Ken Parish has an excellent post responding to the recent speech by Pat Dodson on the violence endemic in Aboriginal communities, and linking to a piece by Rob Corr. Although he raises a number of points, Ken’s focus (correctly I think) is on the corrosive consequences of the absence of productive work. I don’t have any new thoughts on this, but I thought it might be worth reposting some old ones (first posted 17 Jan 2003).
Following my posts the Windschuttle controversy, I promised to put forward some ideas on the current policy problems facing Aboriginal Australians, and particularly the problem of economic development. It’s always problematic for white ‘experts’ to tell black communities what to do and I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to do this. Although I have given economic advice to Aboriginal organisations on a range of issues, I don’t regard myself as an expert on the problems facing Aboriginal communities. My perspective on the issue comes more from a consideration of the general economic problems of rural Australia and particularly the general decline in population and employment.
Discussion of economic policy for rural and remote Aboriginal communities often poses a dichotomy between passive reliance on government welfare and economic independence. The assumption is that reliance on government is inherently demoralising.
I have come to the conclusion that, at least in the terms in which economic independence is commonly understood, this kind of thinking is mistaken. Against a background of generally declining demand for labour in rural and remote Australia, it is unlikely that the majority of Aboriginal communities will ever be economically independent in the sense that they produce enough in terms of market goods and services, to ‘pay their way’ in a free-market economy, even with an inflow of capital income from land and mineral rights. Aboriginal communities have all the economic problems facing declining country towns as well as the additional difficulties arising from a century or more of dispossession and discrimination. If most country towns can’t find a way to hold enough jobs for a generally shrinking population, it seems impossible that Aboriginal communities, many with growing populations, can ever ‘pay their way’.
Having said that, I will observe that for most of the 20th century, large sections of the Australian workforce did not ‘pay their way’ either, relying instead on tariff protection or subsidy schemes. This did not seem to do much harm to the self-respect of Australian workers. It’s my view that if ‘practical reconciliation’ is taken to include the objective of generating sustainable employment in rural and remote Aboriginal communities, we have to accept that employment will be sustained only with permanent government support, just as was true of large sections of manufacturing industry. The obvious approach is permanent wage subsidies, though in some cases output subsidies to enterprises based in Aboriginal communities might also work.
The closest approach so far has been the Community Employment Development Program under which communities can use social security benefits to pay for useful projects. This scheme (which has elements of ‘work for the dole’) has been possible only because it has been treated as welfare rather than as a labour market program. The idea of a permanent wage subsidy, explicitly confined to rural and remote Aboriginal communities breaks so many policy taboos that it is unlikely to make it on to the policy agenda for a long time. But I can’t see any alternative approach that will generate substantial numbers of permanent jobs.