MORE than 40 years ago, Australia embarked on a strategy for bringing indigenous people to full and equal participation in society. That has had significant successes.
Indigenous people do not suffer anything like the discrimination they suffered 50 years ago and have achieved things they could never have achieved in the past. Community attitudes have changed radically. There has been real reform in land rights and anti-discrimination laws, access to university and professions, and access to employmen
But if someone had told me in the 1970s that during the following four decades Australia would spend billions and still have a vast gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in areas such as health, education and employment, I would have been shocked. If someone had told me that by 2013 indigenous people would actually have gone backwards in some areas, I simply would not have believed them.
Yet that is the reality. I’ve visited communities where the reading level of younger people is worse than that of their grandparents, where the last group of people who learned how to read were the ones educated by the mission schools. Indigenous incarceration and alcohol abuse have increased in the past 40 years.
The Closing the Gap initiative, introduced by the Labor government and its Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin in 2008, was a transformative reform in indigenous affairs. The initiative focuses on six specific indicators in health, education and employment, sets empirical targets based around the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people in those metrics, regularly measures achievements against the targets and publishes those results.
We know from the most recent report that the gap is not closing. This year marked the halfway point for the Closing the Gap targets and so far the outcomes have fallen short on health targets, moved backwards in some education targets and shown minimal improvement in employment figures.
I believe we will go another 40 years with no change unless we have a new strategy built on four fundamental principles: governance, land ownership, social stability and openness.
INDIGENOUS people are the most highly governed people in Australia. At every level of government there are additional structures for indigenous people on top of those that exist for the rest of Australia. Over-governance stifles autonomy and entrepreneurship and makes it nearly impossible to get anything done.
The present system is crippled by over-regulation and does not meet the criteria for good governance. Most statutory indigenous governance bodies are not truly representative and many are not transparent. The bureaucracy encasing indigenous people is complex, inefficient and unwieldy. We have seen through the years examples of corruption taking hold in indigenous governance bodies — I do not believe this is the norm but the perceived lack of transparency makes these bodies more vulnerable to it. In indigenous communities there are too many examples of a complete failure of the rule of law: with alcohol abuse, violence, sexual abuse of children, property crime and systemic truancy.
When I talk about transparent and representative governance here I don’t mean voting. I mean that many of the special bodies created to represent indigenous people are not reflective of the indigenous nations.
There are many statutory bodies with levels of authority in indigenous communities, such as land councils, regional councils, homeland councils, Aboriginal corporations and indigenous shire councils.
These bodies are not always transparent, with meetings and records open to the public or even their members. Many of these statutory bodies have substantial gatekeeper power over traditional lands or the exercise of native title. They may also hold royalties generated from land use by mining companies or from government compensation for dispossession. There are bodies with custody of hundreds of millions in funds held and collected on behalf of traditional owners, but the structure does not contemplate funds being distributed directly to the traditional owners. It has to be asked what the benefits are for indigenous people from these funds.
When Europeans came to Australia, indigenous people were grouped in nations, each with a distinct geography, language and culture. The identity of indigenous people was tied to the culture and language of their own nation, not to the Australian land mass as a whole.
Most statutory bodies created to govern indigenous people are not aligned to indigenous nations. In NSW there are twice as many land councils as nations, and land council members do not need to be descended from a nation that the land council services. In the Northern Territory there are four land councils and dozens of nations.
Many indigenous statutory bodies are expected to be all things to all people, carrying out normal municipal functions as well as running commercial operations and owning all the land and housing. Seeking permission from the council may mean seeking permission from the local government authority and the landowner and the monopoly service provider all in one. If they say no, there is practically nowhere to go for review.
We don’t need special indigenous bodies to handle things such as municipal services, commerce and service delivery. A local shire council that is part of the regular local government system can perform municipal functions just as effectively, if not more so, as an agency established under some special statute.
Where special governance is relevant is for matters uniquely relevant to the indigenous nation, such as the use of traditional lands, native title rights, community assets, culture, heritage and language. For this there should be one governance body representing each indigenous nation. One governance body to represent that nation on land and native title; hold land and other assets; collect royalties for use of the land or compensation for loss of land and use that for the benefit of the people of that nation; and preserve its culture, heritage and language. One governance body that companies that want to invest in an area can deal with on development and use of traditional lands.
I’m not talking about independent national sovereignty or suggesting that indigenous nations cede from the rest of Australia. I am talking about establishing a governance system that reflects the identity that indigenous people have to their own nations, governs the matters and decisions that are distinctive to those nations and provides certainty to those who want to engage with that nation.
In the next term of federal parliament, Australians will be asked to pass a referendum that formally recognises indigenous people in the Australian Constitution. Wouldn’t it be fitting if we also implement a system of governance that recognises the indigenous nations and gives members of those nations the ability to govern matters concerning their traditional lands, assets, culture, language and heritage?
MANY people don’t realise there are actually two economic systems operating in Australia.
The first is the one that applies in most of the country, an economy based on free-market principles and built on entrepreneurship supplemented by a solid safety net and targeted social infrastructure. That’s the system that exists in Sydney, Darwin, Cairns and Broome, and also in Weipa, Nhulunbuy and Kununurra, for example.
The other system applies in communities on traditional indigenous lands. In this system welfare and government spending are the main source of revenue. There is no privately owned real estate and none of the normal commercial activities that exist in even the smallest Australian towns — shops and basic services such as tradesmen. To the extent that seemingly commercial ventures exist, they are almost always owned by statutory agencies or community not-for-profit corporations.
About one-fifth of Australia’s land mass has been transferred to indigenous ownership. This land is communally held by traditional owners and individual private title is not recognised. Indigenous statutory bodies administer the ownership of the land for the traditional owners.
People in these communities cannot personally own a home or a plot of land. It is not legally possible under the communal ownership structure. In communities where people have built housing themselves, they usually do it without any private title over the land or the home.
Community members living on traditional lands should be able to own their homes. People in remote communities, who have no choice but to live in public housing, are denied the pride, personal responsibility and stability of home ownership. More broadly, community members cannot acquire real estate for commercial use such as shops, which is a barrier to commerce.
Private home ownership can exist without adverse impact on the traditional owners’ rights over the land as a whole by granting 99-year leases over sections of the land (as exist in the ACT) or potentially by excising townships from the communally owned land.
The mention of the word “excising” can make traditional owners very nervous. This is because, in the past, towns have been excised from traditional lands without their consent or even consultation. This happened in northeast Arnhem Land, for example, and was a catalyst for the bark petitions by the Yolngu people 50 years ago.
I am not talking about that kind of situation here. What I am talking about is traditional owners determining how their lands are used, with all options on the table. Just as the government should not impose excision of land, nor should it stop traditional owners from taking the steps they choose to enable private land use to coexist with communally owned land.
I would expect that most traditional owners would choose to retain substantial land for the community as a whole and for the enjoyment of traditional rights and interests while allocating some to private individual and commercial title. Public and community space is present in every society, as it should be. You will hear all sorts of reasons private home ownership won’t work on traditional lands: the banks won’t lend, there is no market, people can’t afford it or do not understand they could lose their home if they don’t repay a mortgage. These are all valid concerns for the people involved and their lenders, not for the government or a statutory body. Let’s start by clearing away the regulatory hurdles and the communities can work on these other issues next.
When confronted with the bleak reality of remote indigenous communities, you will usually hear the mantra “There are no jobs”. This is a myth. There are jobs — teachers, police, health workers — and most of them are performed by non-indigenous people from outside the community.
There are also thousands of jobs in remote areas in the mining and agriculture industries that remain unfilled, some of which have been allocated for indigenous people. But not enough local indigenous candidates meet the basic requirements such as job literacy and sobriety. Also, in some cases, taking one of these jobs would mean earning less than what they receive in benefits.
What is true is that there are not enough jobs in remote indigenous communities. Most people blame this on remoteness. But the main reason there are fewer employment opportunities is not because the communities are remote. It’s because there is almost a complete absence of commerce.
Jobs are created by commerce, not by government.
Commercial systems don’t just emerge from nothing and suddenly become mature and self-sustaining. As for any society that has gone through this kind of transition, you need to start small. A self-employed tradesman. A coffee cart. A sandwich shop. A person with a boat taking people out on fishing trips. These are the kinds of small green shoots that will grow, over time, into a real economy. Private land ownership is the foundation of commercial systems and a crucial enabler for economic development. If we don’t allow private ownership on traditional lands then these communities will continue to languish and be wedded to the taxpayer like a baby to its mother’s breast.
TOO many indigenous communities are rife with dysfunction. Ten times as many indigenous children as non-indigenous children are in need of out-of-home or foster care and the gap is increasing. Health and social problems resulting from alcohol use are at a rate disproportionate to non-indigenous Australians. Alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions are also significantly higher. Indigenous people also experience much higher rates of assaults, about half of which are alcohol-related.
Indigenous Australians represent 2.5 per cent of the population yet make up 26 per cent of the adult prison population and 46 per cent of the juvenile detention population. This is getting worse. When the report of the royal commission on Aboriginal deaths in custody was released, indigenous people were eight times likelier to be imprisoned than non-indigenous people. Ten years later it was 10 times. Now it is 15 times.
Factors contributing to this disproportionate incarceration include alcohol and substance abuse, poor education, unemployment and inadequate housing; in other words, social instability.
Social instability cannot be blamed simply on past discrimination, colonisation, dispossession or the Stolen Generations. Some of the communities with the greatest dysfunction are remote communities on lands that have been returned to the traditional owners. Issues such as alcohol abuse and incarceration have got worse in the same period that the policies behind the Stolen Generations had ended, discrimination against indigenous people decreased and opportunities for advancement increased.
For example, during the past half century Australians overwhelmingly supported the 1967 referendum and the national apology; Aboriginal protection legislation was abolished; universities opened to indigenous people; Australian businesses set aside more than 60,000 jobs for indigenous people; land rights, native title and anti-discrimination legislation were enacted; indigenous people were elected to parliament and the Territory Legislative Assembly is close to parity.
Many people in the world, through history, have suffered terrible wrongs and dispossession, but nonetheless have managed to rebuild their communities and achieve prosperity in successive generations. We all know that social dysfunction breeds in communities with inter-generational welfare dependency and high unemployment, where communities have no jobs, no commerce and nothing much to do.
We need commercial activities and development to create more jobs. Communities will not attract even small amounts of investment if there is a breakdown of social behaviour and the rule of law. No one is going to do business in a town where alcohol and substance abuse is out of control or where violence and property damage are rampant. This is why alcohol management plans are so important to economic development.
Finally, social stability requires that people embrace the idea of contributing to their communities. This means abiding by laws, respecting culture, performing civic duties, ensuring school attendance, finding a job, behaving civilly towards others and volunteering. This is an ethos that was very much a part of traditional indigenous nations. Everyone was expected to bring something to the camp fire and people would not turn up empty-handed.
If we are serious about economic development in indigenous communities then social instability cannot be allowed to take hold in indigenous communities. Where it does, those communities will likely not survive or, if they do, their people will be trapped in poverty and social disrepair.
FINALLY, I want to confront one of the great sacred cows of the land rights movement: the idea that indigenous people can flourish separately from the rest of Australia without allowing outsiders to be integrally involved in their communities.
We see separateness manifested in many ways on traditional lands. The permit system in the Territory, for example, required people who are not traditional owners to obtain a permit to enter traditional lands. Present policy is to reverse the exceptions to this system introduced by the Howard government. The lack of any commercial lodgings for outsiders, combined with a ban on camping, makes it impossible for outsiders to visit remote communities other than for a few hours, unless they know a resident.
There is no society in the world that exists completely separately from any other. Very few still attempt political and economic isolationism. North Korea is one, and it is not a society anyone would want to emulate.
Australia’s prosperity since Federation has been built on foreign investment, immigration and international trade. Indigenous communities are no different. Indigenous art is one area where communities are producing value-added goods and selling them across the world. But otherwise the communities have little ability to generate capital from within. Land is a valuable asset but requires capital investment to generate an income, whether from resources, agriculture or tourism.
Indigenous communities need outside investment and infrastructure. That means opening up the communities to outsiders to invest and contribute to their societies, just like every other community in the world.
This doesn’t mean indigenous people are trampled on. Every day partnerships are created where people bring different skills and resources to the table. An external investor brings money, skills and experience. The local community brings the land, knowledge of the area, access to workforce and a potential customer base.
We all understand where the mindset of separateness has come from. We know what happened to indigenous communities in the southern and coastal parts of Australia, where colonisation had the biggest impact.
Remote communities in northern and central Australia look at those places and fear that their culture will also be subsumed by outsiders if they open them up.
It is not necessary to fear openness any more. It is not the same situation that existed 150 years ago. Traditional owners can allow the outside in from a position of control and autonomy. Their communities will not be decimated. Their cultures and language need not be lost. We can see a small but important example of this at the Garma Festival, which this year advertised on Qantas flights, inviting Australians from across the country to join the Yolngu nation at this important cultural and business event.
The fact is that indigenous communities are not separate now anyway. They are completely dependent on governments. An indigenous nation can achieve real independence only if it has a real economy.
We may not want to admit it, but the truth is that remote indigenous communities are far less likely to survive if they continue as they are going at present than if they open themselves up to the outside world.
I AM optimistic about the future that can exist for indigenous people. This is because I know there are examples of indigenous people, organisations and communities that have already implemented some of the things I have talked about tonight — a cattle station run by traditional owners on traditional lands; a young Aboriginal person from the city buying and operating a cattle station on private land that is situated in his nation; a boat owner who takes tourists on fishing or camping trips on country; a construction company owned by traditional owners that started out small, doing basic labour services, and that over time, through alliances with established companies, grew into a full-service civil and mining construction business.
But these are not happening on a broad scale.
These initiatives have developed despite the structural impediments I have talked about, like green shoots through concrete. These are the examples that give me hope for the future, knowing that if we remove these impediments, indigenous communities can achieve so much more.
Warren Mundine is executive chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce. This is an edited version of his speech to the Garma Festival.