The reason too many Indigenous people live in poverty is because too many Indigenous people don’t participate in the real economy.
by Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO, Chair of the Yaabubiin Institute for Disruptive Thinking
Last month another milestone was achieved with Ken Wyatt becoming the first Indigenous Australian to be a Commonwealth Minister, as the Minister for Aged Care and Indigenous Health. It’s a terrific achievement and well deserved.
Indigenous Health is an important national issue given the significant gaps between the health and mortality of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It’s worthy of particular focus and that’s why there’s a special ministry to pay attention to it.
The statistics and details on Indigenous health reveal a tapestry of interconnected health problems, risk factors and social issues that all contribute to and reinforce each other. And when you step back from the tapestry, and look at it as a whole, what you are really seeing is poverty. We can only close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in health by properly addressing the socio-economic standing of Indigenous people. We can only do that by looking at this issue through an economic lens.
Between 1990 and 2010 the number of people living in extreme poverty globally in developing countries halved. One billion people were lifted out of extreme poverty over a 20-year period. Two-thirds of that poverty reduction came from economic growth. Poverty rates fell because economic growth in developing countries accelerated. Most notably, in the 3 decades after China began to implement economic reform, extreme-poverty fell from 84% to 10%.
Indigenous Australians are no different from any other people across the world. The only way we’ll see Indigenous poverty and disadvantage eliminated is through economic development. The reason too many Indigenous people live in poverty is because too many Indigenous people don’t participate in the real economy. Too many Indigenous children don’t attend school, too many Indigenous people don’t get a good education and too many Indigenous adults don’t work in real jobs. And the good news is this is a challenge that could be turned around within a generation if only we could get all Indigenous children going to school every day and all Indigenous adults into a real job. It’s that simple.
Many Australians believe Indigenous people are poor because they live in dusty, remote communities with “no jobs” and refuse to move into the city. This is a myth. Nearly 80% of Indigenous Australians live in urban or regional areas relatively close to the eastern and south western coasts. Many of these people moved from other parts of Australia and have moved closer to the larger Australian cities for work or better opportunities. My family did just that in the 1960s.
It’s true that Indigenous people are disproportionately represented in remote and regional Australia and northern Australia compared to other Australians and in those areas unemployment and lack of education are particularly rife. But the problem for these communities isn’t so much lack of jobs but that the jobs which do exist are mostly done by people from outside the community or not done at all. And for various reasons these areas have not experienced the economic development that every other remote community in Australia’s history benefited from, communities like Sydney, Melbourne and Perth which, in the 1800s, were probably the most sparsely populated, remote communities in the world.
The government wants to see regional and remote Australia develop, particularly northern Australia. With good reason. Australia is a huge continent and most of Australia’s economic activity occurs in a narrow corridor along the southern and eastern coasts.
Social media users may be familiar with the satellite image of the Korean peninsula at night which shows South Korea lit up and North Korea pitch black, a sign of the complete lack of economic activity under the communist north. Google a satellite image of Australia at night and you will find an equally stark image – a slither of light on the south-eastern coasts and a cluster of light in the south west – and the rest of our country dark like North Korea. Now there’s a confronting thought. Indigenous people have recognised interests over nearly three-quarters of Australia’s land and most of this is in those dark areas.
Australia has immense opportunity. The world has a growing population, hungry for primary resources and sources of food. And Australia has a huge mass of undeveloped land. Indigenous Australians in particular can benefit from this opportunity and realise the economic benefits of our lands and/or the compensation funds established for lands lost.
I understand why there’s a Minister for Indigenous Health. But what I’d really like to see is a Minister for Indigenous Economic Development. Because that is the key to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. And I believe all Australians want to see that happen as soon as possible.
This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 23 February 2017.