Misplaced fear of old problems — economic change

Aboriginal adjustment also inevitably involves economic change. In this area the fears of policy-makers have tended to vacillate between the insult of being lower class and the distaste for being white. In the mission period, the criticism was that Aborigines were only prepared for modest roles such as labourer or domestic servant. In the self-determination period, the tendency was that Aborigines should not be prepared for anything much except perhaps as elders, artists and representatives. That Aborigines may have to start at the bottom of the pile is no different from any uneducated and poorly assimilated group — refugees, for example. The preference that Aborigines should only work in some culturally appropriate tasks, thereby preserving their culture, is debilitating. The policy-maker may have to make a bold assumption, but a modest start in the real economy is better than being held in a designated Aboriginal role for all time.

Various economic policy options have been suggested for Aborigines (for example, Phillpot 2007). Most, however, run into problems (highlighted below in italic) of designated roles. For example:

Such desire never arises because the incentives are to remain on welfare. There are significant numbers of African refugees in Darwin who, despite their obvious racial identification and poor skills, are employed. By contrast, many Aborigines are unemployed. The expectation among Aborigines is that they do not have to work, and the welfare model which was supposed to be temporary became permanent when Aborigines were exempted from the obligation to seek work. They were free to pursue land claims, which left them stranded on uneconomic land seeking rent from mining companies, and to practise self-determination, which left them at the mercy of those who controlled the purse strings within their own communities — not to mention an army of ‘helpers’. It is wicked policy to make Aboriginal welfare contingent on their preparedness to enter the real economy when the incentives are to penalise entry into the real economy.

This option is really an ‘import substitution’ model and it suffers from the same fate as the welfare model: it becomes a permanent substitute for engaging in the economy, and is not a good bridge to the economy.

Programs that are really in the national interest, as opposed to those in the interest of those who want to have Aborigines shepherded into a designated band of employment options, should be available to all. It could be argued that employment in the mining or tourism industries is in the national interest, but Aborigines are not employed in large numbers in these industries because they are paid to not work, or are not job-ready.

The population relocation model is a misnomer because it is not a compulsion to relocate. The model is also stated somewhat pejoratively because continued location is not made prohibitive, it is prohibitive. It is clear that in addition to the prohibitive social and economic cost of preserving non-viable communities, people are moving away to seek opportunity. The risk of this model is that people will move to such centres without the skills, knowledge or social capacity to operate independently and, as a consequence, will create underclass communities in regional centres whose various needs and behaviour are beyond the resources of the regional centre to cope.

The big risk to people sitting in remote communities, even while being prepared for integration, is that the total environment — social and economic — is just too dysfunctional. The two great mechanisms of integration — migration and intermarriage — are unlikely while the policy biases are towards land-based and culturally collective ‘solutions’.