Key points:

  • South West Settlement has been authorised
  • What does the settlement mean for Noongar people?
  • Minimum spending within Noongar region is needed
  • There are still questions to be asked about the settlement

Last week it was widely reported that the South West Settlement negotiated between the Western Australian government and the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (SWALSC) had been authorised through a series of meetings.

It is worth examining what this Settlement provides for Noongar people, in particular those things detailed in ‘The Economic Participation Framework’.

The Key Deliverables of this Framework are:

  • Intensive capacity building in year one of the implementation of the Settlement, and ongoing support thereafter, in government tendering and contracting policies as well as the development and submission of tender documentation;
  • Promote early engagement between State Government agencies through Early Tender Advice for all Noongar businesses registered with Tenders WA;
  • Exemption from competitive tendering processes that allows for the direct engagement of a registered Noongar business for works, goods and services procurements valued at less than $150,000 (as outlined in the Engaging Aboriginal Business Policy and Open and Effective Competition Policy). This amount has been raised to $250,000 since the Framework was developed.
  • Increase registration of Noongar businesses on the Tenders WA website;
  • Provide Noongar representation on tender evaluation panels for Government agencies providing works in the South West where appropriate.

When we compare this to the types of economic concessions that you would expect to see when a mining company in the Pilbara signed an Indigenous Land Use Agreement with Traditional Owners, we can see that what is being put forward here is of limited value to any Noongar businesses. Nowhere in the Framework does it talk about real commitments in terms of targets. The wording is non-committal with very little substance. Generally these types of agreements would provide for:

  • A minimum percentage of Aboriginal employees on any project.
  • Priority in tenders for Aboriginal businesses and all other contractors on the project to report on the Indigenous contract spend they procured.

To really assist Noongar businesses, in line with the federal government’s recent policies we would expect to see a guideline of a minimum percentage of state government spending going to Noongar or Aboriginal businesses and priority in tenders to Noongar businesses. Having real targets in place at the state level in the same way would enforce the state agencies to engage in procuring from Noongar business in the South West region; whereas the current policy of providing exemptions from the tendering or quoting process and providing up to $250,000 to Indigenous businesses has been almost a non-event. There is evidence of the policy being grossly underused with only a small number of supply opportunities being provided since its inception, and those have been for small amounts. There seems to be a resistance from the state agencies’ head office-bearers to not compromise their tendering processes, which defeats the whole purpose of the policy.Even when they are presented with a need from the market to procure Indigenous business to provide Indigenous specific services, they still resist. This is despite Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPS), exemption policies, Open and Effective Competition Policies all being at the disposal of each agency to use. The key word in these current policies is ‘discretion’ of the agency, that is, in effect, the escape clause.

Just registering more Noongar businesses on Tenders WA will do nothing to ensure that tenders are actually awarded to Noongar businesses. SWALSC had the opportunity during negotiations to implement the employment and business procurements targets into the Native Title deal, but there are no such clauses. Given the historical evidence in these areas and the underuse of the current procurement policies, the Noongar people will not be employed on any of the major construction projects now or in the future, and no Noongar business will benefit as a priority party for supply opportunities. If SWALSC and the state government were serious about ‘Closing the Gap’ and ‘Ending Disparity’ as we hear so much about in the media, these standard clauses that form part of a blueprint agreement for all ILUA’s across the country, would have been part of the Noongar deal. That’s where real ‘self-determination’ will come from, the individuals, not the bodies or the committees or the boards that are supposed to represent the people, but the actual person on the ground that needs and wants an income.

How can we as Noongar people trust the state government to provide these opportunities to us, when clearly up until now, we haven’t been afforded with any? That’s why it seems hard to believe that such a significant and permanent deal omitted probably the most critical and tangible clauses from the deal.