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Degrees of difference

By Sara Hudson - posted Monday, 22 August 2011

Recently I wrote about the separate Census form used for discrete Indigenous communities suggesting that it was a form of state sanctioned apartheid.

Many people have taken umbrage at this arguing that having a separate form for some remote communities is an example of 'positive discrimination'. Few people seem to understand the broader implications of having a different form for some remote Indigenous Australians and what this signifies.

Although some of the differences between the two forms are relatively mild, for example, the option of answering 'another dwelling in the community' for the question 'Where does this person live most of the time?' the differences between other questions have had much more wide ranging and serious consequences than is perhaps recognised.


For example, under the question of employment, Indigenous Australians in discrete communities had the option of answering "yes, CDEP job". CDEP (Community Development Employment Projects) – is a type of Aboriginal-work-for-the-dole scheme, where people are paid low wages for (generally) part-time work. In the past CDEP work has included mowing the lawn, or doing 'home duties.' People on CDEP do not receive standard employment entitlements such as superannuation and holiday pay. For this reason (and many others), researchers have argued that CDEP should not be treated as employment.

Classifying CDEP as employment has hidden high levels of unemployment in remote communities. According to the 2006 Census the official unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians was 16% but if CDEP had not been counted as employment the official unemployment figure would have been nearly 50%.

Disguising the true unemployment figure allowed the appallingly low educational standards in remote communities to go unnoticed for so long.

Why is the latest generation of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in remote communities less literate and numerate than their grandparents who were educated in Missions?

Why do so many people seem accepting of the fact that despite over forty years of Indigenous specific policy so many remote Aboriginal Australians still have trouble speaking English and reading and writing?

Could the answer lie with the fact that there have been separate schools with lower standards for remote Indigenous Australians?


In the Northern Territory many children from remote communities attend one of 45 "Homeland Learning Centres". Many of these were built without electricity, water or toilet facilities and some remain unlined corrugated iron sheds (see attached picture).

Numerous excuses have been used to justify the failure to deliver education to remote Indigenous students, including, that a high proportion of Indigenous students do not speak English, that they come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, and that parents fail to send their children to school.

But many children in Australia go to school unable to speak English and come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and they do not have the same poor educational outcomes as Indigenous students from "Homeland Learning Centres." Even children who regularly attend 'school' in these communities fail to learn to read and write.

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About the Author

Sara Hudson is the Manager of the Indigenous Research Program at the Centre for Independent Studies and author of Awakening the 'Sleeping Giant': the hidden potential of Indigenous businesses.

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