Indigenous employment: is tourism the answer?

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¬âThere 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¬âNo. 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¬âit has made money in 16 of its 18 years¢â¬ânobody 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¬âGenerally 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¬âand I understand why you would want to promote Indigenous employment; that is a very laudable aim¢â¬âare 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¬âWe are on a bit of thin ice here¢â¬âand 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¬âbut, 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¬âThe 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¬âhelp 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
gave up.

CHAIR¢â¬âAfter 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¬âWith the Tourism Industry Advisory Committee, we invested about $1 ½ million in private projects and nobody has ever been able to tell us¢â¬âand we have asked a dozen times¢â¬âwhat has happened.

Mrs Freeman¢â¬âWe 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¬âWhat happened?

Mrs Freeman¢â¬âI have no idea. Maybe you could find out.

Mr SNOWDON¢â¬âDid you nominate the businesses?

Mrs Freeman¢â¬âYes.

Mr SNOWDON¢â¬âCan you provide us with a list?

Mrs Freeman¢â¬âI do not where it is anymore.

Mr Freeman¢â¬âI would have to go see if I could dig out the old¢â¬â

Mrs Freeman¢â¬âThere is a list.

CHAIR¢â¬âWe 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.

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Ken Parish
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

Hi James

I touched on this issue in a comment to my earlier post:

“There will certainly be occasional exceptions, like pastoral enterprises that support a few people (though nowhere near all those of working age in any given community) or tourism businesses in areas tourists might actually want to visit (though again only jobs for a few people, and certainly not in a place like Port Keats that no-one in their right mind would want to visit except for a specific purpose).”

It’s certainly true that some communities that are strategically located could (and do) generate some employment from tourism. This is happening to an extent in Kakadu as well (and I blogged on it a couple of years ago), and Cairns is another obvious area of potential. However even in those places it is unlikely that tourism enterprises could generate enough employment for anything like all the indigenous people of working age. And in most remote communities, tourism potential is limited to non-existent.

That isn’t to say efforts in that direction should be abandoned or denigrated, just that we shouldn’t imagine that they represent more than a small part of the solution to endemic idleness and welfare dependence.

15 years ago

Tourism is a highly specialized sophisticated industry that requires particular talent and people skills. Although I am not casting aspersions your way, tourism seems to be the stock in trade answer by the Australian Greens when their ” eco tourism’ policies are brought to light. The perfect example was bob Brown’s laughable suggestion that eliminating logging jobs in Tas meant those loggers locked out of logging jobs could transfer their ‘ skills” at changing soiled sheets, cleaning hotel toilets and telling patrons the Merlot is a better choice than the pinot. In other words, it ain’t going to happen.

Going up north: Kakadu, (the one time I visited) I saw only young white staff at the hotel while even the day trip staff were young white males. The workers I saw at the ranger mine that was pretty close to the hotel were all whites as far as I could tell.

The only aboriginals I saw were around the settlements where they lived. I was interested to see what function aboriginals performed in the park as I understood they owned it lock stock and barrel. The only thing I saw that had some economic use was the paintings and artifacts being sold in he hotel lobby. In other words there was not much evidence of aboriginal employment even in Kakadu, which had jobs in mining and tourism close to each other and what seemed to be in ample supply. Hell they owned the place. Not even the ranger at the ticket port was aboriginal. I appreciate this may be a limited view, however I also went looking around Darwin for a few days and to tell the truth I did not see one aboriginal in a service job in any function. Whites and Asians did Service jobs there to.

As I said tourism requires highly specialized skills these days recognized by universities as they offer degrees in this field.

James Farrell
James Farrell
15 years ago


Indeed you did mention tourism in the Port Keats post, and it also came up in the comments on your second post. I should have checked. I didn’t really mean to answer the question posed in the title, far less to answer in the affirmative. However, I think we should take note of any success stories out there and learn as much we can from them.


You seem to be making two points. The first is about the number of potential jobs in tourism. Actually, I have no idea about that, either in the case of Northern Australia or that of the Tasmanian wilderness, so I can’t comment. The second point is about skills and attitudes. There are obviously huge barriers to be overcome, but the point of my example was to show that they can be overcome. I don’t think many if any of Tjapukai’s indigenous workers have degrees, but they have people skills in glorious abundance.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

Moreover, lots of international tourists DO come here to experience aspects of an ancient indigenous culture, that’s different from anywhere else, so there’s clearly a potential at least in some regions.

Joe’s obseravtions about Kakadu were true a few years ago, indeed I had made similar observations myself. But that’s not the way it is now. There are lots of indigenous people working in most of the tourist enterprises in Kakadu, and all the ones I dealt with last time I was out there were really friendly and helpful, which is more than you can say for a lot of caucasian workers in the tourist industry there and elsewhere.

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
15 years ago

I disagree with the emphasis on “real”, that is, unsubsidised and market-based, jobs, and the idea that only such jobs can generate the social benefits of employment. After all, motor vehicle workers operated behind tariff walls for decades, with no obvious ill-effects on social capital and so on. I’ll try to do a longer post later.

Ken, I had noticed the same thing at Kakadu, and I’m pleased to hear that things have changed.

15 years ago

Prof. Q

It may worth explaining what exactly do you mean by social captal in the context it was used as these days I can’t put my finger on what exactly is being defined by ” social capital”.

Used in your example about motor industry protection: if you mean the workers didn’t feel any social or mental dysfuction for working in an industry that needed protection because it was inefficient, well yea that’s probably true.
However the public felt it in the hip pocket every time they bought a car.

However there is a good case to be made that welfare Plus could be used to place aboriginals in work positions and see how that goes. Say cut the chord after 5 years or so.

However the problem as I see it is that examples of this form of assistance is never really that generous either to the hirer or the worker and so stinginess would most probably cause these deals to fail.

Maybe a zero tax strtucure for both the enterprise and the worker to raise enough eybrows to move things along.

Of course even paying dollops of money ain’t going to get businesses to operate out in the desert. So the solution would be to get these people to move in closer prximity to places where there is adequate infrastructure to make it interesting.

If they don’t move cut out the welfare.

15 years ago

When my family went to Ayers Rock and Kings Canyon 2 years ago I was disappointed not to see any aboriginal employment at all. Quite sad really.

Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago


I thought of exactly the same point as I read through James’ excellent post. But when I think about it, I think that it’s really a debating point.

We know that after Sir Charles McGrath, who was Chairman of Repco and a leading light in the Victorian Liberal Party had finished with the car industry and introduced various local content plans, there was massive assistance for some activities.

But people’s sense of production was safe behind the ruse because proving that the jobs weren’t adding value was an abstract pointy headed exercise. I don’t think that people will put up with simply paying aborigines to ‘paint rocks white’ as the saying goes. It offends their commonsense and I think their commonsense might have something going for it.

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
15 years ago

Nick, the point about “painting rocks white” is that it’s an approach to job creation under the constraint that you can’t actually do anything useful, since that would impinge on the activities of regular council workers.

It’s not as though there are no needs for productive work in Aboriginal communities. There are plenty of jobs people could be doing if we could get over the dogmatic ideology that confines job creation to CDEP (a welfare program funded mainly out of dole money).

As you say, there are packaging questions involved, but they’ve been overcome in the past as the car industry example shows (and for that matter, the continuing subsidies to the NT as a whole from the rest of the country).

Ken Parish
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

I think you’ll find most “local council”-type jobs in remote aboriginal communities ARE in fact done by people on CDEP (though usually very poorly). Such communities don’t have a base of ratepayers or other funding to enable them to employ people on oridnary award wages to do those jobs.

The problem lies with the way that CDEP is administered. At least in most places it’s fairly lax, and not very much work is actually done. However, tightening up on the rules is likely to generate the same sort of “civil liberties” based complaints that typically accompany the “mutual obligation” elements of work for the dole etc in the general community.

When last I looked at it CDEP only required participants to work for 2 days per week anyway, and in the schemes I’ve been able to observe participants work (if at all) at a very leisurely pace during those 2 days.

Moreover, the practical aspects of how one would go about “tightening up” aren’t easy either. CDEP co-ordinators are often members of the local community who really aren’t in a position socially to exert strong authority over others, and practically be able to withdraw payments from people who don’t work. Even “whitefella” co-ordinators quickly find that you can’t viably work and live out in a tiny remote indigenous community without making some accommodations with prevailing social mores. A CDEP co-ordinator who tried to “crack down” on people who didn’t work would be isolated and treated with extreme hostility, and would therefore rapidly find life so unpleasant as to be forced to leave.

Missionaries in the bad old days managed to maintain a somewhat more disciplined approach to getting people to do a reasonable amount of work, partly because of their religious beliefs and personal qualities and commitment, and partly because they were living in times when a more authoritarian approach had unthinking support in the broader community. Even more importantly, access to alcohol and other drugs was much more restricted than today.

It actually isn’t easy to envisage ways to make the CDEP scheme work better in the real world of remote indigenous communities. That is one of the major pitfalls of the reform proposals I made in my previous post. Real change will only come when a much higher proportion of community members in remote communities internalise some version of the work ethic that the general community takes for granted. For as long as there are no social sanctions against idleness and most people can’t even envisage any other state of being and see no reason to find another way, things are unlikely to change to a radical extent.

That’s a major reason why some of the ideas being trialed by Noel Pearson’s mob at Cape York and mentioned by Paul Norton in an earlier thread (going away to work etc but maintaining close linkages), may be the only real hope for meaningful change, in that at least those workers will progressively absorb “western” attitudes to education, training, work, savings, material possessions etc, and those values will gradually infuse the rest of the community as young people aspire to the higher standard of living and wider options those workers enjoy.

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
15 years ago

Ken, you’re right that CDEP funds local council kinds of work. I meant to contrast CDEP with, for example, the 1970s RED scheme which is (at least in legend) the basis for the ‘painting rocks white’ characterisation.

The two-day limit arises from the fact that it’s work for the dole. An expanded version, not derived from social security, could do better, though as you say, the social obstacles are formidable.

One point you don’t mention, and which I think is positive is that CDEP is adopted by the community as a whole. The pressure to close down ‘non-viable’ communities may provide more of a collective social incentive to make things work better.

James Farrell
James Farrell
15 years ago


I don’t have a well-thought-out definition of real jobs. It certainly doesn’t mean unsubsidised: in fact one of my arguments was that Tjapukai is an example of how subsidies can work. I have in mind a job in an enterprise with an essentially hard budget constraint and where the employee sees the job as a prize. This is in contrast to a job that exists purely by virtue of some scheme, and where there’s no pressure to keep the job – creating the unending dilemma of how much to ‘crack down’ that Ken referes to. Even if the former uses more government revenue than the dole in the short run, at least it generates positive value added, imparts marketable skills, and fosters responsibility, pride and all that.

15 years ago

Undoubtedly the essential feature is as James points out: the jobs must not be ‘free’. Entitlement jobs will do awfully little to fix the problems, with the possible exception of short term training schemes dressed up as ‘jobs’.

Even then I think it remains essential that the actual person has to take the trouble to tuck his or her shirt in and be sober for a day to ‘apply’, and can and will be sacked (although obviously not too easily).

After all the main part is changing attitudes.

15 years ago

I think the essential problem is as Ken says that “Real change will only come when a much higher proportion of community members in remote communities internalise some version of the work ethic that the general community takes for granted.”

Anyone watch last Monday’s 4 corners program? Seemed to be obvious from this, that these people actually refuse to work in places where the tourists went.

Lack of a work ethic and/or reluctance to engage with white people?

The other problem is, as the woman said in the final comment of the 4 corners program that worrying about the future is “not the Aboriginal way”.

They certainly would not see any need for tucking their shirts and probably find the whole concept of shirts being tucked in a ludicrous idea; one of the many things about white society that does not interest them.

Any ideas how we can force them to want to be like us? It seems to me that education of the kids is the ony way.