The gap in literacy and numeracy skills is so great that rising numbers of Aboriginal Australians are not claiming unemployment benefits because they cannot fill out the paperwork, Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt told a forum.
Mr Wyatt was speaking at the ninth Aboriginal Economic Development Forum that brings hundreds of delegates and indigenous businesses together in Darwin.
While it was important to celebrate the successes of indigenous businesses, that ultimate success or "utopia" would not be achieved while basic skills lagged so far behind, he said.
"There are increasing reports of more indigenous Australians opting not to participate in income support," Mr Wyatt told reporters after a keynote address.
"I think some of it is maybe to do with the complexity of Centrelink form filling."
A West Australian Aboriginal woman who worked in the welfare sector had told him about enrolling young indigenous people for social security benefits.
"She couldn't understand why they had not, when she's taken them they've not been able to read," Mr Wyatt said.
"Now that's not what you would expect in our country given the educational system so we've got to look at that whole educational journey and making sure we have better outcomes."
The 2018 NAPLAN report showed indigenous students significantly improving but still trailing non-indigenous peers, a literacy gap not expected to close until next century.
The most recent census found that about 223,000 Aboriginal Australians aged 15 and over were working. That's a participation rate of 52 per cent, compared with 77 per cent for non-indigenous Australians, Mr Wyatt said in his speech.
"I acknowledge that this gap between the employment rate of indigenous Australians and other Australians of around 25 per cent is too large," he said.
Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up about two per cent of the national population, they represent 27 per cent of the prison population, according to federal government figures.
Mr Wyatt said he wanted indigenous people in the workforce rather than on social security payments anyway.
Most land in the Northern Territory is controlled by Aboriginal people through Native Title.
Indigenous people should develop businesses in the NT such as exporting beef to China, for instance, Mr Wyatt said.
"When you have land you have an incredible asset that you can do a lot with, that is part of the work we are now undertaking and I met with all four land councils recently," he said.
He said the Commonwealth was helping through $685 million this year for the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, the CDP work-for-the-dole, its Procurement Policy requiring Aboriginal businesses be approached first for some contracts and $40 million to support indigenous tourism enterprises.
"I certainly want to be pushing the corporate sector to be a major player not only in employing indigenous people directly but employing companies in their supply chains," he said.
Australian Associated Press