Positive message at Myall Creek

June 14, 2012

The Aboriginal Employment Strategy according to its founder, Moree cotton farmer, Dick Estens, is about “walking with purpose.” Mr. Estens was the keynote speaker at the Myall Creek Memorial annual commemoration service held at the memorial at Myall Creek on Sunday.

Myall Creek 2012
Keynote speaker at Myall Creek Memorial commemoration service, Dick Estens, with Colin Isaacs of Inverell, and Kevin Boney, originally from Urunga, now of Inverell.

The decision to change from Saturday to Sunday was made at last year’s gathering, and was endorsed by those attending the event this year. The service this year was held 174 years to the day after the massacre of June 10, 1838.

Mr. Estens described the history of the Aboriginal Employment Strategy, a journey which has often brought him into conflict with bureaucracy. “It started in Moree, right after the Royal Commission into deaths in custody,” Mr. Estens said. A recommendation from that Royal Commission was to set up Aboriginal Employment Promotion committees around Australia, and Mr. Estens was asked to chair a committee in Moree.

“We met for a year or two, and then a young person tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Mr Estens, I think you’d better start an Aboriginal Employment Strategy in the cotton industry.’ “We applied for a little bit of funding because we knew we had to employ a coordinator, we had droughts, we had a different bureaucrat that we had to deal with every six months, and we finally signed a contract, in November 1996, and we effectively opened our doors in February 1997,” he said.

Mr. Estens said that Aboriginal elder, Lyall Munro, was there at the start, and has supported the program. “In those early days Moree was a tough battle, a town in crisis. People were demanding more punishment for crimes, we had police commissioners there, we had crime committees being formed, and we set about moving Aboriginal people into jobs. I didn’t worry about the cotton industry in those days, there were plenty of jobs going in Moree, so we took on the whole shire, which the bureaucrats weren’t too happy about.”

In the first year, the AES had found jobs for 16 people. “We thought this is good, and we rang the local paper (Moree Champion), we thought they would do a small story on it, but when I got the Champion at the end of the week, we were front page, second page and third page. Their reps had gone round and interviewed every person that we had in a job at that time,” Mr. Estens said. “That was a huge lift, and it got us underway.

In those early days, I knew that welfare was damaging the Aboriginal people. We were giving Aboriginal people a hand to get into jobs, and we knew we had to lift the welfare of the whole community and make Aboriginal people feel good about the community they were living in.

“We made a conscious decision to, about every six months, run a major program, we created an event that lifted the whole community “You can’t bring people who have been on welfare into eight hours work, and they go back to 16 hours welfare, the pull down was greater than the pull up, so it is really important in a program like ours to build self esteem. Everything we do in the Aboriginal Employment Strategy builds self esteem. “At the end of the second year, we had about 30 or 40 Aboriginal people into jobs, and we were getting into second gear,” he said.

By this time, the AES was receiving media attention, and Ray Martin paid the town a visit, which gave the program a further boost. “The concept of the AES is simple, it is a relationship company, it’s about moving about in the community, visiting businesses, building relationships,” Mr. Estens said. Mr. Estens explained that people who work in the company are all Aboriginal.

In the office in the main street, staff wear a uniform with the Aboriginal flag and the cotton logo, with the words ‘Working Together’ underneath, embroidered on a white or blue shirt. The cotton industry became involved to address staff shortages in the industry. “We had a lot of Aboriginal people in town, and they were a great asset to Moree. We knew we had to build on that,” he said.

After three years, the AES had about 100 people in jobs, but the project could not get above about 120 or 130 in jobs at any given time.  “When I sat down and analysed the numbers, I was finding that around 65% of the people that we put in jobs were lasting 13 weeks, and we found that around 45% were lasting 26 weeks. Our numbers showed up around ten percent being there around a year later.

“That troubled me, because at that particular point in time, I had lost my original guy, an Aboriginal person called Warren Barnes who came from Tamworth, and he had done a top job.  “It suddenly dawned on me, Aboriginal people were not going through school thinking about a career path, they were going through school and thinking ‘maybe we will get an odd job here and there’, They weren’t thinking career path.

“We started visiting the schools more, concentrating on a few school-based traineeships. I thought if we could move kids into jobs while they were still at school, this might help build a career path.”

A year or so later, during a cotton industry visit, the then CEO of the ANZ bank, John McFarlane, visited Moree, and met with Mr. Estens and office manager Kathy Duncan. The result of that meeting was a commitment by the ANZ Bank to working with the AES to employee Aboriginal, school based trainees.  The Commonwealth Bank soon followed and joined the program.

“We got a small team underway in Tamworth and Moree, visiting ANZ and Commonwealth Banks, visiting the schools, and were getting a number of kids into those banks for school based traineeships.

“We found in school based traineeships, about 80% of the kids that were putting into the program were surviving the two years, it was part of their Higher School Certificate, it was costing about $13,000 for each kid with the banks. They were on our books, so the AES were actually paying the kids, and we were billing the banks.”

Until then, Mr. Estens said, those who were winning with Aboroginal employment were family owned businesses in town.

“It was a year later that we opened an office in Dubbo, and by then we were running out of puff. We were missing some skills in Aboriginal people to run the business, and I knew to take the company to a higher level we would have to get closer to the corporate world.”

The AES received strong support from the then Member for Gwydir and Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, who arranged a meeting in Canberra with the Minister and bureaucrats.  Unfortunately the Minister was not very cooperative, and the bureaucrats even less so.

“(The bureaucrats) thought they owned the Aboriginal problem, they were not interested in local communities having ago. Generally what happens in the western world, especially in Australia, we find all our communities tend to get managed down by bureaucrats out of Canberra, which is a real problem for us all.

“We were getting nowhere with the Minister involved and John Anderson ducked back to Prime Minister, John Howard’s office, came back five minutes later and said ‘a deal has been done’, “We were expanding the AES into Sydney, we were going to open three new sites, and the bureaucrats nearly fell over.”

In 2005 four more offices were opened including Blacktown, Glebe, Campbelltown.

After that we expanded our work rapidly, we brought Nab and Westpac on board, and by 2008, we were up to about 100 Aboriginal kids going into traineeships. We opened offices in Brisbane, Townsville, and we started cranking up steam.

“There were some difficult rides through it all, we had difficult moments, but it was never with our Aboriginal teams, always with Canberra based bureaucrats who didn’t fully understand you have to build self esteem and empower our communities, and a local driven enterprise is always better than a government imposed solution “One of the key aspects of the AES, we are not a job network provider, we are a private non-profit company limited by guarantee, people walk into our doors of their own free will.

“For any Aboriginal person wanting a job, the team’s out there to try and help them. The Aboriginal Employment Strategy is 100% managed by Aboriginal people, more than 50% of the board are Aboriginal people. Today the company turns over $13 million. It makes profits every year which are reinvested in the community.

“Last year we built the café arts centre in Moree, which the AES funded with $700,000, we got joint funding from the IAC out of Brisbane, it is now employing seven or eight Aboriginal people, and has a great selection of Aboriginal Art from all round Australia.

“To help fund that program we ran a couple of art auctions in Sydney, we raised a couple of hundred thousand dollars two years in a row. It’s not a bad spot to raise money. You could raise it for Myall Creek,” Mr. Estens quipped.

“Today, the AES has nearly 100 Aboriginal people working in 15 offices around Australia. They will probably put around 2000 Aboriginal people into jobs in the start of their career paths in this financial year, plus at the moment, they are managing 400 Aboriginal school based traineeships, including about 70 full time.

“It is a highly successful company. It has been known as a cutting edge company on bringing new methods and ways of doing things, and the great thing is, I only chair the company, it is run by Aboriginal people,” Mr. Estens concluded.