‘Hidden in plain sight’: How does a comprehensive review of legislation, data and theory lead towards a more accurate assessment of contribution and success by Indigenous corporations?

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Abstract

This article critically examines the modern narrative of struggling Indigenous enterprises by interrogating the database of Indigenous corporations, analysing the comprehensive review of governing legislation and applying legitimacy and stakeholder theories. With 3,567 Indigenous corporations, the sector is growing, serving communities, driving revenue, employing many Australians, paying taxes and enduring a pandemic. However, it still fails to be recognised for its success and celebrated. The recent review into the modernisation of the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (Cth) recognised wide diversity in the Indigenous corporations: ‘for-profit entities, registered charities, community-controlled entities and native title bodies—all at varying degrees of maturity’. The growing revenue of Indigenous corporations is spread among key socio-economic areas that are significant for Indigenous people and subjected to a major handicap — the ‘tyranny of distance’. Most Indigenous corporations are in remote and rural Australia, where access to goods, services and support is limited. Indigenous corporations play a critical role in supporting Australian communities — it is necessary to ensure their success is acknowledged and celebrated. This article works towards a more accurate assessment of Indigenous corporations’ contribution and the definition of success in the sector.
Rightly defining, recognising and celebrating the success of Indigenous corporations is paramount in further capacity building of the sector; improving education, training and employment outcomes; increasing ambition; and achieving Australia’s socio-economic and cultural potential.
Indigenous corporations are experts in navigating complex cosmological, cultural and regulatory frameworks for Indigenous corporations to flourish. This work is difficult. Nevertheless, Indigenous corporations engage daily to work within interdependencies to reduce uncertainty and ensure survival, success and growth. The socio-economic contribution of First Nations organisations consists of delivering benefits primarily to the Indigenous community, being legitimate traditional owners of the land, combined with up to 100 times higher probability of employing First Nations employees, and multiplied by the preservation of knowledge, language and culture ‘highlights the significant value created by the sector … [and ability of] First Nations entities balance ancient knowledge with contemporary market systems’. Stakeholder and legitimacy theories argue that the purpose of Indigenous corporations is socio-economic outcomes such as ‘trans-generational well-being of culture, health, education, employment, and housing’. ORIC data shows growth and impact in the same areas. This growth in revenue produced by Indigenous corporations has been observed over the years, including the year affected by COVID-19. The data demonstrate the significant contribution of Indigenous corporations to the sectors of socio-economic outcomes and the major handicap most Indigenous corporations are working with — the tyranny of distance.
Therefore, if we are starting our journey towards a better appreciation of the contribution of Indigenous corporations based on comprehensive review, data and theory, we must start by acknowledging legitimacy. Indigeneity is the central pillar of this definition, and culture, values and traditions appropriate to the community served are the auxiliary pillars. It is also necessary to continue with the stakeholders, noting that stakeholder relationships are not conducted in a laboratory setting and often include contested spaces. Additionally, recognise that Indigenous corporations are involved in ‘good work’ (social license to operate, cultural fit and trust), provide quality services and products, increase opportunities for the community they serve, and ensure adequate financial performance. We also must recognise the constraints of the tyranny of distance and be aware of the benefit of educating, training and growing the capacity of employees, without imposing additional onerous obligations. Even with the best intentions, non-Indigenous organisations usually struggle with creating and developing ways to take this journey. Conversely, Indigenous corporations have an innate ability and rarely celebrated expertise in navigating this contested and complex terrain.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)76-93
Number of pages18
JournalAustralian Journal of Corporate Law
Volume38
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 21 Dec 2022

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