Last week I delivered a major speech to the Future of Tropical Economies Conference in Cairns in which I talked about the Federal Government’s commitment to the development of Northern Australia and how we can harness human capital to develop the north.
This is a very important topic because the Federal Government will soon release a White Paper setting out its Government’s vision and policy for the future of Northern Australia. And earlier this month the joint parliamentary committee released a Report on the Development of Northern Australia to inform the White Paper.
The Committee’s Number 1 Recommendation was to establish new Federal Department of Northern Australian Development. I don’t agree the Number 1 priority for developing the north is more bureaucracy. Governments and public servants don’t generate economic growth and prosperity or create jobs and businesses. Private capital and commerce do that.
My message to governments and business is very clear: If you are serious about Northern Australian development don’t build a new bureaucracy; ensure that every child in remote Indigenous communities gets a proper education and insist that every adult gets a job. Because there’s no point talking about Northern Australian development unless you have a job ready and educated Indigenous population up there.
The Committee also said it’s critical that Australia find ways to build Northern Australia’s population.
It’s bizarre. Here we have politicians and business saying we need more people to move to north so we can develop it. But when it comes to remote Indigenous communities I often hear the opposite – there are no jobs, the communities should be closed and the people should move south.
How can there be a shortage of labour in Northern Australia on the one hand and a shortage of jobs on the other?
By 2040, Indigenous Australians will make up half the population of Northern Australia. Here is a source of human capital in Northern Australia right under our noses.
Yet we have people scratching their heads saying “How can we encourage people to move north?” Well Aboriginal people up there don’t need encouragement. They’ve fought for hundreds of years to stay on their lands. They want to live there.
It’s a no-brainer. Indigenous communities should be the first port of call to meet the demand for labour in Northern Australia.
The solution to education and employment is not a mystery. We have a proven model for welfare to work. And we’ve been educating children in Australia for 150 years. In my speech I outlined a detailed blueprint for education in remote Indigenous communities.
If the governments of Australia, Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia are serious about developing the north they must deliver a first class education to children in remote communities.
And if the private sector really wants to harness the opportunities in the north it must engage with Indigenous communities as partners. Because a huge proportion of the land in Northern Australia is Indigenous land and in 25 years Indigenous people will make up half the population.
This isn’t just a matter of corporate social responsibility or touch feely activities to put in your Reconciliation Action Plan. It’s not even about making a contribution to broker access to Aboriginal land. It’s a business imperative for you.
What I say to companies planning major projects in Northern Australia is this – What are you doing to ensure you have an educated local talent pool in 10, 15 or 20 years? If local schools aren’t producing people you can hire, what are you doing to address this? Have you engaged with communities about how you can help to establish schools or remedial schooling to educate the population? Today’s children are tomorrow’s workforce. And many children in the areas you are going to be doing business in are not getting educated in the way you will need your future workforce to be.
People have been talking about developing the north since before I was born. The Federal Government is about to release a White Paper on Northern Development. If the White Paper doesn’t put Indigenous education and employment at the centre of government policy, we’ll still be talking about this after I’m dead.