Date posted: 08/12/2017 9 min read

Indigenous accountants forge a proud history

Indigenous accountants may be rare, but they are passionate about what they do and can strongly empower their people, according to Indigenous Corporations official Christian Lugnan, who attended this year’s Indigenous Accountants Conference in Vancouver.

In Brief

  • In 2014-15, the top 500 indigenous corporations earned combined income of almost $1.88 billion.
  • There are fewer than 40 qualified indigenous accountants in Australia.
  • In Indigenous communities, accountants can promote financial literacy and economic development.

By Christian Lugnan.

There are fewer than 40 self-identified qualified Indigenous accountants in Australia, and most of them have only qualified in the past 20 years. 

For many years, I did not realise the importance of having accounting skills and qualifications as an Aboriginal man. But as I have progressed in my career, I now see how Indigenous people can develop the answers to our own economic development and empowerment by coupling our technical skills with our cultural values and integrity.

Indigenous people in a world of money

As Deakin University senior lecturer Luisa Lombardi has written, in our dominant Western capitalist civilisation, money represents power and position. Although this does not necessarily represent the value system of Indigenous Australians, she says, it is a potential pathway to empowerment.   

Lombardi, who is researching Indigenous Australians in accounting, writes in a 2016 paper that mastery of accounting to facilitate access to funds and build strong organisations "is not about surrendering culture or cultural beliefs; rather, it is about mastering the rules of the game."   

Having strong governance and financial leadership is imperative for Indigenous people who want to gain control of their economic, social and cultural destinies. Lombardi suggests that we can shift from the present-day paternalism and non-Indigenous dominance to emancipation of Indigenous people and "a future where a self-directed and self-governed life can be a realistic aspiration".

(Pictured: Christian Lugnan)

A barrier for most Indigenous people who may consider a career in accounting, economics and business-related fields is the cultural barrier of business. Where does Indigenous culture fit into the business world? 

The cultural point of difference should be a positive and powerful position for Indigenous peoples. But in Australia, we don't have a generally accepted cultural practice. We lack the ways that, for example, our Maori brothers and sisters can draw upon and practice. However, we do have the widely accepted principles of respect, acknowledgement of country, elders and ancestors, respect of people passing and sharing of resources.

Related: The journey of Māori accountants

Attending this year’s Indigenous Accountants Conference in Vancouver has given New Zealand BDO Māori partner Kylee Potae great hope for the future.

To open up opportunities, we need greater Indigenous cultural safety in business. This is what we try to achieve at the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC). The Registrar is an independent statutory officer who administers the Corporations Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (CATSI) Act 2006. ORIC supports and regulates Indigenous corporations, ensures compliance with the law and trains directors, members and key staff in good governance.

Organisations working with ORIC investigate decision-making models, board and membership criteria and the objectives of corporations. This provides a stronger cultural framework within which the business can operate. It builds the platform for those organisations to be able to focus and deliver their core business as common cultural values, ethics and integrity are established. 

By drawing on the work done by ORIC, we can see that accounting and governance plays a significant role in advancing the economic strength of Indigenous peoples. The CATSI Act is modelled on the Corporations Act 2001, but allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations greater flexibility for cultural practices and individual need. Corporations might include cultural kinship representative structures, use traditional decision-making frameworks, and vary the locations of meetings to take into account on-country deliberations. Corporations’ diverse functions range from providing services such as health care and infrastructure to simply holding land, and many corporations have multiple functions.

Most organisations registered under the CATSI Act are in remote areas and are publicly funded. However, many hold significant community assets and some generate substantial private income, such as mining compensation or Indigenous arts revenue.

Mastery of accounting to facilitate access to funds and build strong organisations is not about surrendering culture or cultural beliefs; it is about understanding the rules of the game. 
Christian Lugnan Australian Indigenous accountant
Indigenous corporations operate in demanding, dynamic and competing environments. They are under pressure to meet community and stakeholder expectations, which can be very difficult, particularly for Aboriginal community-controlled businesses. 

On the competition front, Indigenous businesses can sometimes miss out on crucial funding against other, non-Indigenous organisations that can demonstrate strong financial governance and can minimise the risk of failure in program delivery for governments.

On the flipside, the competitive environment has also created opportunity for Indigenous businesses to examine their operations, governance, priorities and cash flow. Many have also restructured their businesses to take on more commercial activities that are often used to supplement their not-for-profit social enterprise.

Many Aboriginal organisations have strong financial management and sound governance practices. Good examples of such businesses are identified in a report by ORIC on the top 500 corporations. In 2014-15, the top 500 highest-earning indigenous corporations had a combined income of almost $1.88 billion, averaging $3.76 million per corporation. They managed $2.2 billion in assets and employed 11,095 people, the majority of whom were Indigenous people.

Related: The new face of accounting

The path to prosperity is not always easy, but Māori accounting scholarship winner Yonder Munday says education is breaking down barriers for her.

The CATSI Act is being reviewed to consider strengthening and improvements and aligning the legislation with recent changes in corporate law and regulation. Among other things, the review will look at ways to create a more efficient and effective regime of registration, regulation, enforcement, support and administration.

The review could lead to altered powers for the Registrar to strengthen administration of the Act and provide increased support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations, including – but not limited to – a greater role in the resolution and mediation of disputes.

Amendments could also provide greater flexibility in the design of corporate structures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations, particularly to promote increased economic activity.

In Australia, Indigenous organisations are mostly established with governance structures that reflect the dominant ways of doing business. Traditional Indigenous decision-making concepts generally adapt a consensus model of decisionmaking. This can lead many Indigenous organisations astray: their cultural framework does not fit into generally accepted mainstream corporate structures.

Closing the gap

Within Indigenous communities, accountants can play a valuable role in promoting financial literacy and economic development. By helping with this effort, the accounting profession can play a huge role closing the socio-economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Moreover, Indigenous people globally with accounting skills will be able to work in many fields, providing benefits to themselves, their family and their community. 

Accounting and governance skills can empower Indigenous organisations for sustainable success. With these skills, Indigenous peoples can move on from “just doing”. Respectful cultural inclusion is the way forward for Australian businesses and professions. 

About the author

Christian Lugnan is Regional Manager of the Coffs Harbour office of the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations. His role includes managing ORIC’s Brisbane, Cairns and Thursday Island offices and assisting Indigenous corporations with their governance and financial management. He has a Bachelor of Business degree from Southern Cross University and is a graduate of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre. Christian currently volunteers as a director of Galambila Aboriginal Corporation, and is a member of Gumbaynggirr Wenonah Head Aboriginal Corporation, the Advisory Committee of Indigenous Accountants Australia, and the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Co-authored by Carolyn Boyd, a freelance editor, writer and journalist.

About the conference

The 2017 International Indigenous Accountants Conference was attended by some 1500 indigenous people, including many First Nations peoples across South America, USA, Canada, Australia and NZ. Spread over four days in Vancouver, the conference focused on building sustainable communities. To find out more about the conference click here and watch the video below:

Related: CAs attend international indigenous communities conference

Australian and NZ CAs attended a Canadian conference in 2017 looking at prosperity for indigenous communities