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With ATSIC gone we can address the real problems of Indigenous people

By Peter Howson - posted Thursday, 22 April 2004

The government’s decision to abolish ATSIC and its regional councils, and devolve its former programs to mainstream departments, has major political ramifications. It trumps Labor’s promise to create a new ATSIC and has the potential to be a significant electoral plus for the Coalition.

In New Zealand the National Party has moved from a distant second to first in polling after announcing that, if elected, it would abolish all Maori seats in Parliament and reduce the special treatment accorded to Maori. This led Prime Minister Helen Clark to announce a formal review of policies to reduce the “genuine concern” many New Zealanders have about the Maori treatment.

With most Aborigines now integrated in the wider community, other Australians want them to have the same political treatment, not separate elected representation. Aborigines themselves rejected that when most did not even bother to vote in ATSIC elections. Separate, self-determination has already failed and the whole experiment was clearly a mistake.


Integration is demonstrable in the 70 per cent of Aborigines already married to non-Indigenous spouses and the marked improvement in living standards of such couples. With the majority now of mixed descent, over 70 per cent professing Christianity and few even speaking an Indigenous language at home, most Aborigines are now part of the wider community.

That is also true both geographically and economically. Over 70 per cent now live in urban areas (46 per cent in 1971) and their employment rates there are not markedly lower than for others.

The remote communities, where around 100,000 Aborigines live in relative isolation, are the main problem. Minister Vanstone’s ministerial committee must now develop policies to overcome the serious life-style problems that have emerged in these areas. Through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) the states must also play a bigger role.

There are more than 1,200 of the remote communities, with around 900 having average populations of only 15 and another 327 less than 300. But their problems are not due to government neglect.

One little-appreciated fact is that governments fund extensive infrastructure and other services, as well as providing welfare. Yet, despite the education and health services, remote communities continue to experience greater ill-health and poorer education results. And, with most communities distant from a labour market, the only significant Indigenous employment is in the government-subsidised program on community determined and managed activities (CDEP).

Tragically, the Aborigines in remote communities are now welfare dependent. After 25 years in such communities the Reverend Steve Etherington concluded: “tribal aborigines are a kept people … The vast majority are never required to learn anything or do anything. Erosion of the capacity for initiative and self-help are virtually complete.”


Accordingly, policies must now concentrate on measures to prevent remote communities becoming even more ghetto-like. This requires a significant reduction in the communities eligible for infrastructure and service assistance (as has, in similar circumstances, recently been done in Canada). Residents of future ineligible communities should be given (say) 12 months warning to encourage moves either to urban areas or larger-sized communities.

Incentives should be offered to Aborigines to move residences or take up employment outside remote communities. If they are not prepared to seek employment outside such communities, that could be treated as a refusal to undergo the normal work test and hence subject to reduced unemployment benefits (or CDEP wages). Incentives could include generous subsidies for renting houses outside communities, free training programs and accommodation for courses also taken outside. Aboriginal employment should be exempted from labour market regulations, including the minimum wage.

The recently announced 20 per cent increase in education should include subsidies to meet the cost of educating Aboriginal children at boarding schools situated away from home, starting as early as possible and, for secondary students, including vocational training. Aboriginal hostels should be increased or receive improved staffing.

In sum, the desperate situation in remote communities urgently requires new policies to help their residents help themselves.

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This article was first published in The Age on 20 April 2004.

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About the Author

Hon. Peter Howson was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971-2 and is Vice-President, Bennelong Society.

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