Work was central to traditional communities and can be again

When I was young, people asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. All kids in remote communities should be able to answer this question. 

There’s a belief unemployment and welfare dependence in remote indigenous communities is caused by remoteness and traditional culture. It’s rubbish.

Indigenous people have lived on this continent for 40,000 years. The problems of social dysfunction and welfare dependence have emerged in the last 40 years, primarily caused by well-intentioned but failed government policies.

Traditional culture revolves around two things – family and work. Traditional communities were structured around kinship systems. Family relationships defined who you could marry, where you lived and your responsibilities to community and environment. The kinship system also functioned as a welfare system for the orphaned and widowed.

In traditional communities, everybody worked. They hunted and gathered food; cared for children and elders; constructed weapons, implements, traps, shelter, boats; educated children by taking them through ceremony and teaching them songlines and oral history and managed the land. After British colonisation Indigenous people worked both in traditional ways and for the whiteman – as stockmen, miners, domestics, trackers and soldiers. They worked for a pittance, were “paid” with tea and damper or worked in return for being allowed to live on their own land.

Inter-generational welfare dependence and unemployment enabled by government isn’t Indigenous culture – it’s a modern Western phenomenon. Traditional culture is aligned with going to school, getting a job, taking responsibility for family, community, environment and yourself. Culture is an enabler for education and employment, not a barrier.

It’s also a myth that remote communities have no jobs. There’s work to be done like everywhere else. Teachers. Police. Health services. Repairs. Cleaning. Waste management. There are airstrips, art centres, satellite dishes, generators, sewerage plants, water tanks, cars, houses and infrastructure. There are jobs in mining and agriculture. We see high unemployment and welfare dependence in all parts of Australia. It’s a social problem, not a geographical one.

Yes, there aren’t enough jobs in remote areas. But that’s not causing the unemployment. We know that because even the jobs that do exist are mostly done by outsiders. Often it doesn’t even occur to anyone these are jobs locals could do. I’d like to see every remote Indigenous community make a list of all jobs in the community, who’s currently employed to do them and what skills are required to do them. They should also list things not being done at all or often enough.

Then make a plan for how long it would take and what would be required for those jobs to be filled by locals. The plan should also identify hurdles and challenges and job readiness levels. It doesn’t matter if it’s years before a local person is qualified for a local job. The important thing is having a pathway.

Here’s an example. Imagine a town with 2000 people, 150 houses, 10 public buildings and an airstrip. The town has a diesel-fuelled power plant, a community centre, a school and a store. There are air-conditioning units and satellite dishes on buildings. The town is an hour from a mining town. Now list the jobs. The schools employ teachers, teachers’ aides and ancillary staff. The police station employs police officers, assistant police officers and community liaison officers. The power generator requires operation and maintenance. The charter flight company employs pilots and ground staff. All public buildings require cleaning and maintenance. The shop has staff. The art centre has a full-time curator and could employ sales staff.

The community requires handymen, electrical, plumbing and carpentry and access to a dentist, a doctor and a midwife. The mine has a vocational training program for jobs it has set aside for local Indigenous people. The town needs a lot of new housing. And so on.

Then work out what’s required for locals to be able to do local jobs and identify the time horizon and pathways. Can teachers’ aides qualify as teachers and assistant police officers as police officers. A secondary student could qualify in a trade or as a nurse over a four- to eight-year horizon. Kids starting school today may be 10 to 15 years away. A married couple could train to operate a cleaning business together relatively quickly.

Elders, councillors and community leaders can do this exercise today. They can draw up plans for getting locals into local jobs today.

When I was young, people asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. All kids in remote communities should be able to answer this question. Maybe a pilot, a builder, a teacher, a doctor, a police officer or a tradesman. All of those jobs are already required in their communities. They’re realistic ambitions and they don’t even need to leave their traditional lands to realise them.

Indigenous kids should believe that work isn’t something outsiders come in to do. Work has been central to their communities for thousands of years. It should be again.


Nyunggai Warren Mundine is Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce. This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 17 June 2014


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