The only way to move people out of poverty is education and employment – getting people into a real job. This is true whether you’re an Indigenous person living in a small community in remote Australia or an Indian living in the slums of Mumbai.
The Economist has reported that two-thirds of a country’s poverty reduction comes from economic growth. The remaining third of poverty reduction is mainly through greater equality. (This could include things like democracy, reduced corruption and equal access to education for girls, for example.)
Some years ago the United Nations set a target of halving extreme poverty by 2015. The target was met 5 years early in 2010. By and large it was achieved because of economic growth in China. Not because of the UN. Not because of charity or foreign aid. Not because of third world lending or third world debt forgiveness or anything else. But because of economic development driven by opening up markets and allowing commercial activity. In the 3 decades after China began economic reform its extreme poverty rate fell from 84% to 10%. Without China the UN target wouldn’t have been achieved.
If people are not educated, not job-ready and not working a real job then they will continue to be disadvantaged and living in impoverished conditions, no matter how much government assistance or charity they receive. Poverty isn’t solved by welfare and it isn’t solved by giving communities money. Poverty is solved by economic development - by individuals within a community making money.
Economic development isn’t created by governments. Sure, governments lay down the conditions under which economic development takes place. Through laws, regulations, taxes, economic policy and so on, governments can establish conditions that enable economic development to thrive or stifle it so much it falters. But, in the end, jobs and economies are built by commerce and private capital not by government.
Indigenous affairs policy has to tread a fine line between two conflicting forces.
On the one hand, Indigenous disadvantage and poverty will only be solved by commerce – by jobs, business and enterprise. On the other hand, a huge amount of time, energy, debate and discussion focusses on things that are the not commerce – things like welfare, government services and grants.
Look for example at the public discussion about the Forrest Review. What the Forrest Review is really about is how to get Indigenous people into jobs and businesses and how governments can establish the conditions for economic development and commerce to thrive in their communities. But what has been the main focus of public discussion about the report? Cashless welfare - on whether it is fair or reasonable to prevent welfare recipients from using their payments on alcohol or gambling.
Rather than discuss the measures to get unemployed Indigenous Australians into a job, the discussion is focussed on a welfare card that in time nobody should even need. The whole point of the Forrest Review is to get people off welfare. And when people earn their own wage they can spend it however they like.
While people in capital cities drink their lattes and tweeting about the injustices of welfare reform, Indigenous people out there on country want the shackles lifted and want the opportunities to build and grow their communities in the way that they see fit.
Take the Alyawarr people for example who live in and around Ampilatwatja where John Pilger filmed his documentary “Utopia”. In August they released a media statement welcoming the Forrest Review’s themes of self-reliance, Indigenous training and employment, local decision making and cultural authority to set and enforce norms. The statement went on to say that Alyawarr people want greater decision making rights over their own lands and to develop the region through business and tourism partnerships which they see as the only way to create training and job opportunities and to enable Alyawarr people to remain on country.
The statement didn’t even mention cashless welfare.
The Alyawarr people know that the future of their communities depends on them participating in the real economy, through jobs, business and enterprise. And this is true for all Indigenous people, whether they live in the central desert or in the suburbs of Sydney or Brisbane or Perth.
In some ways it is unavoidable that Indigenous affairs policies focus on welfare and government assistance, because so many Indigenous people and communities are entirely dependent on governments for everything.
Governments have to do what they have to do. But I don’t find it compelling to spend a lot of time talking about how to restructure or remodel government assistance or services or demanding that regional-based Indigenous groups manage the government money rather than Canberra.
I don’t agree that “empowerment” or “self-determination” is achieved through stepping into the shoes of government. In the end, if government pays the bills then it controls the money, no matter how much bureaucracy sits between the government and the recipient. There is nothing self-determining about government assistance.
What I care about is who is performing the government contracts, who is doing the work on the ground.
I’ll illustrate with a fictional example using Indigenous housing.
Let’s say you have a portfolio of public housing in an Indigenous community owned by a government who is responsible for managing that housing. The government employs department staff who administer the housing portfolio and who make decisions on maintenance spending.
However, the government doesn’t employ the builders, plumbers, electricians, pest controllers and other service providers who actually do the maintenance. For those jobs it engages contractors. And they are almost always non-Indigenous people based outside of the community who travel into the community at great expense because the locals don’t have the skills or training to do these jobs.
Now, on one view, a government can “empower” this community by setting up a community-based Indigenous authority and devolve responsibility for managing the local housing to that authority. The government may even transfer ownership of the housing to that community-based organisation.
I don’t regard that model as empowering. It makes the locals responsible for the housing (which in all likelihood would be in an appalling state of repair). But it does nothing to enable people in the community to participate in the real economy.
Sure, the community organisation will employ a small number of people to do the work the government department staff used to do. However, it will still need to engage builders, plumbers, electricians, pest controllers and other service providers to maintain the housing. And assuming there are still no locals capable of doing those jobs, it will do exactly what the government department did – bring in non-Indigenous people from outside the community to do the jobs. And the government money will leave the community in the hands of those contractors.
Indigenous communities will not be truly empowered until the people of those communities are skilled and trained enough to do those jobs themselves. To be plumbers, electricians, builders, pest controllers. Until local Indigenous people and small businesses are awarded contracts to maintain the housing. Earning their own money. In time, being able to buy a house of their own.
That’s why I don’t really care who the contracts are awarded by. I am far more interested in who the contracts are awarded to.
Indigenous people don’t need government’s permission to gain the skills and training necessary to win these contracts. They can do it now. Many already are, often partnering with established service providers to build business experience and skills.
As some of you may have heard me say before, I don’t accept the mantra that there are no jobs in remote Indigenous communities. That’s a myth. There is work to be done in remote communities like everywhere else. There are also jobs in remote regions in industries such as mining and agriculture, which are currently filled by Fly-In-Fly-Out or Drive-In-Drive-Out workers or even foreign backpackers.
We see high Indigenous unemployment and welfare dependence in all parts of Australia, not just in remote areas. Low participation in the workforce is a social problem, not a geographical one.
It’s true there aren’t enough jobs in remote areas. But it wouldn’t matter even if there were - because the jobs that do exist are mostly done by people from outside the community or not at all. And that’s the problem.
Over the past few years I’ve spoken and written extensively about these issues and I’d invite you to look up my speeches and articles which are all available online on my website.
I find it funny in this country that people talk about remoteness and small populations as being a barrier to growth and development. All cities and towns in Australia originated from small, remote communities. In the 1850s there were only a few thousand people living in the city of Perth, for example. Can you imagine a more remote place on the face of the earth in the 1850s than Perth? Perhaps some people thought that Perth had no future and should be closed. Yet just a few decades later it was a thriving, growing city with a diverse economy off the back of a mining boom. Melbourne was the same.
I want to see real economies develop in remote Indigenous communities too. And I want to see all Indigenous people – whether they live in the cities or the regions – to participate in the real economy. For this to happen business and enterprise are critical.
Finally I’d like to finish by talking about what I see as a significant threat to the future of remote and regional Indigenous communities. And that is the anti-development – and specifically anti-mining – activism from urban Greens and their sympathisers.
In April, I challenged the Greens to name one place in Australia where they’d support a new mine and one place in Australia where they’d support oil or gas exploration and processing. So far I’m yet to hear anything – apart from one NSW Greens politician who said he supports a gold mine in Parkes.
I’m not aware of a mining or energy project that’s ever been supported by Green groups. The Greens oppose coal, hydro, gas and nuclear. They say they support wind and solar. But even if we could power the whole country with wind and solar – which we can’t - I don’t know where the Greens expect the materials and rare earth metals for those technologies to come from or how the aluminium for the solar panels is supposed to be smeltered. I can’t see them supporting the mining and industry necessary to build those energy sources to the scale they seem to think is possible.
And when the Greens have their way – such as when they teamed up with the Labor party in Tasmania or did a deal with Labor in Queensland – vast tracts of land is locked up under the guise of conservation. This disproportionately impacts Indigenous Australians because the so many of the areas where traditional lands are intact and rights have not been extinguished is undeveloped land.
The Wild Rivers legislation in Queensland was an example I wrote about this year. In 2009, the Bligh Labor government declared three major Cape York rivers as “wild rivers”. It was a politically motivated decision to secure Greens preferences in a close state election. It locked up major areas of Queensland’s far north making it impossible for traditional owners to pursue developments, including things like horticulture and tourism.
It made a mockery of the Labor party’s support for land rights. Aboriginal people in Cape York had their land but, unlike every other landowner in Australia, weren’t allowed to prosper from it. The Wilderness Society was the main agitator for the 2009 declaration. In a statement after the decision, it said:
“Queensland is blessed with some of the last remaining free-flowing rivers left on the planet and they need to be treasured.”
Too bad Aboriginal people are amongst the poorest people on the planet; a people whose main assets are rights over land and sea. After years of dispossession and being forced off our land, we’re slowly getting some of those rights back – only to be told by Green groups that the music has stopped.
The Greens’ agenda will keep Indigenous Australians in poverty and is the greatest threat to the preservation of traditional language and culture. Green groups in Australia want to keep Indigenous Australians and their land frozen in time. This is wrong. Indigenous Australians are not museum pieces.
Traditional owners treasure their rivers and land. They also treasure their culture and languages. Most want to remain on their country. But the greatest threat to their languages and culture, their way of life and their desire to live on country, is the inability to build a real economy.
Wayne Bergmann, former head of the Kimberley Land Council and a leading advocate for Aboriginal rights and self-determination in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions, put it best in his speech to the National Press Club in 2012 where he said:
"Aboriginal culture cannot survive without an economy to support it. And to build a viable Indigenous economy, we must be allowed to control our land and sea country and to use the leverage it gives us to build an economic foundation for our future.”
Commercial and economic development is the only way we will close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia and the only way that Indigenous cultures will survive and thrive into the future. And Indigenous business and enterprise is the key to Indigenous advancement and sustainable communities.
Real empowerment is jobs & enterprise
4th Annual Indigenous Business, Enterprise and Corporations Conference
University of Western Australia, Business School Centre for Social Impact