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.