A postcard from 1968

I remember a long long time ago – in fact it was nearly fifty years ago I went with my family on a three week trip to Alice Springs and the Northern Territory. Dad didn’t spend much time with us as he was working while Mum, David and I tried to enjoy ourselves. Mum located a riding school and we went riding quite a few days. We went to the rock, where Mum, famous ever after in family culture, took one look at the climbing face of the rock and decided that if we stumbled and fell and lost hold of the single chain going up the rock, we might easily die. So we were forbidden from climbing the rock.

We were scandalised. In any event I still remember the trip quite well. Dad’s work meant nothing to me then but it was quite historic. It was work with two other academics – I think Colin Tatz and Sol Encel – on the likely consequences of giving aborigines equal pay.  The next year they got it of course, though it was never about their interests. They were not heard in the case and remained unrepresented. The white unions didn’t like competing against cut price labour.

In his part of the report focusing on economics, Dad concluded firstly that aborigines should be given equal pay, but also that demand for aboriginal labour would fall and so recommend support for aboriginal stockmen (I don’t know what kind, presumably the original documents can be located, but I don’t know where they’d be and I’ve not looked.) In the upshot Dad was (I expect) quite shocked to be attacked quite stridently as a racist. His saying that some aboriginal stockmen would lose their jobs was racist apparently.

Anyway, racist or not, he was right.

No support was offered and a social catastrophe unfolded over the next decade or so as the rudimentary aboriginal society around the outstations collapsed into a Hobbesian nightmare (though I don’t know enough to know how important equal pay was in bringing this about – my guess is it was a pretty big story. This is what Wikipedia says “Mass layoffs across northern Australia followed the Federal Pastoral Industry Award of 1968, which required the payment of a minimum wage to Aboriginal station workers. . . Many of the workers and their families became refugees or fringe dwellers, living in camps on the outskirts of towns and cities.)

When he was dying he said to me that he never did any aboriginal economics ever again. “Too hard” he said. Then after a long pause, “Too hard”. Anyway a couple of weeks ago someone I’d known as a kid and probably saw for the last time over thirty years ago – Greg Law – contacted Jacques as the Webmeister of Troppo sending me his phone number. After some phone tag we spoke and he told me he was ringing because he’d just come across a postcard I’d sent him from that time in Alice. It was a postcard shaped bit of Kangaroo pelt. As he said there’d probably be laws against buying or sending such a thing now. In any event, he wanted my address. I gave it to him and it turned up today.

It’s got an old, 1968 stamp on it. I remember them (kind of). White background with a Green oval in which the Queen’s head reposes in white relief. Surprisingly small. And I’d written.

Dear Greg,

yesterday we went to Stanley chasm which is a big rock – with a huge split in it.

Love   Nicky

So there you have it. Thanks Greg.

I wonder if others out there have similar strange stories?

POSTSCRIPT: Here’s the article that Dad wrote from the trip – see discussion below. It may explode various myths set out above – I’m posting it before reading it, though I certainly intend to do that. FH_Gruen_1966_Aborigines_and_the_NT_Cattle_Industry

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16 Responses to A postcard from 1968

  1. I used to be not trampis says:

    great story Nick.

    I have highlighted it in my weekly best of ther blogs I do.

    Should be more of it I say.

  2. Jon Altman says:

    Hi Nick thought I would add some texture to your post.

    Your dad’s views on the impact of the inclusion of Aboriginal stockmen in the pastoral award were published by him in a book chapter ‘Aborigines and the Northern Territory cattle industry – an economist’s view’ in Aborigines in the Economy edited by I Sharp and C Tatz (Jacaranda Press, Melbourne, 1966, pp 197-215). There is no doubt that the legal requirement to pay award wages resulted in some pastoralists in the Northern Territory shedding Aboriginal labour, some even trucked them off pastoral leases into nearby towns.

    But the story is somewhat more complex than you recall and so your dad was probably at best partially right. First research that I participated in a decade after the award decision was unclear what impact it had on Aboriginal employment as there were other factors at work. One was rapid technological changes in the industry especially helicopter mustering and use of four wheel drive vehicles, so the industry was becoming more capital intensive. The nature of horse mustering where Aboriginal stockmen has some competitive edge fundamentally changed. At the same time there was one of those cyclical slump in prices that resulted in labour shedding.

    I think it was the economic historian Frank Stevens (not the sociologist Sol Encel) that Fred collaborated with. They undertook an important survey during that 1968 visit you recall with 30 station managers reported in Frank’s book Aborigines in the Northern Territory Cattle Industry (ANU Press, Canberra, 1974) that found among other things that the majority found Aboriginal workers more productive than whites, and yet they were not in favour of award wages for black workers possibly because of alleged unreliability. This raises interesting questions about who was racist!

    What you refer to as ‘the Hobbesian nightmare’ around the outstations had as you suggest complex origins, but a correction that is needed is that social problems arose at towns, not outstations, mainly because Aboriginal people were illegally expelled from pastoral leasehold stations where white pastoralists did not have rights of exclusive possession and just dumped in small urban localities without housing, work or welfare. This issue is given coverage in the Gibb Committee report The Situation of Aborigines on Pastoral Properties in the Northern Territory (AGPS, Canberra, 1973). Another well-known ANU economist HC Coombs was a key member of the Gibb Committee.

    The question that might be asked today is why no immediate state support was provided to deal with the resulting and very visible social disruption airing from structural adjustment? Again the question of who was racist arises.

    In later years one response was for the Commonwealth to purchase cattle stations for Aboriginal groups to run as businesses but by then their viability was marginal and they were often run as social rather than commercial, or as mixed, enterprises.

  3. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks very much Jon. I love the way blogging surfaces contributions like the one you’ve made. Frank Stevens sounds right. And Colin Tatz. As I recall (and I might be wrong about this too, Dad was sceptical of his partners’ left-wing nostroms then, which is quite a call in 1964 as he’d been pretty left-wing for most of his life and remained more sympatico with the left than the right. But he was asking the right questions (I think), which are usually the uncomfortable ones.

    The thing is that I had always thought that the trip took place in 1964. That’s corroborated by the sophistication (NOT!) of my prose on the postcard. It’s also more certainly corroborated by the date of my father’s article which I’ll have to read. I’d originally titled this post “A postcard from 1964”. But the postcard’s postmark seems to say 1968. That always seemed wrong to me, and it could be that it says 1963. But it does seem to have an “8” not a “3”.

    In any event, the date of my father’s article (1966) puts the postcard back in time – as I only went once and I’m pretty sure so did Dad – for any length of time. We were there for three weeks.

    On a net search for my father’s article I came upon this blog post confirming and giving more chapter and verse regarding your points. The author seems much more ideologically driven than is my taste, but nevertheless offers some useful comments – and the money quote from the Gibbs Committee.

    In October 1970 the Gorton Liberal government established a committee, under the chairmanship of Professor C.A. Gibb, to enquire into “the situation of Aborigines on pastoral properties in the Northern Territory”. Its membership included Dr H.C. Coombs (then Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs) and Mr C. Roberts (an Aboriginal with experience as an employee in the pastoral industry). In December 1971 the Gibb Committee reported. Its findings were a shattering indictment of the Arbitration Commission’s folly of six years previously:

    In parts of Central Australia it seemed clear from information supplied to us that the introduction of Award rates of pay, together with the change in drinking laws (10 December 1964) had a serious effect on the general attitude of pastoralists towards employment of Aborigines. Some had replaced Aborigines with European stockmen and in at least one case the Aboriginal community had been “encouraged” to move off the pastoral property altogether …

    In the course of our inspection and discussion it became clear that the adoption of the Award has adversely affected the employment of Aborigines. In the North where labour is more in demand and alternative avenues of employment are becoming available, the problem is not so marked. However, both of Professor Gruen’s predictions of 1966 are obviously being fulfilled: cattlemen are replacing Aborigines with white labour and station owners are investing in improvements such as trap yards and subdivisional fencing which does reduce the amount of labour needed for tracking and mustering. The very recent use of helicopters in mustering in some areas has had a marked effect on the demand for skilled Aboriginal stockmen …

    Repeatedly during our tour we were told of the unreliability of Aboriginal employees and of cultural factors limiting their usefulness and of the additional costs not recognised by the Award of providing for their medical and social care. We are persuaded that these claims are not based on racial grounds but on the experience of those concerned. Often Aborigines do not work as well or as consistently as whites and they require much more supervision. The average productivity of Aboriginal labour is below that of white labour.

    One cannot even speak like that these days. And if what the Gibbs Committee concluded happens to be true? Well you’ll have to work around that and introduce policy predicated on it not being true, or subject to rights that make most sense when it’s not true. In some senses it’s progress. In some senses it’s not.

    • paul walter says:

      You seem to be blaming the union rather than the Lord Vesty types or the government of the day for ensuring the same sort of squaring off of incomes afforded other workers, although it seems true that the unions should have thought more clearly about how risky for their clients the thing would be in a translation to a workable reality.

      It seems to me, if every other worker could be accommodated within a basic wage umbrella the politicians should have not had much trouble including a few thousand indigenes into the picture.

      Who else would have tolerated being paid a sack of flour, some sugar, tea and tobacco, for hard work.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        I wasn’t trying to apportion blame particularly. Not something that helps much.

        • paul walter says:

          I’m just saying how it “read” to me.

          You intended no rancor, yet it some how osmosised into something that seemed to blame some but not others as to how it all worked out. If lives are being mucked up exponentially it is fair that the real culprits be identified, lest reputations suffer.

          I actually know how these things work and what it feels like, because I come from another place where others decison-making blights peoples lives, Elizabeth in SA.

  4. Jon Altman says:

    Thanks for the commentary Nick was the article in the blog by Richard J Wood, it is well researched.

    I went back and looked at your dad’s book chapter presented at a conference ‘The problems of Aboriginal Employment, Training and Labour’ convened at Monash 23-25 May 1966 with the book published very efficiently later that year.

    Your dad was Professor of Agricultural Economics at Monash then. His chapter does not have a date for his fieldwork, but I think it might have been 1965 from what Stevens writes in 1974 so your 8 might be a 5.

    Your father’s chapter does confirm it was 3 weeks and that he was in a Land Rover with Colin Tatz and Frank Stevens. The survey results that are also reported in Frank’s book are partially reported in a detailed appendix to his chapter and make very interesting reading. If you would like a copy of the chapter let me know and I will send you one or drop in at ANU.

    To give this discussion a contemporary flavour, from 2005 the Howard government started to dismantle the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme for similar reasons made in favour of extending the pastoral award – that this scheme where people were paid a minimum part-time wage at award rates equivalent to their welfare entitlement – was creating secondary labour market, was discriminatory, was allowing cost shifting by mainstream service providers and governments and discouraged Indigenous participants from pursuing ‘real’ job opportunities, it was perceived by some commentators as a ‘comfort zone’. The scheme had about 36,000 participants in 2005 who were all classified as employed; census and survey data showed that many earned extra income and worked extra hours often in Indigenous owned and operated social and commercial enterprises. The popularity of the CDEP scheme was partly due it being exempt from the social security income taper, partly to its flexibility as it was community controlled and when it worked well it was highly responsive to the aspirations of participants.

    In the last ten years in the name of creating real employment, most CDEP participants have shifted onto the dole, are less active, engage in endless training for imagined real jobs, earn less and are classified as unemployed, which explains in part the broadening rather than narrowing of the employment gap between Indigenous and other Australians that Tony Abbott reported in February this year.

    I do not believe that the Arbitration Commission had any option but to introduce award wages for Aboriginal stockmen in 1965. But forty years later the Howard government and then the Rudd and Gillard governments were warned that the relentless pursuit of employment equality and real jobs at places where there was only a miniscule mainstream labour market would result in increased Aboriginal unemployment, greater not less social problems associated with inactivity and greater levels of poverty, all predictions that have sadly come to fruition according to the 2011 census. But the ideological blinkers were firmly in place and moral authority was provided by key Indigenous political actors like Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton. I wonder sometimes what your dad’s economist’s view of such ‘creative destruction’ might have been; or what Nugget Coombs who was instrumental in the invention of the CDEP scheme that operated very much as a basic income program might think of contemporary folly based on a neoliberal trope of individualism, entrepreneurship, mobile labour, materialism and the market only.

    The old adage history shows that we do not learn from history comes to mind!

  5. Jon,

    Thanks again so much for your comments. For shame that we couldn’t do better. For shame that everyone was so distracted by their own preoccupations, by their own high ideological readings of what was happening – from both the left and right – that we couldn’t have found ways to involve the communities more in their own fate. Having had an extensive involvement in programs that make the effort to do this (which turns out to be considerable), I firmly believe it can be done. Here’s the Australian Centre for Social Innovation’s latest ‘product’ which is in ageing.

    I’d love to see my father’s article. Kind of crazy that I can’t do it easily given that simply posting it on the web would be the obvious thing to do – if we lived in a world in which copyright was properly crafted to achieve what it did whilst minimising costs on consumers. I don’t think it would be opening up the copyright floodgates for me to get a free copy of it ;)

    In fact on the evening of the 5th May I’ll be in Canberra at a ceremony to hang a copy of a magnificent portrait of my father done by Erwin Fabian in the 1940s now in the National Portrait Gallery collection. I don’t know if it was painted in the detention camps or in Melbourne afterward. In any event, you would be more than welcome to come along. Please email me on ngruen at gmail and I can send you further details. (And I hope I can do the same for anyone else who wants to email me.)

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Correction – the event is on May 6th.

    I’ll provide more details when they’re at hand.

  7. Jan Richardson says:

    Can anyone tell me if this Award is the exact same Award that was applied in Western Australia with disastrous social repercussions and without any Aboriginal input in the decision-making process?

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