This is the second of a two part article about Aboriginal affairs policy in the wake of Noel Pearson’s speech last week at Gough Whitlam’s funeral. See From assimilation to Black Power to Gordon Gekko to where? (I). Then read on. NB A very long post. I hope at least some will persevere to the end
In the first part of this article I argued that the self-determination policies of the 70s, 80s and 90s were generally perceived to have failed. That perception, along with calculations of immediate partisan political advantage, led to the imposition of the Howard Intervention on Northern Territory Aboriginal communities from late 2007.
The Intervention policies drew on various strands of right-leaning thinking on Aboriginal policy (including the prescriptions of Noel Pearson) which I will outline below. Despite their cynical partisan origins, these policies met with bipartisan acceptance and were implemented enthusiastically by the incoming Rudd ALP government through Minister Jenny Macklin under the Abbott-esque three word slogan Closing the Gap. Seven years after their implementation, the kindest evaluation one can give to these policies is that they have met with very modest success.
An article by Jack Waterford in Friday’s Canberra Times titled “Noel Pearson is a great orator but he’s essentially a leader without followers in Aboriginal world” succinctly summarises the current state of play in Aboriginal affairs policy:
The point is that there is an active and lively debate going on in Aboriginal Australia about the way ahead. We know, approximately, what the prime minister, Tony Abbott, thinks of that, if little about what he actually means to do. We know, more or less, that what Abbott thinks is, more or less, what Jenny Macklin, the previous minister, and Malcolm Brough, the minister before her, thought. We know, more or less, the sum of ideas, represented by Pearson, Mundine, Langton and Forrest. And we now have about seven years experience of state and federal policies designed to fit in with all of this thinking.
But there is very little evidence that there has been any sea change in thinking out in the relevant Aboriginal communities and households, or in the heads of a new generation of Aboriginal leaders. They are all, of course, well aware of the “new thinking,” and equally well aware both of the practical problems in different communities, and the sorts of policies and programs that are making any sort of difference. No one knows better than those who must endure it that things, as they stand, are going nowhere; and that standing still may well be going backwards.
In a good many of the gatherings of Aboriginal Australians, the antipathy and open hostility to the new thinkers is enormous. It’s often reciprocated too. From one point of view, the new thinkers have been duchessed, rewarded and, as often as not, have been the vehicle by which community organisations have been disbanded, consultation at community level turned into a complete joke, and the power of the bureaucrat over personal lives of a sort similar to that described so movingly in Queensland, under Joh Bjelke-Petersen before Gough Whitlam and the Racial Discrimination Act.
Waterford’s article is well worth reading. He makes this compelling point in conclusion:
If imposed regimes –welfarist or responsibility focused, integrationist or assimilationist, racist or non-discriminatory – could make a difference, one might think that there would be some evidence of it by now. Whether in Cape York communities – the centrepiece of Noel Pearson’s sense of himself and of his mission – or in intervention communities in the Northern Territory, in country towns in Victoria or in Perth, and Darwin, and Brisbane and Melbourne. It’s not just a matter of fine words.
Workable solutions can only emanate, at least in large part, from Aboriginal people themselves, albeit in consultation/partnership with the whitefella politicians and bureaucrats without whose support, money and laws no meaningful change is possible. If there is one thing we should all have learned from the evident (if so far unacknowledged by either political party) failure of Closing the Gap, it is that “top down” imposed solutions do not work. Nevertheless, to figure out what might work we need to understand the influences and elements that went into creating the Closing the Gap/Intervention recipe.
“Twiggy” Forrest’s solution – authoritarianism + rent-seeking
I would like to take “Twiggy” Forrest’s prescriptions for Aboriginal affairs policy more seriously, because I understand they were co-authored by Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton for whom I have a great deal of respect. But I’m afraid I just can’t. Forrest’s proposed policies were treated with scant if polite respect by Prime Minister Tony Abbott when they were released not that long ago.
They involve even more punitive policies in relation to school attendance than those currently applying in remote communities, and an even more restrictive Basics Card for welfare recipients whereby they would receive the whole of their benefits on the Card to be spent only on a tightly defined range of goods and services. On the wider issue of developing jobs, enterprise and a sustainable economy, Forrest’s policies are summarised in this article in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Among its 27 recommendations, it calls for tax free-status for innovative indigenous businesses and national reforms to driver licensing, so that people unable to drive due to unpaid fines or traffic infringements are allowed to drive for work in order to keep their jobs.
Under Mr Forrest’s proposals, the federal government would have to procure at least 4 per cent of its goods and services from businesses that were at least 25 per cent indigenous owned, and all governments would have a 4 per cent indigenous employment target.
The mining magnate also recommends that traditional owners be able to lease their land or convert it freehold, in a move he says will enable them to build houses on their land or open it up to ‘‘business investment’’.
Forrest’s enterprise policy would effectively amount to entrenched government-mandated rent-seeking behaviour whereby poorly-run Aboriginal enterprises (which would inevitably be taken over by white carpetbaggers intent on seizing the Main Chance) would prosper in perpetuity on the public teat. Setting a target for Aboriginal employment in the Commonwealth Public Service might well be a good idea, but the rest of it is nonsense.
The last bit, where Forrest advocates home ownership and the virtues of converting Aboriginal land to freehold, is also nonsense. However, it is an idea that Forrest has borrowed from Helen Hughes and is considered in the next section below.
Helen Hughes, the IPA and the white picket fence
The notion of converting Aboriginal land to freehold (or 99 year leasehold – a proposition the Abbott government is currently trying to sell to Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, albeit with very limited success) is the brainchild of Helen Hughes, a former Marxist who lurched a long way to the Right and was associated with the neoliberal think-tank the Institute for Public Affairs up until her death last year. Hughes’ ideas are summarised in a delightfully splenetic obituary by Guy Rundle:
For Hughes, private home ownership was not merely something Aborigines should have access to?—?which is fair enough?—?but something that should be imposed on all, here and in the Pacific. Communal land tenure systems should be broken up, and out of this slicing and dicing the individualist, Protestant, accumulative person who emerged from 1500 years of Christian monotheism/Roman jurisprudence/the rise of mediaeval town economy/the Venetian invention of banking and the firm/printing/the Reformation/the Renaissance would pop out fully formed in a generation. Her bloody-minded insistence on this could only be argued by ignoring any real understanding of indigenous social-cultural structures, and its oversimplifications were pointed out time and time again. This seemed to matter little.
The Right relied extensively on Hughes’ work in attacking the many failures of indigenous policy over the last 20 years, and used it to frame an idea that Lefties, led by economist Herbert Cole ”Nugget” Coombs, had projected a counter-cultural utopia onto Aboriginal societies. There was some truth to this, but the argument that such a utopia had been projected onto a blank bark canvas was nonsense?—?indigenous societies remained very different to settler societies. By the 2000s, Hughes’ work, by some ghastly alchemy, appeared to take the worst of Marxism?—?simplistic stage-ist historicism?—?and combine it with the worst of classical/neo-liberalism?—?the idea that the Protestant accumulative subject is the real and eternal form of human existence.
Apart from the rather fundamental cultural issues that Rundle mentions, the big practical problem with Hughes’ theories is that the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal people in remote communities are unemployed, and there are very few organisations or businesses in those communities who could provide them with jobs. Moreover, even if there was some workable method of creating such enterprises on Aboriginal land (a question to which I will return later), most remote community residents possess neither the literacy, numeracy nor employment skills to occupy “real jobs”. Without a job, the chances of any financial institution lending an Aboriginal person enough money to buy land and build a house are approximately zero.
Moreover, the traditional three or four bedroom house beloved of whitefella suburbia is completely inappropriate for Aboriginal communal cultures. Irrespective of who owns the house, it is going to suffer major wear and tear and possibly even get trashed when the rellies come to visit and there are 20 or more people crammed into it. Appropriate housing is also an issue to which I will return. Hughes (and for that matter Pearson, who also subscribes to Hughes’ ideas) must also intend the dismantling of communal Aboriginal culture, although neither actually says so very clearly. One suspects that Aboriginal people themselves have not missed this unspoken agenda, and it probably underpins the hostility many of them manifest towards Pearson.
Incidentally, it seems that Hughes’ freeholding agenda is still being pushed aggressively by the Newman government in Queensland, as this excellent analysis by JCU legal academic Kate Galloway explores.
Noel Pearson’s “Cape York Partnership”
Guy Rundle also managed to work a spray at Noel Pearson into his obituary on Helen Hughes:
Such a one-dimensional approach would be forgivable as a sort of myth, had it delivered results. It hasn’t. Improvements, or the slowing of decline, in indigenous communities follow many patterns, but they don’t correlate to the imposition of simplistic notions of human history and individual nature. Different things work in different places, but any sustained discussion of them tends to be pushed to one side by a near exclusive focus on Noel Pearson’s experiments in Cape York, a place where so much money has gone into mild improvements on things like truancy that it might have been cheaper and simpler to send every kid from there to Hogwarts.
A rather more serious, if equally negative, evaluation of Pearson’s reform agenda comes from Jon Altman, an ANU academic and proponent of a competing Aboriginal affairs policy theory which he calls the “hybrid economy” model. Here’s what Altman says about Pearson’s proposal to abolish the Federal Community Development Employment Program and replace it with “real jobs”, a policy which was in fact adopted and implemented by the federal government as part of the Intervention/Closing the Gap with disastrous results:
The rate of unemployment as measured by the ABS has grown in all trial communities most dramatically from zero in 2006 to 40% in 2011 and 5% to 33% at Mossman Gorge and Hope Vale respectively. These changes largely reflect the shift of people of working age from CDEP participation or active workfare onto Newstart, now supervised welfare where people can be breached for non-compliance.
In short, the expectation that CDEP participants will engage with market capitalism has failed. Instead, according to the evaluation, a total of 211 properly paid jobs have been created by Queensland and Australian governments in municipal and other service delivery, but this is nowhere near the over 800 who were CDEP participants, let alone others who were either unemployed or discouraged workers. It is far from clear from the evaluation how many took up paid employment outside the region. What is clear, though, is that a number of other Cape communities fared better than trial communities.
Information on industry of employment from the 2011 census that is not provided in the evaluation shows that in total only 21 people worked in mining, 18 at Hope Vale and three at Aurukun; most people by far, 169 across the four communities, worked in public administration. This accords with the findings of a House of Representatives standing committee on economics inquiry in 2011 that most indigenous jobs in Cape York were in public administration, followed by health care and social assistance, then education and training.
Two observations can be made about these findings. First, in situations where inactivity has been identified as a cause of social dysfunction, the almost complete elimination of CDEP in the name of real jobs has rapidly swelled the ranks of the unemployed.Second, this transformation has occurred with inadequate workforce planning and economic development for meaningful activity, with two ideas predominating: either people will join the mainstream labour market, though available jobs are inadequate; or they will orbit out for employment.
The Rudd government ultimately purported to reintroduce CDEP, partly because of community outcry and partly because it became apparent that there were no “real jobs” to be had, but the version they reintroduced was a dodgy, privately outsourced hybrid model almost indistinguishable from “work for the dole”. Noel Pearson’s legacy to Aboriginal communities has not been a positive one in this respect.
Of course, advocating Hughes’s white picket fence home ownership vision and abolition of CDEP in favour of “real jobs” are not the only aspects of Pearson’s reform agenda. He has also championed a much more sophisticated version of the welfare management Basics Card concept that was imposed upon the Northern Territory as part of the Intervention/Closing the Gap recipe. In contrast to the bastardised Federal model, Pearson’s version only applies to people with diagnosed incapacity to manage their household budget, and involves appropriate training in the relevant skills followed by restoration of adult autonomy.
Pearson also espouses an employment strategy for young Aboriginal people from Cape York that he calls “orbiting” employment. It involves people moving away from their home communities and going to towns and cities to find employment, but orbiting back to their home communities periodically. It seems to me to be an idea with a lot of promise, but I haven’t been able to find any detail about how it is actually working in practice. How many Cape York people have taken up job opportunities in towns and cities? How long do they last in those jobs on average? When they return to their home communities, does their employer keep their job open for them or do they lose it and have to start all over again? Those are clearly critical questions.
Nevertheless, despite this “orbiting” employment strategy, it appears that Pearson sees it only as a stopgap measure until enough enterprises exist on Aboriginal land to allow people to gain employment there. The aspiration to create an enterprise-based capitalist culture on Aboriginal land appears to be a central focus of Pearson’s vision. There are certainly some communities where such a vision has a real prospect of delivering a reasonable number of jobs. Tourism, pastoral enterprise or even involvement in the mining industry may be real options for some communities. But for many others none of them are even remotely feasible, and even when they are, those industries are unlikely to deliver anywhere near enough jobs for all able-bodied adults of working age. The fact that only 211 “real jobs” could be found on Cape York for the 800 people thrown on the unemployment scrapheap when CDEP was abolished speaks volumes, particularly given the tens of millions of dollars that have been poured into Cape York by both Federal and State governments.
I recently drove through outback New South Wales and Queensland on my way back to Darwin from Melbourne. The thing that really struck me was the extent to which so many towns are withering and dying compared with what they were more than 30 years ago when I last drove that route. With the exception of a handful of thriving regional centres like Dubbo, Orange and Albury-Wodonga, country towns are anything but a haven of enterprise-based prosperity. If those centres with their established populations, infrastructure and educated/ trained workforce cannot survive in the modern economy, what hope do remote Aboriginal communities like Yuendumu, Aurukun or Gunbalunya have to develop such an economy from scratch?
The largest remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory is Wadeye/Port Keats which has a population of just over 3000 people. Most other communities have a population of 1000 or less. They are simply not large enough to sustain any meaningful local business sector, even if it wasn’t the case that nearly everyone is illiterate and unemployed and therefore not in a position to provide a viable local market to any small business aspiring to establish itself there. The only exceptions to this are black economy businesses like peddlers of alcohol, drugs, pornography and gambling services, all of which seem to do quite well. However, it seems unlikely that this is the sort of enterprise-based economy that Pearson has in mind.
I’m not denying that development of local enterprises on Aboriginal land should be pursued, just that it is a naive fantasy to imagine that such enterprises can ever by themselves deliver a sustainable Aboriginal economy. That is the central point made by the next theorist I will discuss, namely the ANU’s Jon Altman.
Jon Altman’s “Hybrid Economy”
Altman’s concept of the “hybrid economy” is at least as much a description of the way things currently are in Aboriginal communities as it is a prescription for the way they should be. Nevertheless, he does accept that there is a real, large and unavoidable place for state involvement in delivering incomes to Aboriginal people living in remote communities, and that a model based predominantly on “real jobs” delivered by an enterprise culture somehow developed on Aboriginal land is a neoliberal fantasy. Hence, neoliberal advocates like Alan Tudge from the Institute of Public Affairs tend to have a low opinion of Altman’s ideas:
The only academic theory of employment in remote communities is the ‘hybrid economy’ model developed by ANU Professor Jon Altman. Professor Altman envisages that indigenous people can make a living by combining three economies: customary food-gathering, government support (including employment in environmental services) and private sector income such as art production.
Altman concedes that a hybrid economy cannot close the income gap, but argues that it is a viable choice for people who don’t have mainstream values, aspirations or needs.
Making assumptions about cultural difference is not a sound basis for policy. In the modern world, reliance on subsistence activities and limited involvement in the real economy is just as impossible for indigenous Australians as it is for other Australians.
Tudge goes on to describe Altman’s vision as one of “subsidised disengagement” which, he says, cannot work. However, as you can see from the diagram below, Altman’s model does not deny a role for the market/private sector, it simply accepts that there is also and unavoidably a large role for the state in remote communities given the factors I discussed earlier.
Tudge advocates instead a model whereby all Aboriginal people on welfare benefits would be subjected to a requirement to seek any available work as a condition of receiving Newstart, even if that involved moving lock stock and barrel to a large city or town (as it certainly would in most cases). It would effectively be a revival of the old assimilation policies of the 50s and 60s, and would no doubt achieve the same result: demoralised fringe camps of unemployed Aboriginal people on the edge of every town and city.
The problem with Altman’s model is that it appears to accept complacently the inevitability of a central and permanent role for government subsidisation of Aboriginal incomes. For those like me who emphatically agree with Pearson’s identification of welfare dependence as a critical factor in the evident violence, hopelessness and despair of remote Aboriginal society, that is a major problem. Moreover, it’s hardly creating a sustainable economy because it doesn’t address the inherent insecurity of government funding. Governments change regularly and the policies and funding priorities delivered to Aboriginal communities change with them, something many Aboriginal communities are discovering to their cost at the moment. A model which accepts the inevitability of Aboriginal people subsisting permanently on the public nipple just isn’t a solution, although it’s certainly much less obnoxious in the short term than Tudge’s spartan vision of self-provision.
What is needed, at least in my view, is a set of policies that doesn’t make a doctrinaire neoliberal attempt to eliminate state involvement completely (and that would accept that it needs to increase in the short term), but does aim at growing the market’s contribution to Aboriginal incomes over time while shrinking that of the state. The proposal I outline below has precisely that objective.
My solution – Orbital job-sharing
If we accept that there will never be enough “real jobs” for Aboriginal people in their own remote communities, but that it would be counter-productive to force or even strongly encourage them to move permanently to the towns and cities where such jobs are relatively readily available, then what is to be done?
Aboriginal people from remote communities already “orbit” frequently between the towns and cities and their own country for all sorts of purposes: medical treatment, shopping, sporting and musical events, visiting relatives who live in town and so on. They frequently stay in town for quite a few weeks before returning to country. My economic model builds on that existing lifestyle phenomenon.
People of working age would be “twinned” and assisted to find suitable employment in towns and cities on a job-share basis. One member of each working duo would work in the regular “real job” for a period of time agreed between the duo and their employer (probably 2 to 3 months), while the other member would be back in their home community working in CDEP-style employment. Then they would rotate/orbit. This way the employer should have a reliable worker (or rather two half-time workers), while both Aboriginal job-share employees would be gaining invaluable skills and experience in the mainstream workforce while also maintaining their family, ceremonial and general cultural ties to country.1
No doubt employers would need to be subsidised by the state to take on Aboriginal job-share employees on this basis, because there would undoubtedly be an administrative burden and a degree of disruption created by the orbiting/rotation. However, FIFO mining operations seem to manage it okay, and the rotational schedule I’m talking about would be much less frequent.
In some cases it would also probably be necessary to redesign some work practices to accommodate Aboriginal employees whose literacy and job skills would initially be lower than the average town-based employee. The government subsidy would need to be enough to make it worthwhile for an employer to undertake that sort of redesign. However, I am sure that within a relatively short space of time the net cost to government would be much less than the current situation where just about all Aboriginal people in remote communities are almost totally welfare-reliant.
The success of this concept would be dependent not only on appropriate levels of government funding but also on amending a fairly wide range of legislative and regulatory provisions, especially industrial awards and enterprise bargains, and social security and housing entitlements.
In addition to finding jobs with existing city-based employers, this reshaped Aboriginal affairs policy would also involve existing enterprise funding (e.g. the accumulated Aboriginal Benefits Account funding generated from mining royalties from Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory) being redirected to purchasing existing city-based businesses suitable for Aboriginal employment and creating suitable new businesses from scratch.
A possible model for such a business is briefly discussed below.
An exemplar urban-based Aboriginal enterprise – appropriate housing
An enterprise that could be created or purchased for Aboriginal people to work in is the construction of suitable and affordable modular/demountable housing for remote communities. It costs somewhere between $750,000 and $1 million to construct a normal three or four bedroom house in a remote Aboriginal community. That is because a wide range of highly skilled tradesmen need to go out there for periods of weeks on end, and their tender prices are inevitably quite high.
Not only are prices of that order almost prohibitive in terms of ever satisfying the backlog of demand for remote community housing, but the housing itself is unsuitable for Aboriginal people living a communal lifestyle. They may frequently be subject to compulsory demands to accommodate extended family, resulting in houses being crammed with as many as 20 people for periods of time. That is why conventional white fella housing has quite a short lifespan in Aboriginal communities.
One idea for more culturally appropriate and affordable housing (it is not my original idea) is to rely on modular or demountable housing units surrounding an open but shade-covered and waterproof central living area. The units themselves and the shade structures would be constructed in cities like Darwin by Aboriginal employees working in Aboriginal-owned enterprises (e.g. by purchasing this company) and then transported to the remote community and installed there on footings pre-constructed by local Aboriginal workers.
This sort of work could relatively easily be structured on a Taylorist/Fordist model to make it suitable for Aboriginal employees with skill level limitations. Below is a rough mud map of a typical modular remote housing installation.
Of course this is only one of many possible enterprises that could be developed or acquired. An employment and enterprise model of this sort might well result over time in quite a few Aboriginal people deciding to relocate their families permanently to a mainstream town or city. Some might even decide to buy a house there using their new higher mainstream salary to borrow money, thereby making the ghost of Helen Hughes very very happy. But those developments would happen organically through people’s own choices, they would not be forced upon them by either neoliberal or left-leaning social engineers.
- 1. I should make it clear that I have in mind a significant degree of legal compulsion to participate in this program. Able-bodied people of working age would be obliged to demonstrate willingness to participate in orbital job-sharing as a condition of continuing Newstart eligibility. However there would be exemptions for:
(a) people with a record of consistent CDEP participation for more than 25 hours per week who prefer to continue doing that than job-sharing to the city; and
(b) people who are serious, consistent artists or craftspeople, even if they don’t earn enough money from their work to make themselves ineligible for Newstart.
I’m not entirely sure how you could define and assess the seriousness of an artist, but I’m sure there are ways.