NACCHO News Alert: Has Government policy on remote Aboriginal communities failed ?


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 25c for the washer, $60 to fit it and $900, or thereabout, 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 all other remote Aboriginal towns it has none.

Written for the Australian : BY Nick Cater executive director of the Menzies Research Centre and is researching welfare reform.

NACCHO NOTE : Photo :Ntaria School . Hermannsburg ( It is known in the local Western Arrernte language as Ntaria ) is an Aboriginal community in Ljirapinta Ward of the MacDonnell Shire in the Northern Territory , 131 km southwest of Alice Springs. . Wikipedia

That’s how the economy works across much of central and northern Australia where the normal rules of commerce don’t apply. In the separatist, collectivist, command economy of Central Australia, Hermannsburg is a mendicant community that absorbs tens of millions of dollars in welfare each year with no obvious benefit to the residents or the town. Compare Hermannsburg with, say, Jeparit, a town 370km northwest of Melbourne and the birthplace of Robert Menzies. ­Average income in Hermannsburg in the 2011 census was $20 a week higher than in Jeparit and the average weekly rent $60 less.

Jeparit has an IGA supermarket, two cafes, a pub, a newsagent, an 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 shocking to visit Hermannsburg, a dystopia that embodies what Menzies feared most about socialism.

In 1942, Menzies predicted Australians would never live under “the overlordship 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”.

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 Aboriginal Australia needs more government, not less. The Howard government’s 2007 intervention relied on that same flawed assump­tion. People of good heart wanted John Howard’s measures to succeed, if only to put a stop to 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 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 the measures encouraged greater dependency. Those who live in the welfare sinkholes 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 in remote communities demands recipients perform “work-like activities” for up to 25 hours a week. The revised Remote Jobs and Communities Program 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 apparently had bothered to turn up. From another community came reports young women whose dole had been stopped were menacing their elders for cash.

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 notionally were 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 people in the remote Northern Territory have 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. People can be relied on to make logical ­choices even under such illogical circumstances. It is easy to conclude 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 while the insidious practice of humbugging means income must 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 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 the rich and precious Aboriginal culture is not incompatible with individual enterprise, and that the pursuit of self-interest and public benefit go hand in hand.

Above all, we should recognise the social evils destroying traditional culture are, by and large, symptoms of welfare. White public housing ghettos are little different from the ghettos of Central Australia. The pernicious effects of the welfare life are indifferent to ethnicity.

Nick Cater is executive director of the Menzies Research Centre and is researching welfare reform.

NACCHO Welcomes your feedback in comments below

6 comments on “NACCHO News Alert: Has Government policy on remote Aboriginal communities failed ?

  1. thank you very much for your article. I facilitated an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural education session this week and past and current Government Policy and its impact on the cultural well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities is always a MUST topic in my workshops, so the timeliness of your NewsAlert is great, as it will be brought to their attention as an educational information read, and is an opportunity for them to read someone else’s perspective as well as being informed of the fact that there still specific Policies being Enacted by Government for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities. l just need them to think about the `reality’ of my world. I wanted to post the comment on the site but this is my opinion and NOT that of my employer, but I wanted it to be `out there’ too…
    Mary Martin General Practice and Education Training Project Officer
    Associate Professor. Bond University
    Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council
    Second Floor, 55 Russell Street, South Brisbane.
    PO Box 3205 South Brisbane Q 4101
    E: P: 07 3328 8507 F: 07 3844 1544

  2. Leroy, I have no association with this organisation not political party but the essence of the article is true from my experience. We need to start to do tangible things to help enable ordinary Aboriginal people so they are independent and can focus on their spirituality, culture and heritage and be healthy. We have introduced disease, Alcohol, Drugs, welfare and the list goes on and this I think should be non Political but a Human thing to be involved in. The fact is all parties are failing but in 2013 $30.3 Billion wa sspent on Indigenous affairs only to get in 2015 Negative Coag results on key health and welfare measures. We are doing something awefully wrong as a whole community and political parties are ALL Partly to Blame but that should not stop healthy discussion. In one community in WA I know well they get 4 visits a year by a plumber (at $6000 flag fall to the plumber (free accomodation, food and fuel) no parts or labour included as they never know what work is required – even though Housing have a locked up store with new solar HWS and much else that only the plumber can access. Between times those 4 times many of the 200 ppl have gushing taps, leaking pipes, poor roofs, failed toilets, failed solar heating (frogs and roaches seem big (Plumbing/Electrical) issues in remote communities) and there should be no reason trades could not train locals to perform much of this work as required. CDEP used to try and RJCP also but essentially have failed as they were used as sit down welfare supplements and run by non trade type people. When you lead ppl down a welfare dependent path then try to reverse it, it becomes hard all round esp if it is generationally ingrained. However I have seen the HUGE pride on one MUM’s face when I taught her to change her own tap washers and clear er own drains. The fact that days later she had a black eye from her partner meant he felt shamed so we taught him to do it for the whole community and without payment over welfare…Payment was it seems in pride and feeling important again as a senior traditional male. That was 6 years ago and is still happening except he has cert 4 in basic plumbing. I count wins in the ones and two’s not what political party is in power. Hope that helps as this forum is good and we need open discussion even if we might have differing views.

  3. Graeme, I am very interested in your knowledge about housing on communal owned land as that is exactly what we are doing at the moment with Government support. What has changed is the stopping Remote community funding for Municipal services so there are one off incentives to get this land off State Government books and owned communally with full responsibility likened to a body corporate. I want to know the pittfalls etc and any prior precedents and work please? The community already changes it’s own tap washers (and much more) and is a registered Builder employing 20 Aboriginal ppl in all trades. Looking after your own home is different when you have a real stake in it. Glad you commented. Please help.

  4. national authority !!!!!!!!!??????????? this article sounds more like , a typical one sided right wing view put out by the disgraceful Abbott govt ! Im guessing this rag has been threatened with budget cuts !

  5. I couldn’t stomach the article, but I remember writing, via mylocal MP to Mal Brough, about how to do privately owned houses on communal title. This came from developing through the 1990s, a permaculture based neighbourhood, using shared power and water systems. Roadblocks included finding any community housing landlord or Public Housing landlord who wanted to contract back, the maintenance on any affordable rental components, which can surely be done more efficiently by the tenants.
    But the legals and planning is all doable, but Governments don’t want to make Communally owned land viable. They want it broken up to freehold, and sold off to the highest bidder, and keeping communal title inflexible, offers these right wing writers the opportunity for more black bashing, as if it’s their fault. gggrrrr
    I got a reply from Mal Brough, a couple pf weeks before he started trying to impose 99 year leases, saying what I had suggested about limited liability “third parties” being able to site private assets on communal title “an interesting idea”.
    The Governments don’t want any Aboriginal controlled lands to work. Been the same game for 200 years now.

  6. Stop blaming and start thinking innovatively I say. Give a man a fish and he feeds his family one meal, teach a man to fish and he feeds his family for life. That was what CDEP, RJCP etc were supposed to do not substitute for the welfare office. Programs designed in Canberra and imposed never work….Need is the best motivator and from the grass roots with Canberra support not hinderance. A Tap washer is a great example as is home building, community maintenance, municipal services , etc. the basics.
    It is NOT solely the Governments responsibility it is all of ours. Governmnet need to establish policy, laws and programs based on real desired outcomes but it is up to us Citizens to participate ESPECIALLY Aboriginal members of out community. Kind of like how many psychologists are required to change a light bulb….the bulb has to want to be changed….or more importantly Remote Aboriginal people have to want to change the Light bulb and the tap washers. WE all should be assisting them in the process of learning and doing it themselves. Many tradies in remote towns rely on this NOT happening as it is their core business when they c=should be engaged by Government to teach remote Aboriginal people to do it for themselves. Stop the blame game roll up our selves and help mentor remote Aboriginal people to be self determining and less dependent. If the men won’t do it teach the women and youth to , many would jump at the chance. Crudely, we all should stop blaming , get off our back sides, develop relationships with and start working beside and with Aboriginal people not standing off Blaming this or that or whom. Anyone who agrees let me know

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