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The Australian National University

Indigenous communities and business: Three perspectives, 1998–2000

Working Paper 9 / 2001

Abstract

This paper was presented at the 4th Doing Business with Aboriginal Communities Conference held in Alice Springs in February 1998. Conference presentations covered a great deal of material on Indigenous, governmental and industry perspectives on doing business with Aboriginal communities. These included a number of empirical best practice case studies; perspectives of native title tribunal, legal and bureaucratic practitioners; and an Indigenous community voice. In an attempt to add value, I presented this overview under the broad rubric ‘new horizons, new opportunities and new strategies’ of the respective and highly interactive roles that Indigenous communities, governments, and industry can play to facilitate a higher degree of business engagement by Indigenous communities.

The overarching conceptual framework utilised here is a gross simplification of reality because it is clear that there is enormous diversity within each of the three simplified categories of Indigenous community, governments, and industry. For example, where does the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) fit within such a framework: is it Indigenous community or government or, as some unkindly suggest, ‘an industry’? The answer is, perhaps, all three. For this analysis ATSIC is placed firmly in the governmental domain, despite the enormous differences in many views between the current federal government and the ATSIC Board of Commissioners. It is assumed that, for analytical purposes, these simplifications will be accepted.

There is an ongoing and highly stylised exchange relationship that is continually occurring between these three entities. Government attempts to provide industry with the right environment and signals it to operate competitively and profitably. Industry provides government with taxes (sometimes in exchange for government-owned resources like mineral rights) and contributions to a healthy economy through job creation and other multiplier effects. Indigenous communities, where bestowed by rights of consent or rights of negotiation, provide industry with access to resources. Industry provides these communities with direct and indirect benefits increasingly defined in formal agreements.

The interaction between government and Indigenous communities is a little more complex, because there is an overarching social compact between the two based on citizenship entitlements and responsibilities. Nevertheless, in the doing business, development context, government provides Indigenous communities with economic programs and financial resources (sometimes as compensation) in exchange for direct or indirect savings, be they in taxes paid or welfare payments saved. It would not surprise that in this greatly simplified world and under ideal conditions ‘doing business with Aboriginal communities’ would require a tripartite (or three-way) approach that includes all three parties.

Within this overarching conceptual framework this paper aims to:

  • examine of broad economic and policy context to structurally and institutionally situate the position at this juncture in relation to doing business with Indigenous communities, focusing in particular on the role of the three distinct entities of Indigenous communities, business, and government; and
  • highlight some new horizons, new opportunities and new strategies for Indigenous business development while reiterating, perhaps a little pessimistically, some old challenges. In conclusion there is a view to the future, identifying new hurdles and cautiously noting the role that business might play in overall Indigenous economic development.
ISSN: 
1442 3871
ISBN: 
0 7315 4908 2
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