Who would be surprised by the problems in remote indigenous communities?

Back in 1970 Charles Rowley predicted the emergence of endemic pauperism if rural and regional indigenous people did not gain a foothold in the real economy.

What have Australian governments done to assist economic activity in rural and regional Australia? Plenty for white farmers; rural adjustment schemes are set to persist longer than the agrarian socialism that they were supposed to bury and we have drought relief designed to compensate for the surprising fact of drought in Australia.

According to the 2007 budget papers the Commonwealth has spent $1.4b in drought relief since 2001. For 2007-11 the adjustment scheme Agriculture Advancing Australia is planned to cost over $360m. The 2004 sugar industry support program promised $444m. What is there for the support of economic activity by indigenous people to support economic activity, as distinct from making it harder for them to access welfare in the hope this will encourage them to find jobs somewhere or somehow?

The 2007-08 budget offered $23m to apply activity tests to welfare recipients. More jobs for white public servants here. There was only $0.6m for an actual jobs program for indigenous rangers to detect illegal fishing. There is a program to build an indigenous workforce in government services delivery but it amounts only to an increased funding of $31.3m over four years and most of these will just be shifted from existing work for the dole programs.

The recent Northern Territory crisis package offers community cleanups on a work for the dole basis. Will struggling storekeepers in country towns have to sweep streets to get drought assistance? The government has established a taskforce to investigate options for irrigation agriculture in northern Australia but is it addressing indigenous employment? Isn’t it time that indigenous Australians and white farmers received equal concern?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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