Rapping on race (instalment 297)

 As frequent Troppo readers will know, I’ve been banging on about Aboriginal affairs issues  for a very long time.   I’m pleased that my obsession has at least momentarily been picked up by the mainstream media in the wake of NT prosecutor Dr Nanette Rogers’ recent decisive (and courageous, given what often happens to public servants who embarass the government that pays their salary) public  intervention exposing the appalling state of indigenous affairs in remote and regional Australia.   Whether indigenous affairs’ 15 seconds in the media spotlight will actually result in any substantive change remains to be seen.

Paul Toohey’s article in this week’s Bulletin certainly  says  some of the things I’ve been thinking.   Toohey encapsulates most of the reasons why so many Labor supporters are deeply disappointed by Clare Martin’s expedient neo-conservative leadership.  

However, the most extreme op-ed ponderings  have in some ways been  the most interesting.   Michael Duffy, for example, was in no  doubt about a final solution in Saturday’s SMH:

The ill effects of welfare have become grudgingly accepted even by romantics since Noel Pearson gave his famous “welfare poison” speech some years ago. But few people have faced up to the implication of this insight, which is that if you take away the welfare, most of the communities have no future, and therefore should be shut down. Aboriginal people should be paid to move to the cities and assimilate. There is no other solution.

History Uber-Warrior Keith Windschuttle reached an identical conclusion in yesterday’s Oz:

The remote Aborigines are thus loaded with twin economic burdens: they inhabit regions that have no jobs or business opportunities and the state gives them an income with no effort on their part. The only solution is to stop funding and thus close down all those settlements where unemployment is chronic and where there are no economic prospects, which is most of them.

To date their opinions have simply been ignored, rather like an indulged senile  old uncle who farts loudly at the dinner table.   But mightn’t we actually learn something by exploring the solution they propose?   What would actually happen if we depopulated  inland Australia (or ethnically cleansed it,  to use a more emotionally charged expression) by cutting off funding to non-viable Aboriginal communities?   And are there any workable alternatives?

For a start, I don’t think there’s any doubt at all  that many if not most Aboriginal communities will never have a viable economic base.   That is, there will never be more than a relative handful of local jobs that aren’t directly sustained by government funding. Moreover, at least the way that funding is delivered at present, the  inevitable outcome is chronic welfare dependency, which then leads to boredom, idleness and despair and  inexorably onwards to massive alcohol and substance abuse.   And, as night follows day, that means horrendous levels of family and community violence and sexual abuse of women and children.  

Stronger policing and tougher sentencing might keep a lid on it, but don’t address the underlying causes.   Moreover, indigenous Territorians are already imprisoned at a very high rate, and  the NT already has more police per capita population than any other state or territory.  

Does that mean there is no alternative but to “close down” all these communities, as both Duffy and Windschuttle assert?   What would then happen?   For a start, most non-indigenous  towns in inland Australia would instantly become economically unviable too, because their major raison d’etre is as service centres for surrounding  Aboriginal communities.   Thus, the non-Aboriginal populations of regional Australia (including National Party-voting pastoralists)  would be none too pleased with any government that introduced such a policy, nor would it appear to be in Australia’s national interest to further exacerbate the phenomenon of an island nation where everyone crams into increasingly overcrowded coastal cities while leaving the inland virtually uninhabited.

The ethnic-cleansing option would also be political suicide in the cities.   At present, very few Australians ever deal with Aboriginal  people on a day-to-day basis.   Most have never even seen a “traditional” “full blood” Aborigine except on TV.   Windschuttle seems to imagine that simply shifting them all to town would be a piece of cake, that indigenous Australians with no experience whatever of urban living and almost universal levels of functional illiteracy (not to mention very poor command of spoken English) could somehow simply “enjoy suburban lives indistinguishable from other Australians”.   Hopefully that could be achieved in the long run.   I don’t disagree with a long-term objective of “normalisation” (apparently the current euphemism for assimilation), but it can’t be achieved either rapidly or by compulsion.   The result of such a policy in the short to medium term would be that families transplanted from remote communities would simply bring their existing grossly dysfunctional lifestyles with them, and begin inflicting that behaviour on suburban voters.  

You don’t need to be a political genius to predict the electoral result for any party that presided over such a policy.   Hence Clare Martin’s instant rejection of suggestions for wholesale evacuation to Darwin of “refugees” from Port Keats/Wadeye.   For cynical/pragmatic politicians (i.e. just about all of them),  a stance of “out of sight out of mind” and wringing one’s hands in impotent mock despair when blackfella issues occasionally catch the fleeting attention of the mainstream media circus is a winning electoral  combination.

Fortunately, Duffy and Windschuttle are simply wrong in assuming that the only viable policy alternatives are either to  perpetuate the current grossly dysfunctional system or implement wholesale ethnic cleansing.   But, just as stark reality challenges the kneejerk assumptions of the RWDBs,    developing viable real world  policies will involve challenging entrenched but unexamined long-held values  of the ‘latte’  left.  

The key to reducing passive welfare dependence (and hence alcoholism and appalling violence)  lies in rigorously implemented genuine mutual obligation policies involving both carrots and sticks  and measurable performance targets.    Kids who go to school should get decent health care while they’re there, and decent meals as well at public expense.    Conversely, parents who don’t send their kids to school regularly should have their welfare benefits removed.   Schools should have indigenous attendance officers (members of the local community)  whose job is to hunt kids out of bed (or wherever) and get them to school.

CDEP should become a real community work program, not just  window-dressing for chronic idleness.   With a “captive”  local workforce required to actually work at least (say) 6 hours per day or lose the dole, communities would be clean and tidy, and  could grow  much of  their own food as they did back in the “bad” old mission days.   Moreover, with the addition of compulsory training in trade skills (again under threat of welfare withdrawal in default of attendance), local communities could build their own houses much more cheaply than at present.   The huge backlog in housing provision, where in communities like Port Keats they have 20 people per household, could be overcome without a dramatic increase in existing government funding.

Of course, many on the left will already  be foaming at the mouth, or at least dismissing me as just another racist right winger.   But what alternatves can they offer?   Manifestly it isn’t just a matter of spending more government  money.   Unless Aboriginal people have skills, jobs and pride, the cycle of welfare dependency, violence and horrendous abuse will remain unbroken irrespective of how much money is spent.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Politics - national. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
32 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mark Bahnisch
15 years ago

Maybe the debate’s moved on more than you think, Ken. Anyway, nice post.

Mark Bahnisch
15 years ago

On Clare Martin’s rejection of the ethnic cleansing idea, that pollie (forget his name but he’s from North Qld and always quoted in leadership stories as a “strong Howard supporter”) who made a Windschuttlesque suggestion that the Indigenous people living on Palm Island should all be forcibly removed to the mainland, was careful to qualify this by saying they shouldn’t be moved to anywhere in his electorate.

Mark Bahnisch
15 years ago

Ted Lindsay, I think.

Christine Keeler
Christine Keeler
15 years ago

God, they’re sounding about like nuclear waste.

Patrick
Patrick
15 years ago

That is all sensible enough. One can carry the same logic well into the South Pacific (at least as far as Nauru, if not several others) – just a matter of time?

I think the real sting in the tail though is that the same logic would seem entirely valid with respect of all highly disadvantaged welfare recipients whether white black or a more universal pallor of substance-abusive greyish yellow.

Paul Norton
Paul Norton
15 years ago

A far more constructive proposal is being developed by Griffith University’s Cape York Institute.

This is that, where the remote towns don’t have a basis for a viable local economy, the residents are encouraged to “orbit” between the town and other centres where employment and economic opportunities are available, i.e. they travel to Cairns, Townsville, Brisbane, the southern states, etc., for part of the year to work, run businesses, etc., and return to the settlement for part of the year, bringing back revenue and also role models of employed, skilled community members with connections in the “real” economy.

morganzola
morganzola
15 years ago

No, it was Peter Lindsay (no relation). Ted Lindsay was the former ALP MHR for Herbert before he lost it to his namesake.

I agree with much of Ken has to say above, and I’d usually be characterised as a “lefty” – albeit more of the flat white than latte variety.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

“developing viable real world policies will involve challenging entrenched but unexamined long-held values of the ‘latte’ left”
Talk about straw men! Where are these “latte leftists” who are so keen to hand out sit-down money and who never examine their values? It’s conservatives who cherish what is, and therefore are loath to take a good long look at what they hold dear.

And I don’t agree at all that welfare dependency itself is worse than the alternatives. In its absence there would be more, not less, misery for these people trapped in economically unviable areas with socially unviable attitudes. People tend to see the association between welfare receipt and misery and assume that the first causes the second, where it is mostly the second causing the first.

The first thing to note about work-for-the-dole type things is that they cost the taxpayer a lot MORE than welfare, especially if they are permanent. The second thing is that someone who is unemployable for an employer due to drugs, grog, petrol, ignorance, attitude, etc is generally unemployable for work-for-the-dole too. I know – in a past job I’ve tried to set them up. And what are you gonna do for the kids whose parent’s income has been cut off because of their bad behaviour?

None of the solutions to these sort of deep-seated problems are fast or cheap. But the temptation to look to compulsion should be avoided, not because it’s always “unjust” (it often isn’t), but because it usually doesn’t work.

Paul Norton
Paul Norton
15 years ago

Sorry Ken. I should have said that the Cape York Institute proposal was far more constructive than Windschuttle’s and Duffy’s proposal. I didn’t mean to imply criticism of yours.

I think to a large extent the policies which should be put in place should be ones which have the general agreement and probability of cooperation from the members of the communities (other than the minority of the most seriously substance-impaired and/or criminally delinguent). It may well be that the communities would support a strong mutual obligation approach as appropriate for their circumstances.

I must also admit that in 1994-96 I had a few unfortunate experiences with people at my University who, for reasons of well-intentioned but misguided cross-cultural sensitivity, were prepared to cut too much slack for non-Anglo males (including, in one case, a male of indigenous descent) in relation to their treatment of women – even in cases where the women who were badly treated were members of the same culture as the men, and objected to the bad treatment on grounds which had purchase within their culture.

StephenL
StephenL
15 years ago

When people attack the “latte left” I usually think they’re referring to me, or at least my friends. However, I only disagree with one word of your article. I have great trouble with the notion of “removing” all welfare payments from parents who’s kids don’t attend school (assuming you’re including their unemployment benefits as well as family payments).

However, I have no problem with reducing them. How far I’d be willing to cut the payments is something I haven’t thought deeply about.

I haven’t discussed it with a lot of friends, but I would think that most would agree, provided such a policy was part of a comprehensive program such as the one you are outlining, rather than a stand alone punitive program.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

Ken, I don’t drink lattes, and I certainly don’t think of myself as a leftist (I’m pretty keen on free markets in most things, in fact). I grew up in a small country town with a considerable Aboriginal population. Even 40 years ago, when there was no welfare, that population suffered from demoralisation, ignorance, squalor and grog-fuelled violence (mind you, there were whites you could have said all that of too. And they didn’t even have the excuse of racism – they were the perpetrators of it).

It’s just I get the shits with people who rabbit on about “welfare dependency” without having thought hard about what the alternatives are. And there certainly is a strong tendency to blame the problems on the welfare rather than the welfare on the problems.

On compulsion, did you actually read what I wrote? I’m not keen on it because of the empirics, with which I have professional experience. I’ve nothing against it in principle.

steve munn
steve munn
15 years ago

I think the idea that Aborigines need to leave remote communities to seek employment and access to better services is nonsense.

The Northern Territory culls 600 saltwater crocodiles each year and the NT government wanted to allow 25 of these to be killed by so-called game hunters, who are willing to pay up to $30,000 per kill. Sadly, the federal Environment Minister vetoed this plan. I think an opportunity has been missed to create employment for Aboriginals in remote communities.

When I went on my around Australia trip in the early 1990s I was disappointed by the lack of cultural tourism opportunities. I wanted to learn more about traditional indigenous culture from indigenous people, but almost no such opportunities existed at that time. The only such experience I had was a couple of Aboriginal women at Uluru lighting a fire by rubbing sticks together then using the heat of the fire to extract gum from spinifex which they used to fix a spear tip to a spear. I thoroughly enjoyed this demonstration. I suspect there is a huge untapped demand from local and overseas tourists for indigenous cultural tourism.

Coastal indigenous communities are currently used to a very limited extent in border protection and as army reserves. I think these programs could be greatly expanded.

Australia’s only contribution to world cuisine is the Macadamia nut, and even that industry was started by Americans. Maybe indigenous communities could assist in identifying and cultivating other plants that may have commercial value.

I also see employment opportunities for remote indigenous communities in conservation projects like feral animal and plant control.

JC
JC
15 years ago

Ken

Isn’t there a hippo hidden in the closet over an issue that most of us don’t wish to talk about but even try to ignore.? I have no desire to delve into the reasons all that much but the average IQ of kids in these areas is about 75, which means most are fucntionally unable to adapt and prosper in the mainstream. This is a real problem most probably brought about by the low diet standards in these communities, especially for kids.

How on earth can we help them mainstream with these headwinds facing us?

Another reason for this low performance could also stem from low stimulation kids receive in these remote areas.

For some of these kids what we understand to be an eductiona is vitually impossible.

Yet we condemn them in other ways as well. The high level of a minimum wage being a good example. Try and lower the min wage to gedt these kids into paying jobs and we would all be accused of slavery.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
15 years ago

It’s funny to answer a guy with the same initials as I, but anyhow:

IQ is not an entirely useful measure in some cases, but I would suspect that the two major causes of low IQ scores in the aboriginal population would be caused by:

1. Malnutrition and disease.
2. Cultural differences and very limited education, undermining the gC score component of most integrated IQ test batteries.

But 1. is the major kicker. The human brain requires an abundant supply of protein to develop and a stable supply of glucose to function. Malnutrition defeats both.

JC
JC
15 years ago

Great post by the way, Ken. You seem to have offered the best solutions out of anyone around. After Keith’s piece and yours, you suggestions are a better fit to this hellish problem.

Right or left, this is a truly a shocking problem that we all need to acknowledge is a deep scar to our nation.

These poor people seem to have been thrown around from one program to amother as though they were living in a pteri dish. Truly shocking!

JC
JC
15 years ago

I agree Jacques, however when the scores are that low they are very difficult to ignore.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
15 years ago

Yep, it is an excellent post. A good example of ‘post-ideological’ or centrist thinking. Better than posturing which occupies so much space these days.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

Ken, its not just first-hand experience. I’ve also done a lot of reading in the labour market program evaluation literature. The frequency of disappointing results is, IMO, due to a failure of the program developers to look hard at the actual people they’re dealing with – “unobserved heterogeneity” ain’t just a theoretic construct.

And you haven’t answered my point about the causation in welfare dependence. There is a real tendency to say “these people are poor, these people are welfare dependent, therefore welfare dependency makes you poor” (Charles Murray is the extreme exponent of this ‘argument’). My point is that it’s not as though poverty is or was unknown in places where there is/was no welfare – quite the reverse in fact.

JC, I think our minimum wage is too high. But if you think any wage would make most of these people employable, you’re dreaming. There are, unfortunately, people whose marginal product in the workforce is negative.

Geoff R
15 years ago

If people actually went back and read the reconciliation/self-determination literature of the 1980s, most notably the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, they would see that economic participation was a central concern. Socialists (remember them?) always argued that effective citizenship required access to economic resources. Perhaps Labor governments have preferred rhetoric to real redistribution of resources but this is not something reconciliation supporters can be accused of.

Greg
15 years ago

I’d also suggest that the usual practice of offering tax incentives to corporations (often the really big outfits who don’t need such beneficence) for locating their production centres in particular areas might be employed to good effect, providing substantial jobs where they’re demonstrably needed.

JC
JC
15 years ago

DD
JC, I think our minimum wage is too high. But if you think any wage would make most of these people employable, you’re dreaming. There are, unfortunately, people whose marginal product in the workforce is negative.

I can’t honestly remember where I read it DD, but the story is that up to some point in time Abor menfolk had pretty lots of jobs going with the cattle stations. The station owners paid these guys lower wages than westerners because they were unreliable workers- they went walkabout.
Then the dogooders came in and broke up this perfectly good arrangment forcing the owners to pay regular award wages. As a result hiring for this group plummeted, as they weren’t doing the job the higher pay required.

This is another example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

JC
JC
15 years ago

Ken
Have we in a way unwittingly copied the American reservation policy of sorts and simply plonked these people in settlements?

JC
JC
15 years ago

The reason I ask this is becasue they seem to be further ahead of the curve then we are and it seems they have had little success.

stephen bartos
stephen bartos
15 years ago

two quick thoughts – one: taking welfare benefits from parents who don’t send their children to school could well make those children even worse off; hate to say it, but changing the form of the benefits from cash to food, health, and other approved purposes might be the better option. The left/right “food stamps bad/good” arguments are not really apposite when the incentives for parents and the welfare of children are what are at stake.

second, and more broadly, I am currently worried about the usefulness of the term “aboriginal community” in this debate. The basic governance unit in aboriginal society seems from my experience to be the family – and relevant to the debate about abuse, it is typically a large, extended family with numerous aunties with considerable authority, whose authority is undermined by a government funded “community” where the dollars and therefore power go to men. From the family it moves up through a couple of levels to nation; and here governance is very diffferent across Australia, particuarly in respect of the west vs. east, yet we seem to assume that it is all the same. Also, many of the sites for contemporary aboriginal “communities” are in fact whitefella settlements in the form of ex missions or ex stations – so how organically “community” are they really? Everyone uses the word community because it sounds so friendly, so obviously a good thing – but maybe some of these communities aren’t, and all we’ve done is create dysfunctional units based on preconceptions (much like post-colonial borders in Africa have created dysfunctional states). Still thinking about this one, and if Ken has any view would dearly like to hear it.

Geoff R
15 years ago

Ken, I probably agree with much of your argument. My point simply was that the 1990s policy documents of the ‘reconciliation era’ did stress economic opportunity. In the reworking on the Deakin unit on indigenous history I replaced the chapter on the Royal Commission by a chapter on indigenous participation in the workforce and have included a specific essay question on the pros and cons of the self-determination ideal. I would agree that many of the 1990s undergraduate units on indigenous history didn’t consider the economic position of indigenous people today, but this isn’t something the Deakin course can be accused of. Your arguments are interesting and I will refer to them in my lectures. We could ask why if the Europeans and the Japanese can subsidize a peasantry on their traditional lands why can’t white Australia? George Megalogenis recently correctly contrasted the largesse on rural telecommunications (taxpayer subsidised on the grand scale) with the low spending on basic infrastructure for indigenous communities.

steve munn
steve munn
15 years ago

I think Aboriginal communities in remote outback and Top End areas could be paid for providing “ecosystem services”. This would include things like maintaining traditional burn regimes as well as the elimination of exotic flora and fauna. A further ecosystem service would be trapping in order to monitor the condition and numbers of local species of fauna- something we currently pay ecologists/biologists to do.