It’s not unexpected that, in presenting a report that confirms our national strategy to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is failing, a government — any government — would endeavour to put the best gloss on it. Thus, in reporting that we were on track in three of the seven Closing The Gap targets, Malcolm Turnbull yesterday pointed out this was the best result since 2011. Moreover, the government is “refreshing” the strategy, and made much of the consultation with Indigenous leaders and communities that is (finally) being undertaken in relation to it — although the Prime Minister in question time seemed to suggest he wished the whole process would hurry up.

But the Prime Minister also devoted much of his speech yesterday — around a fifth of it — to boasting of his government’s efforts to encourage Indigenous businesses:

In 2012-13, Indigenous business secured just $6 million of contracts through federal government procurement. Since we set targets through our Indigenous Procurement Policy in 2015, I am pleased to announce Indigenous businesses have now won over $1 billion in government contracts. This program, which is a great credit to the Minister Nigel Scullion, this program has exceeded all expectations. It is being emulated, as you would have seen at the gathering earlier with the BCA.

Better yet, according to Turnbull, the push to encourage Indigenous businesses was just a part of the government’s bigger story of corporate tax cuts:

On this side of the chamber we are determined to build a strong economy, where everyone who can work, is able to find employment. Our push for an internationally competitive tax system is designed to enable all Australian businesses, including those owned and operated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, to invest and grow.

Yes, you read that right: Turnbull actually used the Closing The Gap report to spruik his government’s company tax cut plans. 

Governments of both sides have long sought to distract from the disgraceful state of Indigenous health, education and employment outcomes by talking up economic opportunity.

Successful overseas programmes such as Aboriginal Business Canada have inspired initiatives such as Indigenous Business Australia. The Commercial Development Corporation continues to forge partnerships between indigenous people and corporate Australia by developing commercially viable joint ventures which not only enable indigenous Australians to acquire equity in a number of large businesses but also provide indigenous Australians with opportunities for employment and training.

That was in the Howard government’s 2000-01 budget, where it boasted of its commitment to “practical reconciliation”.

That government, at least, over the following seven years, presided over strong employment growth; 2006 remains the high point of Indigenous employment. Turnbull’s focus on the success of his government’s support for Indigenous businesses is despite Indigenous unemployment increasing — it’s one of the four targets that are not on track, and not even close to being on track.

Given the government is lavishing cash on some of the world’s most powerful corporations as part of its defence protectionism, there’s no reason why Indigenous businesses — notwithstanding immense definitional problems — shouldn’t share in the largesse. But such help, under the rubric of Indigenous economic engagement, barely works as a figleaf for failure when economic indicators for Indigenous communities are going backward.

Peter Fray

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