Social Engineering and Indigenous Settlement: Policy and Demography in Remote Australia

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Abstract: In recent years neo-liberals have argued that government support for remote Aboriginal communities contributes to social pathology and that unhindered market engagement involving labour mobility provides the only solution. This has raised questions about the viability of remote Aboriginal settlements. While the extreme view is to withdraw services altogether, at the very least selective migration should be encouraged. Since the analytical tools are available, one test of the integrity of such ideas is to consider their likely demographic consequences. Accordingly, this paper provides empirically based speculation about the possible implications for Aboriginal population distribution and demographic composition in remote areas had the advice of neo-liberal commentators and initial labour market reforms of the Northern Territory Emergency Response been fully implemented. The scenarios presented are heuristic only but they reveal a potential for substantial demographic and social upheaval.


In recent analyses of competing principles in Indigenous affairs policy, political scientist Will Sanders observes a paradigm shift in policy back to ideas of guardianship based on a conviction that governments can, and should, intervene to shape and enhance Indigenous participation and life circumstances (Sanders 2008, forthcoming). The most forceful expressions of this approach are found in the work on capabilities by Pearson (Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership 2007) and Hughes (2007) on remote settlements. Policy-wise, it is most manifest in the package of measures first announced by the Howard government in relation to its Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) (Altman and Hinkson 2007; Sanders 2008; Commonwealth of Australia 2008). Accompanying this shift to what Sanders calls the 'directive right' of politics, there has also been a resurgence of right liberal thinking in which government support for remote Indigenous communities is seen as contributing to a social pathology that only unhindered market engagement involving labour mobility can resolve (Johns 2006a, 2007, 2009). Not surprisingly, this discourse on the right of politics has generated discussion regarding the viability of remote Aboriginal settlements. As a policy issue, this was first raised by former Indigenous affairs minister Vanstone (2005), while the most recent contribution argues for the withdrawal of services from locations that are not economically viable (Johns 2009). A critique is provided by Moran (2009).

All of this has stimulated interest in the issue of rural-urban migration. A good deal is known about the migration of Indigenous peoples. In 2004 a summary of the substantial body of research on Indigenous mobility in North America and Australia and New Zealand (Taylor and Bell 2004) concluded that a political economy framework was essential for analysis of this phenomenon--political, because of the influence of government policy in framing life course options for many Indigenous peoples, and economic because of the relatively limited participation of Indigenous people in mainstream institutions, either deliberately or otherwise. It is significant, then, that both of these influences have become elemental in recent years to Commonwealth government policy formulation around the notion of achieving 'practical reconciliation', now measured as a 'closing of the gap' between Indigenous and other Australians in employment, income, health, housing and education.

Thus, a common signal to Aboriginal people that became crystallised in the NTER was to embrace the institutions of mainstream Australian life with (it is argued here) potential migration-inducing implications. Of particular note here was the Howard government's plan, as part of the NTER, to scrap the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program and lift remote area exemption for unemployed persons (Altman and Johns 2008). …