14,500: First Nations workers lost their jobs at height of the pandemic Mar-Jun 2020.
Source: Deloitte Access Economics
Shelley Cable GAICD CPA was just 18 years old when she started getting calls from organisations keen to recruit her for board roles. As a Nyoongar woman passionate about First Nations business, economic empowerment and financial inclusion, it opened her eyes to the need for board skills and the vital role of good governance.
Wisely, she waited. As one of fewer than 100 First Nations certified practising accountants in Australia, and a 2019 graduate of the AICD’s Company Directors Course, Cable has a highly sought-after perspective and skillset. She says the need for good governance and directors in the community, and the lack of people with the skills to step up to boards is acute.
“We are desperate for good directors who have exposure to community leadership.”
Cable wants boards and management to open their eyes and actively recruit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to jobs, directorships and board positions.
The 26-year-old West Australian is now working with the Perth-based philanthropic organisation Minderoo Foundation as chief executive of its Generation One initiative.
Building one generation
In 2008, Generation One launched the Australian Employment Covenant, which successfully convinced 350 Australian companies to offer 60,000 full-time positions to First Nations people and established an employment-first training model for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.
With a philosophy of a hand up, not a hand-out, Generation One supports First Nations Australians to achieve success in employment and business by focusing on training, education and social policy reform. Minderoo co-chair/founder Nicola Forrest AO is impressed by Cable’s determination, enthusiasm and impact. “She encapsulates the 10 family values that guide everything we do at Minderoo Foundation and [investment company] Tattarang. Shelley is an exceptional role model for all young Australians, as she demonstrates what can be possible when you work hard, don’t take no for an answer and pursue your deepest passions.”
Asked what it’s like working with the Forrests, Cable says, “I find their impatience for change completely resonates with me — and their not just accepting the status quo, but believing that things can be better.”
The CEO role puts Cable in the crow’s nest, where she can see the lack of First Nations job parity in Australia, prompting her to warn organisations that they overlook First Nations skills at their peril.
While Wesfarmers and some WA mining companies are celebrated employers of First Nations Australians, the fact is that many companies completely overlook the skills and expertise that First Nations people can bring to organisations, says Cable.
The fastest way to create parity is through meaningful and sustainable employment opportunities — jobs that empower people to take charge of their own lives and create hope, she adds. To achieve this, Cable has been actively connecting with HR people to get them on the case, realising there is strong support for greater First Nations employment.
And while the goodwill and intent to support First Nations people into jobs is evident, it now comes down to action, specifically, inclusion. “This has to be a new way forward for directorship in our country,” she says. “We can’t keep excluding First Nations people from boardrooms in this country. What I want employers and recruiters to know is that Indigenous Australians are resilient, strong and adaptable. Their experience of inclusion and exclusions — just by the act of growing up in a minority — is something that people take for granted and don’t understand. We are often very articulate on issues of social justice and spot risks other people simply wouldn’t be able to spot.”
However, First Nations Australians want to be able to bring their culture to work — cultural considerations that standard processes and systems often don’t allow for — for example, the importance of cultural leave for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees.
A major issue is that directorships often come by word of mouth in the corporate world — and First Nations people are rarely in those circles. Cable urges existing directors to get closer to First Nations people within their network, to try to understand the benefits they can bring and the depth of knowledge that their lived experiences can bring to the board table.
“Companies don’t understand their own relationship with Indigenous Australia, whether it’s as customers or clients,” she says. “The fact is that there is an interaction with Indigenous Australia for every business and every organisation in this country. They just might not know it yet.”
Success comes down to embracing flexibility and understanding the real value First Nations Australian directors can bring to an organisation, says Cable.
“While there will be a period of discomfort, I’m encouraging all organisations to be brave in this. Eventually, it will be a conversation that we never need to have, because this will just be the normal way of doing business.”
First Nations employment
Of particular concern is the impact of the pandemic on First Nations employment levels. A recent Deloitte Access Economics report estimated that efforts by government and community organisations to create parity for First Nations Australians have been set back by at least two years by COVID-19. The report found almost 14,500 First Nations workers lost their jobs at the height of the pandemic between March and June 2020.
However, it wasn’t completely bad news. Retailer Coles recruited 430 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team members in just four weeks at the outset of the pandemic in 2020.
The federal government’s National Agreement on Closing the Gap targets were designed to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and federal and state governments could work together to overcome inequality. However, other than the Census, there is very little ongoing data on the employment of First Nations people, which makes it challenging to get successful outcomes.
Unlike gender, where employers are required to report to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, there is no equivalent reporting for First Nations employment. The 2016 Census identified around 200,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the workforce. The 2021 Census was conducted in August.
Cable wanted to learn more, commissioning Deloitte Access Economics to undertake the economic analysis to identify the impact. While she was expecting the impact figures to be bad, she certainly wasn’t expecting to be told there were no figures at all.
The Impacts of COVID-19 on the Indigenous Workforce report reads: “The true impacts of the pandemic on Indigenous employment are still not known. The lack of representative, meaningful and timely data on Indigenous Australians’ employment status and experience is a material barrier to undertaking the required analysis.”
Cable says: “How can you close a gap when you have no data and don’t know how big the gap is?”
Generation One is in the final stages of a project with Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre (BCEC) to develop an Indigenous Employment Index, with the aim of signing up 50 employers who will agree to track employment over time. The outcome, Cable hopes, will be greater awareness and a renewed focus on closing that employment gap.
“While First Nations businesses are exceptional at employing First Nations Australians and we’re overrepresented in health and community organisations, there’s a huge gap beyond this,” she says. “We’re calling on every Australian workplace to understand and report on the state of First Nations employment in their own organisations.”
Cable has focused on connecting with companies’ HR and diversity and inclusion teams to get them on the case. She notes the level of support has been substantial. “It’s been like pushing on open doors,” she says, adding that she is also buoyed by the June appointment of former WA treasurer and Yamatji man Ben Wyatt as a director on the Woodside Petroleum and Rio Tinto boards. Wyatt is thought to be the first Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander director of an ASX 100 company.
“Ben is definitely flying the flag for all of us and it’s incumbent on everyone else to understand this can’t be a one-off,” says Cable.
Shelley Cable is the granddaughter of renowned Australian Football League Hall of Fame legend Barry Cable. Brought up in a family environment she says valued hard work and commitment, Cable graduated high school with the second-highest Australian Tertiary Admission Rank of any First Nations student in WA history. Having embraced her culture in high school, university allowed her to make important new cultural connections.
After early internships with Rio Tinto, she worked at Shell as a finance analyst before moving east to work with PwC’s Indigenous Consulting unit in Canberra.
In 2017, Cable presented to the United Nations in Geneva on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, highlighting the need for greater financial literacy as a foundation for the success of the global First Nations business sector.
The opportunity to make a real difference to First Nations people is what drives her.
“I’m so grateful to have that lineage in my family,” she says. “It’s given me meaning, purpose and commitment to do something to help my people. I go about my life with a stronger purpose.”
Minderoo CEO Andrew Hagger values Cable’s perspective on issues, adding she has a burning passion to make a positive difference.
“She doesn’t need any encouragement from me to give her views,” he says. “Even better, Shelley often comes up with ideas and solutions to make things better — rather than simply putting problems alone on the table. And she’s prepared to put in the hard work to get there.”