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The business of Indigenous Affairs then and now

By Kevin Andrews - posted Wednesday, 27 April 2005

The history of Indigenous affairs in Australia over the past half century is a tale of noble aspirations, enthusiastic efforts, modest successes and significant failures.

Some socio-economic indicators

  • According to the 2001 Census, Indigenous unemployment was 20 per cent compared to 7 per cent for the rest of the population;
  • Self employment was 5 per cent for Indigenous Australians compared to 16 per cent for the rest of the Australian labour market;
  • The rate of home ownership was about 30 per cent compared to 70 per cent of the general Australian population. Among Native Americans and Maoris, by way of comparison, it was more than 50 per cent; and
  • Average annual incomes among Indigenous Australians in 2001 were $11,000. For the rest of Australia they were $19,800.

Cradle-to-grave poverty among Indigenous communities remains one of Australia’s most urgent social issues. We need to speak frankly.


How it all started

The kernel of this disaster was the disingenuous conviction that Indigenous Australians should have limited contact with Australia’s capitalist society. This idea took hold after the watershed industrial decision of the 1966 Northern Territory Cattle Industry Case when equal pay was granted to Aboriginal stockmen.

In 1965, the Northern Australian Workers’ Union had applied to the Industrial Arbitration Commission for full blooded Aboriginal station workers to be paid the same as white workers. The Industrial Commissioners, presided over by Sir Richard Kirby, concluded, “… there must be one industrial law, similarly applied to all Australians aboriginal or not”.

They knew that a likely consequence of their decision was “disemployment”: “If therefore, as a result of our decision, substantial numbers of Aborigines move to settlements or missions, it is our view that the policy of assimilation and integration will be assisted rather than hindered …”

Sir John Kerr, representing pastoralists, had argued: “It [is] nonsense to say that men are better off, unemployed in thousands, but maintained in settlement in growing degrees of comfort when they could work in the real world with growing degrees of efficiency and growing economic rewards.” There was real moral hazard in wilfully pricing out of employment Indigenous people who still had both a strong attachment to tribal life and participated in local labour markets.

The consequence of this decision, sure enough, was “disemployment”. The other pernicious consequence of the Commission’s decision was the notion that Indigenous Australians were bound to fail in the labour market and in enterprise. As Dr HC “Nugget” Coombs, that era’s most distinguished supporter of Indigenous Australians, put it, “It is hard to imagine another society whose values were as inappropriate to the demands of an industrial economy”.

A new policy era

Federal leadership on both sides of Parliament knew that after the 1967 referenda Indigenous Affairs was at a crossroads. Paul Hasluck, Minister for Territories between 1951and 1963, had declared that all Aborigines should “attain the same manner of living as other Australians and live as members of a single Australian community …”


It was Prime Minister Sir William McMahon who articulated a new approach in his 1972 Statement on Aboriginal Affairs, “… they should be assisted as individuals … to hold effective and respected places within one Australian society with equal access to the rights and opportunities it provided and acceptance of responsibilities towards it. … They should be encouraged and assisted to preserve and develop their own culture …”

Sir William McMahon shifted Indigenous affairs away from assimilation and social engineering. He raised economic independence and the role of land tenure as part of Aboriginal advancement. He was open to ideas about Indigenous self determination and self management. But he was also quite firm that “separate development” as a long term aim was counterproductive. The core business of Indigenous Affairs was economic development and effective public service delivery.

Meanwhile, the New Left was in its early ascendancy and Indigenous “separate development” became a key component of the movement. The movement argued that since capitalist society had created racism, dispossession and disadvantage, therefore creating the greatest distance between the Aborigines and capitalism was both humane and urgent.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

Extracted from a speech by the Federal Minister of Employment and Workplace Relations to the Institute of Public Affairs, Kevin Andrews, April 13, 2005. The complete version can be found here.

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About the Author

Kevin Andrews is the federal Member for Menzies (Vic) and a former Minister in the Howard Liberal government.

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