Wally Tallis

Wally Tallis: If you want progress on Indigenous issues, stop the paternal control and work with us

Wally Tallis

Author: Wally Tallis

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Wally Tallis is of South Sea and Torres Strait Islander descent with family connections to the Birri Gubba peoples of North Queensland. He is the general manager of Indigenous Business Australia

Working in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs for more than 27 years through various government functions and more recently economic development at Indigenous Business Australia, I have had the privilege of working with many of our mob around programs and initiatives that attempt to address the disadvantage, over-representation and inequality our people face.

When developing policy settings or programs that aim to address these platforms, governments rarely have a sustainable long term strategy in place. The current government’s engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples around things like policy and delivery for programs like Closing the Gap do not satisfactorily incorporate our voices and beliefs.

These are generally the first things forfeited in the government’s blinkered pursuit of a single policy approach. Proper engagement with defined or select groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is all too rare, which hinders what many of our mobs have been calling for for some time: stop the paternal control and work with us.

Through many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures we need to also bring a consolidated maturity to our negotiation mechanisms. I believe we have to bring back our core values and principles. These I call my non-negotiables.

As a man of South Sea and Torres Strait Islander descent, with family connections to the Birri Gubba peoples of North Queensland, my non-negotiables include: caring for my family and making sure no harm comes to them from me or others; looking after and respecting country; and respect for the footprints of my elders and our family ways, for they have taught me to ensure they are preserved and built on.

In my travels and discussions with various mobs around the country, I’ve found these principles are consistently the most important to those mobs I have met as well. So are they the basis of our non-negotiables as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

A non-negotiable is absolute, it reflects who you really are – and where you really want to go. Are there common cultural non-negotiables that could form the basis for which we connect to each other and others, and could they be harnessed as a collective super-power for the benefit of our people? Can they form a basis that can ensure future policy setting and programs that encompass our non-negotiables?

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people our way of life for over 60,000 years includes our ability to preserve, nurture and support, but also to adjust and evolve. This is why we have been the longest continuing culture in the world. In an economic context, think about how well that translates to those key factors for succeeding in business, which requires in many aspects the ability to adjust to constant business trends and drivers and to increase market share and have strong brands. This, in a way, is setting business non-negotiables.

So why aren’t we more involved in the economic space as First Nations peoples? It’s time for this question to be explored. Corporate Australia, in part, still believes it is good social responsibility to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, businesses and communities. It goes beyond being just good business.

Every business should reflect the communities they live in. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the fastest growing population in Australia (according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is projected to increase by 2.2% per year compared to a projected annual growth rate of 1.6% for the total Australian population over the same period) and we have built into us, as part of our cultural non-negotiables, those key elements to be successful in business.

What that means for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and business is the need to be ready and own their place in this economic space, know they aren’t a silent partner, but of equal standing, and in fact imperative to the growth of some markets. To do this we need the right people in our communities to lead, and a support structure to build our commercial capability. We need to lead in this space with business ideas and intent, not be a passive follower in things like joint ventures, small-medium enterprises and implementation of government initiatives like Closing the Gap. We must have the commercial acumen and skills to best place us in the business world.

What is our cultural mechanism for economic development and who leads this? In my engagement with many mobs what is evident to me is that the younger generation, through the efforts of our old people, have the opportunity and education and commercial acumen to be at the table to inform and lead for many of our communities. What I see is a great balance of this next generation, who know the old ways and the non-negotiables of this continually developing western economy. I believe they are ready to lead many of us in these discussions.

It’s time for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to own and control their economic place, and determine our role in future Australian economies. We are important and, in fact, I think business can learn a thing or two from us about long-term sustainability, adapting to change and surviving without relinquishing core values. This I call our Indigenous Culture and Brand.

Our success is to be embedded into future economies and decisions of this nation. It’s time for policy setters to change their thinking. I challenge them to think a different way. Instead of developing policies to fit into a Western context, develop them as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander would, with Western adaption to First Nations built into it. This way you will actually have the intent you desire.

This story was first published on 2 May 2017 by Guardian Australia as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX. Produced with assistance of IndigenousX & Guardian Australia staff.

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