In the wake of the latest Closing the Gap figures released this week, and with all the money thrown at it, Australia continues to stare into the abyss of Indigenous disadvantage with minimal progress in fixing it.
The gap exists because too many Indigenous people don’t participate in the real economy. It won’t close unless Indigenous policy shifts from welfare centricity to economic strategy.
Prime Minister Turnbull has been urged to articulate an economic strategy for Australia. We need an economic strategy for Indigenous people too; one built around an educated and skilled workforce, employment in real jobs and small business entrepreneurialism.
Education and employment are the foundations of economic development. Without them, people can’t innovate or produce. If we don’t believe we can get Indigenous kids to school and Indigenous adults to work, we should simply abandon Closing the Gap. Everything else is a waste of time and money because the gap will never close.
States and territories are responsible for education and receive substantial Commonwealth funding for it. They’re supposed to enforce the law. Yet generations of Indigenous children don’t attend school. It’s time for state and territory governments to do their job.
Everyone involved in education - teachers, unionists, bureaucrats, service providers, politicians, governments and parents – must be committed to the non-negotiable principle that kids attend school every day. It should be a condition of Commonwealth funding that states and territories enable collection of individual school attendance data. And if schools aren’t attended or not resourced to teach effectively, relevant state and territory governments should be fined via a reduction in Commonwealth funding.
Ultimately, the buck stops with parents. There’s no excuse for not sending your kids to school. It doesn’t matter if the local school is no good or if kids don’t want to go (which kids ever do?). Every parent needs to send their kids to school every day.
Parents in Sub-Saharan Africa get it. Between 1990 and 2015 Sub-Saharan Africa increased school enrollments from 52% to 80%. If one of the most structurally disadvantaged regions on the planet can get an extra 90 million children to school in two decades, Australia should be able to get a tiny fraction of that number of Indigenous children to school within a year.
Indigenous Australians have shown we can change things we’re passionate about. We persuaded Australians to change the Constitution in 1967. In 1992 we persuaded the High Court to recognise native title. We achieved equal pay and the end to being paid in tea and damper. If we give schooling the same priority, we can change the futures of thousands of Indigenous children and of our people as a whole. There’s no employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians who are well-educated.
It’s critical that all Indigenous adults are working in real jobs. Australia has low unemployment. Businesses talk of a skills shortage. Nearly 80% of Indigenous people live in urban and regional areas around the eastern and south-western coasts; areas with viable populations and real economies. There’s no excuse for not working in these areas.
Less than 22% of Indigenous Australians live in remote areas. I’ve met people who are paid to help job seekers find work in these places who’ve told me “there are no jobs”. It’s a fallacy. There are jobs in remote areas but most aren’t done by locals. There’s also work that doesn’t get done.
In remote and regional areas job seekers can’t always rely on finding an employer to give them work. They also need to be able to find their own work by setting up a small business. Most JSA providers (particularly NGOs) and public servants simply don’t have the skillset to assist with this. The JSA provider/Centrelink model isn’t the right one for remote areas and falls short in regional areas. We need a model that helps Indigenous people access the training, skills, means and connections to set up and operate small businesses and employ themselves.
Economies have been built in remote and isolated places before – look at Sydney and Melbourne. When Arthur Phillip sailed into Sydney Cove he didn’t say “There are no jobs. Let’s go home.” But Sydney didn’t become a thriving city because of bureaucrats or not-for-profits or welfare or governments. It was built by individuals who invested their time, capital and capabilities in achieving personal prosperity for them and their families.
Resource-rich regions in remote Australia can have real, sustainable economies too. And, unlike Sydney, they don’t need to be built on the blood and bones of Indigenous people. But for that to happen our people must pursue education and employment as passionately as we’ve pursued land rights.
This article was first published in the Koori Mail on 10th February 2016
To close the gap Indigenous people must be part of the real economy
12 February 2016
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine