More than 460 Indigenous and non-Indigenous delegates from Infrastructure and Construction industries travelled to Wonnarua Country, in Maitland, New South Wales this week for the third annual Indigenous Chamber of Commerce Inc (NSWICC), Infrastructure and Construction Conference, the largest event of its kind in Australia.
NSWICC is the peak body for Indigenous Business within New South Wales and is an Independent, non-government funded body developed by Indigenous Entrepreneurs who represent over five hundred majority owned and controlled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses.
The organisation has been operating for seven years and was established to support business owners and provide opportunities for togetherness, networking and exchanging of ideas.
NSWICC have said that despite targeted procurement policies and RAPs adopted by governments and the wider business sector, the spend with First Nations suppliers is less than it could be and should be.
This year's Infrastructure and Construction event was bustling with positive energy as attendees participated in a tradeshow to showcase their businesses, followed by a series of speakers and a gala dinner awards evening.
Guests were Welcomed to Country by Uncle James Wilson Miller, a senior Elder of the Guringai Clan of the Wonnarua nation. He shared his knowledge of family, childhood and connection to country before Waagan Galga and Mui Mui Bumer Gedlam performed traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance.
Jacob Ellis and Keiren Waters of Wagaan Galga - Traditional Dancers (Video: Jess Whaler)
Yamatji man Ernie Dingo MCd proceedings, which ran over two days delivering a program intended to connect, educate and unlock best practice within Indigenous procurement, job creation and sector growth.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney presented to the audience via pre-recorded video and apologised for not being there in person.
"The New South Wales Indigenous Chamber of Commerce and its members is so important. Empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses doesn't only help those businesses, it goes the communities that our businesses support. It builds our culture. We can use our proud history and knowledge to strengthen our economic security. And it builds up the next generation of indigenous leaders and entrepreneurs our government is committed to supporting jobs at an employment for First Nations people," she said.
"We're committed to replacing the community development program with a new program that delivers real jobs, proper wages and decent conditions. We're doubling the number of Indigenous rangers by the end of the decade. And the Indigenous procurement policy is stimulating Indigenous and entrepreneurship businesses and economic development but when it comes to building the economic prosperity of our communities."
NSW Premier Chris Minns also presented via video and said the ICC has helped grow our states thriving Indigenous business sector for nearly two decades.
"Indigenous businesses can be vehicles of self determination, driving positive employment training and broader social outcomes," he said.
"Over the years the ICC's work has helped countless Indigenous entrepreneurs, business owners and jobseekers get ahead. Not in its third year the forum recognises the enormous opportunities that exist within the infrastructure and construction sector. It's all about building a better future for tomorrow."
Whilst the Federal Government have voiced a commitment to Indigenous Procurement policies, many attendees on the ground running construction businesses told National Indigenous Times they are not feeling the benefit or impact of the policies.
Community members told National Indigenous Times they had concerns including Black Cladding and small businesses not being able to compete with the low prices set by larger businesses in competition.
Supply Nation's definition of an Indigenous business is at least 50 per cent owned by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islands person(s). This definition is also applied by Federal and State Government and most corporate organisations. Any business that is 50 per cent or more owned by Indigenous Australians is eligible under the IPP and state-based Indigenous procurement policies. Crucially, the Indigenous party in the business should receive equal benefit from the arrangement.
Other concerns included non-Indigenous businesses taking on employees who have been trained by Indigenous businesses early in their careers and subsequently using them to be eligible for Indigenous funding or projects.
Wiradjuri man Paul Towney, who is making waves in the industry by speaking out about the inequities faced by mob in construction and trades, specifically in New South Wales, made his first appearing on Q&A earlier this year. He told National Indigenous Times he is fed up with the situation and his business is far from thriving, having received ten unsuccessful tender letters this year alone.
Gumbaynggirr and Dunghutti man Desmond Ahoy of Ahoy Traffic Control told National Indigenous Times that businesses in the industry are manipulating rules around the percentage of Indigenous ownership, sometimes strategically recruiting newly-identified people with very distant Indigenous heritage.
"If you want to embrace your culture, embrace your heritage - but don't do it just for a contract," he said.
Mr Ahoy said this is counterproductive to the purpose of the funding as it is there to feed back into Indigenous economies and communities, which rarely happens when projects and funding goes toward 'Tick the Box' businesses.
He shared an example of how supporting Indigenous businesses creates intergenerational change and supports whole communities.
"The (Indigenous procurement) policies have to be policed and it has to come from the top," he said.
Mr Ahoy noted that whilst the federal government is funding for training and certificates (tickets), trainees are not being given jobs because they do not have the practical experience or opportunities.
"Our Elders fought so hard in the past to give us this opportunity and they want us to become self sufficient and the only way to become self sufficient is our own businesses, black businesses local black businesses. The Black cladding situation is taking all of that away from us and it's you know, disrespecting our elders for what they done and everything," he said.
Des Ahoy of Ahoy Traffic Control. (Video: Jess Whaler - National Indigenous Times)
Kate Kelleher, a lead Indigenous facilitator at Evolve Communities - the recent recipients of a Telstra Business Award for building communities - told National Indigenous Times that Evolve's approach is about allyship and noted the need for their work was highly evident after the Voice referendum
"I think we probably all thought we were a bit further along the bush track than we were," she said.
Kate Kelleher and Evolve Communities allie with NIT. (Image: Jess Whaler)
Ms Kelleher said: "A lot of people that were not Indigenous stood up for our mob, and they struggled like many of us, to know what to do. So one of the things that Evolve decided to do was create a pledge page saying 'I'm going to still stand up for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.'"
NIT asked Mr Dingo what brought him to be involved in the NSWICC.
"What ICC does is create that platform for everybody to showcase what they're doing, get respect from their peers around them, network with each other and combine the types of works that they do with what other people do and you've always got someone looking over their shoulder to help them out, the ICC makes it easier," he said.
Ernie Dingo yarning with NIT. (Image: Jess Whaler)
With regard to challenges facing Indigenous businesses, Mr Dingo said "there are challenges that people want to put in front of em, we've had that… you know… Blackfullas had challenges in trying to establish their own production or their own company from day dot, cause there has always been a bit of racial tension in regards to that".
"There's always been a bit of black screening, you know where they don't want blackfullas to not only muscle in on what they are doing but they black screen them, don't allow the betterment of that company," he said.
"When you get something like this (the conference), where everyone's got each other's back, then a lot more can be done."
Corey Brown, a proud Gamilaroi and Dhungutti man and owner of 100 per cent Indigenous owned business Goanna Solutions and Goanna Education, said that one key act non-Indigenous persons, government and businesses can do to help Indigenous communities is making that initial contact.
"Help me support our kids in community. Help me. We're out there doing it in community day in and day out, we're out there with our people trying to understand what our challenges are," he said.
"We are going around trying to understand what corporate Australia needs as well, there is a massive under-representation of Indigenous peoples across Australia in ICT. Help us help them. It doesn't have to be that hard."
NIT spoke with several business owners and over the coming days will profile several businesses and persons who attended the event.