The Forrest report – ‘Creating Parity’ – which pushes the line of ‘seismically’ changing the landscape for First Nations people contains more than just how to incentivise job creation for First Nations people. It describes the potential for a whole lot of social engineering in order to bring on ‘equality’ as Mr Forrest and his co-authors see it. But aside the simple views born of a perception of a simple world which many of us know is just not the case, the report relies on a number of premises which are arguably incorrect.
The authors of the report have views of Australia’s poor and of the social security systems in place to support those disadvantaged by poverty which are just not accurate. It may be that the report is well-meaning and that its authors, such as Mr Forrest, are hardwired in their view of the world – which may arise for instance for Mr Forrest from within the various privilege he has lived and thrived from within all of his life, and the citadel born of that privilege that he remains within.
His view of social security in Australia is a false one.
Some of his views, some which degenerate to sweeping aspersions of First Nations people, are views that should belong to the myths, prejudices and eugenics of yesteryear.
His influence on the national landscape not only as a billionaire born of mining the nation’s iron ore has been conflated by his entrance into the political landscape as a Prime Ministerial adviser – to some this could be seen in the least as a conflict of interest, even if limited to impartiality.
Mr Forrest is the founder and driving force behind the Fortescue Metals Group, one of the world’s largest iron producers. He remains a one third stakeholder in the company that he has taken to the dizziest of entrepreneurial heights. Recently, Fortescue announced a record net profit of US$2.7 billion, up 57 per cent, a final fully franked dividend of AUD $0.10 per share in its financial year to 2014. In the process Fortescue also repaid half a billion dollars of its debts.
Mr Forrest’s view of social welfare as effectively a failing system is drawn out from the fact that billions of dollars are spent on it.
“One-third of all government spending is on welfare and welfare-related social security. That’s a massive $131 billion last year and growing year by year,” Mr Forrest wrote in an opinion piece recently in The Weekend Australian.
The spending has underwritten progress for the nation’s most disadvantaged, helping the majority out of impoverishment and into opportunity. This is evidenced by the fact that welfare spending has actually decreased year after year as a percentage of government spending rather than as Mr Forrest argues it as “growing year by year.”
Mr Forrest argued, “Australia is becoming welfare-dependent.”
“Welfare is becoming a destination and a trap for too many of our fellow Australians.”
This is inaccurate.
Before examining the welfare statistics let us examine that Mr Forrest’s inherent argument of social security as a foundational component of an economy as systemically damaging. A couple of years ago a University of California professor of sociology, Fred Block delivered the Wheelwright Memorial Lecturer at the University of Sydney. He argued that nations with generous social welfare programs are the world’s best economic performers.
Professor Block said that following the Global Financial Crisis that “while the Scandinavian social democracies have made a few small adjustments in the generosity of their social welfare benefits, most of the welfare state remains in place.”
“These nations still have the most generous social welfare programs on the planet. Despite the claims of the free market ideologues, these nations have compiled the best economic performance statistics of any nations in the world over the past 20 years. They have the lowest levels of inequality, the fewest children living in poverty, the highest rates of union density, and they have also had more rapid economic growth, more creation of new jobs by small entrepreneurial high-tech firms, and more vibrant innovation sectors than most other advanced nations.”
Professor Block said that countries that assure workers a decent wage and lots of government-provided benefits build the strongest economies. He warned against countries falling into the trap of buying into the free-marketeers’ mantras of one-size fits all policies. He said that Australia “has little leeway for major new initiatives, but these next few years are an ideal time for generating bold new initiatives to reverse this country’s growing income inequalities and to create a more durable economic foundation than raw material exports.”
“Australia would be wise to follow the model of 21st century democracy that has consistently outperformed those economies that have hewed to the free-market orthodoxy.”
Mr Forrest and a coterie of others believe we are welfare dependent. But building welfare checks into our economy reduces inequalities and strengthens towards an egalitarian market. In fact we still have a long way to go in needing to introduce more welfare checks to fully empower our economy and the people of this nation who should all be entitled to make up the economy.
The number of Australians on any form of welfare has consistently decreased during the past decade. More welfare support will empower more people within a couple of years improving their lot and radically improving the statistics. 65 per cent of Australian households were assisted with some form of welfare from 2001 to 2011. Only 11.4 per cent of households were assisted every year of these ten years. Furthermore, 97 per cent of households did not depend for the majority of their income on welfare, with only 3 per cent securing more than half their total income in those ten years from welfare. The majority of people were on welfare supports for only two years of this ten year period.
So where is all this welfare dependency? The welfare checks that we have in place now are there to assist the most vulnerable.
The majority of Australians actually get off welfare. All the evidence points to the fact that the quid or two from welfare supports people to improve their lot and to secure opportunities. Income management and the Basics Card which is supported in the report actually works against empowering people to invest in the ways forward and in effect divests people from anything other than subsistence, keeping people languishing in poverty.
Critics of welfare have no personal witness of the days before welfare systems – where poverty was grinding, people were stranded, and it was only volunteer organisations that made any difference to their lives, usually with food and clothing only. Without welfare systems we would have poverty entrenched in Dickensian ways for millions of Australians.
People should not be punished for being poor.
A recent Senate Community Affairs Committee heard from welfare groups. They argued that the recent Budget proposals were ‘harsh’ let alone what the Forrest Report is also trying to soak into the Australian consciousness.
National Welfare Rights Network’s Matthew Butt said that planned changes such as cuts to family tax benefits and the six month wait for the dole for under 30 year olds would make it difficult for people to improve their lot and find jobs.
“Since 1944 we’ve had a social security system which provides entitlement to people who are qualified. This brings in a whole new ball game to bring in time limited payments,” said Mr Thomas.
The CEO of the Australian Council of Social Services, Dr Cassandra Goldie, said the budget proposals “break a social contract.”
How far then do we go in even considering the implementation of the recommendations from the Forrest Report?
Dr Goldie said that it is “the responsibility of the government to ensure to the maximum of our available resources that we have an income support system that ensures every person in Australia has a minimum adequate standard of living.”
“We are planning for destitution, that’s what we’re doing right now and we don’t have to do it we believe.”
Social commentator, Anna Pha examined Mr Forrest’s ‘Creating Parity’ report and described it as “as recipe for wiping out Native Title, clearing outback Indigenous communities off their land, private sector control of their lives and assimilation.”
“It is a simplistic, paternalistic, racist strategy for the dispossession and further disempowerment of Indigenous Australians.”
Ms Pha stated the report went “far beyond its terms of reference” which should have been about jobs and training, instead of “proposing a radical overhaul of the whole social security system.”
Ms Pha also argued that the report’s premises are based in “myth”.
“An examination of the figures shows that over the past decade income support payments have shrunk as a proportion of gross domestic product. Newstart – the dole – costs the government $7.49 billion or 0.5 per cent of the gross domestic product annually.”
Ms Pha said that the report “ignores the obvious. She said that job creation programs must be localised, more schools built and the ones there now improved, better health services, and the enshrining of Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs.
Ms Pha criticised the Basics Card. “The extra administrative cost of administering the Basic Card is about $100 per week per family – an extra $100 per week in payments and provision of essential services and housing would be far more effective in reducing hardship and improving social conditions.”
Ms Pha said that the report claims that housing systems that charge low rents create incentives for people to stay in remote communities as opposed to moving to where the work is.
“He blames the lack of private home ownership for overcrowding of homes, lack of individual responsibility for social problems, rather than the lack of affordable housing and government neglect of its responsibilities.”
The report states, “Across Australia the lowest rents are paid in the most remote social housing tenancies. For them, the social housing system often undermines job aspirations and entrenches welfare reliance.”
Mr Pha said the report proposes that priority in the allocation of social housing rents should be set at 80 per cent of market rates or at least cover the cost of the asset instead of it remaining safely as a proportion of income.
“That would put almost all accommodation in Sydney out of reach for those on government payments.”
Ms Pha said that the push is on to undermine Country as Aboriginal land and convert it to freehold.
The report states, “The ability to purchase and use available land for home ownership and business is the key to prosperity, empowerment and financial independence for first Australians and their families.”
The report continued, “That governments create the ability for traditional owners to convert their land to freehold or hold the underlying title with a 99-year lease owned by the home or business owner, so that it can be mortgaged or traded through the open market and so that traditional owners can build their houses on allotments on their own land.”
Ms Pha said that the agenda “would see communal ownership replaced by private land titles and home ownership. It is nothing more than a recipe to dispossess Indigenous Australians; an attempt to extinguish native title” with the impact of wiping out culture.
In effect many are arguing that the agenda is to privatise land – freehold it – monetize it and then well it can be bought – and gone.
Was Mr Forrest the right person to be anointed to produce a Prime Ministerial report on the ways forward for First Nations people?
It was only a couple of years ago that Mr Forrest, while short-changing the Pilbara’s Yindjibarndi people of their due rights from mining tenements that the Fortescue has enriched itself from, while on an ABC Four Corners report unveiled a sad clanger. Personally, I believe that Mr Forrest is hardwired and really does not know any better. There are many who think like him. And those around them are too gutless to help them out of their dull thinking by pulling them up on it, especially someone as wealthy and powerful as Mr Forrest.
Mr Forrest said on Four Corners that young women in the town of Roebourne offer sex to men for only a cigarette. Five women from Roebourne complained to the Australian Human Rights Commission stating that the comments were racist and vilified their community.
The comment came amid the battle between the Yindjibarndi people and the Fortescue Metals Group over native title rights. Fortescue estimated that it could extract 2.4 billion tonnes of iron ore worth $280 billion over forty years. They are well on their way now but at the time Fortescue offered only a $500,000 signing on fee and a $4 million only each year to the Yindjibarndi in addition to some jobs and training and business opportunities for Yindjibarndi peoples. They argued they were not prepared to do what they believed amounted to “welfare” payments to the Yindjbarndi. But the Yindjibarndi, led by the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation CEO, Michael Woodley, rejected the offer arguing instead for 0.5 per cent of the revenue raised from the iron ore.
Mr Forrest said, “If you want to join me one evening after 11 o’clock and walk down the streets of Roebourne and have little girls come up to you… offer themselves for any type of service you want for the cost of a cigarette, then you’ve come to the end of the line.”
“I’m not going to encourage with our cash that kind of behaviour,” said Mr Forrest.
I would have thought that with the revenue that the Yindjibarndi were entitled to that instead it could help the Yindjibarndi raise Roebourne from its poverty.
One of the women, Pansy Sambo, who was riled by the comments, at the time said, “What he said makes shame for our girls. How can they stand up in their schools in Karratha and Wickham and in the wider community?”
“How do they feel about themselves and what future they can have when everyone thinks they sell themselves for cigarettes?”
In 2008, Mr Forrest launched the Australian Employment Covenant, hoping to create 50,000 job opportunities for First Nations persons. It is a prosocial policy, well-meaning but simplistic and has fallen well short of making the difference that matters.
I am not here to tear into Mr Forrest or the other authors, I am sure he believes in many of the things he does. But Mr Forrest would have been better served in signing off the 0.5 per cent to the Yindjibarndi people and allowing them to prosper as he and Fortescue have. Mr Forrest would have been better off in understanding that welfare does indeed work and that without welfare we will be burdened with disparities instead of parity.
From myself, as someone deeply involved in suicide prevention I can only advise Mr Forrest that if his policies are implemented and some of those coalface cuts from the Budget proposals are snuck in by the Senate, then we will endure impoverishment in this nation the likes of which has not been known since before the Second World War, and societal behavioural disturbances will rise and escalate and there will be more suicides than there have ever been right throughout this vast continent.