Crowded Out by Good Intentions

The problem in Aboriginal Australia is that there are many poor failures that no-one learns from.

Fail Often Fail Well
Joseph Schumpter

The problem in Aboriginal Australia is that there are many poor failures that no-one learns from. The pattern goes: Along comes Pollie who makes a big announcement. Highly educated bureaucrats with a huge sum of money and a vast array of assets go to work. Qantas shares rise as the bureaucrats fly all over the country. In the array of regional towns and cities funds are made available to employ another white university educated middle class person to “help”. Funds for business plans, funds for attending conferences, funds for doing anything other than investing in a business or a private firm are made available.

Along comes another Pollie and the whole thing goes around and around.

Since 1900 quasi government organisations like the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, Mission Australia, Anglicare and the Salvation Army have become permanent shifting mountains who are only marginally better than the public servants themselves.  As the jelly wobbles they pull out their spoons. In fact they are public servants supplemented by charitable donations.

Only in the last ten years have the charities begun to invest in social enterprises run and owned by community members. But even here as the Reverend Nicholas Francis made very clear at the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, there are grave problems. He left the Brotherhood in dispair. He discovered what historians of the working man’s welfare state have always known that the big charities are essentially part of the State.

What does this mean? For Aboriginal communities all over the country, a huge sum of the capital they need is tied up in red tape, invested in the wrong things and managed by the wrong people. Any idea or practical project they want to see develop is crowded out by good intentions.

The great, I am tempted to add white, hope was the formation of the Indigenous Land Council and Indigenous Business Australia which obtained their own funds after Mabo. However these organisations have been as hog tied as any of the non government agencies that form the Australian welfare state.

In every region Aboriginal leaders scratch out small wins and are all are constrained to fit into regulations that mean they should not and cannot fail on their own. Most are given funds not to do anything other than fill in forms and reports.

Of course the whole catastrophe is a failure but no-one learns anything.  There is no capitalist dynamic there is no dynamic at all. When you fund business plans and white overseers and bureaucrats to run ostensibly Aboriginal organisations invariably these ventures fail over and over again. But these failures are not something that Aboriginal leaders can learn from. Nor do the Pollies or bureaucrats ever learn because they constantly change and take no responsibility for any failures.

What is needed are sums of capital in Aboriginal Australia which are purely for building Aboriginal enterprise by Aboriginal people. Such sums need to be around for a long time. There is no need for white hangers on. White fellas who want to get involved should be no weight for Aboriginal communities to carry. Aboriginal Australians should not use their commercial or social or cultural capital to fund one salary that is not for one of their own people. The only justification there can be for a white fella working for an Aboriginal organisation is where it can clearly be demonstrated that the profit of that person’s work results in the salary of the white fella being covered. This should not be a soft exercise. Every white fella employee should be able to demonstrate that the value they create, rather than the grants they might sign of for . pays for their own salary and creates opportunities for their Aboriginal peers.

The task has to be free up the vast sums of capital that are dedicated to Aboriginal causes so that it can really function as investment capital for Aboriginal businesses, social businesses and cultural businesses. When this occurs no-one should worry about failure so long as the failure creates a learning experience that results in another attempt to have a go.

Disentangling the good intentions so that they do not crowd out real opportunities for Aboriginal people is the name of the game.