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First Nations academic says barriers need to be removed to ensure a competitive playing field for Indigenous businesses

Brendan Foster -

First Nations academic Gningala Yarran-Mark says Indigenous procurement policies need to be overhauled and 'Black cladding' stamped out to allow to Indigenous businesses a fair chance in the economic domain.

Ms Yarran-Mark, whose PhD is looking at the barriers to the development of Aboriginal-controlled businesses said the federal government needed to review its Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP).

Under the current federal IPP, three per cent of all contracts, and 1.75 per cent of the value of all contracts, must be awarded to businesses that qualify as First Nation businesses.

"The review process of the Indigenous Procurement Policy needs to consider the wording around the Indigenous Procurement Policy, with the three per cent of available contracts," she told National Indigenous Times.

"But if you have a billion dollar spend for major infrastructure development and the little cronies that sit at the top get their slice, then there is only three per cent of the contract remaining, that's a very tiny piece of the pie.

"It should align itself to be three per cent of the total spend. Then you might get some serious deliverables."

Ms Yarran-Mark, who hails from four distinct language groups from Western Australia - Wongi/Yamitji on her mother's side and Nyoongar/Gitja on her father's side – says more needs to be done to stamp out the black cladding.

Black cladding is when non-Indigenous companies boost their Indigenous shareholder base or claim to be First Nation businesses in a bid to win government contracts.

"The colloquial term is Black cladding, but I like to call it misleading and deceptive conduct on the part of major players who are purporting to be Aboriginal businesses for the sake of the crumbs on the table," she said.

"It's very grubby behaviour which is at the detriment of those who are not necessarily positioned well enough to be able to take care of these economic opportunities.

"I not saying we've got it all wrong. Let me make it very clear that we have started on a journey that has been paved with problems ever since it was instituted, primarily by government officials who are driving the agenda.

"There needs to be a greater emphasis on an Indigenous narrative driving the agenda or working in partnership in finding a solution that is about true engagement."

Ms Yarran-Mark, who has spent almost two decades working across areas including health, education and training, justice, employment and economic development, says there should be stricter guidelines for businesses to prove they're majority owned and controlled by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

According to the federal government's Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP), an Aboriginal business is defined as a business with at least 50 per cent Indigenous ownership.

"Given the positive intent behind the social procurement framework is it possible to develop some kind of benchmark in terms of prequalification to identity genuine Indigenous operators as opposed to those that want to play the cloak and dagger game?" she said.

"In my research to date, there is no clear definitive response from the Indigenous business space, Supply Nation or academic authors to determine what qualifies as an Indigenous business.

"So, you have these competing interests that go from 51 per cent to 50 per cent and a whole range of other benchmarks but nobody has come up with a clear response about how to determine as to who is genuine in this space and who is disingenuous."

The former barrister and solicitor, who was the first Indigenous State Prosecutor in Western Australia, took aim at Supply Nation for not doing enough to weed out businesses engaging in black cladding.

Currently, Supply Nation is one of the few organisations in Australia that are verifying if businesses are majority-owned and controlled by Indigenous people.

A Parliamentary report on Indigenous Employment and Business in September 2021, suggested Supply Nation refine their criteria for an Aboriginal business to help prevent such practices.

The Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs' Report on Indigenous Participation in Employment and Business made 17 recommendations aimed at eliminating black cladding and enhancing the effect of the Indigenous Procurement Policy on Indigenous communities.

"What they (Supply Nation) are seeking to do in my humble opinion is expecting Aboriginal businesses to be the keepers and regulators in that space," Ms Yarran-Mark said.

"We have the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) that protects large body corporates from the deceptive behaviours that go on in the corporate space.

"Supply Nation doesn't have the kind of powers or authorities to assert any control over other than what they've been fed to decide as to 50 per cent or 51 per cent but that doesn't determine an Indigenous business."

"There are other qualifying criteria that are just as important that seem to be missed in the equation. And then, on the other end of the spectrum you have academics who have played in space for some time say, even if it was 25 per cent Indigenous control then that should also be good enough."

The Water Corporation and Edith Cowan University board member, hopes her research titled "to create a best practice model for defining an Indigenous business to combat black cladding in the Indigenous contractor landscape" will lead to firmer benchmarks and frameworks for both black cladding and Indigenous procurement policies.

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