Federal Liberal backbencher Dr Dennis Jensen is a right wing MP with views not unlike those of his colleague Corey Bernardi. He “distinguished” himself this week in Parliament with a diatribe about Indigenous communities supposedly living a ‘noble savage’ lifestyle:
“I put it to the members of this place that the taxpayers of Australia should not be funding lifestyle choices. Yes, I agree with the former Prime Minister, the member for Warringah, when he refers to Indigenous Australians’ choice to live in remote communities as ‘a lifestyle choice’,” he said.
“In essence, if the ‘noble savage’ lifestyle, a la Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the same one often eulogised, is true, then there is nothing stopping any Indigenous men or women from pursuing such an existence on their own. Just do not expect the taxpayers to subsidise it. My contention is that the ideal of the noble savage may be less sanguine and altogether more Hobbesian: ‘nasty, brutish and short’.”
The evident racist tone of Jensen’s contribution is unfortunate, because it masks a very real and important issue in Indigenous affairs. There are very few if any remote communities that could meaningfully be described as living a ‘noble savage’ lifestyle. What is undeniably true, however, is that most adults in most communities live lives of idleness, boredom and welfare dependency, features which play an important role in high rates of crime, violence and a range of other toxically dysfunctional behaviours. Numerous commentators including Noel Pearson have stressed the importance of overcoming welfare dependency.
Jensen’s “solution” appears to be to defund remote communities, effectively forcing their residents to decamp to Australia’s towns and cities. However his vision is historically blind to an almost breathtaking extent. This is precisely what occurred throughout Australia over the many decades leading up to the 1967 referendum. Aboriginal people were forced off their traditional lands by pastoralists and others, and ended up in fringe camps on the edges of most cities and country towns. The suffering and disadvantage this phenomenon generated is well-documented and undisputed. Moreover, many non-Indigenous Australians, especially those who identify with the views of politicians like Dr Jensen, would not welcome (for largely selfish reasons) the re-emergence of extensive Aboriginal fringe camps adjacent to mainstream towns and cities.
Fortunately I think there are much more constructive and market-based alternatives that would over time result in a sustainable Aboriginal economic base without forcing or engineering the abandonment of remote communities. Over the fold is an extensive extract from a long article on this subject that I posted here at Troppo back in 2014. It didn’t generate much discussion at the time, but it’s worth continuing to raise these issues because they are important.
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.
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. …
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.