Since the 1970s Australia has been conducting a socialist experiment in remote communities with the lives of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Coombs, Brandl and Snowdon provided the blueprint in A Certain Heritage, advocating communal land ownership, supported by substantial welfare transfers, to create an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander hunter-gatherer utopia that would culminate in a nation independent from the rest of Australia.
The Mabo and subsequent judgments that transferred large areas of land to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders made a substantial contribution to the implementation of the Coombs experiment. But nowhere in the world has communal land ownership ever led to economic development. Attempting to replicate hunter-gatherer groups in fixed locations created remote, fragmented communities that cannot support jobs and incomes. Education, health, life expectancy, housing, employment and income gaps between the remote community dwellers and other Australians have widened. Alcoholism and other substance abuse and crime, particularly against women, have escalated. Any group, regardless of ethnic origin, subjected to this experiment, with all energies deflected from economic to cultural activities, would have been condemned to the same fate.
Lack of funding is not the problem. Household incomes in remote communities, largely consisting of welfare payments, average $14,000 a year to which must be added expenditure on education, health and housing. But Commonwealth funding alone is some $70,000 per household, and there is additional State and Northern Territory funding. A very considerable share of public expenditure clearly does not reach its targets. Notionally, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in remote communities would be better off if they were paid the amounts spent by the Commonwealth, States and Northern Territory in cash and were free to buy their own education, health, housing and other services.
The deprivation resulting from welfare dependence has been hidden by policies that prevented contact between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘living museums’ and all other Australians, except for their ‘curators’, until courageous Aborigines, led by Noel Pearson, began to speak out for an end to welfare dependence.
The deprivation and misery of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities can no longer be tolerated. ‘Mutual obligation’ cannot reduce dependence on welfare while failing education denies Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders jobs. A new deal must replace the utopian experiment with policies that ensure that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have equal opportunities to other Australians. The following areas require urgent reform:
- An individual property rights land ownership framework must be established to enable Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to develop enterprises and attract investment to create jobs and incomes. Ninety-nine year leases are essential to facilitate individually owned private housing.
- A volunteer ‘literacy corps’ campaign in school and university vacations should introduce literacy in English and basic numeracy to all communities that desire it within three years. ‘Internet cafes’ should stimulate and maintain literacy.
- The health care bureaucracy should give way to clinical solutions to stem appalling health conditions. A census of children’s and young people’s health should provide the basis for the immediate improvement of clinical health care.
- To reduce violence and end the exploitation of remote communities by ‘payback’, State, Territory and Federal laws must apply to all Australians, regardless of ethnicity.
Emeritus Professor Helen Hughes is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.
Jenness Warin was a Visiting Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies in October 2004 and January 2005. She works in health and education in remote Australia. She won a Commonwealth Department of Science, Education and Training award for her work in adult education in the Laynhapuy Homelands.