Aboriginal economy

Learn about Aboriginal economic issues in Australia: stolen wages and low financial literacy, but also economic opportunities and business successes.

Selected statistics

Number of active Aboriginal businesses in FY 2018; in 2012: 2,273; in 2006: 1,841.
Increase in the number of Aboriginal businesses from FY 2006 to FY 2018.
Gross income of Aboriginal businesses in FY 2018; in 2012: $3.64 b; in 2006: $2.27 b.
Percentage of Aboriginal Australians aged 15-64 who were employed in 2009 . Same figure in 2002: 48%.
Percentage of employees in Australia in 2011 who were Aboriginal.
Unemployment rate of Aboriginal people in 2009, more than three times the rate for all Australians. Same figure in 2008: 16.6%, in 2002: 23%, in 1994: 31%.
Percentage of Aboriginal employees at lower salary levels. Same rate for all employees: 48%.
Percentage of Aboriginal employees at upper salary levels. Same rate for all employees: 10.4%.
Percentage of Aboriginal people in 2008 whose main source of personal income was Community Development Employment Projects program payments, government pensions or allowances. Same figure in 2002: 60.9%.
Percentage of the Western Australian Pilbara population who identifies as Aboriginal.
Percentage of Aboriginal businesses in the Pilbara. The Aboriginal unemployment rate in that region is 50%.
Percentage of public sector agencies with more than 100 employees where Aboriginal employment equals, or is higher than, their population share. Same figure in 2009: 12%.
Unemployment rate gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in 2009.
Survival rate of Aboriginal businesses in 2011 after one year of operation, after 2 years: 81%, after 3 years: 73%.
Estimated total size of the native title wealth market in 2014, tipped to quadruple in the next few years.
Estimated increase in Aboriginal prime working population by 2026.
Number of employees in Aboriginal businesses in FY 2018; in 2012: 31,187; in 2006: 22,715.
Average gross income of registered Aboriginal businesses in 2018; same figure for non-Aboriginal businesses: $400K.
Average number of employees working in Aboriginal businesses in 2018; same figure for non-Aboriginal businesses: 2.

List of articles

Bringing parties together can be tough

In business, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parties have a history of not trusting each other.

"Historically we have encountered a perceived lack of good governance that has held back some banks and other financiers from getting involved because of the fear working with the blackfellas will all be just too difficult," says Bruce Martin, chairman of organisation Aak Puul Ngantam (APN) Cape York.

"And conversely lots of people within our community have been held back by concerns that every whitefella in the investment community is a snake oil salesman come to rip us off."

Forming good mutual relationships is a prerequisite for economic development. About 20% of Australia's land mass is owned under native title, a wealth market estimated to be worth $10 billion in 2014, and tipped to quadruple in the next few years.

Without closer ties to the banking and finance sector the economic development of Aboriginal communities continues to depend on decisions made in Canberra and not Aboriginal offices.

Consultation is key when doing business, even if you create an Aboriginal-themed product yourself.

Underwear manufacturer AussieBum had to learn this the hard way after an Australia Day underwear collection with Aboriginal imagery caused offence. The chief executive of AussieBum, Sean Ashby, promised his company would seek Aboriginal community consultation for future Aboriginal-themed collections.

Money must be made, not received

Dr Warren Mundine estimates that around a third of government funding for Aboriginal programs "doesn’t even make it past the front doors of office buildings" in Australia as it passes through several layers of bureaucracy and other administration.

But avoiding bureaucracy is not an option either, he says.

"Poverty isn’t solved by giving communities money. Poverty is solved by economic development, by communities making money."

An economic pathway which starts with education, leading to jobs and being able to participate in business and commerce is my idea of a real future for Indigenous Australians and importantly the means to participate in the mainstream economy.

— Ron Morony, General Manager Indigenous Business Australia

How Aboriginal people helped build Australia

If it wasn't for the many Aboriginal people who helped the first settlers, Australia would have been developed in a much longer time.

There were numerous challenges to overcome for the white people, and Aboriginal experts helped them in all of them:

  • Crossing mountains. The Darug people's local knowledge helped Archibald Bell find access to the Blue Mountains (NSW) along Bilpin Ridge, now the location of Bells Line of Road.
  • Crossing rivers. There weren't any bridges across rivers which could flood, and settlers didn't often know how to swim. Entrepreneurial Aboriginal people knew how to sell their know-how and their navigational skills to get them from one point of the river to the other. They used their bark canoes to transport goods and people, including surveyors and explorers, stock, feed and food.
  • Transport. Aboriginal elder Bryon Powell recounts that the Victorian gold rush depended upon Aboriginal people assisting with transport. "If it wasn't for my family, my old people, the gold rush probably would not have happened and the miners would not have survived," Mr Powell said.
  • Navigation. Aboriginal people possessed extensive knowledge of the environment in terms of navigation.
  • Survival. Aboriginal people knew how to manage the landscape in times of disaster, such as flood, fire and famine, and how to construct shelter. Numerous explorers and settlers owe their lives to the expertise of Aboriginal guides. For example, when in 1852 a terrible flood overwhelmed the town of Gundagai, 390 kms south-west of Sydney, two Wiradjuri men saved almost 70 people over 30 hours using their bark canoes.

They really helped settle the newcomers in the new land; they contributed in many ways and that contribution hasn't really been recognised.

— Dr David 'Fred' Cahir, historian and Associate Professor in Aboriginal Studies

In a really crucial way, Aboriginal people were part of the foundation and the mapping out of Victoria as we know it today.

— Lucinda Horrocks, filmmaker

We talk about Australia being built on the sheep's back. That's a load of bulls**t. It was built off the black's back.

— Warwick Thornton, Aboriginal director

Documentary: Seeing the Land from an Aboriginal Canoe

This short documentary film film, made by Lucinda Horrocks and Jary Nemo, explores the little known contribution Aboriginal people made in colonial times by guiding people and stock across the river systems of Victoria.

Why can you sell a standard washing machine to an Aboriginal person in Western Sydney, but should not in Toomelah?


Aboriginal people living in urban areas, such as Western Sydney, use tap water which works well with washing machines. But many remote communities, such as Toomelah, rely on bore water which calcifies the pipes and ruins washing machines.

(Toomelah relied on water from a single bore for 30 years before the government connected the community via a pipeline in November 2018. )

Aboriginal drivers

In the NRMA's Open Road magazine I came across the following statistics: Aboriginal people make up 2% of eligible drivers, but only half a per cent of actual drivers. NRMA CEO Rohan Lund finds this has "a big impact on employment".


View article sources (10)

[1] [1a] [1b] [1c] [1d] [1e] 'Indigenous Business Sector Snapshot 1.0', University of Melbourne 2021
[2] [2a] [2b] 'Doubt cast on Govt jobs gap promise', Koori Mail 478 p.9
[3] [3a] 'Gains, but the gap is still wide, study finds', Koori Mail 463 p.9
[4] 'Australia Post pushes the envelope', Reconciliation News 4/2011 p.24
[5] [5a] [5b] 'Long way to go to end disadvantage', Koori Mail 509 p.9
[6] [6a] 'Senior jobs at 10-year low', Koori Mail 489 p.39
[7] [7a] [7b] 'Report calls for a fair go', Koori Mail 472 p.34
[8] 'Survey highlights business success', Koori Mail 515 p.29
[9] 'Land rich but 'dirt poor' Indigenous groups get investment ready', SMH 7/12/2015
[10] 'Indigenous Population Projections', Australian Bureau of Statistics 7/11/2016

Cite this page

Korff, J 2021, Aboriginal economy, <https://creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/economy>, retrieved 20 July 2024

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