Koolyn was appointed to an electrical company’s board. He wanted to help others, but he was being used

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jul3,2024
Imagine opening a letter from the Australian Taxation Office, and finding a demand for more than $700,000 dollars.
“I felt my whole world had really fallen apart when I read it. I was in shock. It was just instant stress,” said Melbourne electrician Koolyn Briggs.

Mr Briggs endured six months of stress because he had been registered as a director of the Indigenous arm of an electrical contracting business.

Thumbnail of Corrupting Blak Business

That business collapsed and he was being held liable for unpaid company tax, GST, and superannuation.
Mr Briggs told Living Black’s Karla Grant, “I never thought that I would ever be a victim of black cladding.

The business was sold to me in the best way. A not-for-profit, Indigenous operated electrical organisation that would create platforms for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to embark on a career that helps change lives.”

What is black cladding?

Koolyn Briggs walking and talking with Living Black's Karla Grant down a park pathway

Koolyn Briggs speaking with Living Black’s Karla Grant Source: NITV / Living Black

‘Black cladding’ is the term which is being used to describe a practice by which an Indigenous face or faces are put on a non-Indigenous business with the express purpose of winning government or corporate contracts.

The goal of the Federal Government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP) is that three per cent of government contracts and nearly two per cent of the total $75-billion-dollar annual spend should go to businesses owned and controlled by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. Most state and territory governments have their own IPP’s.

Koolyn Briggs, who said he was never invited to company board meetings, let alone paid, sought good legal advice, fought the tax office – and very recently won. However other Indigenous former directors of the company, which is in liquidation, still face massive tax bills.

Blax Capital's Katja Henaway speaking with Living Black

Blax Capital’s Katja Henaway speaking with Living Black Source: NITV / Living Black

Indigenous business consultant Katja Henaway of Blax Capital and Politics in Colour said, “I have seen black cladding tearing families apart, because of the stress that it puts on to the Indigenous business owner. It can be incredibly traumatising, not just for the business owner, but the people they care for and the people that they support through their business.”

Adam Williams who runs Bunji Enterprises in Brisbane and heads the Murri Chamber of Commerce says he is frequently approached to be the Indigenous face of a joint venture.

While he rejects such approaches outright, despite the money on offer, he worries that people are being caught up in situations for which they are not prepared.

Adam Williams of Bunji Enterprises speaks on Living Black

Adam Williams of Bunji Enterprises speaks on Living Black Source: NITV / Living Black

“I have really big fears that if they sign on as a [company] director and they’re not involved in the business day to day, they’re just the 51% owner according to ASIC (the Australian Securities and Investment Commission) that the other party’s going to run up bills on this mob and they’re not going to know it’s coming,” he said.

Kieran Hynes a professor of cyber security at the University of Canberra says, ‘black cladding’ is nothing more than “fraud”. Hynes heads up Willyama Services, a 100% Aboriginal owned technology company which gets much of its work through government contracts.
“I’m an ex-army officer. The Commonwealth Procurement rules are rules, they’re not guidelines, they’re not good ideas, they’re rules that you should be bound by,” Mr Hynes said.

“And I think once a few people get prosecuted for fraud, I think a lot of the general narrative around black cladding would go away.”

Seated in her office, Kate Russell, Supply Nation CEO speaks with Living Black

Supply Nation CEO, Kate Russell speaking with Living Black Source: NITV / Living Black

“Fraud” is also the word which Kate Russell, the Chief Executive Officer of Supply Nation, the organisation which registers and certifies Indigenous businesses, uses to condemn “black cladding”.

“We know it’s a real problem,” she told Living Black.

We know it is a stain on the sector. We’ve been working to combat black cladding in many ways. But I will say that I do not think it’s as widespread as we’re led to believe.

“We’ve had 30 complaints of black cladding in five years, all of which have been investigated, and none which have been substantiated,” she said.
“That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, but it does say that I think Supply Nation has a very good process, including our auditing system, to make sure that it doesn’t happen.”
Adam Williams has a different view.
“I would say it’s a lot deeper than people want to give it credit for. I would put the line through probably a third of the Aboriginal businesses that are certified today.”
The National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), has been reviewing the Federal Government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy.

Supply Nation wants the definition of an Indigenous business to be at least 51 per cent owned, operated, and controlled by a First Nations person or people.

But who is the real owner?

Kieran Hynes of Willyama Indigenous ICT Services speaking to Living Black

Kieran Hynes of Willyama Indigenous ICT Services speaking to Living Black Source: NITV / Living Black

“There’s been numerous cases where non-Indigenous businesses have had an Indigenous owner that’s been chopped and changed a number of times,” says Kieran Hynes.

“Now, if you’re a multi-million-dollar business and the owner gets swapped out on a regular basis, that wouldn’t happen in any other circumstances. So is that person really an owner? And it goes back to that definition of an owner.”
It’s clear that the state and territory Indigenous business chambers believe they should have a role in assessing whether businesses claiming to be Indigenous are genuine.
“The individual chambers have come together to form the National Indigenous Business Chambers Alliance,” Mr Hynes said.
“And our key mandate on that is, that if a business that represents themself as Indigenous, one of the chambers should know the Indigenous owner, know their background, but also know their association with the business.”
Watch Living Black weekly on Mondays at 8.30pm on NITV and on SBS at 10.30pm.

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Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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