What this young company is doing to help the world’s oldest culture Close the Gap
By Georgiana Vayenas
Nestled in inner-city Melbourne is the head office of growing construction management company, Barpa
Established in 2014, Barpa may be young, but don’t mistake their age for inexperience.
With their vision being ‘empowering Indigenous people and businesses through building Australian infrastructure’, it’s clear that Barpa has a unique goal, differentiating it from industry competitors.
Barpa is a joint venture between established Australian construction company, Cockram Construction, and the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations (FVTOC), who is the majority owner, making it an Aboriginal construction business.
“One of the key aims of Barpa is to be a catalyst and to provide opportunities for other Traditional Owner groups to generate income in their own sectors,” said Barpa Chairman, Graham Atkinson, who is a Dja Dja Wurrung and Yorta Yorta Elder.
“We aim to reinvest the money…in developing new businesses and helping the local Traditional Owner corporations across Victoria develop their business as well,” said Mr Atkinson.
“…encourage other Indigenous Australians to think of business and enterprise development as an important vehicle to Close the Gap”.
“The new businesses, in turn, lead to more employment opportunities and generate further income to keep the proceeds going, without the need to be dependent on government funding all of the time.”
“When Barpa wins a [construction] contract, the benefits flow to the Aboriginal community ultimately.”
Closing the Gap is the Federal Government’s strategy to eliminate the large disparity that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in important areas where Indigenous Australians have fallen significantly behind their non-Indigenous counterparts, such as life expectancy, education, health, etc.
“We see the employment, training and economic opportunities as a very important way of Closing the Gap,” said Mr Atkinson.
“[It’s] an important strategy to address the disparity in the employment and training and…[to] encourage other Indigenous Australians to think of business and enterprise development as an important vehicle to Close the Gap”
To support this strategy, the Federal Government introduced the Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP) in 2015, to encourage Indigenous participation and economic growth in the commercial sector, as a means towards Closing the Gap.
“The [IPP] that the Federal Government has doesn’t just apply to construction, it applies to Indigenous businesses across the spectrum and there’s thousands of Indigenous businesses that have grown and have begun as result of that policy,” said Jeremy Clark, Barpa Director and Business Development Manager, who is an Indigenous Australian.
“There are [now] Indigenous business owners, it’s increased the number of private sector jobs for Indigenous people and that’s empowered Indigenous people.”
“The more Indigenous businesses there are, the more Indigenous people that are employed and that starts shifting people away from not working to working and giving them career aspirations.”
“Those people that are working are obviously becoming healthier because they have a purpose in life, they have an income, they can do things like buy houses and look after their families.”
Educating Australians about Indigenous culture is also important, says Russell Stanton, another Barpa employee, who is also an Indigenous Australian, endorsing initiatives like the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Week.
“[NAIDOC Week] has been introduced into workplaces, it’s a discussion about Indigenous culture and significant moments within it. We have a celebration [at Barpa] where we might get a Traditional Elder in and we’ll discuss where they’re from and their people,” said Mr Stanton. “It’s about raising awareness.”
“…let financial strength flow into the Indigenous community”.
The journey towards Closing the Gap is difficult, but it’s what companies like Barpa are doing right now that is contributing towards eliminating the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
“We’re not rolling in money at the moment, we’re still in startup phase and it’s hard work,” said Mr Atkinson.
Barpa currently employs over 20 Indigenous Australians, providing them with employment, growth opportunities and financial security; winning more projects will allow Barpa to employ more Indigenous Australians and let financial strength flow into the Indigenous community.
“I think that one of the big reasons why there is a Gap is because there has been such a disconnection; a lot of Aboriginal people have been on welfare, relying on services,” said Mr Clark.
“[The IPP] is about empowering them, so developing and supporting Indigenous businesses across the whole spectrum really adds value to trying to Close the Gap. I think it’s a key thing for the Government to do.”
“We see it as a practical way of [Closing the Gap], we see the [IPP] as really empowering Indigenous people and also helping them with reconciliation.”
“You’ve got Indigenous businesses working for non-Indigenous businesses and vice versa, so it’s showing that Indigenous people can be equals, that we can become business people and professional employees.”
Barpa is a young company, but it’s already contributing to a more prosperous future for the Indigenous community.
“The Barpa model [is] a significant way forward in Closing the Gap by using the economic development model to achieve goals,” said Mr Atkinson.
“We’re positively optimistic.”