The viability of remote Aboriginal settlements has been questioned by conservative politicians and commentators since the former federal minister for Indigenous Affairs Amanda Vanstone, first dismissed them as “cultural museums” in 2005. This was followed by the “Leaving Remote Communities” conference, sponsored by the Bennelong Society in 2006 and Helen Hughes’ book Lands of Shame, published by the Centre for Independent Studies in 2007.

Contrary views have been slow to mobilise, partly because the questions raised — why are health, education, employment and law and order outcomes so ‘bad’ in remote Aboriginal settlements? — are so valid. But “remoteness” alone is not the problem. Just this week the Medical Journal of Australia released a study which showed that Aboriginal people have a higher life expectancy in remote settlements in the Northern Territory than they do in the regional centres of Alice Springs, Katherine and Jabiru, and the suburbs of Darwin.

Outstations, the smallest and remotest of Aboriginal settlements, are located in amenable environments and generally on the traditional country of their inhabitants. They have been and will continue to be an important coping mechanism for people seeking to escape the social pressures of larger centres. Despite the withdrawal of funding support to outstations since the late 1990s, their populations have proven to be quite resilient. The fact is that people can make any settlement and remoteness work if they are prepared to trade off their aspirations for a higher level of services, which generally involves a considerable amount of self-reliance.

The most recent contribution to the viability debate comes from former Keating Government minister Gary Johns who, writing for the Menzies Research Centre, advocates for a “no job, no house” policy in remote Indigenous communities and for people to voluntarily resettle to regional centres. Johns’ account is particularly shallow in its analysis. Through his narrow economic lens, Johns removes Aboriginal people from their local, social and historical context and, in so doing, draws conclusions with worrying implications for other Australians.

There are jobs in the bush for Aboriginal people. Remote Australia paradoxically has been both a region of mass unemployment and mass labour shortages, reflected in high wages paid to mining and construction workers. The barriers to recruitment of Aboriginal people are more related to human development than human resettlement. Simply relocating people to regional towns will not improve their job-readiness. Proximity to jobs does not equate to increased employment. An ANU study has shown that there is no significant difference in the income and employment rates for people already living in the Alice Springs town camps with those in the remote settlements.

Remote Aboriginal settlements do have dysfunctional economies, dominated by welfare and financial transfers. Reform is desperately needed, including welfare reform, but conservative commentators like Johns would have us believe that the problems sit entirely with Aboriginal people. There is considerable unrealised potential for Indigenous households to benefit more from the “business” of Indigenous Affairs, through employment in building, infrastructure maintenance, retailing, tourism, natural resource management, education, governance and other services. The job programs that are working in remote settlements have found synergies with local aspirations and skills, including Indigenous art, eco-tourism, and natural resource management. The pathway is to make the system more demand responsive, not more supply driven.

The tragedy of Indigenous Affairs is the way that we non-Indigenous Australians use it to play out our politics. When we read the writing of the Bennelong Society, and similarly ideological accounts from the Left of politics, we need to be wary of their potential for broader political promotion. There is a strong correlation between unemployment and public housing in urban cities across Australia: would Johns have us implement a “no job, no house” policy for non-Indigenous Australians as well?

We need to be better informed of the successes and failures that are occurring in the “practice” of Indigenous Affairs and not solely focus on finding the “policy solution”. There are no easy solutions here, but successes are coming from the front line workers engaged in day-to-day practicalities: the Aboriginal councillors and health workers, the nurses and teachers, the legions of development workers from regional Aboriginal organisations and governments. This is the engine room of Indigenous Affairs. The types of simplistic “solutions” proposed by Johns and imposed from afar are the greater “problems” in Indigenous affairs.

Mark Moran’s paper “What Job, What House” was recently published by the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

Peter Fray

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