When Ken Parish blogged on remote Aboriginal communities last week, prompting John Quiggin to blog more specifically on employment subsidies, I was reminded of the visit I paid last year with my family to Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, twenty km north of Cairns. On that visit, after the shows and activities, I chatted with some aboriginal staff in the souvenir shop. I learned that the enterprise had a substantial indigenous workforce, and was regarded by them as a good employer.
Tourism readily suggests itself as an answer to the issue Ken addressed. After all, if aborigines can create viable enterprises based on their own culture and their native environmental expertise, it means they can earn an income, continue living in their own ‘country’, and preserve their heritage all at the same time.
Scratching around on the web for more information on Tjapukai, I discovered that the directors, Don and Judy Freeman, gave evidence last year to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, which has a subcommittee looking into indigenous employment.
From this I learned a few more facts about Tjapukai. It began in 1987 with a troupe of seven dancers. After a shaky start, and two changes of venue, it’s now the country’s largest employer of aborigines in tourism. Eighty-five out of a hundred employees are aboriginal. The owners of the business include two aboriginal councils, some local business people, the Freemans themselves and Indigenous Business Australia, which took over the business functions of ATSIC.
The whole document is worth reading, but five points in particular struck me.
The first was the fragility of demand. Tjapukai doesn’t have any serious competition, and in questionnaires eighty percent of tourists say they want to learn about aboriginal culture, so one might imagine that a steady flow of customers is guaranteed. Surprisingly, however, it turns out that only ten percent of tourists visting Cairns actually go to Tjapukai. There are apparently a couple of other businesses offering aboriginal experiences – in particualr walking tours with traditional owners in Mossman Gorge, Cooktown and such places – but these have not been consistenly profitable. The problem is simply that tourists have too many options.
The second point is that good wages and conditions are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Fostering professional attitudes in staff is critical in an industry that trades on reliability and punctuality. Judy Freeman brings out the irony rather amusingly:
The tourism industry is remarkably unforgiving. While they want to see an authentic, tribal and preferably primitive experience, they expect it to happen on time, exactly as it has been promised and regardless of any cultural imperatives.
If a tour company has promised its customers they will see an aboriginal dance at 11.00am, and there is no dance, that’s the end of the contract with that tour company. This can be a problem if five members of the dance troupe are in the same family, and are all expected at a funeral on the same morning. Tjapukai’s management has succeeded in persuading families to postpone funerals, but they doubt that this would happen in Central Australia or Arnhem Land.
Notwithstanding this kind of hazard, the Freemans do not complain about minimum wages or unfair dismissal laws (nor, to their credit, do the Government members of the committee prompt them to do so):
Q: how do you develop professionalism?
Mr Freeman¢â¬âThere are a couple of key things. From day one, we have always attempted to create full-time jobs for people and to pay people enough money to change the way they live and, frankly, to get them addicted to a pay cheque on Friday¢â¬â
This brings me to my third point. It is abundantly clear from the Freemans’ saga of sweat and tears that a long-term employer of aborigines ultimately needs to be a genuinely viable commercial enterprise, meeting a genuiune demand, and run by tenacious and determined entrepreneurs. A nice concept, good will, and some subsidies are never going to be enough. No-one at Tjapukai is employed under the Community Development Employment Projects scheme.
But this is not by any means to say that government involvement is harmful or wasteful, in collaboration with a truly viable business. Tjapukai does get access to subsidies by participating in the Structured Training and Employment Projects (STEP) (pdf) program administered by the Department of Emlpoyment and Workplace Relations:
Over the last two years they provided us with a subsidy of about $5,600 for an Aboriginal employee that we took on and who stayed for six months. You get $1,300 when you take them on, another $1,300 at the end of three months and another $2,600 at the end of six months. We contracted with them to take on 24 employees over a two-year period, which about covers our attrition rate. Of the 24 that we took on over the last two years, probably 15 are still working here.
Later in the interview someone asks whether the STEP employment subsidies were the only ones Tkapukai had received.
Mr Freeman¢â¬âNo. In the first year that we started we were given 100 per cent funding for six of the seven performers that we had for six months, I think 75 per cent for an additional three months and 50 per cent for an additional three months, which gave us a year to get this thing up and running. Six of our seven performers were paid for and, without that, it would never have succeeded. That was the single most critical thing that made this work because, as Judy said, there were plenty of days where we had seven people on stage performing for two people. It took a year to turn that around. We will get $75,000 from the STEP program this year We are about to sign a new contract, so I hope I am not going to have any trouble! It will be a great help because,in spite of the big buildings and the fancy televisions and although this thing makes money every year¢â¬âit has made money in 16 of its 18 years¢â¬ânobody is getting rich.
Fourth, there is the issue of affirmative action, raised by Fred Argy
in the comments on JQ’s post. In this particular case, it doesn’t seem to have been necessary:
Mr SLIPPER¢â¬âGenerally speaking, in employment we are, quite appropriately, not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race. Given the fact that you have 100 employees, 85 per cent of whom are Indigenous¢â¬âand I understand why you would want to promote Indigenous employment; that is a very laudable aim¢â¬âare you given some sort of exemption from general rules which has seen you be able to achieve 85 per cent Indigenous employment? Or is it just
something that has happened on merit and on the basis of their involvement with the Tjapukai people and their understanding of the culture and what you are trying to produce and present?
Mr Freeman¢â¬âWe are on a bit of thin ice here¢â¬âand we are putting this on Hansard! Our goal is to increase Indigenous employment and we unquestionably give preference to the Tjapukai and Yirrgandyji people, Aboriginal people in general and Indigenous people in general. All other things being even close to equal, we will employ an Aboriginal person before we will employ a non-Aboriginal person. We have had situations where we have needed people to provide skills in specific areas and have been unable to find an Indigenous person. For example, our restaurant runs breakfast, lunch and dinner and we feed about 500 people a day plus we do functions and things like that. I do not know an Indigenous person who can manage that¢â¬âbut, if we could find one, we would.
Perhaps there is a case at least for waiving anti-discrimination laws, so that employers who actually want to discriminate in favour of aborigines may do so without skating on thin ice.
The last point is that aboriginal unemployment cannot be blamed entirely on a dearth of ideas. There are good ideas around, and the energy to implement them, but progress can be thwarted by the sheer inflexibility and sluggishness of bureaucracy.
An example of the former relates to DEST’s WELL program, whereby an instructor is supplied for part of the week to coach employees in language and communication skills.
It was a good program. We had a dedicated teacher who was here 15 hours a week. It cost us a lot of money because we paid the people to sit here in this room. They taught literacy and numeracy. It was adaptable. We were able to teach lecturing. Ernie sat through it for two years, learning how to lecture and how to speak in public.
The Ernie in question is Ernie Brimm, Tjapukai’s cultural officer (also a witness for the committee), who became an effective public speaker largely through that program. He summarises its function thus:
A lot is to do with the environment and feeling comfortable with the
Indigenous staff here. They come up here to the boardroom and do the WELL based program and, when then they go back to the ground level, they feel more comfortable and at ease with
things. Sometimes programs have been done out amongst the trees with these teachers. Whether it is one-on-one teaching or you are sitting with a group, you need to feel comfortable.
Despite the obvious and verifiable benefits, they lost eligibility for this simply because there is an arbitrary three-year limit. That kind of rule makes no sense in the case of a business which is contiinually hiring and training new aboriginal staff.
As for sluggishness, there are two fine examples. The first involves the Freemans’ repeated attempts to get funding for managment cadetships, to take some of the employees ‘to the next level’.
Mr Freeman¢â¬âThe way the cadetship worked out is that I would write to whatever department it was and explain exactly what I wanted. I would go to Warren Entsch and Warren would write a very nice letter to whoever the appropriate minister of the day was, saying: ‘This is great. This is a wonderful organisation. This is what they want¢â¬âhelp them.’ I would wait for months for a response to that. The response would be, ‘That sounds really nice and we will pass it down to our state manager.’ The state manager would wait three months and then he would write a letter and pass it down to the regional manager. The regional manager would call me and we would have a meeting and then we would determine that there was no program that would do what I wanted to do and then we would be back to step one. That went on for two years before I
CHAIR¢â¬âAfter that fellow died you could try it again.
The second example provides more comedy. In the interview we learn that the Deaths in Custody inquiry begat a Tourism Industry Advisory Committee, whose recommndations were shelved when Labor lost in 1996. The new Government appointed a National Indigenous Tourism Leadership Group, which contributed to a tourism white paper, which recommended that Tourism Australia include an outfit to be called Indigenous Tourism Australia. This committe, as of last year had a name and a chair (Aiden Ridegeway). As far as developing a national indigenous tourism startegy is concerned, we are still at square one.
Mr Freeman¢â¬âWith the Tourism Industry Advisory Committee, we invested about $1 ½ million in private projects and nobody has ever been able to tell us¢â¬âand we have asked a dozen times¢â¬âwhat has happened.
Mrs Freeman¢â¬âWe said that we were going to support 10 pilot projects and we were going to
mentor these 10 businesses through the next five years or whatever.
Mr SNOWDON¢â¬âWhat happened?
Mrs Freeman¢â¬âI have no idea. Maybe you could find out.
Mr SNOWDON¢â¬âDid you nominate the businesses?
Mr SNOWDON¢â¬âCan you provide us with a list?
Mrs Freeman¢â¬âI do not where it is anymore.
Mr Freeman¢â¬âI would have to go see if I could dig out the old¢â¬â
Mrs Freeman¢â¬âThere is a list.
CHAIR¢â¬âWe should be able to track that and find out what happened. We will let you know
what we eventually find out.
I wonder if they ever tracked it down. A generation of indigenous kids has been born and gone on the dole since this process started. Some kind of continuity and accountability from government departments is is clearly called for.
To conclude: I think this is an inspiring example of the potential of tourism to generate jobs for aborigines. But they need to be ‘real jobs’ rather then ‘artificial jobs’ created by employment projects. Such jobs will be long-term, and when people leave them, it will be because they have found a better alternative. (Tjapukai’s turnover is not high. People who last a year tend to stay on; and those who leave mostly go to public sector jobs.) At the same time, an important part can be played by the government: first, through job subsidies and assistance with in-service training; and second, in providing a framework for successful enterprises to share their wisdom with other enterprises who have a genuine interest in employing aborigines. (So far, the Government hasn’t set up any structures for Tjapukai to help other organisations.)
Don Freeman summarises his advice for the committee thus:
Be flexible and accept the fact that you are probably going to get ripped off occasionally. You have to have somebody on the ground who is able to look at an organisation and say, ‘Yes, we can help them in the way they want to be helped,’ and not have programs that are so tight that they do not fit what is happening on the ground.