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. Itâ€™s always problematic for white â€˜expertsâ€™ to tell black communities what to do and I want to make it clear that Iâ€™m not trying to do this. Although I have given economic advice to Aboriginal organisations on a range of issues, I donâ€™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).