In February’s apology to the stolen generations, the Prime Minister committed his government and the nation to halving “the widening gap in literacy, numeracy and employment outcomes and opportunities for Indigenous children within a decade”.
The good news is the gaps have not been widening. In the case of unemployment, the jobless rate for Indigenous Australians was 16 per cent according to the 2006 Census; in 2001 Census the rate was 20 per cent.
To halve the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous jobless rates would require a six percentage point drop to about 10 per cent by 2018. This deadline should be within the nation’s grasp if New Zealand’s experience is any guide: its Maori jobless rate has fallen from 16.6 per cent in 1999 to 7.7 per cent in 2007.
The factors in New Zealand’s success include welfare reform, flexible workplace practices and a tight labour market. Labour market conditions have been partly reinforced by emigration. (One in seven Maoris lives in Australia.) Urbanisation and education policies targeting school retention and graduation have also contributed, as have the very entrepreneurial activities among its well governed Indigenous land and marine trusts.
New Zealand and Maori leadership committed itself to reform more than a decade ago. Today Maori social indicators ensure New Zealand’s leadership in Indigenous affairs among developed nations.
Some of the conditions that opened up opportunities to Maoris are now apparent among First Australians. More than 70 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are urbanised; and tightened labour markets means plenty of successful and diverse case studies among businesses employing Indigenous jobseekers abound.
Since the abolition of ATSIC, Australia’s Indigenous affairs have been catching up to New Zealand. Gradually policies reflecting mutual obligation and good governance have expanded while sedentary and destructive lifestyles have been challenged.
It began with successful reforms to the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program and the assault on petrol sniffing; it led to Commonwealth’s dramatic intervention in the Northern Territory which introduced new conditional welfare arrangements; and now this new era of personal responsibility and improved governance continues, albeit with a more consensual flavour, under the Rudd Labor Government.
Recently Galarrwuy Yanupingu proposed reintroducing missionary-style dormitories for students in remote communities. His provocative proposal was an admission of failure - widespread functional parenting and quality education are, at the moment, difficult to deliver.
Dormitories, hostels, breakfast clubs and boarding schools may have roles as circuit breakers; they should not become institutionalised substitutes for safe and healthy learning environments overseen by conscientious parents and teaching professionals, lest we repeat the the legacy of intergenerational dysfunction arising from the assimilationist era.
At the 2020 summit, the Prime Minister is inviting policy innovations to meet his worthy literacy, numeracy and employment targets. Policies that reward and sanction behaviour among pupils, parents and professionals can restore healthier, safer learning environments in remote communities. For serious consideration I would recommend the following four steps:
Conditional welfare and incentives for parents with preschool age children
Under existing rules for parents on income support, when their youngest child reaches six, they are required to job search. For parents with pre-school age children no mutual obligations currently exist. In remote communities, parents would benefit from compulsory assessments to gauge their educational capabilities. Subsequently parents would be required to participate in language, literacy, numeracy (LLN) programs, parenting or training courses.
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