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It’s the economy, stupid.

The problem for remote Indigenous communities isn’t remoteness. It’s lack of economic participation by the people who live in them. Social breakdown is inevitable when families don’t participate in the real economy for generations, whether their community has 300 or 3 million people.

Whenever there’s a national discussion on the social dysfunction plaguing some Indigenous families and communities, it’s only a matter of time before someone says remote Indigenous communities should be closed.

Last week it was former Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough. He said some communities should be “shut down” and that people “don’t want to have the hard conversations that the fundamental building blocks are missing for these communities to be successful… it’s nobody’s fault, but these communities are isolated and there are no jobs, little education and businesses can’t be created because of land-tenure issues.”

I find it interesting when I hear former federal ministers suggest closing communities. My first question is “Well if you think it’s the solution why didn’t you do it?” My second is “Tell me how?”. Governments can’t close communities. They can withdraw services but can’t tell people where to live or force them off their own land.

The idea Indigenous disadvantage stems from people living in small, remote communities and moving them to larger towns would solve the problems is appealing in its simplicity. It’s also wrong.

We know that moving people to larger towns doesn’t solve Indigenous disadvantage. Because it’s been tried before

After the 1967 referendum, Indigenous people gained equal pay through changes to laws and industrial decisions over about a decade. For some regional industries, like the pastoral industry, this meant a huge jump in expenses. Instead of getting a pay increase, most Indigenous people in those industries lost their jobs and were kicked off their lands. The pastoralists lost a cheap source of labour and weren’t willing or able to pay them full wages. At the same time, Indigenous people gained rights to government benefits they previously weren’t entitled to. Many were moved off their traditional lands to the fringes of cities and towns where they received housing and became full time welfare recipients.

There was no attempt to manage the transition to equal pay to keep them in work. Governments simply figured the welfare system would cushion the blow. It actually swallowed them up. Now generations later many of those people, their children and grandchildren are locked in a cycle of welfare dependency.

The social dysfunction we see playing out in the sexual abuse epidemic impacting Indigenous children didn’t stem from geography. It’s grown from generations of chronic welfare dependence and the social ills that too often go with it, including alcohol and substance abuse and parents incapable of taking care of their kids.

Some of the most disadvantaged and socially dysfunctional communities are in the larger towns and cities. Sometimes Indigenous families actually move to more remote communities to get away from violence and drug and alcohol abuse in larger towns. Go look at some of the town camps on the edges of NT’s major urban areas for example. Even in the suburbs of major Australian cities. The recent tragic case of a 2-year old being raped, allegedly by a 24-year old man, happened in Tennant Creek. No one is talking about “closing Tennant Creek”.

NT Labor MLA Scott McConnell’s statements in the wake of that appalling incident were far more insightful. He said these kinds of incidents will continue until real economic opportunities are available for people in the bush. He said: “This is happening because people are moving to urban towns because we are not actually delivering services where they live. I would argue that some of these people are actually, using the international term, internally displaced people. They can’t live where they want to live so they’re like refugees in their own country and they are moving to urban centres.”

Australian politicians have a split personality when it comes to remote Australia. On the one hand we hear more people must move north to enable development. But then we hear it’s too hard to service remote areas, there aren’t jobs in remote areas and communities should be closed. How can there be a shortage of labour but also a shortage of jobs? Because Indigenous people are seemingly invisible when people think of those jobs and those opportunities. This needs to change.

Listening to the “close communities” mantra you would think these small communities are serviced like urban centres. They aren’t. Most services are provided by non-locals on a “fly in fly out” or “drive in drive out” basis with at best skeleton staff based permanently in the community. Most homeland communities (smaller settlements scattered throughout traditional lands away from the main communities) have no public housing or schools and few services.

Brough was dismissive of the idea of real economies growing in remote Indigenous communities. I don’t agree. Every Australian city began as a tiny, remote community with “no jobs”. In the 18th century you’d be hard pressed to find a more remote community on the planet than the colony in Sydney Cove.

Sometimes people can’t see what they can’t see. There’s work to be done in remote Indigenous communities like everywhere else. But most jobs are done by people from outside the community or not at all. A starting point for economic participation is getting locals trained and capable to do those jobs and setting up small businesses to perform those service contracts. Capability building takes time but it’s very achievable. Fortescue Metals Group has shown us how it can be done on their remote mine sites, recently marking $2 billion in contracts to Indigenous owned businesses.

Brough is correct that land tenure on Indigenous lands prevents private ownership. But there are known mechanisms for enabling private ownership and lending to commercial enterprises on those lands. The only barrier is the will to implement them. I’ve also proposed governments fast-track native title claim settlements and dispense with the continuous connection to the land condition. Indigenous people aren’t truly free to choose where they live if moving off traditional lands means forfeiting a native title claim.

Ultimately, the problem for remote Indigenous communities isn’t remoteness. It’s lack of economic participation by the people who live in them. Social breakdown is inevitable when families don’t participate in the real economy for generations, whether their community has 300 or 3 million people.

This article was published in the Weekend Australian on 10 March 2018.

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Posted by admin on March 15, 2018

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