Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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HomeIssue 11The welfare dependency disaster

The welfare dependency disaster


Photo: Queue outside Centrelink office in Alice Springs.

The terrible state of Aboriginal community living standards, particularly in relatively remote regions, shows up starkly in social indicators such as life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality, the incidence of disease and increasing levels of violent crime.

These primarily result from a lack of economic development which in turn is largely the result of grossly inefficient and ineffective government programs.

Past emphasis on welfare policies has not led to any improvement even though an estimated 90% of the income of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory comes from the Commonwealth and Territory Governments.

Vast amounts of taxpayer moneys have been spent in a pointless attempt to solve the problems rather than recognise, and act upon, the more complex interrelationships necessary to achieve economic and human development and growth.

Associated with this approach to Aboriginal development is a dependence by governments on welfare arrangements.

Bob Beadman has committed much of his life to trying to improve the social, economic and human condition of Aboriginal peoples living in remote regions. It is a great pity that governments have been far too timid to grasp the nettle, and to try to make things happen, rather than simply watching the disaster unfold.

Mr Beadman has pointed out the need for substantial changes should not be dominated by those with little awareness and knowledge of what it is actually like to live in a remote Indigenous community, but who live in urban centres and cities, for example, with vastly more infrastructure, employment opportunities and sophisticated, developed economic systems. 

In May 2009 the NT Government announced Working Future. This aimed to build on the policies, programs and targets included in national agreements, and identified 20 regional growth towns in the NT, that would be the focus of future human and economic development.

But since that time innovative and responsible policies related to Aboriginal economic development, within remote regions of the Territory, have been badly stalled. This has occurred under all successive governments at both the Federal and Territory levels.

Such failure has led to increasing social dislocation and worsening social indicators in a number of key areas, such as violent crime.

As the then Co-ordinator General for Remote Services, Beadman writing in 2009, was of the view that there is now almost universal acceptance that the “well intentioned plans of … Governments had unforeseen, perverse consequences for the human and economic development of Indigenous Australians, and that change is desperately needed”.

Now, some 12 years later, there has been little change and consequently the living conditions of remote Aboriginals have worsened into a nightmare scenario.

This is very hard to fathom given Australia is a wealthy country with a Christian ethical and cultural tradition of equality and the “fair go”.

Mr Beadman correctly believed that the key to a future where remote communities become regional centres, with all of the amenities found in similar sized towns elsewhere, will be opening them up to private sector investment and business migration.

This would require the leasing of Aboriginal townships to a new entity, which can in turn deal in subleases for businesses.

The key to a future where all residents … will truly be able to choose from the full scope of life’s options will come from pre-schooling, educational attainment, vocational training, work, decent lifestyle practices, decent housing, pride and self esteem. Only then will we begin to see a reversal in the social indicator statistics that depress us all.” (Beadman 2009).

The 2010-18 cohort of Indigenous workers in the Northern Territory who are either unemployed or who have become discouraged and left the labour force is estimated to be 11,000 to 16,000 adults and youths.

The compounding effects of such unemployment upon future generations are likely to be significant in terms of inter-generational dependence upon welfare.

It is likely that there would be little difference in the costs to government of directly funding employment opportunities compared to having Indigenous people in remote towns remain unemployed with high welfare dependency.

Many remote Indigenous communities are deficient in terms of available small enterprises to service their needs. Mr Beadman (2010) refers to this as the enterprise gap.

This is defined as the difference between the number of enterprises a relatively developed community supports compared with those presently operating in an Aboriginal community of the same size.

These include an interest in consumer goods and services e.g. bakeries, laundromats, furniture retailing, meat works, community gardens, tourist accommodation and broader industries including environment management, tourism and forestry.

Governments need to provide proactive assistance in supporting new private sector business start-ups and attract outside interest and investment in business development [forming] joint venture arrangements with Aboriginal people in remote communities.

Concurrent with this employment there needs to be ongoing mentoring and training of Aboriginal people.

The appreciation of the value of such skills was widespread amongst remote Aboriginal people when these communities were jointly managed by the Church and Government.

Given the data available on township populations and an evaluation of per capita incomes, it is possible to estimate the potential expenditure on consumer goods and service businesses that could be sustained in each town.

Any economic development strategy concerned with creating employment opportunities within regional communities should also examine those associated with the public sector and associated government expenditure from recurrent funding and direct grants.

Opportunities are available in areas such as education, health, defence and emergency services, police, justice and local government. Defence and police would seem to offer valuable opportunities for young Indigenous Australians.

Far more attention should be placed on having Aboriginal people contribute to tourism in national parks administered by the Territory government. Currently there appears to be a complete lack of interest and energy by the NT government on utilising these wonderful assets to their full potential.

While programs are available in defence however, none of these appear to be well targeted to remote communities.

This may appear to provide the necessary Aboriginal numbers to the Department of Defence, but does little to contribute to skills formation in employment and human development in regions where it is most needed.

Employment opportunities also exist in larger scale industry developments in proximity to growth towns within the areas of mining, forestry, fishing and pastoral development – for example.

There currently exists a relatively large, under-utilised workforce in regional and remote communities of the Northern Territory. This is despite a number of important industries such as tourism experiencing severe labour shortages.

Mr Beadman identified the growing tendency for people to opt out of available work in favour of remaining on welfare. He found it was not just jobs that were being declined, but also generous training opportunities provided by governments to get people job ready. Despite non-compliance there appear to be no, or very few penalties applied.

The complexity of the provisions of the Land Rights Act has severely blocked the use of extensive Aboriginal holdings of land for commercial and employment purposes. Aboriginal owned land now constitutes around 50% of the total land area of the NT. 

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act requires the land trust administering the land to be directed by the Land Council. The Land Council is then required to satisfy itself that the traditional Aboriginal owners understand the nature of the proposed transaction and consent to it.

Given the political polarisation which has occurred within Land Councils this has often meant that it is almost impossible to receive the necessary approval from Land Councils to use Aboriginal Land for commercial purposes.

Where approval has been provided it is often for such a short period of time and with such restrictions that potential joint venture investors and financiers, such as banks, are forced to walk away.

Those not represented adequately within the power structures of Land Councils often claim that their requirements for the use of their land for commercial purposes do not receive due regard by Land Councils.

Consider for example, the excellent cases discussed by Beadman.

“Imagine the difficulties for some bright person in the middle of Arnhemland wanting to begin, say, an exotic tropical fruit orchard on a shared equity arrangement with their old trading partners from Sulawesi.

“The entire area of Arnhem land comprising 89,872 square kilometres, and the offshore islands comprising another 5,956 square kilometres, is held by one Aboriginal land trust.

“The function of the land trust is to hold title to the land, and act on a direction from the Land Council (the land trust has no power to act on its own accord).

“The functions of the Land Council are to have regard to the interests of, and shall consult with, the traditional Aboriginal owners (if any) of the land, and any other Aboriginals interested in the land,” said Mr Beadman.

“In other words the Land Council, not the traditional owners, decides.

So the person wanting to start the orchard on part of the land would require the grant of a lease from the land trust, acting on a direction from the Land Council, after consultation with the traditional owners and others, and the Commonwealth Minister’s consent has been obtained.

Needless to say, not many Aborigines seek to pursue business, given this discouragement on the top of the threat to their welfare payments.

“Then there is the difficulty of identifying which of the many Government agencies manages the program to help Aboriginal enterprises such as this, given that they seldom advertise their programs, and are even less likely to move around the bush and consult with proponents.

“If one does progress to this stage the 40 or 50 page application form for the grant or loan generally finishes them off!”

It is clear that what was originally well intentioned policy, designed to protect Aboriginal ownership of their land, has in fact worked against the interests of Aboriginal people.

These overly restrictive provisions of the legislation need to be streamlined substantially.

There is an urgent need for a more informed administration of welfare within communities in conjunction with taking up employment and training opportunities. Aboriginal people must be reawakened to the value of work.

Pastor Paul Albrecht AM, born and raised at Hermannsburg west of Alice Springs,  explained his view of the tragedy: “The nihilistic philosophy I saw creeping in among Aboriginal youths in the latter years of my ministry (he retired in 1998) in Central Australia was quite alarming.

“Many could see no future for themselves, in either the traditional or the modern world, and so, among other things, were quite deliberately drinking themselves to death.

“It seems to me, if we have given Aborigines land simply so they have somewhere to exist while living off welfare payments and royalty monies, while they are vaguely engaged in something called self determination, or is it self management, then we haven’t progressed beyond the old policy of Smoothing The Dying Pillow.”

Roger Steele was a founding member of the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory. He held a number of key Ministerial portfolios in government. Prior to politics he managed a number of cattle stations, working with Aboriginal people in remote regions.

Don Fuller grew up in Darwin, forming wide relationships with the Tiwi and Aboriginal people of the Territory. He holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Adelaide and became professor and Head of Business and Law at Charles Darwin University. He also was an economic and policy adviser to Country Liberal Party governments.


  1. “The terrible state of Aboriginal community living standards … result from a lack of economic development which in turn is largely the result of grossly inefficient and ineffective government programs.”
    So if we had “effective” government programs, remote Aboriginal people would be living more like non Aboriginal citizens at a higher standard of living?
    Absolutely not! Aboriginal people have not let government programs dictate the way they live for many decades, if ever, and that won’t change.
    They have their own pathways of life, preferences they value, some of which result in poorer health and shorter lives.
    The benefits of development in the western model, such as community stores, even those with fresh food, do not necessarily translate into benefits for Aboriginal people.
    A study at one of the Utopia homelands showed that the greater distance from a store the healthier the population.
    People living well away from a store were hunting and gathering more.
    They were eating traditional foods that were much better for them than any store food.
    Compromises around how Aboriginal people live have been made.
    Housing is much more desirable than it used to be with some people sleeping inside, which was unusual in the past.
    So the house of a deceased person is no longer abandoned, left to fall into ruin to eventually be demolished. Now days, it can be repainted and a different family moves in.
    Such changes happen when Aboriginal people make choices about how they want to live.
    Government programs are useful when they understand and fit in with Aboriginal lives.
    But the authors’ claim that economic development is the driver of improved community living standards is simplistic.

  2. I came to Alice to work in 1969. It was so very obvious to me then that so many Aboriginal people were still in the time of ancient Australia and they still are.
    They struggle to come forward in to modern Australia 2021. It doesn’t matter what you or anyone else are endeavouring to achieve for political, social or religious reasons you won’t get the result you wish for.
    Since 1969 I have been interested in Aboriginal affairs, not political but social, having worked in the Limmen Bight area, Arnhem Land, northern South Australia, central West Australia and have had businesses in every state of Australia.
    When I look in the eyes of the 100% Aboriginal I see a deep perplexed look followed by a smile but their eyes are a give away to how they are feeling and their despair.
    The political activists who masquerade as Aboriginal are doing more damage than good for the betterment of our old Australians.
    Don’t use them as political footballs as NITV, Channel 2, SBS and the left so often do.
    I would be very interested how things will be two hundred years from now and I’m sure you would too, wouldn’t you?
    Respect to Jacinta Price and those with similar views on Indigenous matters who call out the truth and put people’s feelings aside to make positive headways to the future.

  3. @ Allen Byrne. I don’t see Aboriginal people stuck in the time of ancient Australia.
    A glance at my Facebook feed tells me that Aboriginal youth, and the not so young, of today have adopted social media in droves.
    They are using it to reinforce the traditional bonds of relationship with family.
    Slick TikToc videos made in remote communities are commonplace.
    There are many posts of pictures of traditional country shared by the young for the benefit of the group.
    They are communicating with each other in English and their own languages with a consummate ease that inspires me after frustrating decades of teaching English in remote communities.
    Internet banking is commonplace.
    These “ancient people” are enthusiastically embracing the modern world where it enhances lives they value.
    Routines of work where they conflict with family obligations are another thing.
    But we shouldn’t conclude that remote Aboriginal groups are stuck in a time warp and just need effective government programs to bring them into the mainstream.

  4. One of the trickier things to deal with is the interplay between the lesser known, in the white community, cultural obligations and practices and the normal business practices we expect.
    If we impose a normal set of business practices on a traditional community funny things start to happen because of status issues and cultural obligations going on in the background that were not even known, let alone allowed for, by the well meaning people involved.

  5. @ Alan Byrne: Alan is right in that paternalism from much of the mainstream media and political correctness has a lot for answer for.
    The same applies to some aspects of Federal Government thinking.
    Several years ago when camels invaded Docker River, causing extensive damage to infrastructure, an interstate contractor was refused access to and pay for and eliminate the problem but was refused consent at Federal level by a well known singer, then polly, on the grounds of “possible exploitation of Indigenous people”.
    A local processor who offered to help by creating above ground man made water structures to trap and remove them was also refused on cultural grounds.
    So the damage continued and was repaired by the Government, thus removing the responsibility of managing the problem from the impacted people.
    It is now ironic that the processing works in SA is advertising for camels and the SA Government has legitimised their farming.
    A huge pile of camel bones at Amata is testimony to the huge waste.
    An invitation to one of the major current affairs shows to document the damage being done in the communities following the devastation of the solar facility at Yuendumu, following their investigation into urban problems went un answered and of course ABC is unresponsive to showing the devastation which has occurred in many of the communities because it does not comply with their utopian vision and philosophy.
    Mt Barkley and Pannels Well are two of many that should be regarded as the reality, as well as the Yuendumu incident, but it will never happen, nor be exposed to public scrutiny.
    After all it’s community money and is often abused.
    A good friend recently retired from St Johns Ambulance because he was sick and tired of being a taxi service for Indigenous intoxicated people who assume that no matter what they do to themselves, someone else will take the responsibility away from them for their own welfare in a non Indigenous manner.
    Sections of the wider community have conditioned that behaviour in Indigenous communities, probably with the best of intentions and on the assumption that they are helping.
    Possibly the opposite is true and the same thing applies to bringing up children.
    The more you do for them the less inclined they are so look after themselves, and they learn quickly. But the communities contain such a wealth of abilities never utilised, and that’s sad.
    I recently spoke with a rural contractor with a contract to recondition a large number of houses in a very remote community, on the assumption that when he had finished the last one he was to start again at no 1.
    Where is the responsibility training in that? After all its our money and it should be spent in our hospitals or schools where the spending is respected as being in the communal good and respected for that reason.
    Having worked for many years in a very remote area of the Pacific where communal responsibility for housing and schools was the normal expected behaviour within the village, with but a fraction of the income here.
    What I am watching is very sad.

  6. A father used to say to his children when they were young: When you all reach the age of 12 I will tell you the secret of life.
    One day when the eldest turned 12. He anxiously asked his father what was the secret of life. The father replied that he was going to tell him, but that he should not reveal it to his brothers.
    The secret of life is this: The cow does not give milk.
    “What are you saying?” asked the boy incredulously. —
    “As you hear it, son: The cow does not give milk, you have to milk it. You have to get up at four in the morning, go to the field, walk through the corral full of manure, tie the tail, hobble the legs of the cow, sit on the stool, place the bucket and do the work yourself.
    “That is the secret of life, the cow does not give milk. You milk her or you don’t get milk. We are now living in a society where too many believe that cows GIVE milk.
    They think things are automatic and free: their mentality is that if ‘I wish, I ask … I obtain.’
    “They have been accustomed to get whatever they want the easy way.
    “But no, life is not a matter of wishing, asking and obtaining. The things that one receives are the effort of what one does. Happiness is the result of effort. Lack of effort creates frustration.”
    So, the children, from a young age, should be told the secret of life, so they don’t grow up with the mentality that the government, their parents, or their cute little faces is going to give them everything they need in life.

  7. @ Trevor: I was not aware of the “Yuendumu Incident” (the devastation of the solar facility at Yuendumu).
    Googling I can find nothing. As a resident of Yuendumu, I am curious to know where did you get this information and when is it supposed to have happened (and note, I’m not saying it didn’t happen, I just haven’t heard that it did).

  8. No one is asking for Aboriginal people in remote communities to live like white people.
    The main point is that surely, existing conditions are completely unacceptable – anywhere in the world.
    Who wants to live a life of violence, drug dependence, disease and early death?

  9. It needs to be recognised by governments that welfare dependency is killing Aboriginal people in a similar manner to the viruses and illnesses introduced by early Europeans.

  10. Almost a week ago Trevor Shiell wrote about the devastation at Yuendumu’s solar farm. Nobody here (in Yuendumu) I’ve asked seems aware of this alleged vandalism.
    Perhaps Trevor was referring to the dismantling of the solar dishes (replaced by more efficient panels).
    If evidence of vandalism at our solar facility is produced, I’ll stand corrected.
    Meanwhile I think we are dealing with jumping to conclusions based on pre-conceptions about remote communities.
    As for Tropical Thunder’s rhetorical question: “Who wants to live a life of violence, drug dependence, disease and early death?” I think the answer is no-one. I can assure you that the vast majority of Yuendumu residents don’t live such a life.

  11. @ Frank Baarda: And the vast majority of residents living at many communities I’m familiar with also do not live a life of violence, drug dependence, disease and early death.

  12. Tropical Thunder: If Aboriginals living in remote communities, indeed anywhere in Australia, don’t want to live a white person’s life style or culture they are more than welcome to go bush and return to the culture that they are banging on about.
    Put it out there, go bush, no housing, food, health care, transport or welfare.
    Any takers? Doubt it.

  13. It is far from clear how Frank Baarda would explain the large volume of research work, data and statistics that clearly establishes the terrible lives of many Aboriginal people living within remote communities. These are lives that are “nasty, brutish and short”.
    Nor would it explain the unrest and deadly violence that has occurred relatively recently at Yuendumu. As another eminent philosopher has written: “We can ignore the reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”

  14. @ Ralph Folds: Someone recommended your book Crossed Purposes to me. If you have a spare copy I’ll gladly swap it for My Yuendumu Story which is at the printers.
    @ Martin: “The unrest and deadly violence that has occurred relatively recently at Yuendumu.”
    Not sure what deadly violence you refer to. The Nov 2019 sub-judice incident? The family dispute from several years ago? The family dispute was described by the press as “riots”, they were nothing of the sort, uninvolved residents were not directly affected.
    As for the sub-judice incident, the community reaction can in no way be described as “unrest”. It was a dignified expression of anger and sorrow.

  15. @ Martin: Ayn Rand philosophy is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism (disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others) is destructive.
    This, she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life.
    For Ayn Rand the moral person is someone who acts and is committed to acting in their best self-interest. It is by living the morality of self-interest that one survives, flourishes, and achieves happiness. (In two words: Be selfish.)
    I do not think she would have appreciated Aboriginal ways.

  16. @ Frank Baarda: Sounds good.
    When I lived at Kintore I read of numerous “riots” in the community.
    I was puzzled but then realised that the coming together of family groups to resolve differences was being misreported as potentially deadly violence.
    In fact, it was this group resolution of disputes that prevented deadly violence.
    Later, after a police presence was established, Kintore residents were warned to disperse from these gatherings and even arrested for disorderly behaviour.
    The overwhelmingly peaceful, traditional way of settling arguments was broken down.


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