It’s no easy task explaining super to those who know little about it, but that’s just one of the big challenges facing new First Super board member Tim Chatfield.

Chatfield, who is an Aboriginal Elder of the Djab Wurrung people in Victoria, was appointed to the fund’s board as an independent director late last year and says he hopes to educate Indigenous people about the need for super and the importance of basic employment.

“If you look at the population of Victoria, there are 55,000 Aboriginal people and just a small percentage are employed in full-time work,” Chatfield says. “If you’re not maintaining a job for 10 to 20 years, or if you’re always moving about the country, what does that mean with regard to your super?”

Furthermore, many Indigenous Australians don’t live long enough to get super, Chatfield says.

“There are still a lot of Indigenous people who don’t understand super or what it’s about,” he says. “But more importantly, they don’t own their own home or even have a job.”

Chatfield acknowledges that Indigenous Australians are far behind the rest of the population when it comes to issues of health and employment, so above all else, he wants to be a voice and a leader for his people. He’s always been focused on his community and hopes to use his new platform at First Super to create more opportunities for future generations.

“You have to come back to the question of why it’s been difficult to get Aboriginal people in jobs,” Chatfield says. “And why is it difficult to get a good quality of health service because of cultural differences? Is it cultural knowledge and information? Is it because we’re not skilled enough or knowledgeable enough?

“The key question then becomes how do we pass this [knowledge and skill] on to generations so they can capitalise on it and build a portfolio to grow wealth.”

Up for the challenge

Chatfield’s life experience is broad. He grew up in regional Victoria and now lives on his mother’s land as a farmer. As if running a farm and looking after three kids wasn’t enough, he is also the chair of Aboriginal Housing Victoria, the chief executive of a successful Aboriginal managed health clinic, the chair of Aboriginal political party Martang, and a member of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council and the Aboriginal Stakeholder Group of the Victorian Government.

With all this on his plate, joining a super fund board was perhaps not an obvious next step. Yet, Chatfield says he is motivated by his community and armed with experiences that can help bridge the gap between grassroots Aboriginal affairs and the real world of corporate business.

“I’m interested to see what super funds are doing and what they can do for the Indigenous people of the country,” he explains. “As the new kid on the block, I’m still learning. I had no idea how super funds worked but I have good insight now.”

Because many Indigenous Australians don’t enter into a formal retirement, Chatfield focuses on the idea of self-determination. For example, if Indigenous communities can help themselves, they can better secure a financial future that suits them. The solution has long been to simply give handouts to Aboriginals, which isn’t right, Chatfield explains. Australia’s leaders need to move away from this approach and start empowering the Aboriginal community, he argues.

“Why can’t we be a super fund where we can control our own issues?” Chatfield says. “Why do we have to be regulated and monitored by the powers that be? Everything comes from self-determination. You can own your own home and when you retire you can have funds to continue your life.

But more importantly, you can look after your immediate family by setting up some sort of trust or foundation for the future, for education and training, whatever your need may be.”

Valued perspective

First Super chief executive Bill Watson has said that Chatfield’s experience is especially relevant to the fund’s board because many of its members live and work in rural Australia.

With $2.7 billion in funds under management, First Super is significantly smaller than many other Australian funds but Chatfield doesn’t see this as a disadvantage. He’s fully aware of the pressures on smaller funds to consolidate but in his view “small is beautiful”.

“Our returns to members and our fees are better than most funds, including funds that are 50 times bigger than First,” Chatfield says. “If the returns are strong and the fees are low, I can’t really see an imperative to merge.”

Of course, Chatfield doesn’t presume to represent every Indigenous person in every community but does hope to feed the Indigenous perspective into the conversation at First Super.

“I hope I am considered a good all-rounder who can contribute in many ways, including with insights gained through starting a successful small business and from initiating community projects,” he says. “But I think the rural and regional perspective is valuable in the context of board deliberations, given the composition of the fund’s membership.”

A communicator

Chatfield clearly has a competitive spirit, too, undoubtedly fostered by success at Australian rules football while growing up, which he says helped him learn skills for meeting people and handling various social situations.

“The great thing about footy is that it teaches you to communicate with different people,” Chatfield says.

These communication skills have served him well – on the farm, with local community initiatives, in regional government, and now in the arena of big business. One minute he’s in a suit, and the next it’s back on the land with his sheep in footy shorts and work boots.

This latest experience on the First Super board has been rewarding thus far, he says, because he meets many interesting people who bring a lot to the table.

“Some people, but not all, have an awareness of Aboriginal issues,” Chatfield says. “Maybe they haven’t met an Aboriginal person before. I think when you tell them where you’re from, eyebrows can raise a little but it also becomes a point of interest.

“I enjoy it – it’s exciting times. It’s outside of my comfort zone, which is why I got involved, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

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