Aboriginal heroes and adaptation

Last night Jen prevailed on me to watch an episode of the doco series The First Australians.  Such programs tend towards the irritatingly sanctimonious and question-begging in my experience, and that may well be true of many of the episodes of this series too.  However the one Jen had me watch (see YouTube video above – also see part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5) was really excellent.  It emphasised dramatically just how adaptable Aboriginal culture once was to to the dominant culture of the White invaders.  Simon Wonga and William Barak of the Wurundjeri clan near Melbourne were truly heroic figures about whom all Australians should know more.

Those same features of adaptability (and in particular willingness to move and work to take advantage of economic opportunity) were also evident in the initial responses of Northern Territory Aboriginal people to European encroachment.  Among other things they became the economic backbone of the pastoral industry.

Eventually the relentless racism of individual and systemic responses to Aboriginal people suppressed that inherent adapability and reduced most Aboriginal people to a state of sullen, despairing  passivity.   Even when racist responses began to be replaced by entirely benignly-motivated self-determination policies over the last three or four decades, the results were anything but positive.  In fact the conditions of Aboriginal people in Australia’s north have continued to deteriorate on just about all objective measures.  Attempting to understand why, and what might be done to change the situation for the better, is a question that has obsessed me for much of the 28 years I’ve lived in Darwin.  I can’t comprehend how that would not be the case for anyone of conscience surrounded by the evident misery, violence and despair of so many Aboriginal people.

I’ve observed in previous posts that the answers are unlikely to be simple or short term, and that they will certainly involve Aboriginal people themselves in taking responsibility and confronting and adapting aspects of their own culture which militate against successful adaptation.  What the story of Wonga and Barak brought home for me, though, was the extent to which Aboriginal society once did possess the necessary adaptive qualities.  Moreover, and despite the appalling health and educational outcomes for two successive generations of contemporary Aboriginal adults, there is no reason why those qualities of adaptability should not manifest themselves again, if we remove the perverse incentives in our education and welfare systems which create and perpetuate welfare dependency.  Although, as I say, solutions will be both multi-faceted and long-term, thinking about Wonga and Barak convinces me that Noel Pearson’s identification of welfare dependence as the key issue may well be correct.  On the other hand, ANU’s David Martin persuasively argues that Pearson overstates the extent to which Aboriginal people will succeed in achieving the necessary adaptation unaided, and underestimates the extent to which co-ordinated but respectful government interventions will continue to be necessary.

Retiring senior NT bureaucrat Bob Beadman outlines the welfare dependency syndrome succinctly, as The Australian‘s Nicolas Rothwell writes:

Consider the “official” employment figures. According to the Territory’s reports, the total of unemployed people in 10 of the 20 “growth towns” was 292 in March. However, the number of people registered as notional jobseekers as a condition for receiving income support in those communities is 2454. It is the higher figure that tallies with the bleak statistics kept by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which lists indigenous people in the Territory as having the lowest workforce participation rate of any social group in its 34 member nations.

And why? Beadman identifies a simple reason. He has been a persistent critic of the “remote area exemption”, under which people living in bush communities are absolved of the need to look for work in return for welfare. It’s an old provision that lingers as an administrative tool in the welfare machinery, with the result that Aboriginal community residents have been able to decline jobs or training and keep their benefits. He gives the employment history of an Aboriginal area shire in the past 30 months. The data is stark: 1508 people started work, 1110 quit their jobs. This tells Beadman how easy it is to move from job to welfare and how little taste or discipline there is for work. Here, the bureaucrats are the problem.

“There is probably no other area of public social policy,” he contends, “where you will find such a yawning chasm between the repeated policy statements by the Prime Minister about the value of education and employment and the conversion by public service agencies of those values into practice.”

The persistent use of the exemption had a potent effect. It shaped the way bush Aborigines saw the world. It delivered a resounding message: “You never have to work again. The government will keep you for life.” This belief, for Beadman, lies at the heart of the remote-community crisis today. It explains why bush people tend not to embrace training and work, and see no value in education for their children.

“What continues to be of concern is the slowness to recognise the need to change when the faults of such a measure are irrefutable.”

And with these vigorous words, Beadman diagnoses the precise mechanics of the welfare trap. He argues that the work ethic that was often a striking feature of mission-era Aboriginal settlements has been lost, as has the culture of taking responsibility and providing for one’s family. This has flowed on to younger generations, and peer-group pressure hinders the efforts of any community members who seek to break out of the mire.

The one aspect that Beadman does not appear to address adequately (though Pearson certainly does in his writings) is that there will never be an adequate economic base in many remote communities to provide real jobs for even a fraction of their current adult population.  Accordingly, removing the current exemption from normal social security work requirements for remote community residents won’t of itself change anything much.  That raises the vexed question of whether unemployed people (not just Aborigines)  might reasonably be required over time as a condition of continuing welfare eligibility to move to a place where suitable jobs and training are available.  There are lots of arguments against it, but at least as many in favour.  If we accept Pearson’s stark diagnosis of the corrosive effects of welfare dependency, this is a question we can’t avoid addressing. Pearson seeks to address it by attempting to construct for his Cape York community a self-determining system (with corporate help) whereby remote Aboriginal people are supported into training and jobs in larger towns and cities, with provision for regular return to their homeland to maintain kinship and ceremonial links.  Maybe we should be starting to talk about building those sorts of flexible support mechanisms into our official social security system

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.
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Don Arthur
Don Arthur(@don-arthur)
10 years ago

Ken – My response to Beadman’s argument was similar to yours: What about remote communities where there’s no economic base?

It seems odd to me that governments make unemployment payments to people who are jobless but not unemployed.

The mainstream income support and employment assistance systems are designed around a completely different set of problems to those in remote Indigenous communities. As a result we have all kinds of improvised solutions. CDEP, remote area exemptions etc.

I wonder whether we need a different system that’s adapted to specific needs of these communities.

Rafe Champion
Rafe Champion(@rafe-champion)
10 years ago

Possibly the biggest single blow to Aboriginal self-sufficiency was the Northern Territory Cattle Industry Case of 1965 at the Commonwealth Industrial Court. This expelled the Aboriginal stockmen from the industry. The Bench was warned by (among others) the father of Nicholas Gruen, than unemployment would result but they put their faith in the welfare system to pick up the pieces.

‘If any problems of native welfare whether of employees or their dependants, arise as a result of this decision, the Commonwealth Government has made clear its intention to deal with them. This is not why we have come to our conclusion but it means we know that any welfare problems which arise will be dealt with by those most competent to deal with them.’

And the rest is history.

Rafe Champion
Rafe Champion(@rafe-champion)
10 years ago

“Mr Justice Kirby, who presided in the Cattle Industry Case (113 CAR 651) told his biographer Blanche d’Alpuget that he believed that case would ‘be seen as the greatest contribution he and other members of the Commission made to Australian society’ (page 179 of d’Alpuget’s Biography of Sir Richard Kirby)”

jenny
jenny
10 years ago

Instead of welfare taking up the slack from the fallout from equal wages, there may have been some benefit to all concerned if pastoralists had been subsidised so that they could have kept workers on. If necessary, the skills of workers deemed inefficient or inexperienced could have been improved by programs developed in consultation with the industry.
Such a scheme would have made better use of government resources and preserved the skills and understandings that had developed in the cattle industry.

jenny
jenny
10 years ago

On a more positive note, it is heartening to observe that Aboriginal land interests and environmental interests are no longer ideologically enmeshed (Noonkunbah) as the Wild Rivers issue attests in Queensland. This is a progression from the notion that Indigenous people are somehow irrevocably destined to preserving land whether or not what they will end up with amounts to not much more than expanses of dirt.
… Although in conversation I was flawed to hear a reasonably prominent Aboriginal academic say that there was a parallel between the landed gentry in England and the Aboriginal people here that should enable the Indigenous of Australia to simply collect rent like feudal landlords.
Any objections regarding fundamental differences between the two including the English landholders’ history that involved the rights and obligations inherent in the feudal system, the competition for, improvement and development of that land were entirely disregarded.

derrida derider
derrida derider
10 years ago

I really hate the framing of the problem as “welfare dependency” because it’s not the welfare that’s the big problem – it’s the lack of an alternative to it. There’s far too much of a tendency to think “degraded people get welfare, therefore welfare causes degradation”, which gets the causality all wrong.

Marx definitely had a point when he credited capitalism with rescuing the working class from “rural idiocy”. I grew up in a moderately remote area with a large indigenous population before welfare was paid to aborigines (or most whites, for that matter). The local lack of economic and educational opportunity created a white underclass, and the resulting vicious racism and dispossession of the local aborigines, along with the same lack of opportunity, meant they became an under-underclass.

It didn’t need a welfare system to create that degradation, and at least a welfare system might have alleviated some serious income poverty (I’ve seen aboriginal kids with swollen bellies and reddening hair – absolute poverty was not unknown in Australia in living memory).

Mind you, if you’re going to get all paternalistic then I think any part of Australia that is chronically economically kaput (ie large slabs of the outback) should be “no-alcohol” zones. The grog really intensifies the problems, amongst whites as well as blacks. It would be better if they replaced it with a less antisocial drug – say, kava or weed. Even opium would do less damage than ethanol does.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

That raises the vexed question of whether unemployed people (not just Aborigines) might reasonably be required over time as a condition of continuing welfare eligibility to move to a place where suitable jobs and training are available.

Agreed, but its a judgment call as to whether Australian public opinion and the government bureaucracy is ready to accept this. I think not, if only because we do not ask of anybody else to move for a job and because there is a sizeable industry that will fight to protect its position of ‘bringing services to those in greatest need’.

In terms of things that might work, there is something to be said for the landed gentry approach that jenny dismisses too easily. As I said in a post long ago, the logic of zero inheritance tax does mean that one should allocate land to those who are most likely to be the progeny of those who occupied it centuries ago. I would expect quite a few benefits from land ownership: there are all kinds of laws about proper management that land owners have to abide by that would start to hold for any Aboriginal owners.

observa
observa
10 years ago

Ah well perhaps those old timer indigenous cattle-men can have a wry smile on their faces currently?

The bigger picture beckons here as we agonise over CO2 taxes and MRRT and the environment we all inherit from the science of muddling through. Many aboriginals today with only their labour to sell and perhaps an amorphous share in some uneconomic communal land title might need a legup in the big scheme of things. If sit-down money has some obvious deleterious consequences, it’s hard to imagine taxing physical labour directly(PAYG) or those that employ same(payroll tax) will make things any easier for physical labour sellers. So aboriginals have some land custodian skills which don’t appear to be in much demand against the relentless march of tuscan boxes and some environmental concerns- http://southern-times-messenger.whereilive.com.au/news/story/guerilla-gardeners-target-seaford-heights/

Well as I’ve pointed out before we could change the constitution of our marketplace to tilt the tables on all of this with a mixture of CO2E and resource taxing only (land use being a resource taxed at nil for natural up to a maximum for building/bitumen/concrete cover), an ANWT for the top end of town with an exemption for wealth heald as natural environment plus franking credit for ANWT obligation for expenditure to protect or create more of the same. Get the mix right and that should up the value of all that aboriginal communal land and provide them with a ready source of income for their much touted skillset as custodians of our natural environment. Now we just have to get these watermelons to let go of their tendency to want to add and increase taxes on everybody and everything and control our lives and the economy with it all from their commanding heights of central planning and Gaia and we might all get along just fine, black, white or brindle. It’s the constitution of the marketplace stoopids!

observa
observa
10 years ago

You might call it a bit of market green whitefella dreaming but then how are all them watermelon central planners doing with their ‘No birthday cakes will ever be transported in petrol taxed, light commercial vehicles in any Govt they lead’???
Still the other watermelon lite mob aint much better except for – ‘Who do you trust to keep taxes and central planners lower than the other mob’???

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Ken,

thanks for that. Very illuminating and sobering. You make a persuasive case that Aboriginal land ownership in its current form should not be expected to help much. In fact, it almost sounds like part of the problem (fixed royalties to organisations makes them targets for rent seekers).

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