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The business of Indigenous affairs

By Kevin Andrews - posted Monday, 25 August 2008

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:

  • in 2006, Indigenous unemployment was 14.2 per cent compared to 4.8 per cent for the rest of the population;
  • an Indigenous person was three times less likely to be self-employed;
  • the rate of home ownership was about 34 per cent compared to 69 per cent of the general Australian population. Among Native Americans and Maoris, by way of comparison, it was more than 50 per cent; and
  • median annual incomes among Indigenous Australians in 2006 were $14,496. For the rest of Australia they were $24,559.

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

How it all started

The kernel of this disaster was the disingenuous conviction that took hold in 1966 which believed Indigenous Australians should have limited contact with Australia’s capitalist society.

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”.

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.”

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 …

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. The core business of Indigenous affairs was economic development and effective public service delivery.

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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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