Some of my social media followers probably choked on their Christmas pudding last month when I posted an article from the New Matilda, a far left publication with which I usually don’t see eye to eye. The article, by Amy McQuire, talked about the Dropping off the Edge Report which analyses disadvantage in Australia and was released by the Jesuit Social Services Australia and Catholic Social Services Australia in July 2015.
McQuire pieced together the Report’s data with data on the Cape York Welfare Reform trials, focussing on the town of Aurukun. The Report shows poverty and disadvantage in Aurukun hasn’t reduced despite its participation in the innovative trials which McQuire documents has cost governments at least $100 million since 2008 with further tens of millions budgeted. And this doesn’t include the generous support from the corporate sector. The trials cover a population of around 3000 people.
Let’s be clear – this money wasn’t divided between a few thousand people. Much funding for government programs is spent on the infrastructure surrounding the people being helped - like staff salaries at NGOs and community organisations, program materials, research and reports, media, meetings, conferences, training, community and stakeholder consultation, travel and on funding applications and administration.
Cape York is a target for scrutiny because it’s high profile and has received significant funding. But the same story is being repeated across Australia. This doesn’t surprise me. Disadvantage isn’t solved by welfare and government funded programs.
Economic development is what lifts people out of poverty. This is generated by jobs and commerce, by for-profit businesses operating in a framework that facilitates using land as an economic asset, private ownership and a free market. Welfare and government funded programs don’t build economies, no matter how innovative, sexy or complicated you make them.
Take cashless welfare. While it may help tackle social issues like alcohol and drug abuse, it doesn’t create jobs or help people buy a home. Likewise, income management programs which help welfare recipients manage their payments. The expression “income management” is a fallacy. Welfare isn’t real income. It’s not earned. It doesn’t count towards the income test for a mortgage or a business loan. There’s no potential to earn more with experience, education or a promotion. Income management doesn’t generate economic development.
The Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) was another fancy way of delivering welfare. Introduced in the 1970’s, CDEP employed Indigenous people on community projects and paid them an income equivalent to their welfare payments. CDEP wasn’t real employment. Many “jobs” involved things most people do without being paid, like cutting the grass on their own land. Some jobs didn’t even need doing – like painting rocks.
Labor replaced CDEP with a jobs based program. McQuire criticised this decision for increasing unemployment in Aurukun. This is false thinking. People on CDEP were always unemployed. Giving work-for-the-dole a fancy name and classifying it as “employment” isn’t the same as a real job. And it doesn’t generate economic development.
Empowered Communities is yet another initiative focussed on the structure of how government programs and services are delivered. In this initiative “empowerment” means shifting control of government programs, services and funding to local Indigenous community groups within a complex organisational, governance and legal structure. This isn’t empowerment. People are empowered if they participate in the real economy; by getting a real job or running a business. Indigenous people will never be empowered if they continue to depend on government for everything, whether that’s administered centrally or locally.
Cashless welfare, income management, CDEP and Empowered Communities all have government dependency at their core. And government dependency doesn’t generate economic development no matter how fancy you make it. It’s just lipstick on a pig.
Two years ago I wrote about two communities – Aurukun in Cape York and Kingscote in Kangaroo Island. Both are remote with populations of less than 2000 people in regions with less than 10,000 people. One has a history of failure in establishing viable settlements due to its harsh environment; yet today has commerce, agriculture and tourism industries, reasonably low unemployment and high workforce participation. That’s Kingscote. The other is resource rich with land capable of abundant agriculture yet virtually no industry or commerce, high unemployment and few adults in the labour force to begin with. That’s Aurukun.
Places like Aurukun aren’t disadvantaged because of remoteness or low population. There are plenty of small remote towns where people have jobs, own homes and run businesses. There are real jobs in Aurukun today. Local people should be doing them. And more jobs will be created if it develops a real economy.
With economic development, Aurukun won’t need so much welfare and government funded programs. So there’ll be no need to spend lots of money dressing up government dependency as something it’s not.
This article was first published in the Koori Mail on 27 January 2016
Lipstick on a pig
27 January 2016
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine