Employment in remote Aboriginal communities

I’ve been working on a paper on employment in remote Aboriginal communities for several months now, which I’ve been asked to present at an Econometrics Society conference in Alice Springs later in the year (not that it has much econometrics it). This was always going to be a challenging task, but I didn’t anticipate that the usual backdrop of resigned neglect would be replaced by the glare of publicity we’ve seen in the last few days.

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.

Although the writing is going slowly, my general position is pretty much the same as that set out by Ken Parish. This isn’t surprising since he and I, along with Rob Corr and others, had a long discussion on this issue a few years ago, and this had a big influence on my thinking.

It’s fairly clear that the idea of making remote Aboriginal communities self-supporting in a market economy is not feasible: the disadvantages of location are too great without considering the other problems these communities have. But there’s nothing sacrosanct about the market economy. Lots of people could be engaged in socially useful work if the limited ‘work for the dole’ embodied in the CDEP scheme were replaced by a full-scale commitment to permanent job creation. This would be far more cost-effective, in the long run, than allowing communities to sink into despair as so many are doing at the moment.

That still leaves open the question of whether people should remain in these remote locations. The latest fad is to suggest that people should be encouraged to leave, with no real consideration of where they will end up when they move into towns and cities. I’m hoping to look into some more creative options drawing on the literature on migrant workers and remittances in development economics. But there are no easy answers here (or, maybe, there are too many easy answers, none of them right).

39 thoughts on “Employment in remote Aboriginal communities

  1. I agree that affirmative action is only a small part of the solution. It may be more relevant to town dwellers (who still have a huge employment problem). But it has a role even for remote aborigines. What I had in mind was that they would initially be singled out for special employment treatment. For those who are attached to the land, the policy input would be local job creation (financial support for basic agriculture, craft work, paintings, community work etc,), and for those willing to move, the policy input would be relocation incentives combined with training and work experience in the public sector. If this worked with aboriginal communities the policy could then be applied more widely to all remote communities. Basically I am agreeing with John that in the short term non-market solutions are needed but in the long term some could prove economically viable. But I am a little out of my depth here.

  2. Perhaps our usual whitefella ideas about work are too static. Static 9-5 kinds of jobs in communities may not work for everyone, while some people who relocate for a job opportunity or some education elsewhere may do so only for a limited amount of time and then return to their remote community. The remote communities may be more of a home base for some people, while they can range the country depending on where their interests take them. The opportunity to do this, and the people who return after a while, could possibly change the community dynamics in some remote communities. Its about a sense of hope for a better life. I have no personal experience about these things though. But even people in cities locked into deadend jobs or on the dole could become depressed or violent if they don’t see a way out, if they lose hope. Its not just about jobs.

  3. Based on economics alone people would have left remote areas long ago. Food and drink is more expensive in remote areas. Health and education are generally under serviced.

    Like it or not, there is a sense of inertia in most people, not wanting to leave their families. But on the other hand, not many know what’s on the other side. No one’s saying these folks have to go to Brisbane or Sydney. They can find plenty of work in larger regional centers, some might not be too far from where they are.

    Perhaps some community-provided guides in regional centres can help aboriginal people who want to leave their communities for a few years, make some money and return.

    There are no shark infested waters or customs officials to prevent the aboriginal people from finding the lucky country. A few trailblazers who’ve returned with good tidings could kick-start the virtuous cycle.

  4. Terje,

    Ha ha. Not sure what you’re getting there. Not anymore nomadic than Aussie backpackers in London.

  5. Another example of local employment opportunities – a couple in Arnhem Land have been employed by the NT government and CSIRO studying traditional fire management techniques. They’ve got year 9 and 10 education, but are part of a team with professional scientists. It’s only viable there because there are still elders who can remember the traditional techniques, and obviously even where such things are viable the number of jobs created will be small.

    Nevertheless, I imagine that if you have a few people on reasonable incomes in a small community then there would be multiplier effects with positions for others to sell them goods and services. Presumably someone knows how many jobs gaining external income are needed to get a reasonable rate of employment across a community, allowing for flow on effects.

  6. MichaelH, yeah I know personally of a few. It’s not a general expectation though.

    We need an analog to the great middle-class dream that one born into a rural Aboriginal community can realistically aspire to. Among the Chinese, parents urge children to “study hard”. The aboriginal youth need a workable life script that will put them in a better position than their parent were.

  7. Here’s a dose of reality for all you dreamers.
    Quotes taken from http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2006/s1650319.htm
    You could dismiss this program as an example of observation bias , but
    “ELLIOTT McADAM: In the Northern Territory, we’ve got something like about 63 councils. And I would dare say that there’d be 20 not dissimilar to Imanpa.”
    SIMON MUMU: I’ll just walk around. Play some footy when it gets to the afternoon, you know.
    LIZ JACKSON: Do you think you can do that all your life?
    SIMON MUMU: Yep.
    MARGARET SMITH: Too hard. I know we don’t worry about future, you know? As Aboriginal, we see it day-to-day living, you know? Long as we’re alive and walking round, that’s the main thing.
    Conclusions
    The question is how much better are the other 43 councils . I suspect not much.
    I think the adults at Imanpa are basically beyond help. Any attempts at redemption should be targeted at the young. The corrupt Margaret Smith’s statement has a fundamental flaw. Scio economic stauts is tied to health outcomes .
    This is not to say that there can’t be valid work on communities , but the main employment provision must be in the regular economy. This will be assisted by apprenticeships, for example in hospitality at the Mount Ebenezer Roadhouse

  8. Recent media attention to the problems of violence in the town camps around Alice Springs shows that ‘relocating’ Aboriginal people to areas of active labour markets does not alone solve the economic and social problems of Aboriginal society. (Many of the town camps were established when people left their lands because of ‘economically rational’ pressures from the pastoral industry.) What we have in Aboriginal society is a serious and complex set of economic and social factors acting together – created through the legacies of history. With all due respect, this is something that goes beyond the disciplinary boundaries of economists to solve. For the moment, I see the best set of options as to give Aboriginal communities the best instutitional environment to help them help themselves (and this is pretty much what Noel Pearson says). For the moment, this implies ongoing extensive level of ‘subsidisation’ (I’ll return to that word in a moment) for remote communities, set within a highly supportive political environment. Of course the funding of municipal services etc per head of population in these setlements is much higher than the overall Australian average, giving rise to the concept that white Australia is ‘cross-subsidising’ black Australia, but seen through Aboriginal eyes, the extinguishment of native title throughout most of the continent without due compensation might suggst that the cross-subsidisation still largely goes in the opposite direction. I know some readers will see that least comment as lefty PC rubbish, but I can’t interpret these issues anything other than with a wink to the fact that we are talking a society whose traditional cultural and economic resources have been thoroughly disrupted by white occupation. To talk about repairing these through a GST-exemption or something similar is to render superficial the brutal realities of history.

  9. You are fundamentally wrong Bill . Issues of economics ( as Marx pointed out ) are at the heart of any society. Relationships are infleunced by the means of production and the possibilities of individuals can be constrained by the means of production. It is not possible now to preserve a hunter gatherer lifestyle. Have a look at the table
    http://abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts
    D1CF902B7EF7F244CA2570980081D32D?opendocument
    marked
    2.5 NEIGHBOURHOOD or COMMUNITY PROBLEMS – 2002
    Despite these gains in educational attainment, Indigenous adults still have lower levels of educational attainment than non-Indigenous adults. In 2002, 18% of Indigenous adults had completed Year 12 compared with 44% of non-Indigenous adults. Similarly, 32% of Indigenous adults aged 25-64 years had a non-school qualification compared with 57% of non-Indigenous adults.
    Levels of Indigenous educational attainment declined with increasing geographic remoteness.

  10. Nobody’s talking about preserving a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, in the sense that it alone will sustain the kind of livelihood allowing Aboriginal people to meaningfully participate in Australian society. And I didn’t say economics is irrelevant, nor did I question Aboriginal disadvantage. What I said was that the debate needs to be inclusive of historical and broadly defined social factors. If you argue that economics are at the heart of any society I’d accept this so long as you adopted a broadly institutionalist perspective that defined economic relations as bound in human-constructed cultural mores and norms. In terms of Aboeiginal policy issues, these concerns need to be given up-frint recognition.

  11. Quoth Bill “Nobody’s talking about preserving a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, in the sense that it alone will sustain the kind of livelihood allowing Aboriginal people to meaningfully participate in Australian society” It is difficult to collect data to support the assertion that the continuation of remnants of a hunter gatherer society is detrimental to its advancement . However Gary Johns certainly thinks so .http://www.mrcltd.org.au/uploaded_documents/Gary%20Johns%20final.pdf
    His argument , though I agree with it , is poorly numerated. The authoritative document on aborignal school performance and attendance is
    http://www.ichr.uwa.edu.au/news/news.lasso?id=170
    I have not found any similarly authoritative document on how the small cohort of successful aborignial students make the transition to satisfying full time work.

  12. Why are we seriously considering setting up a scheme importing seasonal workers from the remote pacific Islands when we cannot work out a way of employing seasonal workers from our own remote communities?

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