One cheer for Howard

At least in one respect, John Howard’s announcement of a federal takeover of indigenous settlements is good news. Having taken such a drastic step, Howard can’t escape the obligation to deliver substantial improvements in outcomes, regardless of the cost. And, having endorsed the broad thrust of the measures, Kevin Rudd, should he be the next PM, is under the same obligation.

The measures announced yesterday, while drastic, are politically pretty easy for the government in the light of the recent report on child abuse in indigenous communities. But they are focused almost exclusively on enforcement measures. Such measures sound good in a press release, but are unlikely, by themselves, to achieve much. Alcohol is a huge problem, and anything that could reduce alcohol abuse is welcome, but many of the communities concerned, such as Wadeye, have been officially dry for years, so it’s not clear what difference Howard’s policy will make. Of course, if he was willing to be really draconian and ban alcohol in nearby (white) towns, that might make a difference, but there are some cows too sacred to be slain.

The problems of substance abuse and unemployment go hand in hand, but there is nothing, so far, to suggest that anything is going to be done on the jobs front. The last significant innovation in this area, the CDEP scheme, came in under Fraser. Despite all Howard’s talk of practical reconciliation, his government has done less than nothing to promote indigenous employment.

Dealing with unemployment is not going to be easy. People who’ve been permanently excluded from the labour force can’t be made job-ready in short order, and the number of ‘real’ (economically viable at market prices) jobs that can be created in remote indigenous community is always going to fall short of the number of potential workers. And, just as enforcement alone is not enough, so there’s little point in trying to generate economic development in an environment of rampant alcohol abuse and crime. But, having claimed emergency powers on the enforcement front, Howard will stand condemned if he doesn’t go all out to deliver economic development as well.

74 thoughts on “One cheer for Howard

  1. Terje,
    The problem with doing away with the minimum wage is that people need a certain amount of income to survive especially in isolated regions where petrol and food is expensive. There are training wages if a person is not up to speed. Doing away with the minimum wage leaves people vulnerable to abuse – exactly what needs to be stopped for these communities to get ahead.

    The troops Michael will have plenty to do. Filling the gaps of civilians who are likely to be reluctant to go and live in these regions. Doctors and nurses will be reluctant to conduct “compulsory ” examinations which would constitute assault and possibly sexual assault. Administrators will be reluctant to give up home and family for a long period in “basic” accommodation – no doubt contructed by the armed forces. Police will be hard to find for long periods which is what is required.

    What we see is decisive action without a plan, without personnel, without a budget and which could lead to an increase in abuse from the paternalistic helpers. The army will be absolutely necessary as they are the only ones who will obey orders unquestioningly, have many necessary skills and will put up with the poor living conditions.

  2. The problem with doing away with the minimum wage is that people need a certain amount of income to survive especially in isolated regions where petrol and food is expensive.

    This is simply not correct. It is entirely possible to abolish minimum wages whilst still providing people with in work benefits in the way of a social wage or negative income tax. Or you could subsidies food and petrol in such communities.

    The minimum wage is an archaic idea that should have been purged long ago.

    Why is it perfectly legal for an Australian company to create low wage work in China, but the same company is prohibited from creating low wage work in remote aboriginal communities? Do low skilled aboriginines in remote communities need economic opportunities and daily occupational and the associated social engagement any less than the chinese?

  3. For those with slightly longer memories, we’ve actually been here before.

    Way back when, JH decided there was a housing emergency and sent the army in to build a couple of houses in the NT. They did, and then left, leaving the ‘housing emergency’ virtually untouched, as it remains to this day. No mention yet of addressing this issue, which is important in this context, despite the fact that we know the exact extent of the problem and how to fix it.

    This is a good example of a common problem – confusing action with progress. In complex situations with mostly long-term solutions, it’s convenient to confuse the two.

  4. Terje,

    How about the archaic idea of price controls in remote communities, where people can pay 2-3x as much for basic goods as in capital cities?

    A solution, but not one likely to make it past the neo-liberal economic ideological filters.

  5. Fix it?

    If it’s a “national emergency” requiring difficult decisions, then why not just spend the money to fix things that we know can be fixed.

    The AMA has repeatedly reported what is required to bring health services up to scratch. No mysteries.

    Yes, there is a “national emergency”, and “something must be done”, but some sacred cows are off-limits.

  6. Michael,

    Price controls in the labour arena have thus far created a jobs shortage in these regions. You now want a food and petrol shortage. You advocate extreme sadism.

    Have you studies any history on the impact of price controls? When the USA put price controls on petrol in the 1970s people had to queue for hours to get petrol. Rent controls in New York still create widespread homelessness even to this day. Shortages were the norm in the soviet union when official prices were too low and gluts occured when they were too high.

    Why do you want to be so damn cruel? Having criminalised the creation of low skilled jobs in these communities you now want to criminalise the supply of petrol and food.


  7. Just as expected. Yes, there is an emergency, but certain ideological lines must not be crossed. Hence the only solutions to the economic problems in sparsely populated remote areas are neo-liberal economic ones, which are proven failures.

    By some unexplained miracle, reducing wages to almost nothing will stimulate a surge in demand for the small numbers of workers we’re talkig about. But ensuring that food prices are not exorbitant (to feed those manourished kids!) will result in widespread food shortages, ala fuel shortages in the US. Baloney!

    The question of cruelty does arise in an economic nirvana where the minimum wage will disappear and sky-high basic prices will reign. Welcome to ‘Bangladesh in the Bush’ (with the inverse pop. density), courtesy of Terje.

  8. I expect supply and demand for employment would force a dispersal of people from remote communities, I would think to more urban aboriginal communities. I think the problems would shift with them as I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of jobs on offer even if the pay goes down or takeup of jobs even if the rate goes up. Prison style workgangs next?

    It’s not pleasant to have Australia’s underbelly of racial division exposed, worse to know there’s probably votes to be had in the process. Appalling to think that could well be a part, but definitely unspoken part, of the thinking in sudden interest in taking “urgent” action.

    I confess I have no solutions to propose. Enforced assimilation through removal of communal/tribal ownership of native title in favour of private ownership, heavy handed policing, with all the distrust from generations of heavy handed policing, taking away the welfare that allows these people to live on their land without innate prosperity from productive jobs – these won’t remove the ties of kinship and history that binds them to each other and divides them from a wider Australian society. To say the solutions have to come from within is trite, but probably true but any such leaders promoting solutions that don’t fit the assimilation model are likely to come up against walls of resistance.

    Meanwhile where is the Opposition in this? If Rudd and co can’t do more than endorse the Coalitions approach, (memories of refugees and kids overboard), or hope to go unnoticed on the issue and let JH embroil himself – it doesn’t fill me with confidence that they can act rather than merely react and lead rather than be corks on an ocean of media and public opinion.

    I predict it will all end in tears. More tears. Aboriginal tears of course.

  9. Jobs,

    For starters it is not esential for people to work in the conventional way, our way. But if prople in these remote areas do want conventional income from their own exploits then there are some spectacular oportunities coming up in the bio energy sector. These are possibilities that are not dependent on proximity to urban centres, income yields are significantly better than conventional farming and the hardware can be designed ot fit into the Australian landscape (termite castle style). And then there is bee keeping now that I think of it. There are significant posibilities. Do not over despair. mind you these are not the sorts of solutions that you are likely to get from Nuclear Howard (NPM).

  10. That is very positive of you there Terje. Certainly bio energy requires knowledge and eauipment. Bee keeping on the other hand requires very little equipment and a mentor. The Chinese have taken over every bakery and cake kitchen in the country (nearly, they do like their cash businesses), why shouldn’t our Aborigines become Australia’s exotic honey specialists. Their very advanced knowledge of the Australian landscape would give them an advantage that few white Australians would dare to challenge. Add that to their spectacularly popular art and you have an internationally marketable sensation of huge potential.

    Go on….shoot that down.

  11. BilB,

    I’m not trying to shoot down the building of businesses and skills in these communities. However the wage rate permissible in China is well below Australias mandated minimum wage. And there are people who need employment now for social reasons more so than for economic reasons. It costs little to pump welfare money into these communities and we could easily afford to continue doing so, however coupled with minimum wage laws and lax policing of genuine crime the social consequences are horrible.


    p.s. I notice in todays edition of The Australian the current plight of aborigines is blamed on “white libertarians”. Odd that given that we have never had anything remotely resembling a libertarian government.

  12. Michael,
    I advocate a very quick primer in public choice theory for you.
    Jason Soon pointed this one out this morning. Think about it in the context of the various plans or ideas you have in relation to the problems many Aboriginal people have who are residents of remote communities and have a blog comment back in the near future showing why your ideas make sense in this context – or (for extra points and perhaps a prize in economics) why public choice theory is wrong.

  13. Thanks Andrew, I was half-expecting Terje to wheel that one out next.

    Public choice theory is limited by it’s over-reliance on the consideration of the individual as a primarily economic decision making unit.

    I think it’s quite possible to argue that while this is already a contentious idea, it is deeply problematic when applied to remote Indigenous populations. There are values other than monetry ones, and the assumed prominence of them in this context is wrong. On many occasions Indigenous people have placed a far higher value on their connection to, and reponsibility for, certain land areas, than they have on the economic value ascribed to that same land by a different values system.

    I think it would be even more interesting to see someone argue how public choice theory is applicable to a population group where supra-individual indentities and mythical connections to the land are strong.

  14. Michael – I’m not the one imposing a minimum cash rate per hour and criminalising low pay jobs. I fail to see how you translate that into some assertion that monetary values are the most important consideration. They are not and that is my exact point. It is more important that people are economically connected for social reasons than monetary reasons. The material gain from work given primary status by the advocates of minimum wage laws. There are more important things than money.

  15. Getting away from the minimum wage for a moment, I see that at least some residents of Mutitjulu are welcoming the armed forces. Political infighting is, it seems, no less evident in the collective system than in the individualist one.

    One of the major issues raised by the 2006 NSW report on child abuse in indigenous communities was the social position of some of the offenders. The same question has arisen in relation to violence against women (e.g. the Geoff Clark case).

    If Howard is simply trying to break the grip of the Aboriginal patriarchy, good luck to him. It may in any case be an unintended consequence of his re-invasion.

  16. Terje,

    I’m all for re-thinking notions of work, but I just don’t see the minimum wage as a primary stumbling block. In fact, there’s no reason to link them at all. The fascination with its allegedly problematic nature is a mystery.

  17. Michael,
    So far the only concrete things I can see you have offered to the debate is price controls (without specifying how they would work while maintaining supply of food to these areas) a discussion on health spending and some sniping at the idea that Aboriginal Australians may be able to solve their own problems if the rest of us allow them to do so without government interference. What do you suggest?
    To come back on your other question – please explain why this situation is not an example of government failure. But, of course, you were expecting that too – I trust you have a good answer.

  18. The problem with the approach taken is that the Task force has some people who have little background in the NT or Aboriginal issues – such as Roger Corbett who is probably a fine person but not the first person you would think of to deal with an emergency in child abuse. How much better it would have been to have had one of the investigators into the NT report on
    “Little Children are Sacred” to advise the task force.

    They would have advised that a centralised approach is wrong.

    The other main problem is that those who are needed to help most – the many innocent men in these communities have all been labelled, shamed and weakened as potential leaders. The report warned against this outcome.

    There are many successful examples of communities which have dealt with problems – however to treat everyone as a criminal or a victim is counter productive.

    What is required is a multi pronged approach not one that results in Aboriginal people who are artists being ripped off or paid Chinese wages, as Terje suggests as an answer, but receive compensation for their work which respects the work done. Respect for achievements is essential.

    It is the lack of respect through ignoring input from local Indigenous people that has caused so much negativity especially as it appears to cover a land grab.

    I am not sure what you have seen Melanie but all I have seen is comments by the Mutitjulu community which talks of federal neglect in regard to health and other facilities and fear of compulsory health checks.There have also been concerns in relation to the impact of outsiders if the traditional owners are unable to control who comes on to their land.

    Looking after children is important – but it can’t just be achieved with policing – the task force needs to go back to the report and advise the PM that his plan is in direct contradiction to the report he has used to support his decisions.

  19. Andrew,

    I think it is an example of government failure. But that’s not to make the leap that ‘government’ is wholly responsible, or immutable. Government may, over time, have succeses as well as failures. Seeing government failure as the reason to hand over responsibility to economic theory, as if it exists in splendid isolation from government, is too black and white for me.

    We need a more developmental economic approach that is very much out of favour these days. Many remote communities used to build the majority of their own homes. In the last 20-30 years, this has changed in the name of ‘efficiency’ to teams of contractors coming in for short periods to do the work and then leave.

    People want more policing, but want long-term staff who they know, and a continuation and extension of the trend for Aboriginal Commnity Police Officers. Police tourists are exactly the wrong answer.

    As you can see from the above, I’m not at all an advocate of a hands off approach so they can “solve their own problems”. Aborigial people are (mostly) very happy to work with non-Indigenous Australians to make progress on these issues. And that includes working together in planning responses. That is what happened with the “Children are Sacred” report; hundreds of Aboriginal Territorians gave up their time and energy to contribute their views as to solutions to the current problems. To see a government response that was the imposition from afar, of a centrally ‘planned’ approach, is exactly the style of government intervention that generated past failure and Aboriginal resentment and withdrawal.

  20. Michael,

    I’m not suggesting than normal government services be withdrawn. I’m just suggesting that some economic sunlight be allowed in.


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