement, out of the $39 billion of procurement we do, in 2013 only $6m was given to Indigenous businesses, about 0.02 percent.

In Canada, the Federal Government gives something like $4.8 billion. In the United States the Federal Government gives close to about $110 billion worth of contracts to minority businesses.

We need to do better from the Commonwealth’s perspective. We need to show a leadership role in this space.

I cannot announce today exactly what our intent will be in this space, but I can assure members that we are looking very closely at the Forrest Review’s recommendation in this area, we are absolutely looking closely at the Canadian experience where in 1996 they werein a similar position to us now and set an Indigenous procurement target and now they’re at something like 4 per cent procurement that goes to Indigenous businesses.

And we’re looking at the United States experience where back in 1969 under President Nixon they set a target of 5 per cent for Indigenous businesses.

We are looking at all of those things and we will have a very substantial response to the Forrest Review in this area which will provide further opportunities, immense opportunities I believe, for Indigenous businesses to flourish in Australia.

We’re also looking at other things across the spectrum in relation to Indigenous employment.

We’ve got to do better as a nation on this front. We have to lead in that space. We want businesses to step up in that space and we’ll be asking businesses to step up more in that space.

But overall this has to be a shared enterprise. All of us must be engaged on this key measure of Indigenous employment.

Thank you.