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Big moves towards sustainable Indigenous economies

David Prestipino -

Concerns that the Voice referendum result could hinder economic progress for First Nations people have been somewhat offset by heavyweight initiatives recently from the banking and government sectors.

Impending initiatives promoting Indigenous home ownership, business enterprise and even land reclamation in parts of Western Australia have been complemented by First Nations-focused financial packages from Australia's big banks, while key infrastructure linking remote communities to mainstream economies are also on the horizon.

The Albanese government signalled intent earlier this month to open remote Indigenous communities where almost 100,000 First Nations people live to individual home ownership.

Northern Australia Minister Madeleine King wants funds from mining and resources projects established to ignite investment in Indigenous housing across remote communities, with long-term lease payments to profit the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.

The proposal would make commercial ventures in remote communities across Australia a possibility, with Traditional Owners driving the establishment of businesses, a labour workforce and eventually private investment.

Following Ms King's announcement of Federal Labor's plan, WA Premier Roger Cook confirmed it was drafting legislation to accelerate handover of about 20 million hectares of land from the Aboriginal Lands Trust, a statutory body set up in 1972 after church missions retreated from the state's North West.

The land represents roughly eight per cent of WA and would be handed back to 142 remote communities, where 12,000 Indigenous people live, with the state Labor Government weighing up how more trust lands could also be returned to remote communities for them to leverage opportunities.

The ALT's restrictive land tenure rules has arguably stifled Indigenous enterprise and home ownership in those regions for more than 50 years.

Financial institutions then came to the party, with the Commonwealth Bank first announcing a bespoke Indigenous Business service - in collaboration with Supply Nation, the country's biggest First Nations business directory - to accelerate Aboriginal enterprise.

The CBA is offering includes tailored financial packages for businesses, faster access to cash and workshops to aid exposure and growth, such as marketing, compliance and risk management, with the program particularly geared towards creating access to capital and sustainability for remote Indigenous businesses.

ANZ later announced the appointment of an inaugural Head of First Nations Strategy, Shelley Cable, a Noongar woman passionate about Indigenous economic empowerment, as a link with Indigenous business leaders.

The government and financial sector incentives to fast-track economic opportunities for businesses in remote regions, they may also ensure the sustainability of established and successful ones, such as procurement companies and tourism operators.

Proud Jawi woman Rosanna Angus, who runs a popular island-hopping tour on Sunday Island off WA's north coast, still can't access finance to expand her business.

Ms Angus - who was named Australia's top tourist guide in 2023 - and her brother Bolo, who runs Southern Cross Cultural Tours, which takes tourists on a cultural journey through traditional Country on the Dampier Peninsula, 200km north of Broome, are part of a burgeoning Indigenous tourism industry in one of the world's most beautiful but inaccessible regions.

The pair said ongoing roadblocks to expand and enhance their respective tourism business were constant challenges under WA's restrictive tenure rules, which were also unattractive to potential investors, with key infrastructure and utilities lacking.

"It's fantastic the exposure it generates for the business, but I still don't have the capacity to grow," Ms Angus said of her recent Australian Tourism Award accolade.

Mr Angus recently had to construct portable toilets on the back of a trailer for his tour guests as WA's tenure laws under the ALT won't permit private infrastructure.

WA's proposed land handover, which has always had bipartisan support, will likely be drafted for Parliament next year and eventually aid help operators like the Bolos as demand for Indigenous tourism experiences grows on the domestic and global front.

Meanwhile another shortcut, literally, is also afoot and will unite remote communities with mainstream economies across the nation.

Recent funding boosts from federal and state governments will help seal Australia's longest shortcut across Central Australia, the Outback Way - a paved route of 2700km that's been two decades in the making.

Once completed, the route would allow tourists and trucks to safely traverse through central Australia's Indigenous communities, unlocking opportunities for residents there to be economically sustainable.

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