Black jobs: are we really just starting to ask the questions?


Su McCluskey is the CEO of the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) think tank but she doesn’t dwell in an ivory tower: she also gets her hands dirty in a beef cattle stud at Yass, running 200 Murray Greys.
Ms McCluskey was in Alice Springs last week to address a Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA) forum. Her institute has published a regional competitiveness index which rates Central Australia amongst the least competitive regions in Australia, on a scale of five (see map).
The institute’s aim, according to its website, “at a policy level … is to engage with all three levels of government on issues impacting regional Australia, encouraging debate and informed decision-making” and “providing practical solutions for lasting, positive change”. ERWIN CHLANDA asked Ms McCluskey what this means for Central Australia.
NEWS: We have a million square kilometers of land, lots of water we know of, and doubtlessly more that we don’t, lots of idle labour, as well as backloading freight opportunities, both on road and rail, which could take produce to Alice Springs or south. How come we’re not rolling in money?
McCLUSKEY: Our work in regional and remote areas have shown us that there are opportunities but there are other challenges. It’s all very well too have these trucks going back empty but you’ve got to have something to put on them. Why are we not connecting that water to an opportunity to export to southern markets and Asia? DKA, particularly the outback business networks, are examining the ability to be able to start to talk about that. Where are the opportunities? What’s holding us back? What are the reasons for it?
NEWS: Are you surprised that after 15 years of the Desert Knowledge movement it still has no answers to these questions which have been around for decades? Do you find it odd we’re still at the beginning of our quest for solutions? For example, in the few horticultural ventures we have now, the work is still being done mostly by backpackers and itinerant labourers from down south.
McCLUSKEY: I can’t comment specifically on that.
NEWS: It’s the main point.
McCLUSKEY: You’ve got high unemployment. We have a demand for but not a supply of labour. What’s stopping it? Is it skills?
NEWS: What skill does it take to pick pumpkins?
McCLUSKEY: I grow pumpkins. It’s very important to leave an inch or two of the stem, because if you break it off, the pumpkin starts to deteriorate really quickly.
NEWS: How long would it take to teach that skill?
McCLUSKEY: There is a whole range of factors why a potential workforce is not utilised. In all the mining areas we have a huge amount of fly-in, fly-out. Why is local labour not used? Sometimes it’s skills, sometimes its motivation. In some areas you have generational unemployment. How do you move the mindset of those people?
NEWS: We know the problems we have. We don’t need to told yet again. Where are the solutions?
McCLUSKEY: The answer isn’t just saying, pull back on assistance. What is the outcome we want and is there a better mechanism? There are two key factors in Indigenous communities in remote areas: they are very low on human capital – health and education – and they rank very low on labour market efficiency.
NEWS: That’s been the case for at least a generation.
McCLUSKEY: All the money we have put into these communities, it’s not working. Why? A one size fits all solution doesn’t work. We have to engage with people in the local community, local organisations, chambers of commerce, and look at the particular factors of why it’s not working.
NEWS: Are we really still at the beginning of this process? After some 40 years of the same problems, are you saying we are still at the beginning of this quest? What is emerging as useful knowledge?
McCLUSKEY: We need national outcomes and local solutions. We want you at the local level to work out how best to deliver them.
NEWS: This is what Desert Knowledge Australia was set up to do 15 years ago. Can you see any workable local solutions it has produced?
McCLUSKEY: Job service providers we have worked with have recognised they might not be able to provide the same person every day for every week for a long period of time, but they committed to provide a workforce. I don’t know if that’s the solution here.
NEWS: Where has this been tried?
McCLUSKEY: I don’t know whether it has been tried or not.
NEWS: We covered the Yuendumu Sports Day a couple of weeks ago and spoke with dozens of young, fit, capable, fast, skilled guys, the creme de la creme of young men in the Central Australian bush. Hardly any of them had a job, let alone a mainstream one. What are the five top priority schemes you would recommend to be tried?
McCLUSKEY: Darwin skews the Territory’s unemployment results.
NEWS: Yes. Our problem is in the communities with 80% unemployment, communities from which the urban drift comes. What are the chances of creating employment there?
McCLUSKEY: Work might be the answer for those of us who have been brought up to believe that. You would see in those communities health and risk factors, lack of physical activity, diet, obesity, drinking. All relate not to their ability to work, but their mindset towards work.
NEWS: What can you do about that?
McCLUSKEY: Some policies work, a lot of them don’t. There is a lot of money that goes into that area, so it’s not the money. It is, are we using it as effectively as it can be? Are we using local knowledge? That probably is a question best directed at John [Huigen]. DKA works in that area.
NEWS: I am not aware of anything useful that’s come out of DKA in the area of generating mainstream employment. Where are the results? Modelled on the typical Aussie family, how many of these are there in the bush communities of Central Australia? Has the time come for the governments to say, for 40 years we’ve tried very hard – land rights, native title, Aboriginal organisations, outstation movement, mining royalties, education opportunities ad nauseam. No more. If you are sick we help – go to the government hospital. If you can’t get a job we’ll pay you the dole. If you are offered a job and you don’t take it, your dole is stopped. The Aboriginal organisations running parallel to government ones, and duplicating them will be phased out. Their cost benefit just doesn’t stack up any more. Should we be saying this?
McCLUSKEY: I tell you who you should speak to, that’s [DKA chairman] Fred Chaney.
NEWS: His most recent contribution to the debate was calling for the establishment of a Remote Australia Commission. Do you think yet another bureaucracy will fix the problem?
McCLUSKEY: The unfortunate thing is, you can’t walk away. You’ve seen changes over the decades to how unemployment benefits are provided. All governments will say there has to be some level of support. What do you have to do to get it? If you are not actively seeking work the assistance will cut off.
NEWS: This is not practised in bush communities to any extent.
McCLUSKEY: You’ve got to empower people at the local level, to be part of the solution … DKA, chamber of commerce, government.
NEWS: The chamber of commerce relies on the 457 visas because they can’t get any local people to work.
[We were sitting in the cafe garden of DKA.]
McCLUSKEY: That lady who just walked by, what makes her different about work? Why is she working? Why is she employed?
NEWS: Sorry, I didn’t notice her.
McCLUSKEY: So many people here [at DKA] are Indigenous. What’s the motivating factor for them? And is that different to some of these communities? A bureaucrat in Canberra or Darwin, the people in policy-making, they can’t tell you that. They will say, we’ve got to have a policy and it will work anywhere. And it doesn’t. Who’s going to give us that knowledge? Where do we have to get at the local level to get the real story?
NEWS: What many are saying now, broadly, is: for all your life, for all you son’s life and his son’s life, the government will pay you sit-down money. And we’ll supply you a house for nothing or for very little money. Is that a good starting point for a conversation about taking a job?
McCLUSKEY: Governments, no matter of what colour, would find it very hard to say we’re not putting any money there. There would be some people who say we don’t want to put our money there.
NEWS: If there is no work the dole should be paid. That’s a given. But many say not to people who refuse to take a job.
McCLUSKEY: What we see here is what we call perverse consequences. How do you determine where there is work and where there is not? People would move here because this may be an area where there is no work so we can pay them the dole. People who don’t want to work would move to places where there isn’t any. Governments should intervene where there is market failure, but within the regulatory framework, businesses should be able to choose. The pumpkin grower would say I want a reliable workforce, and I know I can count on them to turn up. He may say, if you make me use someone I can’t rely on, I’m not going to be able to keep my business going.
NEWS: Could it not be dressed up as an opportunity rather than an obligation? Something like, you guys have land and labour, we have expertise and hardware, let’s get a joint venture going. And if someone says no to that, the taxpayer supplying the dole may have some questions.
McCLUSKEY: The real difficulty is, those young, fit footballers, if you actually say I’m not going to give you any money, where are they going to be in six or 12 months’ time?
NEWS: In a job, hopefully.
McCLUSKEY: Some might be, but the majority could be sick. In terms of government money, it might actually cost more to the public purse, from a health perspective, than actually giving them the unemployment. That’s the real challenge about policy, balancing resources.
NEWS: Just for the sake of the argument, why don’t we drop all the pretence that government funded health, education, training, employment projects, and all the hoo-haa that goes on around them, are actually ever going to work. Let’s stop spending the billions on these. We can’t justify it to the taxpayer any longer. Let’s just pay the permanent dole, no questions asked, to that 1% of the national population which has demonstrated beyond any doubt that they are not interested in being part of our normal society. This is going to be a bit of a shock for people doing very well out of working in the current system, but that’s too bad. What do you think?
McCLUSKEY: That’s really hard to do. Where do you put them? How do you look after them? Do you just leave them out there?
NEWS: In Central Australia they can live on the half a million square kilometres they own, freehold. The dole would go a long way there, and there’d be no limit on supplementary income they would be allowed to generate.
McCLUSKEY: That work ethic … it’s different. It’s not necessary that we accept it. We say to them, what can you do about it?
NEWS: They’ve been saying it all along: “Not interested.”
McCLUSKEY: It’s really hard.
FOOTNOTE from Ms McCluskey: I was in Alice Springs for a community consultation, working with Desert Knowledge Australia to bring together key stakeholders within the region to share community perspectives and identify pathways to future success.
The Regional Australia Institute is taking the conversation to regions right across Australia in the wake of its recently released research project [In]Sight, the nation’s first index tracking the competitiveness of Australia’s regions.
While [In]Sight shows Alice Springs is a region confronting unique social and economic challenges, this tool is designed to empower our regions through unlocking available and comprehensive regional data.
Thanks to the unprecedented level of knowledge and information provided by [In]Sight, we can now identify strengths inherent within Alice Springs that can be leveraged for future growth and vitality.


  1. Are we really a region confronting unique social and economic challenges? Or is it more the case that by making a meal of our uniqueness we are in fact hiding from the overwhelming ordinariness of our situation?
    Often found leading the argument for uniqueness is a very vocal portion of our residents who insist that Mbantua is the heart and soul of Alice Springs. They are joined at the hip by an equally vocal portion who seem determined to remain living in A Town Like Alice. The reality seems a bit more prosaic than that.
    We are an increasingly multi-ethnic urban centre with a mix of global humanity that is repeated in towns and cities across Australia. Our hinterland might qualify for a degree of uniqueness, but our streets are similar to streets found anywhere and everywhere.
    We also have what appears to be a fairly common set of social concerns. High unemployment especially evident among those who have been groomed to look on relief as a way of life, a worry about how to keep high school leavers interested in remaining here, some empty shops, a need to attract more economic activity whether that be mining or tourism or decentralised government departments, the national scourge of alcohol as a right of passage often leading to a life of alcohol abuse, the other national scourge of domestic violence, and the list goes on.
    A variation of this list can usually be found in every large and small metropolitan centre across Australia.
    Clearly we all want to live here, or at least most of us do. So instead of forever claiming exceptional status, maybe the best option for getting on is to just put our heads down and get on. In that I would include sending the children to school, trying not to drink too much and refraining from kicking each other around.

  2. Education is the key to get us out of this mess. Rather than trying to change habits inculcated into youths and young to middle-aged adults, we need to focus on the children and invest heavily to get the new generation educated. Education brings opportunities, confidence, and the ability to move to new locations where there are jobs.
    Ironically, the idea of running several centralised boarding schools across the Territory for community kids would be impossible because of the hysteria associated with the so-called stolen generations. Also, apartheid-like schools just for one race are also unsuitable because eventually those educated have to meld with the other races who are in a majority and run the show.
    Long experience, many conferences, fora, and millions in government spending has revealed that there is fat chance of establishing viable, large scale and meaningful industries with employment in remote communities for reasons everyone reading this will know about.
    It gets back to preparing the upcoming generation to take their place within mainstream Australia by ensuring they have the best education possible.
    If there had been an employment-based solution, we would have implemented it decades ago and wouldn’t be discussing it again today.

  3. Some groups of people seem to think that the world “owes” them.
    We all are where we are by an accident of birth. We did not do any thing preplanned or super smart, we just happened to get born.
    That goes for all of us even if some are born into better circumstances than others.
    The way forward is then up to each of us to work at.
    The Governments and NGOs have not helped with misplaced education, planning and overspending.

  4. “Education is the key”? Yes we all thought that 20 years ago and how simplistic it was. To make education work you need a reason to be educated, without which it becomes purposeless and ultimately wasteful.
    Billions of dollars of investment in remote community education, spent on endless cycles of new programs, approaches, infrastructure and incentives has produced stagnant or declining NAPLAN outcomes.
    The latest experiments in boarding colleges is also floundering. Successful education is the fruit of far more fundamental social and economic influences, by itself, in isolation, it will not create significant change.


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