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Closing the gap on work: a misframed debate that needs new thinking

How do we get more Aboriginal adults into the workforce? Old thinking needs to be thrown out — Tony Abbott needs a radical new agenda, writes indigenous academic Jon Altman from the Australian National University.

For the gap to close we must get the kids to school, adults to work and the ordinary law of the land observed. Everything flows from meeting these three objectives.”

But as Prime Minister Tony Abbott noted in handing down his first Closing the Gap report in February, the goal of halving the gap in employment outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians within a decade (by 2018) was failing — the gap is widening.

Fifty years ago there was no notion of indigenous economy; assimilation was in vogue. In 1964, Donald Horne in The Lucky Country noted that all the governments concerned with Aborigines were committed to assimilation. Things changed quite dramatically after the 1967 referendum deleted section 127 of the constitution and allowed indigenous peoples to be included in “reckoning the number of people of the Commonwealth”.

While initially in 1971 only 116,000 indigenous people were enumerated, by 2011 this number had grown to 548,000, a growth of nearly 500%. This was not a population that was disappearing.

The availability of data provided a means to quantify an increasingly visible indigenous economy; it also rendered indigenous employment participation statistically visible.

In 1987, the notion of statistical convergence for indigenous and other Australian was first proposed by the Hawke government — the Aboriginal Employment Development Policy sought statistical equality by the year 2000. And failed.

More recently, from 2008 we have seen the hegemonic dominance of Closing the Gap discourse introduced as an element of the national apology and including targets like the goal to close the employment gap halfway — the same gap that Abbott laments is widening. Indeed, the following chart, which tracks some outcomes from 1971, suggests that statistical disparity is relatively intractable. Some things were better then than now …

Ratio of indigenous to non-indigenous employment and income outcomes (1971–2011)

During the past 50 years there has been a transfer of land back to traditional owners, a “land titling revolution”, and the indigenous economy is now spatially visible. The impact of this change continentally has been significant: in 1964 there was no legally recognised indigenous land ownership; today 33% of Australia is under some form of indigenous title. But property rights remain weak despite the use of weasel words like “exclusive possession”.

The Australian Bureau of Statistic has enumerated nearly 1000 discrete indigenous communities on or within 1 kilometre of indigenous land. Perhaps paradoxically, the visibility of these communities, mainly in remote Australia, has resulted in an almost pathological national attention to their circumstances: they have become the recent focus of a disproportionate, but still hopelessly inadequate, assistance as citizens, with indigenous people in more settled regions being neglected.

While to date most of this land titling action has been in remote regions, there is possibility that determinations (mainly of non-exclusive possession) will cover more and more of settled Australia, where up to 40% of the indigenous population currently resides.

And where land is held under exclusive possession there is potential for a reframing of development thinking beyond seeing integration as the only answer. This is partly because mineral mapping indicates that some indigenous areas are highly prospective so there are opportunities for benefits to be leveraged from mining. Because much indigenous land has experienced relatively little environmental disturbance and has retained high conservation values there are also alternate possibilities around the production of ecological commodities — fresh air, water, carbon abatement and sequestration, and biodiversity.

Thinking about indigenous economy has been misframed because of a governmental preoccupation with integration and statistical equality, which forecloses the claims of indigenous people who want something different.

Too few barriers have been broken in thinking about indigenous economy and persistence in a monolithic developmental approach that has never delivered and has been insufficiently tolerant or supportive of pluralistic forms of economy. Reframing thinking about indigenous economy might require less emphasis on Closing the Gap, and more on unconventional alternatives that might not eliminate disparity but might accord better with the aspirations of many indigenous people.

Take the concept of economic hybridity that depicts market, state and customary sectors delivering livelihood; it acknowledges a mix of capitalist and non-capitalist relations of production in many contemporary indigenous contexts. Economic hybridity proposes that especially where people have new-found rights in land based on custom, it is likely that custom looms large and can make contributions to livelihood, what Abbott refers to as “how our people are living”.

The model is not prescriptive, but it is different from others like Noel Pearson’s search for a “radical centre” where indigenous people can simultaneously engage with the “real” economy while morally restructuring problematic aspects of their cultural lives and retaining distinctiveness.

If Abbott wants to be effective he may need to look beyond the cabal of black and white advisers who provide viewpoints that mirror his own and that look little different from the policy discourse of 50 years ago.

*This is an extract from an article originally published in Tracker

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