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HomeIssue 12Aborigines and the economy: where to from here?

Aborigines and the economy: where to from here?

Indigenous economic development was front and centre in Alice Springs this week.
A large group from local business and public service were at the launch this morning (photo above) when Territory Minister Alison Anderson put out for public comment her draft strategy for 2013 to 2020: a “simplified framework to complement Territory and Commonwealth programs” with “entrepreneurship, self-reliance and resilience” as the objectives.
Ms Anderson introduced at the launch local Aboriginal achievers in business, including Ben Schaber from SWEL (at left) Engineering and Raelene Brown (at right), from Kungkas Can Cook.
The town also hosted this year’s National Native Title Conference at which ways were examined of how Aborigines can not only get a slice of the resource action, but put in their own contribution as well. Rangers looking after the treasures of nature, and earnings from carbon farming were high on the agenda.
Jon Altman (below right *) is a professorial research fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University in Canberra.
He is one of the nation’s most eminent commentators on indigenous commercial issues. He is at the top of the list for national media doing stories about Indigenous commerce. He advises governments and has this year made a submission to the Senate.
At the conference he spoke about a series of national maps he and Francis Markham are producing, relating Aboriginal land possession to issues of vegetation and mining. The News asked Professor Altman for a conversation about the usually distressing situation of Indigenous commerce in Central Australia. He spoke with editor ERWIN CHLANDA.
NEWS: Productivity was the subject of one of your maps. In Central Australia we have cattle, tourism, horticulture and art, all substantial opportunities for commercial activities. Are these adequately taken advantage of by traditional owners and the land council? For example, we have a vineyard whose non-Aboriginal owners turn over $4m a year from 70 hectares. Territory Aborigines own outright a million square kilometres.
ALTMAN: Opportunities exist and Aboriginal people clearly make a very significant contribution to cultural industries, particularly in arts, with spin-offs and a multiplier effect throughout the economy. So does cultural tourism where it occurs on Aboriginal land. There is clearly the opportunity to grown the Aboriginal participation in these areas – as long as Aboriginal people want to participate.
NEWS: They don’t seem to because aside from art, there is very little participation.
ALTMAN: There are other opportunities, such as natural and cultural resource management [in which] there is enormous amount of Indigenous participation. The question is, can you get carbon farming going on the CLC lands, payment for biodiversity credits? Visitors come here for cultural and environmental tourism, and maintaining these values is enormously important.
NEWS: When you say enormous participation, can you put some numbers on it? We’ve lost around 50% of our tourist visitation in the past 10 years.
ALTMAN: That’s partly because of the GFC and the high dollar, and in the post-Intervention era, there has been some very negative publicity.
NEWS: Is that not a case of the chicken and the egg? What drives it all is that four-letter word “work” and when people are idle crime escalates. Apart from art there is very little participation in the economy. Grapes in Ti Tree and watermelons in Ali Curung are harvested by backpackers or other itinerant labour, not by the huge number of local unemployed. Is there a case for Centrelink to say, in the next three months is harvest or pruning time. No dole. Here is the phone number.
ALTMAN: Surely making pathways for Aboriginal people is really important. The remote jobs and communities program is starting on July 1, and a big part is to match workers with available jobs. We also need to be realistic about what people’s work aspirations are. Not every Indigenous person wants to be working in the mining industry, cattle industry or agriculture.
NEWS: Why not?
ALTMAN: Because they might not have aspirations to work in that way.
NEWS: Should they get the dole if they don’t?
ALTMAN: Like other Australians they have citizenship entitlements to the dole. What’s much more important is to give people pathways to employment. One of the ways that used to be done was throughout the CDEP scheme. People not only worked for the dole but had an incentive to earn more money. We’ve got some real issues with poverty traps in relation to welfare.
NEWS: Would you agree that CDEP was a dead-end road. What percentage of CDEP participants finished up in mainstream jobs?
ALTMAN: That wasn’t necessarily the aim of the scheme. They worked extra hours and earned extra income. If they then wanted to take the extra step to full-time work, they were very well positioned to do that. Some people exiting CDEP became rangers working on their own country. The terrific cultural tourism enterprise at Titjikala, underwritten by CDEP, died without CDEP. It wasn’t just a program to transition people to employment.
NEWS: The rule Centrelink applies throughout Australia is – generally speaking – that you lose the dole if you don’t take a job offered to you under reasonable circumstances. There are many unskilled jobs in Alice Springs. A grey nomad couple might arrive at noon and by nightfall they would have two jobs each. This has been the case for decades. There are plenty of unskilled jobs. There is no involuntary unemployment here. The previous owners of the Ayers Rock Resort were trying for decades to get an Aboriginal workforce. No joy.
ALTMAN: Some people are totally opposed to tourism development on their land, have been since it was developed in 1978 at Yulara. We tend to have fairly inflexible western work regimes which sometimes don’t suit Indigenous people. I wonder why we don’t think a bit more innovatively, having more flexible arrangements.
NEWS: How would it work?
ALTMAN: You could have, for instance, outcomes oriented work, you pay people on the outcome and you let them decide how they organise the labour. But clearly, you need a constant supply of labour. The transition of Aboriginal people into what Noel Pearson calls mainstream jobs is extremely difficult … because that sort of work is a challenge for people not engaged in that sort of work regime for a long time.
NEWS: In what way is it more of a challenge than for you and me? I sometimes hate going to work.
ALTMAN: We come from a very strong cultural tradition. We were born to work. I’m not a great believer that using the stick is very effective. You’ve got to use the carrot much more, engage with people. One thing I’m sure of is that Indigenous people want productive livelihoods. That’s what a lot of my work is about, delivering productive livelihoods in accordance with people’s aspirations. What I see is when you have flexible programs, strong organisations, give people a suite of possible activities, they will work as hard as any of us. I’ve seen rangers working extraordinary long hours. I’ve seen people in the arts industry working 15 or 20 hours a day to finish art for an exhibition. I don’t think people are allergic to working hard. It’s a question of fair remuneration, whether they are working under proper conditions. The cross-cultural relations in a workplace are also very, very important. Who is the supervisor? Who are the co-workers? Are there issues of racism? People with alcohol or substance abuse issues really struggle to get into work, if they are white or they are black. Also, there are several million Australians who are not in full-time work.
NEWS: This is a question that goes back to 1976: What should landrights have achieved? What did it achieve? What does it need to achieve? You made a big point about the security of land tenure. Local Aborigines have freehold possession over half the Northern Territory. It doesn’t get better than that.
ALTMAN: I think there are two frames to that: the Aboriginal frame is about social justice and getting the land back, and I think it’s been extraordinarily successful. A lot of policy makers thought when people got the land back, that they would then make a livelihood of that land.
NEWS: That hasn’t happened.
ALTMAN: Of course it hasn’t happened because the land wasn’t commercially viable. That’s why they got it back. It was unalienated Crown Land or reserves not wanted by anybody else. And we haven’t supported the development aspirations by the landholders. We expected they would fit into the mainstream economy which often is absent on Aboriginal land. Do you move away? Why would you if you’ve got the land back? Or do you develop some industries in situ? And then you’ve got to think, what are the viable industries? Art and natural resource management are viable.
NEWS: Isn’t resource management an overstatement? Aborigines have a say in the management of mines but they are not actually working there.
ALTMAN: Central Australia doesn’t seem to have a particularly high participation in mining. Palm Valley and Mereenie are not labour-intense. The mines in the Tanami have some Indigenous engagement. It’s low. I guess the answer is, not everybody wants to be a fly-in, fly-out mine worker. Again, we see that in the broader society. I don’t have an answer about how to make Indigenous people be mine employees. Indigenous people want productive activities and what we need to explore is what are the productive activities they want to participate in.
NEWS: We just published a report about a group of people, mostly working age, who spent a day organising transport to travel hundreds of kilometres to buy alcohol, getting drunk, fighting. A woman died, another was charged with murder, now reduced to manslaughter. It’s not an unusual event, people adrift in tragically dysfunctional circumstances, with nothing else to do.
ALTMAN: In relation to people being unemployed, inter-generationally, you will have social dysfunction, which is why it is incumbent on us to find ways of getting people actively engaged through youth programs and through training that will cause people’s aspirations to work. Some people may like to say, get rid of the dole and Aboriginal people will work.
NEWS: Do you think it should be tried? The jobs are there.
ALTMAN: I think if we try it we’re in contravention of our obligation to Aboriginal people as Australian citizens under racial discrimination laws. Unless the government wants to try it across the board. Government does try it with activity testing in places where you have robust labour markets. You can activity test people, you can breach them, they might go to work and they might last a week. If you are looking for sustainable solutions it’s much better to negotiate forms of work people want to engage in over the longer term, not looking for draconian short-term solutions.
PHOTOS: * The heading on the slide behind Prof Altman reads: “Illegal Indigenous dispossession, 1788 to 1965, and legal repossession, 1993 & 2013.” • The map below shows how prospective for minerals Aboriginal land in the Territory is. Prof Altman published this map with the following notes: Base metals potential (2012) and Indigenous land holdings (2012). Base metals potential data courtesy Geoscience Australia. Indigenous land holdings data is a work-in-progress and known to be incomplete, especially in New South Wales, Western Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and Jervis Bay and thus should be considered a baseline or minimum land holding. Native title determinations data courtesy of National Native Title Tribunal. Land rights and acquired lands data courtesy of Geoscience Australia, Australian Bureau of Statistics, NT Department of Lands and Planning, and QLD Department of Natural Resources and Mines.


  1. What an incredible interview. Practical and reasonable questions. Answers by an academic so out of touch with reality to be unemployable outside of Canberra. Is it any wonder that problems faced by traditional Aboriginals in the Northern Territory are compounding not by the year but by the minute.

  2. It is common knowledge that alcohol is one of the main inhibitors of productivity among the potential Indigenous workforce and for some of the reasons articulated here by Professor Altman.
    May I suggest that he begin to lobby for effective measures to reduce alcohol consumption and its related harm.
    1. Across the NT, takeaway alcohol should only be available from 2pm.
    2. Limit on site trading hours at licensed premises from Noon to 2am.
    3. The return of alcohol sales-free days, especially Thursdays on which all Centrelink payments should be synchronised.
    4. For productivity sake, take-away should be banned on Sundays.
    5. Restore the BDR as a crisis management tool.
    6. Introduce a floor price so that a unit of alcohol cannot be sold for less than an agreed price.
    Any, or all of these measures would make an immediate difference to the economy and could form the basis for debate on an Alcohol Management Plan in NT towns (roadhouses would have to be dealt with separately or as an extension of the towns).
    It will require electoral support to task the NTG with measures aimed at productivity, rather than spending an estimated $80,000 to “rehabilitate” one alcoholic under the current draft legislation.
    The welfare budget and the public health burden can both be improved, by not protecting the alcohol industry’s bottom line.
    This industry is, in fact, a protected industry and liberating ourselves from it will have productive flow-ons like those sought by the Alice Springs News Online report.
    It will require many more brave citizens to wake up to the numbers, read the writing on the wall and begin to lobby for an Alcohol Management Plan in their town, rather than discussing the possibility of a recession.

  3. Nice try Erwin, but as you are aware, getting Jon to engage in discussing the practicalities of economic engagement in our world, as opposed to his, is a little like trying to swim in tar or breathe in wet cement.

  4. Great letter Russell (Posted June 6, 2013 at 9:09 pm). A neat encapsulation of the possibilities and challenges facing us if we are going to reduce the destructive aspects of grog in daily lives throughout the NT, and indeed, throughout parts of the rest of Australia.
    In particular, it is deeply problematic that many intelligent thinkers and activists on the left, like Prof. Altman, fail to use their talents and influence to help achieve better regulation of alcohol.
    They seem to have a blind spot in relation to the significance that the excessive availability and consumption of alcohol in urban areas has in holding back progress on Indigenous education, health, social wellbeing and economic development.
    As a consequence, the economic potential of the whole NT is crippled.
    The Aboriginal workforce is unlikely to grow much or even stabilise significantly unless this issue is dealt with much more effectively, and intelligently, than is currently the case.

  5. The federal government recently excised the mainland from Australia’s immigration zone. Could they now please put their mind to excising Jon Altman from any influence in matters related to indigenous employment programs?
    To suggest that indigenous people should only have to take the type of work they aspire to, and keep their entitlement to a welfare payment without an activity test, beggars belief.
    Next time he’s on a community maybe he could listen to senior staff at the shire, school, clinic and store about how difficult it is to get people to work and the attempts they’ve made to tailor jobs to encourage people to work. I don’t see why indigenous people should have the privilege of doing only what they want.

  6. @ Paul. Posted June 7th. I agree with what you say, but it would be a positive step to include Professor Altman in the lobby for alcohol reform rather than write him off as an “academic.”
    As Bob Durnan (posted June 7) says about NTG alcohol policy: “The Aboriginal workforce is unlikely to grow much or even stabilise significantly unless this issue is dealt with much more effectively, and intelligently, than is currently the case.”
    On March 14 this year, a professional group conference analysed the effectiveness of the 2003 NSW Drug and Alcohol Summit in the NSW Parliament which was attended by over a hundred delegates. They found that “hardly any” of the over 150 recommendations have been implemented.
    As noted in my post (June 6), the six recommendations will need to attract significant public comment and electoral support.
    Some national organisations have been criticised in a report by the alcohol industry for speaking up about it.
    Government policy has to share some of the blame for the situation which you correctly describe and it will need people like you and Professor Altman to agree to publicly advocate for effective policy-making.

  7. Prof. Altman talks about illegal dispossession. I was curious as to which law in force in that period (1788-1965) that was broken, causing this dispossession to actually be illegal.
    Does Prof. Altman live in fairy land and think that if England did not colonize this land, the neither would the Dutch, Indonesians, French, Spanish or any other nation?
    I suppose if you tell anybody that they are a victim for long enough they will believe it.

  8. @ Ray. Posted June 13, 2013, 7:54am:
    An interesting point of view, Ray. The law you ask about was registered by Australian law around two hundred years after it was recognized to have existed and is known as Native Title.
    It reduced the fiction of Terra Nullius to an act of appropriation, invasion, colonization, historical opportunism, dispossession, whatever you like, but it deemed it illegal and it has gone some way to dealing with the fall-out, something which has been articulated quite often in the Alice Springs News Online, particularly in health statistics of which the mercenary oversupply of alcohol is implicated and viewed, at least in some quarters as being discriminatory by fact of highest per capita dysfunction.
    It wasn’t so long ago that you were exhorting the benefits of an Aboriginal Culture Centre in Alice Springs.
    It is largely through the courts that Indigenous cultures, languages and sacred sites have been preserved.
    I don’t think it’s got much to do with telling people that they’re victims. They already know that, but what is significant is that the NT G0vernment have upheld the sea bed rights of Yolngu, allowing them to determine if they can establish a business proposition.
    They wouldn’t have been able to do that before Native Title replaced Terra Nullius.


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