The little children are clever, Part Two.
BLAIR McFARLAND continues his reflections on the policy conundrums in remote communities. See Part One here.
A lot of unpaid work is done by Aboriginal people looking after family.
Census data indicates that 8% of remote indigenous people are disabled, and the rate of assistance required by disabled Aboriginal people is twice that of other groups. It was found that throughout Australia – in remote, rural and urban areas – most Indigenous people with a disability were, and are, cared for within their extended family. 13.3% of Indigenous Australians 15 years and over are providing care to someone with a disability, a long-term illness, or problems related to old age (Yap and Biddle, 2011).
Aboriginal people, mostly women, are also looking after those clever and numerous kids. 12% of Indigenous people are under four, compared to 6% of non-Indigenous people (ABS, 2012). And they live far from childcare centers.
So there’s plenty of work going on, paid and unpaid, in the environment the kids are growing up in. Census data shows a substantial increase in Indigenous employment in non-CDEP jobs since the 1990s (Gray, Hunter, Howlett, 2013). CDEP, a work for the dole scheme, is subject to changes in government policy, so including it in the data results in substantial bouncing around. The underlying trend is up. The Indigenous increases in employment exceeded the increases for the Australian population as whole.
Somehow more and more Aboriginal people are getting work despite not having a good education. There is some evidence that they are getting further education later in life. Looking at the total population aged 15 and over, Indigenous males are in fact 6.4% more likely to be attending education at a given point in time than non-Indigenous males, and Indigenous females are 12.6% more likely (Biddle, 2010, p 16). What is clear to the clever children is that the main reason people in their families are not working has nothing to do with education and everything to do with making choices.
Right: Kasman Spencer (left) and Geoffrey Wilson repairing a push whipper snipper as part of their Certificate II in Rural Operations training at Yuendumu, a program developed by Central Desert and MacDonnell Shires, in collaboration with the Centre for Appropriate Technology. (Photo contributed by the program.)
Choices are not all powerful. Many times have I seen well-meaning athletes lie to clever kids. They say to kids, who can look forward to ill health and early death (eg, Parnaby and Carapetis, 2010), that “You Can Be Olympic Athletes If You Really Try”. They preach with a fundamentalist fire from a belief system that emphasizes individual choice. The clever children know they are lying or “ramarama” (Luritja for “insane, having no ears to hear the truth”), and that all choices are constrained by culture and environment. By family and circumstance. By being crippled and sick. By what you believe.
The moral value of work is central to mainstream culture, and its institutions reflect its redemptive powers. Employment is central to a good life. We have the Protestant Work Ethic drummed into us from a young age. What is school, fundamentally, if not the time when you are trained to shut up and do what you are told. School is whitefella business camp, initiating kids into the realities of industrial work. Work is our tjukurrpa, our Dreaming, our Truth.
When we whitefellas meet, the first thing we ask is “what do you do?” as our work is our identity. Aboriginal people say “What family are you?” and undertake extensive genealogical enquiries to see if there is any relationship. Once established, the relationship is sealed with some exchange – often a cigarette – and the ongoing family connection is defined.
The Mainstream’s assumption is that Aboriginal problems would go away if they just had jobs and mortgages. On one level, the desired objective is to share something good with others in our community who do not seem to grasp the central significance and value of work. On the other, it fails to recognize the cultural baggage such presumptions carry. Let’s run that baggage through the metal detector and check for anything ticking.
One presumption is that work is the way to gather economic resources. The clever kids know this is not how it happens in their world. I was recently in a remote community when more than $1 million in royalties were distributed. There were road trains in the community laden with second hand cars. One 15 year old I went to see was driving around in one of these cars, a late model Ford sedan. His aunt had given it to him because he had been bad, and she was hoping to influence him by this show of kindness and generosity. A month ago, an Indigenous friend lost his son, who had life insurance – compulsory with superannuation in some schemes. The family had a sudden windfall of $230k, which quickly turned into 18 cars. The tumultuous outflow of cars meant the family was struggling a few weeks later to fund the funeral.
So when you talk to the clever kids, don’t tell them to study, then get a job, then save up and buy a car. That’s not how they experience life. It’s probably not the way anyone experiences life since the age of credit: most people decide to get a car, sign some papers and presto! Instant car, just add debt. Saving up for something is quaint.
NEXT: The hunter/gatherers vs the farmers.
Yap and Biddle, 2011: CAEPR, Indigenous Population Project 2011 Census Papers Paper 4 “Unpaid work, unpaid care”, Mandy Yap and Nicholas Biddle, at page 2.
ABS, 2012: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012) Australian demographic statistics, March quarter 2012. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Gray, Hunter, Howlett, 2013: “Indigenous Employment: A story of continuing growth”, Matthew Gray, Boyd Hunter, Monica Howlett, topical issue No 2/2013, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR), Research School of Social Sciences College of Arts and Social Sciences, The Australian National University.
Biddle, 2010: “A human capital approach to the educational marginalization of Indigenous Australians” Nicholas Biddle, CAEPR working paper 67/2010.
Parnaby MG et al, 2010: “Rheumatic fever in Indigenous Australian Children”, Parnaby MG, Carapetis JR, Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, September, 2010. They describe rheumatic fever as “a disease of poverty, poor hygiene and poor living standards” with incidences “highest in 5 – 14 year olds” with “prevalence rates rising steadily since 2000”.
Aborigines find jobs not the only way to harness resources
The little children are clever, Part Two.