The Forrest Report: Closing The Gap?


In August this year, The Federal government released the Forrest Report, a policy doctrine of sorts delivered by Andrew Forrest to inform Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s approach to indigenous affairs in Australia. The response to the content of this report has been mixed; some hailing it as a comprehensive work that will evolve the place of indigenous Australians in our society, whilst others have called it an ignorant and idealistic document that ignores evidence-based research. Two months on, Sustaining People looks at the impact of Australian business on the indigenous community, and what is being done, and what could be done better.

The Forrest Report, specifies recommendations to ensure parity between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, with education and economic participation as the major lynchpins for breaking the welfare cycle. The report states that the Australian Government needs a ‘seismic’ approach to ending the disparity, but also emphasises that the business community must work with government to enable job opportunities for the approximate 80,000 indigenous Australians entering either the workforce (or welfare cycle) over the next several years.

The iniquities are disparaging, and you can see below how difficult a task it will be to close the gap.


The Current Gap

The advantages of big business

Resource giants like BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto invest heavily in Aboriginal communities because much of their operations affect remote communities and their land holdings. These organisations provide infrastructure, training and jobs in addition to community engagement programs to ensure that their operations can move ahead without impediment. Telstra, Virgin Australia and National Australia Bank are just three of the many large corporates offering cadetships and Indigenous employment programs which upskill and mentor young people, and teaches them what is expected of them as employees, regardless of ethnicity. These mentoring programs see professional Aboriginal men and women teaching their mentees about behavioural, dress and career expectations; this is an important role for Aboriginal professionals to play, as shared cultural identity makes it easier to understand the issues these youngsters may face. The danger in having a non-Aboriginal (and perhaps culturally apathetic) mentor, is that providing strong guidance, structure and motivation to a mentee can lead to the perception of racial vilification of indigenous youth.

Whilst these education and training initiatives build a potential future workforce, they simultaneously produce social returns, namely equality and self-determination for indigenous communities. Social empowerment provides other flow on effects, namely improved health and mortality rates, stabilised fertility rates, and a reduction in the frequency of criminal activity, domestic violence and incarceration.

As noted previously by Sustaining People, education is the ‘silver bullet’ and has the potential to end disparity once and for all. This, however, is not all that corporates are capable of. It would be ignorant to take away from the work already being done by corporates in other areas outside of education and employment initiatives, as there are many fantastic programs that are providing services and opportunities to aboriginals. Companies who have committed to a Reconciliation Action Plan have the most structured approach to this, and use their core competencies to add value to Aboriginal communities. For the majority of companies that have developed a Reconciliation Action Plan, there is a real focus on ‘Opportunities & Actions’ around the following initiatives:

RAP Initiatives

These three areas – the first in particular – are good ways of increasing open communication and business between indigenous and non-indigenous communities, and help to engage Aboriginal small businesses in the wider Australian economy.

The most important assistance corporate bodies currently provides is in-kind support. Aside from a growing emphasis on education and employment opportunities, it makes sense that businesses use their core competencies to upgrade infrastructure, improve health services, increase access to financial and legal advice, and create community cohesion through sport and fitness. Here are seven case study organisations that currently work to give indigenous Australians ‘a hand up, not a hand out’.

Aboriginal Business Engagement

Small Business Complications

The Forrest Report demands that business must do more to close the gap. Mid-tier and top-tier companies have the size, resources and infrastructure to do so, however these organisations make up only 7% of Australian business, with the other 93% turning over less than $2 million per year. These smaller businesses account for more than 7 million of Australia’s 11.5 million person labour force, yet they contribute only 39% of Australia’s industrial value to the economy. 90% of these smaller organisations employ less than 20 people, so setting aside vital resources and capital to aid indigenous inclusion is generally not a viable option most of the time. Ethnicity matters little in these circumstances; not seeing strong indigenous representation across these organisations is endemic of a larger cultural and education deficit, rather than being a problem caused by closed-minded small business owners. These businesses need external assistance to bring on indigenous employees, and to train their existing team on cultural sensitivity and inclusion practices. This however does depend on the ability and education level of these potential employees, which can be affected from an early age.

Last week, Sustaining People noted that currently, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) people are severely under-represented in local and private education programs, with only around 10% of aboriginal children graduating from high schools nationally. Research from the last decade shows that ASTI students are often disadvantaged due to language barriers in early conceptual development and a mismatch between cultural beliefs and national education values. Indeed, by the time they start year one, 60% of ATSI children are behind developmentally. Later, at a university level, adjusting to socio-economic challenges in a predominantly non-ATSI student population can prove extremely difficult.

The ‘hand up’ for a lot of these young men and women is access to trade apprenticeships, traineeships and vocational training. It is also an area that sees a high level of external investment from government agencies and partnership organisations like GenerationOne. Not only do they provide guaranteed jobs and resources for incoming indigenous employees, but they provide small business owners with reference materials to assist with cultural sensitivity and integration, and preparing for indigenous inclusion in the workplace.

Where to next?

This is a complicated path for Australia to walk, and is a journey that will take more than one generation to see the full effects on Australian society and our indigenous communities. There is already much being done by businesses, especially large organisations towards education and training, and towards providing services that can assist in creating stronger and more sustainable communities. Already we are seeing businesses include indigenous suppliers in their supply chain, and supporting cultural awareness internally and externally. This combined with education initiatives and inclusion programs shows that corporates are able to make a big difference.

Closing the gap in small business can be a difficult conversation, particularly as there are significant capital restraints and don’t have access to the economies of scale that mid-tier and top-tier businesses do. Government and not-for-profit assistance works well for the trades sector, however more needs to be done to bring other small business sectors to the table; retail and agriculture are potential areas for growth, and bring unions on board is a good way of lobbying businesses for change. This has worked well in the trades sector with unions like the Plumbing Trades Employees Union and the CFMEU taking the lead.

Sustaining People believes that the Forrest Report is correct in that the business community needs to engage further in this process, and that improving access to education will be the way forward. What those involved in creating policy must remember is that whilst big business can assist the government in this mandate, small business need government assistance, for without it Australia will continue to see incremental change, rather than the sweeping ‘seisemic’ and systemic change it needs.

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