A New Deal for Indigenous Australians

Article excerpt

Liberal MP Alan Tudge says we need a new approach to dealing with remote Indigenous disadvantage.

There is a tacit deal for remote indigenous Australians that is not working.

Indigenous Australians have been supported for the last 40 years just to exist in a place of their choice, as a guilt-ridden nations act of compensation for past mistreatment. Low requirements of participation in education and work have been part of the deal.

I do not intend any disrespect in so plainly stating this. But to improve policy we must be truthful about its deep foundational roots. Subsidised indigenous disengagement is not simply an accidental policy tendency; it is a policy principle based on tacit agreement which has the force of an unwritten constitution.

Every government program and policy works within the confines of this deal. Government not only subsidises living in places that are not economically self-sufficient but it has created incentives, particularly in housing, that actively encourage immobility and disengagement.

There would be no reason to bring this up if the tacit deal improved indigenous Australians' lives, but the social and economic results are appalling. Students are three to six years behind mainstream levels, work is almost nonexistent, violence and abuse is unacceptably high. In the last 10 years, $35 billion of government expenditure has achieved almost nothing, as revealed in a Finance Department report earlier this year.

The government is tinkering at the edges, attempting to normalise social housing and quarantine welfare payments. Such policies make no difference to the basic principle of the deal: governmentfunded disengagement.

In mainstream Australia, townships that are not economically viable begin to shrink. Economic forces create an underlying disincentive for depressed communities to continue in their present state. Sometimes residents will create new opportunities to reinvigorate their communities. But either way, the economic forces are inescapable.

Remote communities are immune to such forces. Entire communities are built on government payments and services. Individuals do not need to look for work outside their communities to continue to receive welfare, which effectively means they do not need to look for work. If the population grows, we consider there is a housing shortage that the government must address.

We have built a system that preserves a status quo of settlement in remote regions, irrespective of internal dysfunction or economic forces.


Official rhetoric on remote economic development does not confront the problem.

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.

Land-based economic development, promoted by leaders in Cape York and the Kimberley, is in principle a more realistic idea than living halfway between traditional subsistence and modernity. The intention is to involve indigenous people in existing or potential businesses in remote areas such as primary industries, resource development, high-value tourism or fishing.

The problem is that only a minority of people have the inclination or the skills to see a future in land-based development, or to be involved in business development. …