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Mar 11, 2015

Homelands under the hammer, again, from the aspiring PM for indigenous policy

There is a very good reason many indigenous Australians live in remote communities, and it's not a "lifestyle choice", writes Emeritus Professor Jon Altman of Australian National University.


The Prime Minister who aspires to be known for his contribution to indigenous affairs has been roundly criticised by all and sundry for suggesting that indigenous people who live at remote homelands are making a “lifestyle choice”. Hence he argues they should self-finance access to services that are not available in remote areas or face government neglect and associated closure.

This populist argument is reminiscent of those made a decade ago by then-senator Amanda Vanstone pejoratively referring to homelands as “cultural museums”. This demeaning discourse is being deployed to support a decision by the Western Australian government to “close”, or more correctly neglect, as governments do not close communities, up to 150 remote communities.

The argument put forward by Premier Colin Barnett is that the WA government cannot afford to deliver services to such remote places because of diseconomies of small scale; more recently he has suggested these communities might also be unsafe, pandering to forms of moral panic that were successfully deployed during the Northern Territory intervention: small, remote, tradition-oriented places are, ipso facto, potentially dangerous.

Both Abbott and Barnett are addressing a complex development issue without reference to any demographic, historical or legal facts, let alone issues of social justice and basic human rights. Let’s look at each in turn very briefly.

According to the latest statistical evidence collected nearly 10 years ago by the Community Housing and Infrastructure Needs Survey 2006, there are 988 indigenous communities with a population of less than 100, Australia-wide; 230 of these are in Western Australia. These places are generally called outstations or homelands, almost all are located on land that is held under indigenous title, and they are small, averaging just 20 people each. They are also often clustered near larger places and so are well-positioned to share services on a hub-and-spokes basis.

Historically, homelands and outstations were re-established from the 1970s by indigenous people re-occupying their ancestral lands. This re-occupation was facilitated by progressive policies of land rights and self-determination, but also reflected the failure of larger places that had been established as an instrument of colonial policy to implement the assimilation policy.

By the late 1980s, the only parliamentary inquiry ever undertaken into the homelands movement, Return to Country (also known as the Blanchard Report, after its chair), lauded these smaller places a relative success in economic, social and cultural terms. In particular, using primary data it was demonstrated that residents there were more self-sufficient than at larger places because of productive work in self-provisioning and in the manufacture of art for sale.

Return to Country recommended that government invest in the delivery of flexible services to homelands in education and health. And, building on findings in the Miller Report on Aboriginal Employment and Training Programs in 1985, it recommended that governments facilitate the viability of homelands by investing in the building of an economic base using the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) as an income support and wage subsidy scheme.

While few of these recommendations were subsequently enacted by governments, the homelands movement flourished. This was partly because community-based outstation resource agencies used CDEP creatively to support homelands.

It was also because with the Mabo High Court judgement and subsequent Native Title Act, indigenous people were able to claim more and more land by demonstrating, often in court, continuity of customs and traditions and connection to their country. As lands held under indigenous forms of title, land rights and determinations of exclusive and non-exclusive possession increase to cover nearly a third of the continent, many land owners want to live on their land, even if it is remote. Indeed, it is mainly because these lands are remote and of low commercial value that they have remained non-alienated and available for such claim.

So, having complied with Australian law to get their land back, indigenous people are being told that they will not be entitled to citizen services on these lands; instead they will be treated as second-class citizens or denizens, and their lands will be deemed unfit for occupation, the fiction of terra nullius will be replaced by a new fiction, terra vacua, empty land. Is such depopulation in the indigenous or public interest?

This seems a most inappropriate way for one of the world’s richest countries to treat an invaded and, for all intents and purposes, still colonised indigenous minority. This is especially the case at homelands with a total population nationally of just on 20,000 and more so in Western Australia, where literally billions of dollars of minerals are extracted annually from land where native title has been determined. The WA government might consider “royalties for regions”, but what about royalties for impoverished and marginalised first Australians?

A major problem that Australia faces in relation to homelands is that there is no policy framework for assessing how to deliver citizenship entitlements on an equitable-needs basis to indigenous people living remotely. Consequently, we see ironic inconsistency. For example, homelands in the NT are minimally funded by the Commonwealth to 2022 under the Gillard government’s Stronger Futures for the Northern Territory laws, while homelands in Western Australia and South Australia will be unfunded after this financial year. There is considerable federal/state fiscal strategic behaviour in all this, with attempts to pass the buck between governments while those most in need and most disenfranchised suffer lack of services delivery and anxiety about their futures and livelihoods.

There is an obvious challenge in belatedly developing appropriate policy for these remotest of communities. If one sticks to simplistic slogans like “adults to jobs”, “kids to school” and “safe communities” to masquerade as policy, a hallmark of Tony Abbott, one is bound to make simplistic and destructive policy decisions backed up by demeaning and populist discourse.

Indigenous land owners aspire to live on their lands today for a wide range of reasons, including a desire to exercise their “post-colonial” social justice rights. Life at homelands is often rudimentary, and it is difficult to make a decent livelihood out there. Given the criticism that the Labor opposition and Greens have articulated over Tony Abbott’s discursive assault on homelands generally, and Colin Barnett’s unrepentant commitment to defund a large number, perhaps it is appropriate that there be a stay on homelands execution so that a parliamentary inquiry might again address this complex issue 30 years after the House of Representatives Standing Committee undertook its two-year inquiry from 1985 to 1987?


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34 thoughts on “Homelands under the hammer, again, from the aspiring PM for indigenous policy

  1. Migraine

    If living in remote areas is a lifestyle choice not deserving of taxpayer support, can we expect to see an end to zone rebates?

  2. paddy

    Every time I think I’ve seen the worst of Abbott, he surprises me yet again.
    The sooner he’s gone the better, but at what a terrible cost!
    Such a deeply shameful period in Australia’s history.

  3. Electric Lardyland

    Is there actually a Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs? Or are the Coalition still working the rubbish line that Abbott is the minister?

  4. klewso

    Some people might like to see Toady’s lips sewn together?
    …. but what would they know?
    There’s only, what, 480(?) sleeps to go – who knows what he can stuff into that cavity?
    [Scratch this r’Abbott – get khaleesi.]

  5. Dogs breakfast

    Thanks for the synopsis, pretty much covers the most important aspects.

    May as well go back to Terra Nullius, denying them the vote and reinstating the White Australia policy.

    It seems we have learned nothing.

    On the other hand, if we can just force all the indigenous people off their land, deny them any connection to country, we can then go back to the courts and claim the land back, and then we won’t need to negotiate on mineral rights, can sell them all to a multi-national who can take all our common wealth, pay pittance in royalties and nothing in tax.

    Brilliant plan!

  6. klewso

    “Class Warfare”?

  7. TwoEyeHead

    Tony knows a thing or two about endless subsidies

  8. A.Blot

    The indigenous Australians need to point the bone at the indigenous minister if not the entire Government.

  9. sang-froid

    Any other group he can alienate?

  10. Mike Upton

    @ Paddy – “The sooner he’s gone the better.”

    No Paddy, NO!..we need him there. The rAbbott is one continual “own goal”. He shoots himself in the foot, falls on his own sword, dives on the grenade and chews Oliander leafs. rAbbott is removing himself and the whole party, leave him there.

  11. David Hand

    The “Closing the Gap” report says the gap ain’t closing, Jon. The gap ain’t closing.

    Do you want the gap to close? Any suggestions? More money? Is that all you’ve got?

  12. Rais

    Abbott. The gift that keeps on giving. Just ask GM.

  13. Jon Altman

    I usually feel as if I have enough of a say with my op ed but I will make an exception for you David as you challenge me directly. My counter query to you is show me statistical outcomes by settlement size, my point being that we do not know if statistical gaps as defined by the ABS are closing faster at homelands or elsewhere. And gaps are very inadequate measures of well being, a little like GDP per capita. For many Indigenous people living on country they do not reflect what matters. I have plenty of suggestions and more money is not the only one, although it does seem to be the elixir for other Australians whether old or young, industrialists or workers. And money might help if targeted in the right way to accord with local aspirations and realistic possibilities. I am not understating the challenges nor am I looking for simplistic solutions like defunding or neglect of the most needy. Indigenous policy is riven with contradictions at the moment. The current government announced that Australia was open for business again but their Indigenous Advancement Strategy grants process has been opaque, delayed and as unbusinesslike as imaginable. The PM aspires to deliver constitutional reform but refuses to countenance that recognition of difference has to be at the bedrock of anything that might be acceptable to Indigenous Australians. And we have plenty of examples from recent history of development approaches that have worked many compiled in summary analyses published by the AIHW Closing the Gap Clearinghouse. It would be useful if some of this evidence-based work was consulted from time to time. Instead we see ideologically-driven ill thought through policies that imagine closing gaps as more and more Indigenous people experience more and more unemployment, poverty and marginalisation. I want the gaps that matter to Indigenous Australians in all their diversity to close, not the ones dreamt up by politicians and bureaucrats in Canberra! And I want Indigenous Australians to get a fair go in the land of the supposed fair go: what subsidies and services do small mainstream communities with populations of less than 100 in country areas of non-remote Australia receive, perhaps Tony Abbott should have a serious conversation with the National Party about equitably funding Indigenous communities at similar levels of services support?

  14. Electric Lardyland

    Interesting framing of the issue: on one side, there is the taxpayer and on the other side is (insert minority group here). That is, in this case, it seems to presume that the groups taxpayer and Indigenous Australians are mutually exclusive, and that there are no Indigenous taxpayers, who may not have the slightest problem with funding remote communities. It also seems to rule out the fact, that many other taxpayers, would prefer to see Indigenous Australians treated properly, and don’t actually support the tedious, old-time ignorance of people like Abbott.

  15. The Pav

    No Abbott is perfectly right.

    This sort of statement resonates to the people Abbott is trying to court. Just watch his poll numbers bounce

  16. The Pav

    Hi Davis

    Yeah lets have them all in the cities so we can replicate Redfern many times because that works so well.

    The gap ain’t closing because policy is determined by politics not research. More money isn’t the answer but neither is stripping resources.

    As the Blanchard report notes smaller communities were lauded

  17. David Hand

    Well Jon,
    There is a widespread acceptance by anyone who claims to have expertise in this area that one of the key long term solutions to close the gap is for children to go to school.

    Half a dozen kids in a remote community of about 50 who live 120km from the nearest school have no chance.

    But what would I know?

    I know this. Billions of dollars and the gap ain’t closing.

  18. Marion Wilson

    There are lots of other groups who make life-style choices that suck up a lot of taxpayers money but do not benefit the average taxpayer. Such as children attending private school, religious instruction in schools, adults playing contact sport, eating too much, Olympic athletes, horse races (race courses on prime real estate), bike races, car races, cricket matches, armed forces, marathons. And there are tax and rates concessions for sports clubs and religions many of them with large properties and buildings located on prime real estate. The visit from the Pope cost over one hundred million dollars. What did the visit by Prince Williams and his family cost?

  19. AR

    Our small village (pop. 288)in central NSW has an excellent K-6 school but it is also 98% white. Could be a factor.

  20. Venise Alstergren

    PADDY: Forgive me if I am wrong, but isn’t Australia’s National Nemesis also the Minister for Women?

    I keep dreaming of a factory hidden in a remote part of the Grampians, where workers displaced from their real jobs in what was once the car industry, are mass producing miniature ironing boards which women will be forced, by law, to wear as an acknowledgment of their inferior status to men???!!!

  21. Venise Alstergren

    SANG FROID (9) “Any other group he can alienate?” I think it’s about time he can re-insult his true enemy-women.

  22. Chris Hartwell

    Perhaps David, as Jon has suggested, the billions aren’t working because evidence-based policy is not being funded by those billions.

    Evidence is king – and ideologues, of any colour, are wont to ignore evidence. Our current government, unfortunately, fit that description to a tee.

  23. maureen

    I think there is a reason that he is not backing of from his comments and that is that if all of these communities go their commitment to the land will be gone and their rites to the land will go and then it is opened up to whatever governments wish to do with it, like more mining.

  24. David Hand

    Well Chris,
    One thing that is certain is that the aboriginal issue in Australia is overrun with ideologues.

    Take, say, Jon Altman for example. He still thinks in terms of Australia as an invaded land – an ideological position if there ever was one.

    You are right about evidence based policy. Evidence clearly shows that far too few aboriginal children in these remote settlements go to school. Education is a universally accepted solution that would make an enormous contribution to closing the gap.

    Therefore measures to get aboriginal kids into school are called for. Taxpayer funded settlements 120km from the nearest school don’t help. I’m sure the evidence of school non attendance is available so that this view is clearly “evidence based.

    Evidence is king – and ideologues of any colour, are wont to ignore evidence. Our inner urban elite view that these remote settlements are somehow vital to the preservation of aboriginal connection to the land, unfortunately, fits that description to a tee.

  25. The Pav

    Hi David @ 17

    Having spent a large part of my life working for a company in remote & regional Australia I can assure you travelling 120 km to school is not that so rare for farming families.

    This is paid for by the govt but I assume you have no objection to this subsidy of the life style choices of farmers along with the subsidies for power phone roads etc
    that so many farmers receive. The fact is many farmers are effectively life style choices that they are born into but most are white so that makes it OK.

    You should check out the Drum interview last night with Ben Wyatt. Some great practical balanced and sensible opinion, based on intimate knwoedge and experience.

    Remote communities can/are viable and present a better way of addressing the issues. Remember the it is generally thought ( although I would exclude Midsommer Worthy from that . Inspector Barnaby seems to be kept rather busy but then perhaps things are different in the Old Dart) small villages are safer than the big cities.

  26. danger_monkey

    David Hand gushed:
    Take, say, Jon Altman for example. He still thinks in terms of Australia as an invaded land – an ideological position if there ever was one.

    Or, you know, a historically accurate one.

  27. David Hand

    That’s so right Danger.
    The Coalition is full of ideologues. The inner urban elites are historically accurate.

    Yeah, right.

  28. David Hand

    Agrarian socialism is a policy problem for Australia but is a non sequitur. The evidence, (don’t we all love evidence) is that the gap is not closing, getting aboriginal kids to go to school is a clear policy intervention that will help and aboriginal kids have a shocking school attendance record. Billions of dollars have been poured into closing the gap for no result.

    It’s not as though government subsidy for AR’s village of 288 people and its school is not being spent in the north as well, it’s that the subsidies are not working and the gap isn’t closing.

    Can one of you bleeding heart lefties, just one, put forward a policy option that might close the gap? Ranting on about traditional ties to the land, though a real issue, makes absolutely no contribution to closing the gap. Same for hand-wringing self loathing about the invasion. You do want the gap to close, don’t you?

    Maybe getting rid of the Abbott government is more important to you than closing the gap.

    Maybe you don’t care.

  29. Bo Gainsbourg

    Given that ‘hand wringing lefties’ haven’t been in charge of the remote policy agenda for decades (if every truly) its slightly weird to be blaming them for the current predicament. I’d put the challenge back to you David Hand. No one is arguing people shouldn’t go to school, its just that the policies you favour aren’t actually encouraging that. And actually there are policy measures that are ‘closing the gap’ amdist the popular but failed ‘tough love’ strategies but your prescription seems to be what? Move everyone to the hinterland of town and somehow magic happens?

  30. David Hand

    I’m not blaming lefties for the current predicament. I’m just looking for one, only one, practical idea from our learned and oh so socially conscious opionistas that can be discussed.

    Poor school attendance by aborigines is not just a remote issue. They don’t go to school enough even when the school is 100 metres away. Closing the gap is a diabolical problem to solve, not for want of money and blood sweat and tears from many committed people from all sides of politics who care.

    The only commentary here is to get rid of Abbott. That’s it. There is no further insight in these pages apart from a soft focused romanticism of an ancient culture at one with their land.

  31. The Pav

    Dear David @ 31

    What part of “Return to Country (also known as the Blanchard Report, after its chair), lauded these smaller places a relative success in economic, social and cultural terms. In particular, using primary data it was demonstrated that residents there were more self-sufficient……” don’t you get

    If the comments come across as anti- Abbot it is because he is so incompetent. This stupid and incorrect comment is just the latest in a litany of bile,whinging, offensiveness and blame shifting.

    As to practical suggestions I did refer you to The Drum last night and Ben Wyatt gave some good instances.

  32. Chris Hartwell

    Ok, we have an issue – they’re not attending school.

    Why not? What previous interventions have been tried to improve school attendance? Where they carrot or stick policies?

  33. AR

    Last night Blot, ranting to the Hobbesian Price (nasty, brutish & short), continuously claimed that “the average population size of these commuities is 8…“.
    Is he seriously innumerate or malevolently mendacious in goading his ignorant audience?
    Does it matter?

  34. Peta Jane

    Since white invasion in 1788 Aboriginal peoples have found themselves dispossessed marginalised and the victims of wide spread genocide. Six months ago funding providing vital public and essential services in remote communities in Western Australia, was handed from the Federal Government to the State Government, because of these funding deals between State and federal government two small communities in the Kimberly could be closed, a third small community nearby that is not Aboriginal will not be closed. The question that should be asked is why are the Aboriginal communities being penalised and the white communities left alone?
    Another significant issue is the lack of Indigenous representation in parliament coupled with the fact that Tony Abbott is the current self-appointed Minister for Indigenous affairs. This makes his recent comments about Indigenous Australians living in remote communities being a “Lifestyle choice” all the more contentious and harmful.Currently Indigenous Australians have only one Parliamentary representative, Ken Wyatt who is a Liberal representative for the seat of Hasluck WA.
    Given that Indigenous Australians make up 2.5% of the population, at minimum they should be represented by at least three Indigenous members in the House of Representatives and one senator. One way this could be achieved is by having dedicated seats for Indigenous representatives in the Australian federal parliament.
    Thus we need to guarantee that we are in keeping with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which we became a signatory in 2009. (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2015). In particular the declaration States that Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination (2008, p. 4), Article 8 states “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture” and Article 8 “2. States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for… (b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources; (c) Any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights” (2008, p. 5). Therefore the current policies of State and Federal governments that have led to the decisions and proposals to cut funding to these remote communities, if they go ahead, will result in Australia once again breaking international law and violating the basic human rights of our Indigenous peoples.

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