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.