Now to really help remote Aborigines

The Age 20 April 2004
by PETER HOWSON (as edited by The Age)

Many Aborigines are integrated; those who are not need still more assistance.

The welcome abolition of ATSIC and its regional councils has produced commentary displaying a surprisingly limited understanding of the reasons for the decision.

Policies that encourage the separation of Aborigines from the rest of the community have long been outdated in the face of increasing integration "on the ground".

Nearly 70 per cent of Aborigines are already married to non-indigenous spouses. With the majority now of mixed descent, over 70 per cent professing Christianity and few even speaking an indigenous language at home, most Aborigines are now part of the wider community.

That is also true both geographically and economically. More than 70 per cent now live in major cities or rural towns (compared with the 46 per cent in 1971) and their employment rates there are not substantially lower than for others.

Clearly, separate elected representation can no longer be justified: politically, Aborigines should be treated the same as other Australians.

The failure of self-determination is well-illustrated by the fact that most Aborigines did not even bother to vote in ATSIC elections.

But the relatively successful integration of many Aborigines has been overlooked, as has the need for policies focussing on areas where serious lifestyle problems remain for a minority.

There is a heavy concentration of life-style problems in remote communities, where around 100,000 Aborigines live in relative isolation. There are more than 1,200 of these remoter communities, with around 900 having average populations of only 15.

How do these communities function? One little appreciated fact is that governments fund extensive infrastructure and other services, as well as providing welfare. Although not always easily accessible, health and education services are also widely provided.

But, despite these services, remote communities continue to experience greater ill-health and poorer education results. And, with most communities distant from a labour market, indigenous employment is only 45-48 per cent of the labour force.

The tragic fact is that the great majority of Aborigines in remote communities has become welfare dependent. Accordingly, policies should now concentrate on measures to prevent further deteriorations in the life styles of those in remote communities to ensure they don’t become even more ghetto-like.

To this end there should be a significant reduction in the number of communities eligible for future Federal infrastructure and service assistance (as has, in similar circumstances, recently been done in Canada).

Those communities to be no longer eligible should be given (say) 12 months warning with a view to encouraging their residents either to move to urban areas or to larger sized communities.

Incentives, including the subsidisation of transport costs, should be offered to those residents prepared to move residences and/or to take up employment outside remote communities.

If, despite this support, Aborigines are not prepared to seek employment outside such communities, that could be treated as a refusal to undergo the normal work test and hence subject to reduced unemployment benefits.

Incentives could include generous subsidies for renting houses outside communities, free training programs (including teaching literacy and numeracy) and accommodation for adults undertaking courses outside the communities.

Employers should be encouraged to employ Aborigines by making such employment exempt from labour market regulations, including the minimum wage.

The 20 percent increase in education programs recently announced by Minister Nelson should include generous subsidies to residents to meet the full cost of educating their children at weekly/monthly boarding schools situated well away from home, starting at as early an age as possible and, in the case of secondary students, including vocational training.

To this end, Aboriginal hostels should be increased, or improved staffing provided to existing hostels.

The situation in remote communities requires urgent action to help the Aboriginal residents help themselves. Failure to take action will mean these communities become even more ghetto-like and attract widespread domestic and international criticism of governments for "neglecting" the Aborigines involved.

Peter Howson was minister for Aboriginal affairs in 1971-2 and is vice-president, Bennelong Society (