Unlocking the potential of the Indigenous Estate

1 Jun 2016

Speech by ILC Chairperson Mr Eddie Fry

National Native Title Conference 2016

I pay tribute to the traditional owners, the Larrakia people of Darwin, and pay respect to their Elders past and present.

To begin, I want to ask you what kind of Australia do you dream of for you and your loved ones to live in, and what kind of people do you dream of who will live in that ideal society?

In 1770, when Captain James Cook looked out at the coastline of eastern Australia, he was looking at land that our ancestors had tended for more than 50,000 years.  Native Title: ABSOLUTE

Our forebears lived in close-knit local societies with their own lore and laws.

They used complex, country-wide systems of land management.

These systems of land management can be recognised in enough different places to say that the system was universal, that it was a single estate.

We would argue: The biggest estate on earth – the Indigenous Estate. 

On 26 January 1788, Aboriginal land at Sydney Cove was claimed by the British, the first claim of many.

The incomers justified all these actions with the theory of terra nullius—that the land of Australia belonged to no-one.

Our well-managed land became a gift to the European settlers, on which they have built their prosperity.

It took more than one and half centuries, until the 1960s, for our ownership to be acknowledged, at first through land rights legislation.

In 1976 the Commonwealth recognised Indigenous rights, or potential Indigenous rights, in large parts of the Northern Territory.

What is being called the ‘Indigenous Estate’ began to re-emerge.

Then, on 3 June 1992, Eddie Mabo finally won his life’s biggest battle, though five months after his death.

The Mabo judgment was handed down. Terra nullius was overthrown by Australia’s High Court.  

Now, 24 years after the Mabo judgment, it is time to see how far we have come—and ask, what do we do now?

According to estimates, Indigenous people now own or have controlling interests to some 40 per cent of the Australian land mass under various forms of title and legislation.

This area will grow as more native title determinations are made. 

On the face of it, this is an extensive area.  But it has not brought us much influence on the national stage or converted benefits for Indigenous people of a proportionate amount.

Many areas have been handed back because other Australians hadn’t found an economic use for them, or they had ruined the country through their own activities.

We own a great deal of land that is currently not productive in mainstream terms.

Watershed – Are we at this moment in time

I believe we are at a watershed in Indigenous affairs.

With all the best intent, progress in meeting the Closing the Gap targets is not what we had hoped.

Government funds are diminishing.

Beyond the issue of constitutional recognition, political and public interest in Indigenous matters is waning.

Our population is growing much faster than the general population, and it is overwhelmingly a younger population.

At the same time, the wider world is an unsettled place, marked by mass movements of peoples, the decay of old economic paradigms, and rapid warming.

Put simply, our vast land holdings and interests that must sustain a growing population are not helped by outdated management and poor execution.

We Indigenous Australians stand at an inflection point.

Our future relies not on chance, but on creating a new fellowship and esprit de corp among Indigenous people and on better strategic and structural planning.    

We have to step up to confront our future – only we can do it, otherwise we will be left further behind than we already are.

I believe now is the time for action. That is – Strategic Design & Execution

The Indigenous Estate

With Indigenous leaders, I have been attending meetings convened by the Australian Human Rights Commission to discuss economic development and Indigenous property rights.

Our people are yearning for a way forward that will unlock the economic potential of our various land rights, without compromising our culture or values.

At these meetings there has been a lot of discussion about the ‘Indigenous Estate’.

But there are differing views about what it comprises and how it can be mobilised and managed for our collective benefit.

The Indigenous Estate is a central concept—one that we as a people need to get to grips with.

We need to define this concept, understand what it is made up of, and maximise its potential.

We need to own it and make it great so it becomes synonymous with success and the highest standards.

A brand for the Indigenous Estate, that encompasses land, culture, people, and traditions, that will allow us to forge our way forward in the Australian economy.

The Indigenous Estate needs to create intergenerational wealth—the kind of prosperity that will underpin our wellbeing as a people and ensure the long-term survival of Indigenous culture and values.

Our ancestors were systematic land managers, and looked to the future. We must do the same.

Though we must now manage our land in different ways to them. We cannot turn back the clock. We must learn to harness the wider Australian economy to our benefit.

50 year vision – Is there an alternative?

This will necessarily be a long-term project encompassing many decades.

We need a 50 year plan—a plan to withstand the tests and changes of time.  

If we don’t think in these terms we are likely to be captured by the short-term. A lot of things in Indigenous affairs generally seem to be operating in the short-term. There is too little strategic or structural thinking.

In my 50-year vision, I see the Indigenous Estate lifted beyond current perceptions of what is possible in Indigenous Australia.

The Indigenous Estate would be accepted as standing for something solid and reliable, a source of value for our people and Australia as a whole; a complex entity that is well run, open for business and a natural partner for investors.

 It would be the base for strong Indigenous influence in our national life.  

Where to start?

But if we are to have a bold and long-term vision, we also need an order of priority.

I want to start with the two agencies I chair – ILC/IBA and both involved in the Indigenous Estate.

Indigenous Business Australia—IBA—promotes Indigenous commercial development.

The Indigenous Land Corporation—theILC—owns small parts of the estate, leases part of it, including as part of a divestment strategy to Indigenous groups, manages other parts of it, and has a brief to assist Indigenous owners across Australia to gain benefits from their land.

This makes the IBA and ILC significant institutions in helping to define, manage and maximise the use of the Indigenous Estate.

The ILC as it stands

The ILC to date has done a great many good things.

However, I believe that, without change, it will become redundant or irrelevant.

The ILC is providing piecemeal benefits from its statutory land acquisition and management programs.

In fact, its land acquisition function is languishing, with only two acquisitions in almost two years.

On the positive side, the ILC has gained knowledge and success in managing parts of the Indigenous Estate.

It is involved in two key regional industries—agribusiness and tourism.

In partnerships with Indigenous groups and landholders it has helped pioneer innovative emissions-reduction technologies on Indigenous land.

It has created jobs for Indigenous people, especially in remote areas and difficult situations.

Nevertheless, the ILC does not enjoy the reputation it requires among its core constituencies; with Indigenous communities and decision makers in business and government, to maximise its effectiveness.

I see my job over the next four years, together with the Boards, as transforming the ILC, working in tandem with IBA.

Both agencies need to be more proactive, strategic and commercially astute—they must be capable of taking a significant role in helping to transform the Indigenous Estate.


There are opportunities aplenty for Indigenous people, and in particular Indigenous landholders, in many industries.

Given the rural and remote nature of the broader Indigenous estate, agribusiness is an obvious starting point.

Booming markets are on our doorstep.

Australia is becoming Asia’s foodbowl.

The Australian dollar is low.

We need to invest in rigorous assessments of our Indigenous assets to determine the highest and best use of our land.

And we need to invest in research and development to position us on the leading edge of technology. 

The ILC’s agribusiness portfolio has been active in the northern cattle industry for many years. We already have an ambitious ten-year strategy to increase the scale and scope of this business.

Operators within the Indigenous Estate need to enter other parts of the cattle supply chain, including fodder, feedlots, and transport. We should add value by moving up the supply chain.

And we should broaden our product base—for example, to buffalo meat, grains, horticulture, aquaculture, bush foods.

Tourism is a significant industry for Indigenous people. The outlook for tourism is good, and overseas visitors are hungry for Indigenous experiences.

Tourism encompasses both large-scale businesses such as Ayers Rock Resort, owned and operated by the ILC, and small-scale cultural and ecotourism businesses operating at the local level.

Significant opportunities exist for Indigenous people in the conservation and carbon economy, particularly for those who live on country.

The ILC has been at the forefront in developing new sources of income for Indigenous land owners, such as carbon farming through controlled savannah burning.

It has partnered with many Indigenous landowners, land councils and private investors to make this happen.

We need to step up this effort.

The Indigenous Estate should be assessed for its potential to generate renewable energy—solar, wind and potentially biofuels.

There are other opportunities for emissions reduction on Indigenous land, including ‘blue carbon’, the sequestering of carbon in mangroves, seagrass beds and salt marshes.

Land and water—these things are becoming scarcer in the modern world.

Energy—transforming our energy sources is a global challenge.  

Indigenous Australia needs to be a player at this critical juncture in history.

Five target achievements

I want both the ILC and IBA to have achieved five key targets.

First, to have a higher profile and a positive reputation that we can all be proud of.

Key decision makers will know what we stand for. Indigenous people will know the value we add.  

Indigenous people and organisations, private investors and government will actively seek out partnerships and joint ventures with us.

Land we manage will be at its maximum potential and investor ready.

Two, we will have more resources to invest in the future.

This capacity to invest will come from a number of sources.  

We need to protect the capital balance of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Account, and maximise the payments from it. This includes making sure we have capital allocations on the right settings. 

The ILC is currently working up options to widen the investment parameters of the Land Account to achieve this, and the Minister has agreed to consider these.

Beyond revenue from the Land Account, we also need to do more with what we have.

Our subsidiaries need to make a profit, and not be subsidised by the ILC. Our investments need to be commercially sustainable.

Our land needs to be as productive as it can be.

IBA will be the banker.

It will develop new financial products to generate income for both IBA and ILC operations and wealth for you, as investment partners.

And we need to achieve efficiencies. The ILC and IBA are looking at joining their back-office functions in areas such as HR and finance to become more efficient and to maximise our joint working capital.

We hope these functions will go on to become a resource for other Indigenous organisations and their operations, where it might be needed and assistance sought.

Third, the ILC and IBA must be high-performing agencies.

The ILC has just appointed a new CEO, John Maher, with extensive experience in commercial agribusiness. He is not Indigenous but we are working to ensure his successor will be.

John’s job will be to restructure the ILC, and to make it a more capable and driven organisation.

We will also go on improving IBA, ensuring it works more closely with the ILC to deliver strong outcomes.

We need to determine where best to focus our partnerships.

Our product offering and expertise need to meet Indigenous peoples’ land-related needs, not just now but in 20-50 years’ time.

Investments need to be more strategic and build capacity—we need to break the subsidy cycle.

Capital allocations to the various parts of the ILC will be based on performance.

A competitive internal environment will focus managers’ minds on achieving maximum returns and maximum benefits for Indigenous Australians.

We are looking at a dedicated research and business development arm.

Fourth, we must take advantage of emerging markets.

I have already talked about just some of the opportunities that exist. New technologies have the potential to create even more opportunities.

Fifth, and finally, to be effective, the ILC with IBA must have the capability and culture to drive a more ambitious agenda with and for Indigenous Australians.

We are working hard to put this in place.

A challenge to Indigenous Australia

The agenda I have been describing goes beyond the two agencies I currently chair.

To grasp the future, we Indigenous Australians need a greater collective vision.

For the Indigenous Estate to have a strong identity that is recognised within Australia and beyond, where investors and government have to take notice, we need a greater coming together of our intellectual, strategic, innovative minds. 

Nor should we discount the aspirations of individuals—individual effort has been a great driver of progress in human history.

Indigenous Australians should embrace the future, and not just let it happen to us.

Operating within a coherent commercial framework will reap social, cultural and environmental rewards.

That means setting aside some of our politics, our enmities, any prioritisation of narrow vested interests above a more national Indigenous interest. We need a stronger and more united vision and to grow our Indigenous Estate.

At this conference we are rightly celebrating our land rights pioneers, such as Eddie Mabo and the Yolngu Clan leaders who signed their name to the Bark Petition in 1963, who were instrumental in helping us to start getting our land back.

Their legacy can be celebrated most effectively by making the most of the land they helped to get back for us.

I know that in this forum I am speaking to people who have cultural authority, who are owners and custodians of parts of the Indigenous Estate.

You may choose not to collaborate with the agenda I have been describing—that is your right.

But I believe we are stronger when we are together, and that we can build a powerful new future for our people.

This conference must not be a eulogy for a lost Indigenous Estate but about how we position it to create wealth and wellbeing for our future generations.

We must use this time together to question our thinking, to debate our future, and agree a shared way forward on created shared values.

It is incumbent on all of us to honour the work of our elders, harness our intellectual resources and contemporary skills, and deliver benefits for generations to come.

And I would like to close by again asking of you

What kind of Australia do you dream of for you and your loved ones to live in;

What kind of people do you dream of who will live in that ideal society

We as Indigenous people do not live in the past – but the past lives on in us.

If we can work together – our future can be forged on this Dream.

I very much look forward to working with you.

Thank you

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