Fred Chaney

The Australian April 2, 2011

 THE 1960s equal wage cases relating to Aboriginal pastoral workers unintentionally helped precipitate substantial movements of Aborigines away from their traditional lands on cattle stations to the fringes of desert towns. The results were socially catastrophic.

 The purchase of cattle stations in the 1970s to enable people to go back on to country was a response to the social and economic misery that resulted from that would-be step forward to wage equality.

 Discussion on serious social problems in Alice Springs seems to overlook that there is an interlocking debate about support for people on outstation and remote communities and substantial policy revisions based on normalisation of selected large centres and withdrawal of support from outstation communities.

 Part of this second debate involves assertions that remote settlements should be closed down so people will go to those parts of Australia where there are established economies.

 These are real issues for Australia and for policy-makers. Should we maintain a network of Aboriginal settlements across the continent where people can be close to their country and live lives still connected with their traditional culture, however altered that has been by the provision of goods and services that have no relation to traditional life and practice?

 Some argue the case from a purely economic perspective, some from a concern for the social wellbeing of remote dwellers. There are voices defending the rights of Aborigines to live on their country and preserve their culture and traditions.

 Behind the debate, what is actually happening?

 In the Northern Territory the combined effect of the Territory’s local government reforms and the intervention under the previous and present governments has been to diminish the agency of Aborigines, leading to demoralisation and alienation from what governments are trying to achieve. One senior Northern Territory public servant with decades of experience in Aboriginal communities described the communities he visited as being in a state of torpor.

 Successive government approaches have substantially ignored the identified success factors in advancing Aboriginal people and communities.

 The steering committee for the review of government service provision chaired by Gary Banks (who also chairs of the Productivity Commission) identified four success factors. These are co-operative approaches between Aborigines and government, community involvement in program design and decision-making, good governance including at the government level and ongoing government support.

 Unfortunately, the gap between acknowledged principles and actual practice is vast.

 If the present state of affairs continues, the exponents of emptying out the remote settlements will have their way. The problem is that the towns in which these refugees would settle are not equipped to handle thousands more fringe dwellers ill-prepared by education and life experience.

 There is not the housing, the educational facilities or any of the requisite government services for such an influx.

 Writing in this newspaper last year (Focus, December 18, 2010) Noel Pearson explained the importance of sequencing the changes needed on Cape York. First, alcohol abuse and consequent dysfunction had to be tackled, then welfare reform, then higher quality primary education with an emphasis on high school retention.

 It is this kind of practical and intelligent sequencing that is required of governments across remote Australia in their dealings with Aboriginal people and communities.

 The priority must be to stabilise the situation, to stop the drift of mostly unskilled and inadequately educated remote-living people to the misery and chaos of fringe-dwelling life.

 What this requires will differ from place to place as circumstances vary, but the move away from Community Development Employment Projects to unworkable Centrelink and job search arrangements must be reconsidered as a matter of urgency.

 It should not be government policy that any Aborigine should be encouraged to move off country unless that person has the education and training that enables them to live in dignity in new circumstances.

 A second priority is to ensure civil order in those communities, a requirement for any community in Australia.

 Third, we have to find ways of making the education system work so that remote Aborigines are literate, numerate and able to speak good English. These are the basics for economic and social mobility. Fourth, we need to continue to provide additional real jobs in remote communities and transitional jobs that will equip people to work in real jobs locally and across Australia.

 There are severe impediments to governments doing what is required well. The lack of trained personnel equipped to turn proven theory into practice needs to be tackled urgently. This has been drawn to the attention of relevant departments for a prolonged period with no sign of an active response.

 It also requires recognition that this is an important national priority that requires greater leadership and responsibility being vested in central agencies including the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and state and territory equivalents. Only they have the authority to keep agencies up to the mark.

 There will be no long-term solution unless underlying structural issues are also addressed, including reforming Grants Commission funding arrangements to add a remote area category that ensures sustained investment in remote townships.

 The provision of normal services, which in turn requires a robust and informed approach to township land reform, would also help arrest the present need to travel to towns to access services.

 Finally, we need the bipartisanship recently offered by Tony Abbott. These are not issues that can be dealt with in a parliamentary term. What is urgently required is agreement on shared objectives and approaches that will be maintained across election cycles. Anything less will result a continuance of the incoherence of government policies, ensuring we will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis

 Fred Chaney is a former minister for Aboriginal affairs in the Fraser government and is chairman of Desert Knowledge Australia and a director of Reconciliation Australia.