Dennis Jensen and the ‘noble savage’ – a constructive perspective

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.

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 Economics and public policy, Politics - national, Race and indigenous. Bookmark the permalink.
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paul frijters
paul frijters
5 years ago

your sentiment is laudable Ken, but it’s still a ‘White Man designing the solution for others’ kind of plan. Sounds pretty hopeless to me to be organising other people’s working lives to the extent you suggest.

Does Jensen propose to end all forms of subsidy to all forms of remote living? Including the many direct and indirect subsidies to farmers? That would be a brave thing to suggest!

derrida derider
derrida derider
5 years ago

Once again I make the point that “welfare dependency” is a CONSEQUENCE, not a cause, of idleness and demoralisation, as you yourself go on to imply in noting the extensive degradation before welfare dependency existed. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out indigenous health, crime, housing and other indicators are still bad but they are actually better then they were before welfare was extended to them – something inconsistent with the story so often put out that these people were living sturdily self-reliant lives as stockmen for the pastoralists, only stopping on Sundays to attend the Mission church, but then Whitlam came and insisted that those working be paid and those not get ‘sit down money’.

Making this crystal clear is really important precisely because the Jensens of this world want to remove the welfare without addressing the degradation. The hypocrisy of saying “we should be colour blind … there should be no specific Indigenous policy” while simultaneously saying that blackfellas shouldn’t get the same payments as everyone else is pretty obvious.

Persse
Persse
5 years ago

For those who have read James Boyces’ book 1835 The founding of Melbourne & the Conquest of Australia will be thoroughly familiar with how this subject plays out.

Jim
Jim
5 years ago

As someone who runs my own business, I’m not sure your orbital job-sharing model would appeal when compared to the alternative (i.e. how we currently employ people), particularly as there is already a lot of underemployed labour capacity in the economy.

The orbital job sharing model from an employers’ perspective seems to involve very high transaction and adminstrative costs, less continuity of labour inputs, a greater need to train/retrain staff, and a lower likelihood staff will become more efficient over time through continuous work. In short, it is a higher cost and lower productivity model.

RexR
RexR
5 years ago

I did a driving tour through the Pilbara, Kimberley and Central Australia last year. There were many foreign (mainly German) tourists also driving the same route. A common question from them was why where there so few Aboriginals visible at many of the tourist stops, and why where they were visible, were they rarely involved in any activity that engaged with the tourists.

It was difficult to explain why there was so little desire on the part of the local Aboriginals to engage. It varies from place to place I suppose, but I think one of the reasons is a debilitating sense of cultural inferiority. A lack of self-confidence in the value of their own culture to others. There was also I noticed and also a preference to keep to their own community, and stay well away from the main tourist routes.

A notable exception to this was a tour led by an elder of the Bunuba people (Bungoolee tours), who offered great insight into his traditional beliefs and connection with the place, and this added huge value to the tour of Tunnel Creek.

I certainly think there is significant opportunity for Aboriginal people to have employment in the tourist industry, the challenge I suppose it to re-build the confidence to engage, and then to work out how to package it and to market it to those people (like German tourists), who truly do want to get the Aboriginal insights.

Boxer
Boxer
5 years ago

I think the “funding of lifestyle choices” terminology, while likely to cause offence and be misunderstood, refers principally to the provision of infrastructure such as education, power, water and sewage in remote communities. Any comparison between the provision of these services in remote Aboriginal communities and remote area pastoralists is wrong, because a remote agricultural, mining or tourist business provides these services and infrastructure at their own cost. They send their children away to school at horrendous expense (or buy a house in the city where the children live while in education) and are self-sufficient for power, water and drainage services. All farmers and a great many residents outside the major urban centres do likewise to varying degrees.

If any of these rural businesses or residents cannot provide these services themselves, they close down or relocate. One of the major reasons why you observe the decline in all the smaller rural towns is the lack of education facilities. Once your children reach secondary school, you simply have to move. If there is a local high school only 80 km away, it has very few students and a crippling lack of facilities and subject choices. Or you can send them to boarding school if you can afford the fees and can tolerate your children going through their formative years in an institution. That’s life for many many people outside the handful of Australian cities.

I am unconvinced by the concept of orbital job-sharing for the reasons given by others here, but at the same time such an intractable problem obviously requires creative ideas because funding remote communities is failing, and relocating those communities to larger towns to form fewer but larger dysfunctional communities has failed in the past. Repeating the same mistakes always gets the same results.

paul frijters
paul frijters
5 years ago
Reply to  Boxer

you make the farmers sound like noble savages of bygone centuries: proudly self-sufficient. A modern myth.

I am afraid the subsidies to the farming areas are many, ranging from the hidden subsidies to its health care and education (such as via rules that teachers have to spend some time in the bush before they get can work where they want in the cities), to preferential access to cheaper water, to more water rights, to the NBN, and of course many parts of the infrastructure system. Dont even get me started on the preferential tax treatments and import bans for foreign competition in some areas.

To subsidise remote living is a political choice, but it’s palpable nonsense to pretend we only subsidise remote Aboriginal communities and not the agricultural and pastoral areas. The cities pretty much subsidise everything else.