This week sees the 50th anniversary of the ‘Wave Hill walk-off’ – the Northern Territory cattle station strike that grew into the modern land rights movement.
There is much to celebrate over those 50 years in terms of land title and recognition of indigenous cultures.
However, there is considerably less to celebrate in the economic development of remote communities.
The annual Closing the Gap reports to parliament continue to record disadvantage that is “concentrated and severe”, with unemployment the norm in many communities and social ills such as substance abuse, violence, crime and chronic health problems running out of control.
The left and right of politics have their own ways of trying to address these issues, though usually with similarly poor outcomes.
The Turnbull government, for instance, stresses: “The Government’s role is to set conditions conducive to Indigenous businesses and investment. Economic development relies upon Indigenous entrepreneurship, community support and leadership, and private sector investment and involvement.”
It sounds great, but what neither side of politics is keen to admit is that private sector investment, in some communities, just never arrives.
The Turnbull government’s program for dealing with this – the Community Development Program (CDP) – asks residents of remote communities to put in up to 25 hours of ‘work for the dole’ activities or lose their welfare benefits.
That has helped cut the government’s welfare bill, but nobody familiar with the ravaged state of some remote communities could suggest saving money is the first priority.
An ACTU challenge
The government’s strategy is coming under increased pressure.
Peak union body, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), is meeting in Darwin this week and voting on an executive resolution to pursue a legal challenge to the CDP work-for-the-dole scheme.
It says the CDP work-for-the-dole requirement is discriminatory, because dole recipients in non-remote areas are only required to work 15 hours.
ACTU secretary Dave Oliver says that where jobs are available in remote regions, “employers don’t have to abuse this scheme to get free workers – they just have to use it as it is designed”.
Oliver fears a ‘revolving door’ system in which workers remain on benefits and provide cheap or free labour to employers.
A wider problem
Even if the ACTU mounts a successful legal challenge against the CDP, it won’t change the fact that in many communities there is virtually no ‘private sector’ economy at all.
The awful truth, that neither side of politics dares to mention, is that sometime populations exist where there are no naturally competitive industries or where once-competitive industries have collapsed.
Likewise, there are growing pockets of unemployment in Adelaide’s car-making suburb of Elizabeth or Melbourne’s Broadmeadows.
And towns of the Murray-Darling basin have already been hit by declines in the dairy industry.
In the normal course of events, ‘economic migrants’ are ultimately expected to move to where investors are shifting their capital.
But that is not always possible – older workers nearing retirement tend to dig where they are, and younger workers need retraining to even consider moving elsewhere.
In the case of remote indigenous workers it is more difficult. In some communities English is a third or fourth language – there are around 80 distinct indigenous languages still in use – and cultural ties to community and country make labour mobility much harder
So beware politicians who offer simple solutions.
In 2010 the Gillard Labor government tried, and failed, to entice young workers into regional areas where there was strong demand for labor – its tax concessions and cash bonus schemes fell flat, as virtually nobody signed up for them.
Likewise the current approach of telling remote communities, years after year, that entrepreneurship and investment are on their way.
When labour doesn’t move, and capital doesn’t move in, other answers must be found.
The French government has for many years softened its unemployment statistics with artist bursaries – small, but long-term benefits paid to practising artists, who may or may not go on to bigger and better things.
The Abbott government’s ‘standing Green army’ was at least an attempt to use welfare payments to produce an economic good – a better environment.
And the CDP itself has set up aquaponics facilities – combined fish farming and vegetable production systems – to employ locals and provide fresh food to remote communities where malnutrition is a way of life.
These are not ideal solutions – but that’s the point.
After decades of saying “move to where the jobs are” or “jobs are about to be created where you are”, we should get more comfortable discussing solutions in which neither happens.