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. How about the Mexican model? Where Latin americans temporarily leave their homeland to work in the States but remit wealth back to their families. This is pretty common among overseas Chinese.

    Unfortunately, in Australia, the low skill/low paid jobs are already taken by illegals.

  2. John you sound like you are writing about these people as if they are ‘things’ who are to be moved about to satisfy either your welfare function or your own view of their welfare function. Thus you are asking how is this social engineering ‘problem’ to be addressed? Let’s perhaps try some developing country immigration economics. Its a bit pretentious and perhaps the basic mistake in approach in addressing these problems.

    The important thing is to try to understand what aborigines themselves want. And this might not be so easy to work out. Tunnel-vision planning solutions for an econometrics conference might not do it. Somehow the people being potentially ‘shifted’ need to be involved in the ‘solution’ to your problem. Politics also needed.

  3. Back to the future?http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,19245336-7583,00.html

    “Powerful commissioners would, paradoxically, involve Aborigines more closely in their own affairs because they would deal with them face to face, without paperwork. The salvation of this ancient people will not come through bureaucratic devices. It is the commissioners who would report to headquarters on their activities and be held responsible for making improvements.

    They would not be like the old style missionaries or superintendents who were a law unto themselves.”

    Don’t you just love that last bit. Still can’t help clutching at the last fig leaf of aboriginal self-determination. Streuth John, now I know how gloaty you feel about all those global warming denialists.

  4. Terje, so few Aboriginal people make enough money in these communities to reach the tax free threshold that I doubt that would make a difference, except to the (European) teachers and service providers. And even without a GST prices for goods would still be a joke.

    I find the ‘encouraging people to leave’ arguments particularly ironic, especially given a) Native Title; and b) the history of race relations, disempowerment, dispossession. Take one example: in 1962 the Sunday Island mission was closed: old people were sent to Lombadina mission, school-age kids were sent to boarding school in Derby (250 km or so away), and the adults were left to do what they liked. They ending up camping on the marsh outside Derby so they could be near their kids. This caused huge problems – it introduced a generation to drinking, it broke up families, it caused the loss of Bardi language as people switched to English and Kriol, and with it a disintegration of traditional culture with nothing much to replace it. A few families went back to Bardi country in 1970 and camped for a few years until One Arm Point community was set up with an excision from the Lombadina pastoral lease. Now, will someone please explain to me why anyone who has fought so hard to return to their lands would willingly give that up in order to part a part in an experiment in development economics?

    One last point before this turns into a rant. I’ve seen a lot of opinion pieces on this topic that fail to examine any of the assumptions underlying various policy alternatives. For example, a policy of encouraging people to move seems to be predicated on the assumption that enough people value a good job and potential for earning over where they live. They assume that being a wage earner is an inherently good thing (I can think of plenty of situations in Arnhem Land where it really sucks to be a wage earner, and maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if there were more wage earners but you’d need to convince a lot of people about that explicitly). They assume that what constitutes socially useful work is agreed on. I’m not trying to set up a ‘them and us’ view, or to overexoticise, but I do think we’d end up with better policies if we spent a bit more time looking at why we’re proposing various options, and not just what the options are without any solid reasons to choose between them.

  5. Harry, I’m starting from the premise that Aboriginal people mostly want to remain in their onw country, and I try to make all this clear in the paper. I’ve added in a para from my previous post on this. As you say, the original post was rather tone-deaf in this respect.

  6. I would have thought astute economics professors who could see the evidence of global warming well before mere mortals, would also be aware of what less is best means for the future. Certainly propping up inefficient remote aboriginal settlements, will be an energy no-no in the brave new future, just as much as propping up the Byron Bay white welfare set will be too. Why it even has strong implications for the quantity of basket weaving university courses, that a profligate energy society has been able to afford to be globally warm and fuzzy about in the past. No it’s a human all hands on deck labour policy we need now. The strong and fit are about to inherit the earth, which may be a real plus for aboriginals with mainly their physical labour to sell. That should warm the cockles of any true Labor man’s heart. Not so good for esoteric basketweavers I guess.

  7. There does seem to be a unresolvable tension between free market ideology and the situation for indigenous people living in remote locations.

    Rather ironic that it is the Howard Govt. facing this conundrum at this time. The worship of market efficiencies and the prioritization of profit lead the usual suspects into calling for the dismantlement of the ‘artificial’ communities in the NT. And on this point they are mostly right. Many of the remote communities are the creations of past Govt. policy. But, what they forget is that many were created for the express reason of halting the flow of Aboriginal people into Darwin.

    Even in more recent times it has been the express policy of past NT Govt’s to discourage Aboriginal people from coming to Darwin, hence the former CM and now president of the Liberals (Shane Stone) calling for police to “stomp on” Aboriginal people living in the long-grass in Darwin and to “send them back to their communities”.

    Improving the situation for remote communities will require some letting go of sacred cows on both sides. It’s clear that free-market models have little to offer except marginalisation and exclusion, and that welfare as a life-long arrangment rather than as temporary or partial assistance, is destructive and disempowering.

    Aboriginal people in remote communities have the dubious distinction of getting the worst of both worlds – the most deleterious effects of both economic determinism and the rights/welfare model.

    A real bi-cultural alternative is required, rather than the hopes of some which seem to be little more than a dream of black people living white lives. But given the current hostility to anything ‘mutli-cultural’, future prospects don’t look very different from current realities.

  8. Aboriginal culture is to all intents and purposes now a museum artifact. To keep the idea of remote communities as viable entities is a fantasy. Also the idea that “aborigines” or more specifically persons of aboriginal descent should not participate in this society fully is form of racism ( if a little benign in intent). Economic participation is necessary part of participation in any society.Aboriiginal health outcomes track fairly well with Sir Freddie Marmot’s thesis i.e. their socio economic status : third world ( or black American) health outcomes for third world ( or black American) socio economic status. Prioritisation should probably concentrate on education and training , and especially apprenticeships. We have gangs running around in the middle of a mining boom.

  9. Has anyone thought of moving Northern Aboriginals to the Victorian High Country?

    You may recall that the Federal Government emergency listed the cultural heritage of alpine cattle grazing. Mobs of Aboriginals could be driven all over the High Country by mobs of mountain cattlemen.

    This is an ideal two birds with one stone solution, preserving both Australia’s mountain-man heritage and the traditional role of Aborigines in this fascinating and complex cultural mosaic that we call Home.

  10. Former supply-side US Presidential hopeful Jack Kemp was very keen on tax-breaks for deprived inner city areas. As, I suspect, ‘Taya’ was suggesting, it was about encouraging businesses to relocate. But in these cyberspace days it’s probably not much of a goer.

    Latham in an earlier carnation talked of GST-free zones. Same problems, really.

  11. Bill wrote,”Aboriginal culture is to all intents and purposes now a museum artifact”

    Tell that to the people themselves.

  12. Well said, twice, MichaelH, (you do honor to the name.) I think sustainability and self-determination are the watchwords, damn the consequences for the welfare and market models. It might be useful to look at Canadian examples. How do the Innuit and others get by way up there in the Arctic circle? And doesn’t cyberspace offer some interesting possibilities for both remote indigenous and rural white communities?

    I accept ProfQ’s defense of his assumptions, but is there recent data out there of the desires and beliefs of people in such communities?

  13. Correction; In a previous post I referred to SIr Freddie Marmot . It is in fact Sir Mickie Marmot. mea culpa.

  14. John, I too have no expertise or special understanding but you might like to see what I said in my latest paper on Equality of opportunity – myth and reality.

    “In principle, it is usually better to apply employment policies equally to all disadvantaged youth (along the lines discussed earlier). But there is a case for special treatment. The 50% of aborigines living in remote and regional areas have exceptional location disadvantages and a special connection with the land which reduces their geographical mobility. More generally, aborigines start well below the rest of the field in work attitudes and suffer from a long history of alienation and discrimination. So a case can be made for adopting – at least for a time – affirmative action rules in the public sector and putting more pressure on private employers to offer apprenticeship opportunities . The policy response should also include special mobility incentives and employment and training subsidies”.

    Do you think affirmative action deserves a place in the schem of things?

  15. Assuming for the moment that the remote community settlements are viable as places for people to live, it is difficult to think of job creation schemes that would actually be of any use. Just what sort of jobs do you have in mind?

  16. Perhaps the remote communities can be treated as sheltered workshops where some equalisation scheme eliminates the distance tax, and the other negatives. This could provide people with enough skills for them to make the decision as to whether to move to major population centres. It could also provide them with enough capital to be able to move or generate local industry.

  17. alpaca, it actually isn’t too hard to come up with some job creation schemes, even real jobs.

    One Arhem Land community has been asking for extra funding for years to boost it’s ‘Sea Ranger’ program to include funding for monitoring illegal fishing vessels. The rangers are currently paid work-for-the-dole!!

    They again requested extra funding last year for “real wages”, which sounds rather reasonable given the very real job they do.

    Last I heard there was still no response from the C’Wealth, but I haven’t checked the details of the latest budget.

    Just one small example of the opportunities that exist but which are not grasped anywhere near as eagerly as the recent hand-wringing might lead one to expect.

  18. I think the idea that Aborigines need to leave remote communities to seek employment and access to better services is incorrect. I’ll give examples of possible employment opportunities:

    #The Northern Territory culls 600 saltwater crocodiles each year and the NT government wanted to allow game hunters, who are willing to pay up to $30,000 per kill, to kill some of these. Sadly, the federal Environment Minister vetoed this plan. I think an opportunity has been missed to create employment for Aboriginals in remote communities in the Top End.

    When I went on an around Australia trip I was disappointed by the lack of cultural tourism opportunities. I wanted to learn more about traditional indigenous culture from indigenous people, but almost no such opportunities existed at that time. The only such experience I had was a couple of Aboriginal women at Uluru lighting a fire by rubbing sticks together then using the heat of the fire to extract gum from spinifex which they used to fix a spear tip to a spear. I thoroughly enjoyed this demonstration. I suspect there is a huge untapped demand from local and overseas tourists for indigenous cultural tourism. Things like hunter-gathering expeditions for ‘bush tucker’ come readily to mind.

    Coastal indigenous communities are currently used to a very limited extent in border protection and as army reserves. I think these programs could be greatly expanded.

    I also see employment opportunities for remote indigenous communities in conservation projects like feral animal and plant control. The outback and central Australia are overrun by feral camels, horses, goats, pigs and so on. Let’s clear these unwanted beasties up.

  19. Terje, so few Aboriginal people make enough money in these communities to reach the tax free threshold that I doubt that would make a difference, except to the (European) teachers and service providers. And even without a GST prices for goods would still be a joke.

    The point was that if you created a tax free zone these communities may no longer be remote from economic activity. The mountain may come to Mohommad.

  20. Fred (if you’re still tuned in)

    Isn’t the point of affirmative action to give someone an edge in the competition for jobs? To the extent that isolation is the problem, there wouldn’t be that much competition in the first place. Or are you talking about jobs in towns, with isolation being relevant only insofar as it’s the cause of the disadvantage?

  21. Fred, I agree with James that affirmative action in the usual sense of giving individuals an edge in the competition for jobs isn’t the central issue here. But I read you as using the idea more generally to say that we shouldn’t be applying the normal rules of the market in assessing whether jobs should be created in remote communities.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. Terje,

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

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.
    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

  29. 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.

  30. 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
    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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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
    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.

  33. 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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