About 80 past and present employees, founders, supporters and people who have gained employment through Moree Aboriginal Employment Strategy (AES) gathered to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary last Friday evening.
There were plenty of memories shared, laughs had and stories told as those who were there from the very beginning to those involved in the company now reminisced about how far the AES has come since its humble beginnings in 1997.
The AES was established in 1997 by a small group of Moree cotton growers who recognised the struggle Aboriginal people faced to gaining employment.
“AES derived from recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody where they found too many in custody hadn’t experienced employment,” Moree AES manager Cathy Duncan said.
“Commonwealth Government met with Gwydir Valley Cotton Growers to have a conversation about Aboriginal employment and, from there, three key growers Dick Estens, Alice Scott and Peter Glennie led the way.”
Founder and co-chairman Dick Estens said the AES was established when he realised something needed to be done to tackle the issue of crime and unemployment in Moree.
“20 years ago in Moree there was so much anger and racism – we needed a circuit break,” he said.
“The federal government had the responsibility for Aboriginal employment – the policy side was working but the delivery wasn’t. The money was going back to the federal treasury.
“My house had been broken into a couple of times and I was coming through Walgett and it was becoming a boarded up town. I could see people needed to tackle the issue. So a few of us Gwydir Valley Cotton Growers set out to see what we could do.”
A board of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people was established four years later in 2001 which included Kevin Humphries, Dick Estens, Peter Glennie, Kylie Benge, Craig Jenkins, Sharon French and Cathy Duncan.
“That was a real partnership of reconciliation in 2001,” Ms Duncan said.
Mr Estens said it was a tough road and still remembers being told the company won’t last.
“At the end of the first nine months, I thought we’d had it – we had five people in a job but not one of them was at work,” he said.
“I’m happy that it’s got there but we’ve had a lot of good people that have got it there.
“You’ve got to have people that will listen reasonably well and help Aboriginal people realise it’s a commercial world, not a black and white world.
“It’s what you can do for your country, not what your country can do. A lot of Aboriginal people thought the government would come in and fix their problems but more often than not the government gives people problems.”
From these humble and difficult beginnings, the company has since grown to become the largest indigenous recruitment and training company Australia-wide and over the past two decades has created 20,000 job placements for Aboriginal people all over the nation.
In Moree alone, the company does about 70 full-time job placements a year.
“We’ve probably helped I’d say more than 1,000 people in Moree into the world of work since we started,” Ms Duncan said.
“It’s more about careers for life; if you have something to get up and go to in the morning and have your own income, you can change your destiny.
“It allows you to make choices in life.”
The AES is having celebrations at each of their sites across the country this year to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary, but Ms Duncan said it was particularly special in Moree, as this is where it all began.
“The celebration was to acknowledge the work of the Moree community – without their support we wouldn’t have an AES,” she said.
“The good thing about AES is that it was built from the power of people working together to make change, from the ground up.
“It’s a business operated by indigenous people that has lasted 20 years.”