In an extraordinary recent piece for the Daily Telegraph, Warren Mundine wrote about how ‘sit-down’ money was condemning generations of Aboriginal people to poverty and breeding anti-social behavior. Reading the account that he, one of Abbott’s key advisers on Indigenous policy, provided, you’d be forgiven for thinking that welfare is somehow particularly toxic to Aboriginal people.
It’s a fairly traditional and unimaginative refrain but, under a headline about black racism, it takes on a grossly hypocritical edge.
It is worth unpicking Mundine’s argument in the context of Aboriginal affairs.
Mundine targets employment and education as objectives for which Aboriginal people must strive to overcome welfare dependency. It is true that employment has generally been on the decline in Aboriginal populations over the last ten years. But this is in no small part because the Howard government and successive Labor governments dismantled Community Development Employment Programs (CDEP). CDEP is a form of government-subsidised employment, whereby Aboriginal people, often in remote communities, could work on local infrastructure project and public services. They could top up their wages with extra work.
CDEP was always a substandard alternative to proper wages and conditions, but for many Aboriginal people in remote areas, it was the only source of employment. For some communities, it provided the only alternative to chronic underfunding of infrastructure and services. Before Howard’s decision to dismantle the program in the NT as part of the Intervention, CDEP employed around 30,000 people or around 20 percent of the Indigenous workforce. Successive Labor governments, while slowing the process by which CDEP was abolished, trumpeted ominously that the replacement program offers ‘a more streamlined and flexible approach to employment’.
CDEP was axed on the basis that it was a barrier to ‘proper employment’ for its participants. But it is difficult to see how the labour market could offer alternative means of employment in remote communities. Basically, the message from the government was that, if you want employment, you need to come off country and into urban environments. If you don’t want to do that, according to Mundine’s logic, you only have yourself to blame for your poverty.
Mundine also refers to increasing incarceration rates amongst Aboriginal people. Again, it’s an undeniable problem (up 58.6 percent for women and 35.2 percent for men between 2000–2010). But Mundine’s comment seems particularly craven, given that one of Abbott’s first policy announcements was to cut funding of Aboriginal legal aid by $42 million – something that Mundine refuses to oppose. Legal aid is a vital front line service, offering direct advocacy but also informed policy perspectives. Alternatives to incarceration should always be explored, both in individual cases and at a policy level – and you really can’t do that if you don’t have a lawyer. Economic analysis of legal aid demonstrates that, in certain settings, every dollar spent on legal aid is returned to the tune of somewhere between $1.60 to $2.24. I’m not aware of any studies specifically on Aboriginal legal aid but I defy anyone to find research that finds legal aid spending is not a positive social investment.
Does Mundine support the Howard era policy of axing CDEP? Does he support the policy of slashing $42 million from Aboriginal legal aid? Both these policies belong to the government he is advising and both are actually contributing to the problems he identifies.
Interestingly, just the day before Mundine’s tirade, John Falzon wrote about how welfare was necessary to achieve a more equal and healthy society. The social determinants of health, wrote Falzon, include:
Nutrition, the natural and built environment including appropriate housing, income adequacy, empowerment, social connectedness, access to sport, recreation and cultural activity, education …
It would be difficult to argue that Aboriginal people, particularly those in remote communities, have any of these in any adequate measures. Mostly, their absences can be fixed by targeted social spending – essentially Falzon’s argument. Money has undoubtedly been spent in Aboriginal communities but it has hardly been targeted and it often comes at the problem from a perspective of ‘cruelty and punishment’, to which Falzon rightly objects.
So is welfare really the problem with Aboriginal people? Or just a convenient way to blame Aboriginal people for their own misfortune? As Sol Bellear argued: ‘either Australian Aboriginal people have a knack for death and destruction, or something else is going on.’
From a political perspective, there two items on Falzon’s list worth considering closely, items that aren’t directly addressed through social spending: empowerment and social connectedness. These are particularly interesting because they are exactly what is undermined by the political framework through which we understand modern Aboriginal communities: the NT Intervention and its successor, Stronger Futures. This policy approach is marked by income management, alcohol bans, punitive education policies and the undermining of Aboriginal culture. It is, in short, a framework that treats Aboriginal people like children, incapable of managing their own affairs.
When pressed, Mundine has maintained that we need to look at everything afresh, not just assume we can fix problems using methods we’ve tried in the past. But the only thing that needs freshening up is Mundine’s out-dated attitude to the problems faced by Aboriginal people.
If we are serious about Aboriginal empowerment and social connectedness, we need to think outside traditional political structures and listen to Aboriginal voices outside the establishment. We need to resist the perennial mistake of creating an advisory structure which will, as Bellear argues, ‘spend its time telling the government what it wants to hear, not what it needs to know.’ Mundine’s Indigenous Advisory Council is exactly that: a hand-picked cabal.
Bellear argues that this is ‘the precise opposite of self-determination, light years from the only policies that have been shown to impact positively in other nations in a similar position’. Indeed, such an undemocratic approach to policy-making simply wouldn’t be tolerated in other contexts.
We need to consider how Aboriginal people can be given back power over their own fate. This includes obvious representative changes, such as proportional representation in the political system and meaningful consultations. But it also involves more material change, such as land ownership in substance (not just name), and housing, health and other social services run for Aboriginal people by Aboriginal people.
Mundine is all too keen to see the problems facing Aboriginal people as external, decontextualised and individualised. If we really want something new, perhaps it’s time to end the tradition of people like Mundine, unelected and unaccountable, passing judgment on their community. It’s time to talk about self-determination.