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Breaking boundaries: Steve Rossingh works for a fairer Indigenous Australia

Steve Rossingh FCPA has always had an affinity with numbers. When the Director of the Northern Territory Treaty Commission was growing up in Sydney and later in Perth, he believed that the most logical vehicle for his love of maths was a career in accounting. But he could never have predicted how far that path would take him.

Rossingh is a Kamilaroi man from Northern New South Wales and one of only about 50 known Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians with a professional accounting designation.

“I’ve had a very non-traditional career pathway for someone who calls themselves an accountant.”

Steve Rossingh

A decision to study accounting opened doors that ultimately allowed him to contribute to improved outcomes for Indigenous Australians, both in and out of the profession, and advocate for once-in-a-generation change.

He also believes that having a CPA designation and MBA qualification has shaped his career trajectory and exposed him to opportunities that he wouldn’t have otherwise had. “The CPA Program and MBA taught me HR skills, the basics of leadership and gave me a broad business perspective. It also helped me understand the legal framework for things and the legal context required to make good, evidence-based decisions,” he says.

“I’ve had a very non-traditional career pathway for someone who calls themselves an accountant — I left school and got a job with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) as an entry-level clerk and back then the ATO had a very good sponsored study scheme so I did my accounting degree part-time over six years,” Rossingh says.

“I completed that from the age of 24 to 30. I was very proud of that achievement because the rate of completion for people who do part-time degrees is so low. Then, I got a job as the Business Services Manager at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in Kununurra, Western Australia.

“However, my passion was service delivery and after around six months I was able to move into the Deputy Regional Manager role – responsible, among other things, for the disbursement, management and acquittal of grants aimed to improve social, cultural and economic outcomes. The role called for the ability to analyse and understand audit reports and financial statements and discuss audit reports and financial statements on a professional level with auditors. 

Rossingh considers his next position as Director of Corporate Services at the Northern Land Council (NLC) his first big break. The job, based in the Northern Territory’s top end, allowed him to apply his accounting skills in a way that was directly related to business processes, operations and strategy. 

“I wasn’t just responsible for the accounting function – but also HR, IT and monitoring the organisation’s corporate business interests,” he says. “The NLC had a staff of 300 in those days and a big part of what I did was look after the NLC’s business investments. I learnt how important cash flow is to a successful business and how important it is to work towards set objectives. All my accounting skills really came to the fore.”

Rossingh’s work at the NLC, an organisation historically rooted in the struggle for Aboriginal land rights and self-determination, also showed him how fiscal and commercial acumen could set the stage for powerful social justice outcomes. 

“All the NLC’s business interests have a charitable objective,” he says. “But learning the discipline to separate the economic and social was a really important lesson.”

This would also set Rossingh up for the next high point of his career. After five years as the first General Manager of Cridlands Lawyers, during which time he completed a CPA co-branded MBA through Deakin University, he joined the NT Government in an Executive Director of Corporate Services role. The recruiters for this role were looking for a CPA who also had an MBA as well as broad corporate services experience.

However, after a year, he was offered the role as the Senior Executive Director of Sport, Venues and Indigenous Development in the newly formed Department of Natural Resources, Environment, the Arts and Sport, where Rossingh had about 150 staff.

Thereafter, Rossingh spent time as Executive Manager Corporate Services at a large not-for-profit and as the Chief Financial Officer at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency where he also undertook a volunteer role as an Indigenous independent director at the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress health service in Alice Springs.

Following a stint as the Chief of Staff for the Minister for Primary Industry and Resources – Ken Vowles, a Warumungu man from the NT – in the newly elected government, Rossingh was appointed the Senior Advisor for Aboriginal Affairs to the Chief Minister.

“There we went about the ground work of establishing the NT Treaty Commission following the historic signing of the Barunga Agreement in June 2018,” he explains. “This culminated in the process of the NT Government appointing Professor Mick Dodson AM as NT Treaty Commissioner. The Chief Minister asked me if I’d like to work with the Commissioner as his Director and I jumped at the chance.”

For Rossingh, this role reflected his life-long commitment to “Aboriginal-driven initiatives that are going to help our people prosper”. It also taps into skills and expertise he’s been honing throughout his career.

“It’s a dream job for someone to be part of a history and legacy-leaving initiative,” says Rossingh. “The job of the Treaty Commissioner is to develop a framework for the negotiation of future treaties. We are out there consulting with Aboriginal people across the NT, taking it slowly and steadily to ensure that we get it right so that when we recommend a framework, it is not only robust and sustainable, but reflects what people have told us.”

Rossingh says that although the job is not without its logistical challenges, he says he’s motivated by the once-in-a-lifetime chance to undertake work that will shape Australia’s future and right historical wrongs.

“The job is very diverse — we are doing a lot of research on international best practice and the legal issues that are involved,” he says, adding that working with the Treaty Commissioner Mick Dodson, a respected Indigenous leader and barrister is among the most rewarding elements of the job.

“It’s been great working with Mick on an initiative to change what the territory and hopefully the country, should look like. There are risks around the Constitutional issues of a territory rather than a state undertaking this initiative, so we are seeking federal support”.

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