A tale of two worlds

Why can’t Cape York make as much of a go at it as Kangaroo Island? It can. But only if private asset ownership and commercial activities are allowed. At the moment they are not.

by Warren Mundine
Executive Chairman, Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce


In February, I spent a week in Kangaroo Island. Perched about 13km from the South Australian mainland and facing the Great Southern Ocean to its south and the Great Australian Bight to its west, Kangaroo Island is remote and sparsely populated. The island is known for its wilderness and natural beauty; seal colonies flourish there. It also has mature agricultural and tourism industries and several small townships.

The original Aboriginal population is believed to have left 2000 years ago. In the 1800s, sealers lived there, many with Aboriginal “wives”, mostly women kidnapped in raids on Aboriginal communities. The first official European colony was established there in 1836. It lasted barely four years because farming was difficult and there was not enough water and timber to support the population. Like the Aboriginal population thousands of years before, most of those settlers eventually left.

Nevertheless, from these mixed beginnings a community grew and others moved there over the years. It now has about 4400 people, about 1750 of whom live in Kingscote, the main town. Kingscote has a busy commercial centre with a range of shops and services, including a computer shop, restaurants, cafes, banks, real estate agencies, professional firms and hotels.

Only 4.6 per cent of the Kingscote labour force was reported as unemployed in the 2011 census. The labour force is about 60 per cent of the total adult population.

Aurukun harbour

The mouth of Aurukun harbour (photo by Witness King Tides)

Last year I visited Aurukun in Cape York, a resource-rich region about the size of Victoria. The Cape has about 8000 people, excellent farming, plenty of water and abundant natural resources. Yet the region is home to some of the poorest towns in Australia and, in recent decades, some of the most dysfunctional. About 23 per cent of 2011 census respondents in Aurukun reported being unemployed and only about a third of the adult population were in the labour force to begin with.

Aurukun has a population of about 1300. It has only one shop a small supermarket, owned by a non-profit community organisation. It also has an art centre which produces some magnificent work but is not run as a commercial gallery where visitors can easily buy art and a hostel-style guesthouse owned by the local council and not available to the public.

Aurukun is on beautiful wetlands leading into the Gulf of Carpentaria with abundant fishing, but barely any tourism. According to the Queensland Tourism website, visitors can visit only for a day because camping is prohibited and there is no accommodation.

Council permits are required to travel on the roads, other than the main road to town. The website describes Aurukun as having “future tourism potential”.

I often hear towns like Aurukun should close because they are too small, too remote and there are no jobs. No wonder there are no jobs. There is almost a complete absence of commerce.

I’ve never heard anyone say Kingscote should be closed, even though history shows that Kangaroo Island is not an easy place for humans to prosper in.

So why can’t Cape York and Aurukun make as much of a go at it as Kangaroo Island and Kingscote? The answer is that they can, but only if private asset ownership and commercial activities are allowed. At the moment they are not.

In most cases people in remote indigenous communities cannot own their own homes either it is prohibited or effectively impossible because the conditions are so complex.

Genuine private commercial ventures scarcely exist. Most seemingly commercial activities are owned by government, statutory agencies or community not-for-profit organisations.

Kangaroo Island has a free market economy built on entrepreneurship. Aurukun has state-sponsored socialism where people have become conditioned to look to government to power their economy. Kingscote has commercial activity and jobs. Aurukun has community programs and work-for the-dole.

We know there is disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Increasingly, a disparity is also developing between remote and urban Indigenous communities.

GenerationOne research shows that the only way to end the disparity is to get people into jobs. Real and sustainable employment can only happen if communities have genuine commercial activities that create the jobs.

Recently, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott delivered a major speech on the Coalition’s plans for indigenous policy if elected. I support his approach of addressing the “two sides of the coin” of both symbolism and practical change.

The Opposition Leader spoke of the urgent need to reduce the disparity, particularly in remote communities like Aurukun. Encouragingly, the Coalition is willing to look at new approaches to address intractable problems in remote indigenous communities.

It is essential that these include releasing the shackles that prevent commerce and private ownership. These shackles prevent jobs. Only this way can we really close the gap and allow those communities to thrive and prosper on the same footing as the wider Australian and global economy.


First published in The Daily Telegraph 6 April 2013 under the heading “Talking About One Generation”. Warren Mundine is the former CEO of GenerationOne.

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