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Ending economic racism: bringing together the Indigenous and business communities

By Chris Lee - posted Thursday, 15 March 2001

There has been increasing debate about Indigenous economics development between Indigenous people, Governments and business groups.

Some are calling for welfare reforms while other argue to maintain the status quo. Various models for economic development have been produced by the groups such as the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, ATSIC and others.

The current Government wants to merge all of the existing functions into a super model based on streamlining services and access etc.


Recent legislative acts such as Native Title, Wik and to some extent, the Land Rights acts have forced business to recognise and partner with Indigenous people in developing commercial opportunities on our land. Much of these mandatory obligations have caused resentment and hostility because Indigenous peoples are seen as a commodity, not a partner.

There are groups such as Balkanu in Cairns and the Southern Aboriginal Corporation in WA who are proactive in community business development.

However, many of today’s top corporations are not prepared to deal with Indigenous people and Indigenous businesses because of widespread ignorance of Indigenous peoples and cultures.

We have witnessed many governments and corporations, wishing to enter ASEAN markets, adopt Asian protocols, employ Asian people and accept the business practices of the Asian community. However, when it comes to partnering with the Indigenous market, which is conservatively estimated to be worth $2.3 Billion dollars per annum, many of today’s top companies rely on negative stereotypical images of Indigenous work ethics, skills, and cultural practices to steer clear of partnerships and joint ventures.

Also, Indigenous people suffer from general misconceptions perpetrated by One Nation and other right-wing conservatives. The Prime Minister refuses to acknowledge that there was a generation of Indigenous people who were stolen from their families and culture; he refuses to acknowledge that the Indigenous people of Australia deserve an apology for the atrocities perpetrated over a couple of centuries.

Many of these historical and contemporary factors have imbedded corporate cultural ignorance, which contributes to Indigenous people remaining at the lowest socio-economic level in today's society.


We are starting to see slight behavioural change but not the attitudinal change necessary for open business partnerships. There still exists an enormous misunderstanding of Indigenous peoples and cultures. Language is the key to any culture. Business is no different. We need to learn their language and they need to learn ours.

Many of the Government’s attempts to assist Indigenous economic advancement are thinly disguised grant programs that include arduous application, proof, reporting and compliance requirements.

ATSIC, the Commercial Development Corporation, Indigenous Land Commission and its commercial offshoot, Land Enterprise Australia have funds available to 'invest' in Indigenous joint ventures but again only once rigorous assessments have been conducted.

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This is an edited version of a speech given to the Indigenous People and Racism Conference in Sydney on February 20, 2001.

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About the Author

Chris Lee is Chief Executive Officer of Hall Chadwick Indigenous Services.

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