Balancing the deficit of Indigenous accountants

For Christian Lugnan CPA, a talent for mathematics was the starting point for a career in accountancy

Understanding accounting skills is crucial in helping to widen the door of opportunity – and narrow the gap of disadvantage – for Indigenous people and their communities.

Basic accounting tools don’t just keep businesses on course; they underpin the entire machinery of modern societies. To steer a community’s economic destiny, you need people keeping track of the money.

Most of us take this for granted. Australia’s Indigenous peoples, however, come from a culture more than 40,000 years old, with very different traditions about control of and accountability for property. In recent decades, that difference in traditions has hampered the efforts of Indigenous Australians to find a place for their culture in a Westernised Australian society.

Even today, we can count fewer than 30 Indigenous Australians among the almost 200,000 Australians with a professional accounting designation.

“That was my goal – to become a business owner – and I thought, okay, being an accountant will be the way that I can go and achieve that.” Unnamed Indigenous accountant

A new exploration

Now these problems are being illuminated by new research spelling out the difficulties Indigenous Australians have faced in entering the accounting profession and the benefits of having more Indigenous people in the profession.

Deakin University researchers Luisa Lombardi and Barry Cooper published some of the results this year in an Australian Accounting Review paper, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Accounting Profession – An Exploratory Study”.

Indigenous advocates ranging from the late Charles Perkins to Noel Pearson have argued that understanding and engaging with mainstream economic systems will re-empower Indigenous peoples to control their futures. Lombardi and Cooper take this a step further, saying accounting skills are crucial for playing “the economic game”. Indeed, they say these skills may be “the tool that opens the door to fields that have historically been closed for [Indigenous] people”.

Early struggles

To understand the educational, health, social and financial barriers faced by Indigenous people, say Lombardi and Cooper, non-Indigenous people need to understand the original Indigenous cultures and the ways in which the arrival of Western colonisers shattered Indigenous people’s existence.

The British state claimed sovereignty over Australian land from the time of the 1788 Botany Bay landing, leaving Indigenous people without property rights or recognition of their own laws. The non-Indigenous population soon outgrew the Indigenous population in numbers; and from the early 1900s to the 1970s, Australian federal and state government agencies and church missions separated many Indigenous children from their parents, creating what is widely acknowledged to be “Stolen Generations”.

Lombardi’s and Cooper’s interviews with Indigenous accountants reveal the echoing impacts of these events – particularly the impact of the Stolen Generations on their families, their difficulties at school and university and how Indigenous people see accounting as something foreign to them.

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Many have had bad experiences over financial issues; some lack mathematical understanding; a number see accounting as a narrow money-focused occupation; few have had Indigenous role models.

At school, many of the interviewees struggled to identify with others and were often the only people of colour. Most faced low expectations that they would enter university.

“I was very shy at primary school, mostly because I had language difficulties, but also because my brother and I were the only Aboriginal kids in the school,” said one interviewee.

“Secondary school was a little more difficult. I think that you start to deal with this identity thing and what does being Aboriginal mean and being ashamed of copping different sorts of racism and then trying to deal with that sort of stuff.”

Said another: “I’d never really thought of going to university, so I didn’t. I had no idea and would never have conceived of it being possible to go to university. Even though I’d completed year 12, none of the people that I lived around, because we lived in public housing … would have ever gone to university. No one else really had gone to uni in the family.” 

The role of support

Sometimes, it was encouragement in the workplace that led to the pursuit of an accounting career.

As one interviewee revealed: “I guess it was talking to those guys [at work] and getting encouraged from all of them, who said … I should be doing something a little bit better, a bit more of a stretch for my skills and abilities. They obviously identified something there, and they were encouraging me to actually get to university and bite the bullet and start off.”

For another interviewee, the door to accountancy opened via a year 11 school program with mentors or facilitators from a national accounting practice. “I wanted to have my own business. That was my goal – to become a business owner – and I thought, okay, being an accountant will be the way that I can go and achieve that,” he said.

Once at university, support from Aboriginal studies centres was often crucial. “I was able to relax with, you know, other Aboriginal students and people around there, and have a laugh,” the interviewee continued.

“So in that respect, it was certainly helpful, but mainly it was just the support network of like-minded people with similar backgrounds. I found great strength and solace in interacting with other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had been through some similar experiences while growing up.”

Providing a voice

Lombardi and Cooper have found important insights in the voices of those who did overcome the barriers and were successful in earning an accounting degree and professional accounting qualification. “Not only are financial skills fundamental for achieving financial capacity, but they arguably also empower people to engage more effectively with organisations such as financial institutions and government bodies,” note the researchers.

In addition to providing the skills necessary to fulfil reporting requirements, financial literacy enables Aboriginal communities to have better control of their objectives and outcomes, according to a 2009 study by Griffith University’s Michael Limerick.

There was a consensus among the Deakin study interviewees that having Indigenous accountants in decision-making positions in government and other organisations would be a positive move toward the economic development of Indigenous peoples – “so that we can have a voice with government with any issues that are on the table that affect our mob”.

As an accountant, one interviewee acted as a mediator between large corporations and traditional landowners – “so I can provide a link between what Indigenous Australians want and what these guys want”.

Says another: “I’ve been on boards and … that’s what they wanted me to be on the board for, because of my accounting background, my qualifications and mostly around government-type stuff as well – work that I’ve done in that area.

“Again, it’s unspoken. You just feel … all right, we’ll let you in; we want to have you.”

A lot more needs to be done to attract Indigenous students. Thirty Indigenous accountants out of 200,000 is ludicrous.” Christian Lugnan CPA

One man’s driving ambition

For Christian Lugnan CPA, pictured above, a Gumbaynggirr man from the Coffs Harbour region of New South Wales, a talent for mathematics was the starting point for a career in accountancy. However, it was the BMW parked outside his mother’s workplace one day that really ignited the then 12-year-old’s passion for the finance field.

“At the time, I was keen on BMWs, and the accountant drove a BMW – hence to get the BMW, I had to become an accountant,” he explains.

“I didn’t get the BMW, however – my first car was a Volkswagen.”

What Lugnan did obtain was the ability to help Indigenous Australians have a real conversation about money. As a regional manager for the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC), he sees these conversations as an important part of his role. 

“If you have the knowledge, people sit up and listen.” Christian Lugnan

“It’s okay to talk about home ownership, budgeting or leaving your family a legacy,” he says.

“If you have the knowledge, people sit up and listen.” 

Lugnan currently works with more than 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations in south-east Queensland and north-east New South Wales. One of his main areas of focus is corporate governance and ensuring that these groups comply with their corporation’s rule books and the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006.

“We are essentially the Indigenous version of ASIC,” he explains.

Of his childhood, Lugnan says: “Certainly, I copped a lot of discrimination growing up. I was very shy and timid; I never wanted to stand out.

“Through education, though, I found my place and voice, especially at university as I met many other young, bright Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were similar to me. I went from strength to strength from there.”

Lugnan started a Bachelor of Business with an accounting major at the University of Technology Sydney, then transferred to Southern Cross University, in the New South Wales country town of Lismore, where he completed his degree in 1997.

“Accounting was a very foreign thing for an Aboriginal student to be doing in the early ’90s – I was a bit of an oddity,” he recalls.

“Obviously, a lot more still needs to be done to attract Indigenous students. Thirty Indigenous accountants out of 200,000 is absolutely ludicrous.”

As a student, Lugnan says he was fortunate to gain a cadetship with Aboriginal Hostels Limited (AHL), “whereby I studied during the semesters and then worked for AHL in Sydney or their national office in Canberra”.

After a few years of working full-time with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission as an internal auditor, he began the CPA Program in 2001, with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholarship.

“Having an accounting background and qualification has provided me with many opportunities in the accounting field, but also in other aspects of my life,” says Lugnan.

“If you have accounting skills, it enables you to steer your own, your family’s and your community’s destiny.”

Indigenous Accountants Australia

Indigenous Accountants Australia (IAA) is a joint initiative of CPA Australia and Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand that seeks to show the way to greater opportunities for Indigenous people to become accountants and thereby participate in and control financial governance and decision-making.

Both professional bodies recognise, through IAA, that an increase in the number of Indigenous accountants will not be an overnight solution; instead, it will be a generational change.

However, IAA’s many initiatives designed to empower Indigenous people are already in progress, including these: 

IAA’s website, YouTube videos and social media channels are promoting further study and careers in accounting for Indigenous people. The IAA is ramping up engagement with Indigenous students through the Indigenous centres at universities and business schools. IAA events are connecting Indigenous university students and graduates with employers.

A mentoring program to be offered under the IAA initiative is in development. In addition, five scholarships are offered each year by CPA Australia for Indigenous graduates of accounting. 

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November 2015
November 2015

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