The last thread was simply amazing for the quality and the depth of the contributions given by all (for that I thank you) , and it highlighted one of the biggest impediments that we face in trying to get to grips with what’s needed to finally address the national shame; there are so many problems, so many intertwined problems that a failure to deal with one area of a given problem can often result in failure migrating across into multiple areas of not only that given problem, but exacerbating other problems as well.
I mentioned the need for community security, and the parallel need for comprehensive prison reform to enable the provision of community security to be tenable in the longer term – but similarly without implementing better childhood education programs and massively reducing truancy rates, without facilitating some broader economic development, without implementing better preventative healthcare programs particularly relating to alcohol and drug abuse, there can be no long term sustainable levels of security for any remote or not so remote community. Yet policy failures in any one of these areas have impeded in the past, and will probably continue to impede in the future, progress in all of those other areas.
And this comes back to what seems to be the biggest problem of all – the complete absence of any consensus on what we all might regard as the “end game”.
The end game is the answer to a very simple question; “In 2025 – what does Australia envisage as being the ‘State of Play‘ of indigenous communities around the country?”
If we have no idea of our destination, we cant really say how we are going to get there.
I would really like to hear what your answers are to that basic question, especially since the contributions on this have been of such an incredible quality.
What might also be interesting is how some of the answers to that question will often collide with what we are doing now.
For instance, if we wish to see indigenous communities in 2025 exhibiting higher levels of living standards – that generally requires higher levels of home and business ownership and higher levels of disposable income. Yet that cannot be achieved by government payments alone. For that to come to fruition would require economically sustainable communities deriving most of their income from some tangible set of real economic activities. That means that initiatives like CDEP must be seen and treated as nothing more than transition programs between the high unemployment/high poverty rate experience of today and the real income generating jobs and businesses that will sustain these communities tomorrow.
But so often we’ve seemed to treat programs like CDEP as an ends unto itself, rather than the means to an ends it actually needs to become if we are to get anywhere close to lifting income levels. We can see it being treated today as an ends unto itself if we simply look at the large absence of initiatives aimed at making the need for programs like CDEP redundant.
Wouldn’t it be nice to achieve a point in the future where there is no CDEP scheme operating in Australia simply because it is no longer needed?
But this opens the door on the awful question of what happens if some remote communities aren’t economically sustainable? It’s all good and well to say that the economy isn’t everything – and it’s not everything, it’s half of everything. Without economic sustainability, nearly all of the communities involved would remain in poverty – bringing with it all of the baggage that poverty carries like poor health outcomes, depressed education outcomes, lower living standards and lower levels of community resources that are used to provide community services.
It’s not simply a matter of moving businesses into some community, adding a few government subsidies, watering gently and watching some economic development magically grow from the mix. Existing businesses might not want to move out there to begin with, regardless of the amount of incentives that are provided. If a community cannot generate a substantial proportion of its income by exporting community made products and services into the wider Australian marketplace – the people that live in that community will be subjected to long term poverty. But if industry won’t move there, it has to be created from within the community itself.
But sometimes that will simply not be possible. Sometimes, despite the best people doing the best things, creating something substantial out of very little resources will not always be attainable.
Yet does that mean economically unsustainable communities will need to be somehow let die – creating further dispossession in the process? Or does it simply mean that maybe we need to start looking at alternative ways to deal with communities of differing economic circumstance? Would such communities need to have a permanent population base? Is it possible to utilise the highly mobile nature of some indigenous populations as a partial solution in itself, encouraging some communities that cannot economically sustain themselves on a geographical basis, to utilise their population mobility by encouraging employment elsewhere for periods and returning ‘home’ for periods – bringing disposable income back to their communities in the process?
A mix of on and offsite community income generation will probably need to become a fairly common development model for many remote and not so remote indigenous communities – but such a thing will cause some degree of local resistance. Any change in any area of human activity brings some degree of resistance; resisting change is one thing us humans have become universally adept at.
Which leads us into another big issue – what happens when an incompatible viewpoint between local communities and government programs arise?
Sometimes a negotiated win/win result isn’t always possible. Sometimes the government will be wrong – let’s face it, governments are pretty used to being wrong, even if they fight tooth and nail to deny it most of the time.
But what happens when the local community is wrong? What happens when a circumstance arises where the tenets of self-determination that we all like to cite would knowingly lead to inferior outcomes for the community itself?
This problem might not seem that big – but when implementing far reaching, almost wholesale change of the multi-billion dollar variety, it will become a very big problem, very, very quickly, on many levels.
In the community economic development field, when people are deployed on the ground to assist a community (and this is pretty much a global phenomenon) the problem arises of where the knowledge gap opens between the people that have been brought in by the community to use their knowledge and talents to assist the community, and the community itself that lacks that knowledge – which is why they engaged the economic development people in the first place.
If Australia were to pull its finger out and start solving our national shame, every time a knowledge gap like this opens, there would be an indigenous leader fronting the press howling with outrage about how the government is telling blackfellas what to do again. A lot of this would be more about local black politics than anything else; there would be many political leaders in the indigenous community that would have the rug of their power pulled from under them as a result of any serious national initiative to provide better outcomes to indigenous people. Other times it would just be as a genuine disagreement between the government and the community over any given initiative on the ground.
If we, as a nation, are to make a serious attempt at this – we MUST have in place from the very outset, some framework, some group of respected indigenous and community leaders that would be willing to come forth and aggressively back the government when the consequences of the knowledge gap arise over those issues where it’s actually the local community that needs to adjust rather than the government program.
But this is important at a far deeper political level – it goes to the very heart of being able to take the Australian people on the journey of dealing with indigenous disadvantage and maintaining their support.
If most of what the public sees about any serious national indigenous project is one local indigenous political leader after another complaining about what the government is doing (and as far as the political sustainability of any program goes, whether the local leader is right or not would sadly be completely irrelevant) – the public support for what would be a multi, multi billion dollar program would quickly start to evaporate.
The moment that any large indigenous project became partisan political fodder that could be positioned as a race issue rather than a development issue, the whole thing would be in danger of collapsing; especially in the first decade of its operation before the fruits of its success alone could drive continued public support.
The management of dissent within the indigenous communities, especially over local black politics and the consequences of the knowledge gap opening up on occasion would need to be one of the most well managed parts of the entire program and one of the first, if not the very first thing to be done. If the issue management failed, any big attempt to finally solve indigenous disadvantage would be put in jeopardy from the very outset.