Angus Graham

Winter 2010

The business of indigenous development

Disadvantage within Australia’s indigenous population remains a key national issue and there are few places where the fight is more intense and victory more important than on Cape York. The Cape York Institute, the policy and research centre founded and led by Noel Pearson, and its sister organisation, Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation, are key combatants in this battle, and have taken unprecedented responsibility for improving the quality of life of the region’s indigenous residents. The Cape York Institute and Balkanu have risen to prominence through the recent introduction of their pilot welfare reform program in four remote Cape York communities, with the objective of reducing, and ultimately eliminating, passive welfare reliance through engagement with the real economy. This philosophy underlies most of the projects undertaken by these organisations; that economic development and entrepreneurialism are vital to the indigenous people of Cape York gaining personal independence, reversing social deterioration and ‘closing the gap’.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Commerce (Finance) from the University of Queensland last year, I recently completed three months as an intern with the Cape York Institute and Balkanu, through the Aurora Project. My first six weeks was spent in Cairns as a legal intern and for the remainder of my time I was a pilot business / legal intern working remotely from home in Rockhampton and Brisbane. Despite the legal focus of my internship, I soon discovered that in this environment, the application of my legal skills in isolation was of little assistance. The importance of the law as a controlling and enabling mechanism for development activity on Cape York cannot be questioned, however an understanding of the relationship between the law, principles of commerce and business, and the economy-at-large proved to be just as relevant.

A large portion of my time in Cairns was devoted to researching and analysing the politically charged Wild Rivers scheme that was introduced by the Queensland Government five years ago. Wild Rivers remains a controversial and divisive issue, and for many of the Cape’s indigenous people has freshly stirred memories of broken promises. My brief required me to assess the impact that the legislation is likely to have on business development in affected areas. This involved core questions relating to statutory interpretation, particularly concerning planning and development law, of which I have never been, nor likely ever will be, an expert. However, from this quite technical starting point, countless other questions, all with a commercial or practical element, began to flow; what infrastructure does a campsite need, which steps will require professional assistance, how long does an environmental impact assessment take, and so on. To be placed in a situation where my personal judgment was so rigorously tested was partly frightening but mostly empowering, especially given the unique context of this work. Whilst I sidestepped much of the raw emotion that Wild Rivers has stimulated, the issue never ceased to be ‘real’ as ultimately I was considering the prospects that Aboriginal people have of generating a better life through their land.

Since finishing in Cairns and beginning the remote component of my internship, a general grounding in business and economics has been even more necessary for the tasks I have been given. So much of Balkanu and the Cape York Institute’s work involves the design and implementation of major projects, as opposed to the broad provision of services. Whilst particular expertise, for example in environmental science or community planning, is essential for the technical side of these projects, when it comes to assessing their feasibility, sustainability and success, a commercial perspective is quite useful. It was something of a surprise that my Aurora internship required an equivalent, if not greater, level of analytical and commercial thinking than the various vacation placements I have completed at ‘Big 4’ professional service firms and major law firms. The value of general business skills in the field of indigenous policy should certainly not be underestimated.

There are many more reasons to recommend an Aurora internship than this too. To begin with, the work, in addition to being challenging, was very interesting, and the cause undeniably worthwhile. I was also genuinely impressed by the amount of faith people within these organisations were willing to place in me. I would often receive a general brief for a task, and from that point onwards would largely be left to my own devices. Having never received this level of responsibility in practice before, I noticed an improvement in my decision making, problem solving and planning by the end of my internship. Both Balkanu and the Cape York Institute take their open door policy to the extreme. I was fortunate enough to attend a number of important meetings and press conferences for Wild Rivers issues, and to see leaders like Noel Pearson in action was as valuable a lesson as I can remember receiving. Finally, there were the experiences that one can only have by working within indigenous policy. Meeting people who have faced obstacles that I could never imagine and finding them to be outgoing, welcoming and full of hope was truly inspirational.

My Aurora internship was an incredibly rewarding experience that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in indigenous policy and social justice. Moreover, I would strongly recommend an internship to students or recent graduates with a commercial or business background, many of whom probably might not have considered such a program. The opportunity to apply and develop skills acquired at university in a unique environment and for such a deserving purpose should definitely be grasped.