Aborigines find jobs not the only way to harness resources


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”.


  1. Blair McFarland says there’s “plenty of work going on, paid and unpaid” in remote communities, but he seems to be referring to disability carers, which is derived from Social Security.
    It’s not clear how much is derived from taxpaying, commercial enterprise in his following comment about Indigenous employment trending upwards, particularly in regard to the Central Australian region (Luritja is given as an example of non-Western educational choice). This information would help make pragmatic sense of the argument.
    The Protestant Work Ethic stems from 2 Thessalonians 3: 10 in the New Testament, viz., “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” and was/is a function of traditional hunter gather society, but in these changed times, welfare/’sit down money’ is more the rule with its powerful disincentive to perform the necessary work required to secure food.
    This is, in many communities, overshadowed by liberal alcohol supply laws and precisely because of low producitivity related issues, a major reason why current legislation is woefully out of date. This is an issue not only in the Indigenous sector.
    Royalties, either from mining or land lease arrangements are a function of this changed world and represent a windfall based on traditional ownership, rather than having to perform work and as such are finite and subject to market trends, etc.
    Change happens to all civilisations and it’s those who are prepared for its sometimes exacting demands that prosper and pay tax so that weaker or vulnerable members of society are assisted, but it was never designed as a perennial pastime, nor was there an era of entitlement such as exists in Australia today.
    Education, be it value organised, industrially-related, science or arts based, remains relevant, but welfare can only be distributed by productive taxpayers and as recent European history reveals, it is not a given.
    Telling kids that they can reach beyond their grasp is to teach innovation, not least in critical thinking in this changing world.

  2. How depressing, and in my take on it all reductionist and wrong, it is to look on primary education as the time when you are trained to shut up and do what you are told. I just cannot accept that.
    Rather primary education is the time to learn the building blocks of reading and writing and counting to 100. With those under the belt, the whole wide world out there opens up.
    Of course choices of employment open up, but so do chances to learn about more than the groundhog-day repetitiveness of Central Australia, its urban centres and its remote communities.
    And does anyone really think more chances for a life do not come with primary education? All the activists and lobbyists and commentators to this thread and others had one. We’re curious about something? We look it up. Could we do that without the basic blocks learned in primary school?
    And jobs on offer not needing an education? Sounds like monkey see / monkey do to me.
    Give the kids a chance. Then if they later want to live a dependent life, at least it will be by their informed choice.
    And the lure of that dependent life, where it all comes in the mail once a fortnight with the rations cheque, might be misleading.
    How much longer does anyone think Australia can afford to support a sub-strata of bludgers? That particular gravy-train might be about to enter its last station.
    The next time $230k, which last time quickly turned into 18 cars, comes around, hopefully someone with a bit of education will be on hand to point out the fruitless, short-term silliness of that decision.

  3. @ Hal Duell.
    It’s the right of royalty recipients to spend that money how they see fit. A vehicle out bush is hardly “fruitless, short-term silliness.”
    I don’t know whether royalty money is taxed at source or not, but welfare is conditional and forms an income component for personal taxation purposes if the royalty trail is assessed. Perhaps, the ATO is at fault.
    In my very humble opinion, if Blair’s undoubted concern for remote community children was to focus on commercial employment opportunities within the region, it would be useful, not least in answering critics of income management, but also in compiling an expenditure breakdown and spending patterns, so that forward estimates in social infrastructure could be plotted, introducing tough love and new ideas.
    Maybe Desert Knowledge Australia has already done it. Or perhaps a Town Planner could be designated a Remote Regional Planner or have I heard this before somewhere in connection with Alison Anderson?

  4. $230k divided by 18 makes each car worth just under $13,000. Hope they got some good ones.
    And that was an insurance payment, Russell, not royalties.
    As to royalties, one community reportedly received one million dollars and spent it on a few road-trains worth of used cars.
    Now I wonder how many of the expensive 18, and how many of the road-train loads, are still road worthy and registered?
    And of those who received a new / used motokar, how many of them receive a fortnightly rations cheque from the rest of us?
    Sure looks like fruitless short-term (if briefly mobile) silliness to me.

  5. @ Hal Duell. Posted January 20, 2014 at 8:38 am.
    Insurance or royalty payment, the same point applies. It’s uncontestable until, as posted, welfare becomes part of the income equation.
    There are a number of car yards in Alice, two that I know personally who are reputable in their dealings with this market.
    The tone of your comment seems derisive, rather than instructive.
    My post (January 19, 2014 at 7:54 pm) covers the questions you ask (again).
    Are you out to score points or attempt to deconstruct this social complex which has been a long time in the making?
    It seems to me that much of your posting is repetitive, fruitless, cynical and negative, although, I notice that you have made a concession to necessary mobility, but without an appreciation of how a community-driven use is applied to motor vehicles under the obligation-share cooperative spirit which is evident among Aboriginal people to any close observation.
    This spirit of care and mateship is something that remains despite the none too covert racism.
    The point is surely for us to get out of Groundhog Day and built communities that can share resources and I think that’s one of the points that Blair is attempting to make.

  6. “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” a quote from John Maynard Keynes
    Fact: for thousands of years, hunter-gatherer environments changed little, if successful today then share, for tomorrow you may not be successful while others may.
    Fact: such environment encourages ongoing sharing.
    Fact: recently hunter-gathering largely faded away.
    Fact: most prefer to do hunter-gathering in local shops.
    Fact: old hunter-gatherer approach interferes with the ability to acquire and retain property, to raise living standards.
    Question: Is the task to keep people as hunter-gatherers, or to educate them so they can chose?
    Blair McFarland and others will find more work available in remote communities, when those prepared to invest are enabled with reasonable leases.

  7. A few points in summary so far, with thanks to Blair for initiating discussion:–
    1. Does the ATO tax royalty payments?
    2. Do Centrelink factor it into their welfare entitlement calculations?
    3. Has DKA information on available commercial employment opportunities / suggestions / relevant data for the Central Australian region?
    4. How can suitable leases be introduced to enable commercial enterprise to take the risk?
    5. Is there any merit in appointing a Regional Planner?
    6. Will Senator Scullion’s Indigenous-focussed alcohol enquiry recommend a re-introduction of the BDR and other measures designed to assist productivity?

  8. @ Ralph.
    Let’s see you put some effort in attempting to answer the six summary points, Ralph. Your comment on the “knowledge gap” was fair enough, so apply yourself constructively to getting us out of Groundhog Day instead of issuing poor taste metaphor-strewn gobbledegook.

  9. I’ve got a question for Vroom Vroom:
    Who are you to set the discussion agenda on the second in a series with your “summary points”? Surely that is the prerogative of the author.
    The first in the series sought to excuse remote community children from attending primary school while the second tried to show that they were not disadvantaged later in life by growing up illiterate and innumerate.
    While I suggest that the jury is still out on those assertions, I can’t help but notice that your “summary points” contain no mention of education, primary or otherwise. Was that an oversight, or a poorly disguised attempt to highjack another’s work to address your own hobby horse – alcohol?

  10. @ Russell. Crystal ball? I’m far too cautious to pronounce the Aboriginal future.
    But whatever it is will be influenced by our inability to thoroughly understand the “on the ground” reality so rarely placed before us.
    Instead, we will rush to “solutions” and condemn the evidence as uncaring and unacceptable.
    Ultimately, we will cast the evidence aside and implement hugely wasteful programs that someone like Blair could tell us in advance will not work or suggest ways in which they could work.
    Several decades ago there was an NT Government ‘laugh test’ of Aboriginal programs. A minister would ring his mate in a remote bush community and explain the new program. Most of the time the response was a laugh and wisely the program was dropped or modified. It wasn’t such a bad idea.

  11. Re Russell Guy Posted January 20, 2014 at 3:38 pm
    Is my understanding the ATO does NOT tax ALR(NT) royalty distributions to individuals.
    Is my understanding Centrelink does not include ALR(NT) royalty distributions to individuals in their welfare entitlement calculations.
    Appears similar approach to distributions, supplied in form of money, assets or services, from many similar “welfare” organisations.
    Believe Commonwealth review of Taxation may be considering these and similar or related “tax exemptions”.

  12. It’s going to be difficult to maintain the standard Blair has set so far but I’m sure he’ll give it a red hot go when he considers hunter gatherers vs farmers.
    His argument so far:
    Part 1: kids are clever little utility maximisers (CLUMS) and know what’s good for them: they know there’s no point in going to school. They’re so clever they’ve also convinced mum and dad so mum and dad shouldn’t be made to send them to school. Sub-text: there’s no value in learning to read, write and do arithmetic. Real world ‘baggage’: kids need responsible parents who will guide them and make them do things they’d prefer not to.
    Part 2: these CLUMS grow into adults in a culture where it is acceptable to sit around and wait for windfalls and for things to be given to you. Sub-text: don’t try to better your or your family’s circumstances, it’s not worth the effort. Real world ‘baggage’: If you don’t work you’re doomed to poverty and disadvantage that no welfare system can or should compensate for. The disadvantage will impact across generations.
    Part 3: still waiting, but I guess Blair will extol the virtues of mobility, community ownership and absence of individual ties to property.
    Is my ‘baggage’ showing? Hope so. And my citations – about two decades in the sector.
    It’s one thing to offer explanations such as those in an attempt to expose our cultural baggage, but it’s another thing altogether to advocate for them as Blair appears to do.

  13. If we don’t pay taxes then there is not the money to run the country. If we don’t learn to read and write then we don’t know what we can and can’t do. If the welfare system does not take into account monies paid to Aboriginals and whites by royalties then we will run out of money for all.
    If the only Australians are Aboriginals then we all have to leave the country and our possessions and in a few years time there will be nothing there for them.
    If a university degree is the only way to gain employment then a lot will be reliant on welfare. If the ones in charge of the country use the taxpayers money for their own private use then we will soon run out of money.
    About time there was some common sense used if anyone has any left. The rich who can pay should be paying – the poor should be getting help.
    Also, the disabled should be treated fairly – those who are able should be allowed to use whatever abilities they have but if they are unable to do much then don’t force them to go beyond what they are able to do.

  14. So here we have talking hunters gathers and white farmers. So what is he advocating? Hunter gathers enter the farmers’ fields and take what they want. After all the stupid farmer is not as clever as them. Says it all hey, Blair?

  15. If our “learn to work to live” ethos is so great, why do so many of our non-Indigenous people seek a sea change and get out of the “daily grind”.
    It’s not only the Aboriginal people who practice sharing scarce resources for the good of all.
    The Chinese poet from the Tang dynasty, Tu Fu (Dù Fǔ; 712 – 770), wrote:
    “Work comes into the lives of all,
    Can anywhere custom change this?
    People pursue fame and wealth,
    But lose their freedom in the race.
    If there were no great rich,
    the poor would be more content with what they have.
    Death is the fate of all.
    Here one weeps, there another laughs.”


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