A new way forward for Indigenous accounting

Joyce Routledge (left) and Cherie Bush (right) from iBase, which offers a different approach to Indigenous accounting.

Trust in accountants can be low in Indigenous communities and iBase is out to change that. But when you're a remote-based accounting practice, sometimes you have to do things a little differently.

In a small aircraft above the Kimberley in Western Australia’s north, David Selvendra CPA is on his way to visit a client.

The scenery below is spectacularly rugged, and its beauty is not lost on him even after 10 years living in the region.

Selvendra is the business services manager and founder of iBase (Indigenous Business and Accounting Services), an Indigenous-owned not-for-profit based in Kununurra. With a population of 7000, it’s the largest town north of Broome and the major centre servicing the many outlying towns and Indigenous communities.

He could drive to visit this client – though not in the wet season – but it would take a day or two to get there, depending on the condition of the unsealed road. When you’re a remote-based accounting practice, sometimes you have to do things a little differently.

A delicate issue of trust in accounting

iBase is part of the social enterprise arm of the Wunan Foundation, a local Aboriginal organisation that provides education, employment and accommodation programs, as well as a medical centre, social research company and bed-and-breakfast facility.

The bookkeeping and accounting service was established in response to issues local Indigenous businesses and community groups were having with their financial recording. These commonly occurred due to the difficulties of recruiting and retaining skilled and qualified people into the isolated area, and the high turnover of people on their management boards.

To put it into perspective, Selvendra tells the story of working with five clients who collectively amassed 19 CEOs in a 12-month period.

“That’s how challenging it can be,” he says. “When key staff members leave, there is that loss of corporate memory. It’s one of the reasons they deal with and stay with iBase because they know we will retain that key corporate memory for them to share with any new CEO that comes on board.”

The organisations iBase services are usually run by people from the community who, while knowledgeable about the issues they are seeking to address, may have limited business skills and little financial literacy.

"It builds the capacity of Indigenous people, and particularly Indigenous women..."

When these are multimillion-dollar businesses, this inexperience can make them vulnerable to fraud. Trust is a very delicate issue in these townships.

The Indigenous community of Warmun, near Kununurra, lost A$3 million to a contractor it paid to build housing following a major flood in 2011. The contractor disappeared, the houses were not built, and the money was gone.

Selvendra says Warmun Community was on the brink of bankruptcy when it came to iBase. Fortunately, money found sitting in fixed deposits was allocated to rescue the organisation.

“When that happens to a community, when someone they have trusted so much does this to them, they then become very suspicious of everyone,” he says.

“We are an Indigenous organisation, we are part of the community and we’re not going anywhere, so clients do tend to trust us more. In saying that, the individual accountants also must build the trust with the people on the outside, and that takes time.”

The vulnerability of its clients translates to added risk for iBase. As a not-for-profit it keeps its fees low, but there are times when it services its clients at a loss because it knows that without them important community services may no longer exist. This means iBase’s own internal controls must be robust.

“Supporting these organisations is a big responsibility on our shoulders because fraud can happen in any shape,” says Selvendra. “We take a very cautious approach so that under our watch nothing goes wrong.”

Adjusting business practices for local customs

One way to develop trust is to be culturally sensitive. Accountants and bookkeepers at iBase may be given an Aboriginal smoking ceremony upon arrival into a community, have meetings adapted to accommodate cultural expectations on who can be in a room together, and adjust their business practices for local customs.

For example, if key members of a service provider are absent due to Sorry Business – a period of mourning that can last days, sometimes weeks – iBase has established procedures where a time-critical function, such as payroll, will be processed based on averages, with any necessary adjustments recognised in future pay periods.

It’s about respect and understanding, while maintaining responsibility for compliance.

Selvendra says the technical skills of accounting are only part of what’s required in a harsh environment that can be unconducive to business. Soft skills and a genuine interest in making a difference are highly valued in the iBase culture.

Essentially, its staff take on the role of trusted adviser – researching HR questions, managing grants, liaising with banks and auditors, and generally undertaking all finance-related communications with both internal and external stakeholders.

The client base is varied, from aged care to child care, legal and employment services, as well as an arts centre and book publisher. Indigenous entrepreneurs are also supported to formulate a business plan and understand their cash flows.

Indigenous talent and the road to a finance profession

David Selvendra CPA.

Selvendra is Sri Lankan-born, not Aboriginal. However, he is very proud of iBase’s focus on nurturing Indigenous bookkeepers and accountants.

Pathways to the profession are not always clearly defined for those with Indigenous heritage and, for people living in the remote Australian outback, the road to a finance profession can be as rocky as the ones they drive on.

iBase has 10 employees, three of whom are Aboriginal and training to be accountants and bookkeepers. All of them talk about their years of dreaming and detours before they found iBase, where their dreams could take flight.

Cherie Bush joined iBase four-and-a-half years ago, determined to get her bookkeeping qualifications. Challenges with textbook delivery (she’s been waiting six weeks for her latest materials to arrive by express post), unreliable internet access (on one occasion the town was without internet for two weeks, after a contractor cut the lines), and the absence of a laptop and mentor made online study very difficult.

In 12 months she had completed only one subject of her Certificate IV Bookkeeping and Accounting course, but when Joyce Routledge joined the iBase team and agreed to be her mentor, Bush was able to complete one subject a month.

She’s now a senior bookkeeper with iBase and well on her way to finishing her diploma. Her sights are now set on her degree and CPA Australia accreditation.

Nurturing tomorrow’s best Indigenous talent

Accounts coordinator Danielle Dowell and trainee bookkeeper Cylia Tait have also been taken under Routledge’s wing. The lack of accessibility frustrates Routledge, who sometimes feels helpless at not being able to provide the resources Bush, Dowell and Tait need to pursue their careers. She says it’s not through lack of commitment – these three women are doggedly determined – it’s just the significant hurdles they face in a rugged remote community.

Working at iBase has been key to allowing the women access to the financial language of the industry. Routledge has been known to pull out bags of oranges to help explain the differences between qualitative and quantitative data.

This absence of prior financial language is also why she encourages them to step their training, rather than leaping straight into a degree. She’s been successful in persuading Kununurra TAFE college to offer face-to-face classes.

Last year, the TAFE put out an expression of interest and got about 19 responses, of which 14 were from Indigenous people. Routledge is hopeful its new Certificate III course will lead to a Certificate IV being offered.

“All the face-to-face courses are in the main cities and towns, but the majority of Aboriginal people live rural remote,” Routledge says. 

“If you want more Aboriginal people in bookkeeping and accountancy, you have got to match the course with the people. None of these bookkeepers want to go and live in Perth for four years while they do a degree. They want to be able to do it here.”

For a small country town accounting practice that is only 10 years old, with fewer than a dozen staff and 3200km from the state’s capital of Perth, iBase has big ambitions.

Late last year, it opened its first branch in Broome, was named a 2018 Supplier of the Year finalist in the Supply Nation Indigenous business register awards, and was appointed onto the ORIC (Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations) panel of examiners.

“We are very ambitious because we realise the greater potential Australia-wide for the kind of services we provide,” says Selvendra. 

“We specialise in providing culturally aware and appropriate accounting and bookkeeping services to Indigenous organisations, so it’s a matter of continuing what we have been doing for the last five or six years and I’m very confident we will keep growing.”

Routledge says it’s important for iBase to grow its own bookkeepers as it grows as a business.

“We’re perpetually recruiting and if we can’t grow our own bookkeepers we’re recruiting from intra/interstate, and these people will only come up for the two-year contract,” Dowell says.

“Often, they won’t even bring the rest of their family, they’ll just fly in and out. Intra/interstate people also require accommodation and a car, and it becomes resource hungry. All we need to do is grow our own bookkeepers, but you need face-to-face delivery and you need mentoring. You really can’t do it on your own.”

Dowell describes iBase as the community’s “own little powerhouse” that gives Indigenous people the opportunity to reach whatever it is they’re striving for.

“It builds the capacity of Indigenous people, and particularly Indigenous women, to say to other Indigenous women that, regardless of where you come from or what your background, or if you have kids, no matter what your circumstances, if you want it you can do it, we are here to support you doing that. 

“Cherie, Cylia and I are the examples and the proof.”

Indigenous Accountants Australia

Of the 200,000 accountants accredited with CPA Australia or a similar professional body, only 51 identify as Indigenous.

When you consider 2.7 per cent of Australia’s population is Indigenous, the statistics reveal Indigenous people are grossly under-represented.

Richard Hurst is CPA Australia’s relationship manager for Indigenous strategies at Indigenous Accountants Australia (IAA). He says historically, cultural and geographical barriers have made it challenging for Indigenous Australians to engage with the accounting profession. It’s also partly because the value accounting brings to a community hasn’t been made clear.

Set up in 2012, IAA aims to provide more clarity about the opportunities that await those with financial and business qualifications.

IAA is doing its best to reach out across the nation to engage with and offer support to any student who identifies as Indigenous and wants to study in this field – whether it be through university, TAFE or some other registered training provider.

“We know there are communities out there that have to fight for their access to participate in higher education,” says Hurst.

“We Indigenous people don’t always go for conventional, so alternative entry and different ways to carve up a degree are critical to the pipeline.”

Hurst acknowledges it is a large country and the goal to reach everybody is a slow burn.

He hopes people will reach out to IAA and ask for the support they need – whether it be for hardware, career guidance, a mentor or scholarships.

“We know the power of connection, and building relationships and trust can be more important than content,” says Hurst. “The IAA network extends across the country in every industry.

“The challenge for us is to uncover the people who are interested in becoming part of the accounting profession, so we can introduce them to other people and pathways that may help them achieve their goals.”

To get in contact with IAA, visit indigenousaccountants.com.au or email [email protected]

iBase’s 5 A values

  1. Affordable. We always keep our services affordable. 
  2. Approachable. We will remain accessible to our clients and work around their needs.
  3. Accurate. The information we provide for decision making will be accurate and up to date.
  4. Accountable. We accept responsibility and will always act in the best interest of our clients.
  5. Aboriginal. We will always remain Aboriginal and focus on Aboriginal businesses.

Read next: Closing the Indigenous accountancy gap

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February 2019
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