What we should recognise



The Australian, 21 July 2015


How much does it cost to change a tap washer in Hermannsburg? Probably nothing if you’re a resident, since most houses are rented from the government and the taxpayers pick up the tab.

Let’s say 25 cents for the washer, $60 to fit it and $900, or there about, for the plumber’s journey to and from Alice Springs, and it comes to the best part of a grand. Hermannsburg, population 650, could support its own tradesmen, but like almost every other remote Aboriginal town, it has none.

That’s how the economy works across much of central and northern Australia where the normal rules of commerce don’t apply. Hermannsburg would be a viable rural town anywhere else in the country. In the separatist, collectivist, command economy of Central Australia, however, it is a mendicant community which absorbs tens of millions of dollars in welfare each year with no obvious benefit to the residents or their town

Compare Hermannsburg to, say, Jeparit, a town 370 km northwest of Melbourne with a similar population where Robert Menzies was born. Average income in Hermannsburg in the 2011 Census was $20 a week higher than Jeparit and the average weekly rent was $60 less.

Jeparit has an IGA supermarket, two cafes, a pub, a newsagent, electrical goods store, a farming goods supplier, a bank, a motor mechanic and a real estate agent. Hermannsburg has two non-profit community stores that look like ration shops from a down-at-heel Soviet republic.

It can be utterly shocking to visit Hermannsburg, a dystopia that embodies what Menzies feared most about socialism. In 1942 Menzies predicted that Australians would never live under “the over-lordship of an all-powerful state… where the Government, that almost deity, will nurse us and rear us and maintain us and pension us and bury us.” And yet in the Aboriginal settlements of Central Australia that’s exactly how life is lived – “spineless and effortless” to use Menzies’ words – under policies that penalise thrift and encourage dependence on the state.

For 40 years we have lived under the delusion that Aboriginal Australia needs more government, not less. The Howard government’s 2007 intervention relied on that same flawed assumption. People of good heart were willing Howard’s measures to succeed, if only to put a stop the abuse and social dysfunction uncovered by this newspaper and others.

Visiting the indigenous settlements of the Central Desert eight years on, it is obvious that we were kidding ourselves. Much of the grog consumption has migrated to town and there are covered basketball courts courtesy of Kevin Rudd’s stimulus spending. The verdict, almost unanimous, is that the measures encouraged greater dependency. Those who live in the welfare sink-holes of Nyirripi, Papunya, Yuendumu or Kintore still lack the power to alter their impoverished lives for better or for worse.

A new work for the dole program introduced this month in remote communities demands recipients perform “work-like activities” for up to 25 hours a week. The revised Remote Jobs and Communities Programme will be a test of the government’s nerve. Even more it will test the nerves of the RJCP officials on the ground whose thankless task is to cajole welfare recipients into action and snitch on the laggards to Centrelink.

Yet “work-like activities” are not the same thing as work, and while RJCP may be better designed than previous schemes, it faces formidable obstacles. In one community at 10am last Wednesday, a man was raking up rubbish, the only one of dozens of welfare recipients who had apparently bothered to turn up. From another community came reports that young women whose dole had been stopped were menacing their elders for cash.

Meanwhile, in a community store in another town, Aboriginal shoppers were being served by a backpacker from Argentina while another from England looked after the takeaway counter. Five locals were notionally employed by the store but none had turned up.

The pernicious effect of four decades of welfare will not easily be broken. Three-quarters of the population in remote NT has no memory of the time when indigenous people were employed. Lifestyles have adapted accordingly. The local clinic offers no appointments, so a visit takes all day. The same goes for community and royalty meetings. At any given time and any given town, up to half the population is away, visiting family or Alice Springs.

People can be relied upon to make logical choices even under such illogical circumstances. It is easy to reach the conclusion that work doesn’t pay. Severing ties with Centrelink means no free health treatment. Getting back on the agency’s books if a job doesn’t work out is a hassle best avoided. Income pushes up the rent up while the insidious practice of humbugging means income most be socialised. The loss of the daily freedom that comes with the welfare is another disincentive. It’s a wonder anyone works at all.

What remote Australia needs is not money but enterprise. It lacks the dynamic middle class Menzies identified as the motive power of progress, “the strivers, the planners, the ambitious ones” who seek a margin above average.

The buzzword for the proponents of constitutional amendment – recognise – frames a potential blueprint for a new direction. After decades of welfare failure, it is time to recognise that the clumsy, self-servicing arm of government is incapable of assisting.

If the proposal to remove race powers from the Constitution is to have any practical effect, we must acknowledge the racist assumptions that underpinned the failed policies of separatism and collectivism.

We must recognise that the rich and precious Aboriginal culture is not incompatible with individual enterprise, and that the pursuit of self-interest and public benefit go hand and in hand. Culturally inspired visions of the land are not incompatible with the individual property rights that underpin private enterprise and home ownership.

Above all we should recognise that the social evils destroying traditional culture are, by and large, symptoms of welfare. White public housing ghettos – like the one in Mount Druitt recently exposed by the documentary series Struggle Street – are little different from the wilderness ghettos of Central Australia.

The pernicious effects of the welfare life are indifferent to ethnicity.