Leaching the poison out of Mutual Obligation


This paper will argue that much of the current debate about income security, unemployment and social dislocation on Indigenous communities on Cape York fails to address the real issues confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in these communities. In significant areas, the assertions made about ‘welfare dependency’, domestic violence, unemployment, economic underdevelopment and drunkenness have derived out of a Eurocentric understanding and have addressed white agendas.

Nothing in this paper is designed to deflect attention from excessive drinking, violence, unemployment and despair which exists in many communities on the Cape. Rather, we hope to summarise the perceptions of many Indigenous citizens and to provide the wider society with explanations of the situations which currently exist and to suggest ways in which Indigenous people can surmount those difficulties in ways which are compatible with Indigenous aspirations. There is no single Indigenous view about any of these issues, rather we are attempting to encapsulate the essence of the dialogue which is proceeding apace throughout the region.

The mainstream media, the Queensland and Federal Governments have supported the views of some prominent media personalities; in particular Noel Pearson and Tony Fitzgerald. These instant experts share remarkably similar views of the causes of the problems on the Cape and as a consequence, identify remarkably similar solutions. The identified problems are the grog, violence and unemployment, the solution which such an analysis demands is to control the grog and end ‘welfare dependency’.

The elitist suggestion implicit in a lot of the ‘welfare dependency’ rhetoric is that those who impose the obligations on others are ‘being cruel to be kind’. We certainly believe they are being cruel. We do not believe that there is any evidence which suggests that such impositions of obligations makes people better citizens, helps them escape the welfare system or has any beneficial outcomes for those on whom the obligation is imposed. Those who impose the ‘mutual obligations’ are the sole beneficiaries of such policies.

Essentially, our argument is that imposing so called ‘mutual obligation’ upon Indigenous citizens of the Cape is a further extension of the colonial invasion which has proceeded relentlessly for the last 214 years. We believe it will exacerbate the situations which daily confront Indigenous people on the Cape, rather than providing people with real opportunities to improve their social and economic situation. People freed of behavioural constraints will willingly choose to accept those social obligations to others which they regard as reasonable. Only when Australian people and their governments truly recognise Indigenous people’s human rights will they be free of their compulsion to impose obligations. Only then will Indigenous people be able to effectively address the social and economic questions which confront them.

Policies of ‘mutual obligation’ are increasingly being imposed on the poor in white society allegedly because such policies are supposed to decrease ‘welfare dependency’. In part, the attractiveness of the ‘welfare dependency’ rhetoric is that it justifies limitations imposed on welfare spending. Such rhetoric has a sanctimonious aura allowing the better off to justify a meanness of spirit under a cloak of benediction. The logic underlying the entire ‘mutual obligation’ rhetoric underpinning the thinking which led to the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), began in 1977 and which has existed on the Cape since 198?. ‘Mutual obligation’ has been tried. It has not solved the very problems which the next round of imposed ‘mutual obligation’ is supposed to solve.

On the way to gaining an understanding of the situation in Cape York Indigenous communities it will be necessary to:

  • investigate the history of white/Indigenous contact on the Cape,
  • examine some of the current reports and widely distributed analyses of the situation on CapeYork, h pose some basic questions, and
  • ask from where the ideas which drive much of the analysis have come before it will be possible to understand why such reports and analysis find such ready acceptance by Queensland and Federal Governments, conservative newspaper commentators and their white readership.

It will also be necessary to:

  • discuss several of the features of life on the Cape York which are ignored in current public discussion,
  • examine why these features are not discussed, and
  • look at alternative interpretations of current reality on the Cape before putting forward our suggestions which might enable Indigenous citizens of Cape York to come to terms with the issues which confront the people of their areas.

We have not set out to create radically new ideas because we believe that many Indigenous people of Cape York already have the answers. Our job, as we have interpreted it, is to pull together these ideas and to try to present them in a way which might allow the Queensland and Commonwealth Governments to desist from interfering in a socially destructive manner, choosing hopefully to work with the communities and to provide the necessary finance and external assistance.

Why is this debate proceeding now?

In recent times there has been a significant coverage of events occurring on Cape York after decades of media neglect. The Mabo and Wik debates kicked it off, the return of some land to Indigenous owners, the Cape York Partnership agreement signed by pastoralists, Indigenous leaders, conservationists and the Queensland Government have all played a part. More recently the return by Comalco of some land to the native title holders. This land had been ceded to this alumina mining company by the Queensland Government in 1963 and either did not contain useful minerals or was land from which the ore had been extracted. Bonnie Robertson’s Taskforce Report (199?) which looked at the connection between drinking and domestic violence drew attention to the prevalence of internecine violence on many communities on the Cape. Noel Pearson’s 1999 report entitled “Our right to take responsibility” focused on ‘welfare dependency’, the grog problem, unemployment, the need to impose ‘mutual obligation’ and the absence of a real economy on many Indigenous communities. Towards the end of 2001, Tony Fitzgerald’s three volume report was handed to the Queensland Government recommending restricting alcohol on communities where social dislocation and domestic violence was occurring .

The issues which these reports address have been long standing ones on the Cape (Wilson 1982), the failure to pay attention to them in the past is as significant as the frequent attention currently being exhibited. To this extent, we are indebted to Bonnie Robertson, Noel Pearson, Tony Fitzgerald and those in the media and government who have done much to publicise the issues raised.

The job which is ahead of us is to interrogate these reports in order to see whether they throw light on the issues which will need to be addressed if Indigenous people are to gain from the exposure they are now experiencing, whether the reports recommendations will ‘solve’ the problems which the reports identify. To investigate whether the proposed solutions have been tried before and if they were efficacious then. To ask whether these solutions have been tried unsuccessfully in the past is there anything which has changed which is likely to make them successful now. To see if there are alternative solutions to those the reports are proposing. To ask some basic questions about what is driving the directions these reports are taking.

Noel Pearson’s from Our right to take responsibility to ‘mutual obligation’

Some questions
Noel Pearson demonstrated his undoubted communication skills in the period between the Mabo No 2 judgement and the passage of the Keating Government’s Native Title Act. He became a darling of the media. When he produced his “Our right to take responsibility” discussion paper his views were presented in much of the mainstream media as the Indigenous view. The complexity of the issues which he was addressing escaped many of the commentators. They needed to but did not ask “Are Pearson’s views an Indigenous view or are they simply the views of an Indigenous person?

It is extremely important to know if Pearson’s views are reflective of a wider Indigenous perspective or whether they are so clouded by a Lutheranised view of the world that it would be more appropriate to simply regard them as part of a conservative Christian world view.

The anthropologist David Martin who has worked extensively on Cape York makes the important point that:

it cannot be assumed that the pejorative view of dependency advanced in the welfare debate, grounded as it is, in no small part, on an ideological construct of the moral worth of the productive individual within the market economy, is necessarily shared by all Aboriginal people.

On the contrary, there is a significant body of anthropological writing which suggests that ‘dependency’, in terms of a culturally established and validated capacity to demand and receive resources and services (symbolic and tangible) from others is a core principle through which Aboriginal agency is realised in the structuring of social relationships. This principle operates both within contemporary Aboriginal groups and in the intercultural zone between them and the wider society.

Had observers asked what was driving Pearson’s analysis, then it may have allowed commentators to identify the antecedents of Pearson’s views. (See section Where do these ideas come from?) Pearson uses the words ‘reciprocity’ and ‘mutuality’ often in ways compatible with Prime Minister Howard’s (1999, 2000) Patrick McClure (2000) or Mark Latham’s (1998) usage. Ray Cassin, writing at Page 22 of The Sunday Age on 27/8/2000, attacks such usage, he says

You can be ‘on’ social security in the literal sense of receiving benefits, but this usage does not carry the pejorative flavour of being ‘on’ welfare. The reason is not mysterious: we do not talk about social-security dependency, or social-services dependency because ‘social security’ and ‘social services’ are bound up with an older notion of entitlement, and an understanding of mutual obligation that goes beyond tit-for-tat reciprocity.

The ideal of mutual obligation underpinning a system of social security is not one of reciprocity, but of obligation borne by all of us to contribute to the support of people who would otherwise be destitute.

Noel Pearson (1999) has spent much effort condemning the society security system for undermining Indigenous society. He wrote:

The following are some of the problems with welfare:

  • it is invariably a poor substitute for a fair share. Welfare is never enough to properly live on. Rather than provide the opportunity for a proper place in the wider economy andsociety, the cheap option of welfare is provided instead;
  • it kills initiative and breeds dependency. It discourages people from self-providing and taking their fair share through engagement in the real economy;
  • it promotes wrong and destructive values in the recipients and the society at large – namely that life can be sustained through perpetual dependency, when the truth is that it never is;
  • it undermines self-esteem and promotes a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in people;
  • it pacifies recipients rather than invigorating them into social or political action to secure a better deal for themselves and their children;
  • it reproduces these same problems in following generations.

These are not new observations about the effect of welfare. They apply to members of the wider white society who have grown dependent upon welfare as much as it does to Aboriginal society.

Noel Pearson has even gone as far as suggesting that:

The first step in leeching out the poison from welfare is to ensure that Government stops dealing poison directly to individuals in our society, through sending cheques in the mail. It is the direct corruption of individuals through the provision of resources via the government’s welfare mode that is the source of the problem.

Clearly Pearson is drinking from the same cup as ex-Minister Jocelyn Newman who when commissioning the McClure (2000) Report set the context in which the report was to be written with her paper entitled “The Challenge of Welfare Dependency in the 21st. Century”. Despite the ardour with which Pearson, Latham (2000), Newman (1999) and other conservatives hold such views about the unerring propensity of social services to increase dependency, weaken initiative and destroy society, they are simply wrong. Professor Robert Goodin with his colleagues (1999) and Standing (2002) provide a total refutation of the suggestion that generous welfare provision invariably lead to the outcomes that Pearson asserts. Anthropologist David Martin (2001) who has worked extensively on Cape York agrees with Pearson that Indigenous people on the Cape are experiencing increased social problems but he goes on to assert that Noel Pearson “is not correct in positing access to welfare incomes for Aboriginal people as contributing to this social breakdown in a direct and causal sense p.11.”

Pearson at other times speaks as if he considers ‘mutual obligation’ as he wants to apply it on the Cape to have a specific Indigenous flavour. ‘Mutuality’ and ‘reciprocity’ have clearly defined locally specific meanings in traditional society. They more a more generalised meaning in modern Indigenous society certainly one that goes beyond “tit-for-tat reciprocity.” The problem that then exists for any agency wishing to impose ‘mutual obligations’ on Cape York communities is what do such words mean within the specific cultural context of a particular community or a specific clan group living in a community.

If a department can’t clearly articulate what central ideas such as ‘mutual obligation’ mean in the specific context of Indigenous communities on the Cape, or in other parts of Queensland, then it will not be in a position to evaluate the effectiveness of its program. It will subject some to arbitrary termination of benefit. To the extent that Indigenous views as to appropriate obligations clash with the department’s interpretation of required obligations, then this further alienates Indigenous people from their cultural base undermining their sense of community, culture and society. This is simply a further imposition of Eurocentric practices. If specific Indigenous interpretations of concepts such as ‘mutual obligation’ are not articulated there is the ever present possibility that ‘mutual obligation’ will simply come to mean on Cape York what John Howard (1999, 2000) intends it to mean.

Where do these ideas some from?

We will now attempt to locate the origins of the fear of ‘welfare dependency’. It is necessary to undertake this sojourn in order that the current ‘mutual obligation’ debate can be placed in its proper historical context.

The first thing to realise is that the Howard Government’s concept of ‘mutual obligation’ is simply a more extensive and extreme version of the previous Labor Government’s policy of reciprocal obligation. Elements of ‘mutual obligation’ driven by the fear of ‘welfare dependency’ are present in the consolidation of the Federal social security legislation in 1947. They are most obvious in relation to the treatment of unemployed people. The CDEP (Community Development Employment Program) and the compelled participation in the ‘Work for the Dole’ scheme are latter-day equivalents of the 1930s Depression “Susso” scheme’s forced labour programs. The fear of ‘welfare dependency’ is revealed in the Parliamentary debates which occurred at the time of the introduction of the first Commonwealth social security legislation in 1908. In the Australian colonies from the early 1800s policies were implemented which aimed to refuse assistance to the unworthy poor, malingers, and the ‘work shy’ (Dickey 1980).

Such policies were simple adaptations of the British Poor Law system of welfare relief. The revised Poor Law of 1834 enshrined the concept of ‘less eligibility’ which hoped to discourage people from applying for welfare relief by ensuring anyone assisted would receive less than the lowest paid worker and that those who were assisted were stigmatised. The first legislative enactment of the Poor Laws was in 1601 and as Rodgers (1968 p. 12) points out this act was the parliament’s attempt to pull together the practices of the previous 70 years. Even in the days of the 17th. Century Poor Laws there were those who wanted the people who were assisted to make the scheme self-supporting “but unfortunately systems of this kind have nearly always failed because they involve compelling people to work against their will (Rodgers 1968 p. 15). [Fuller accounts of this welfare history can be found at Polanyi 1945, Tomlinson 2001].

What is clear from this brief history is that it is possible to observe clear linkages between the Howard Government’s 2002 policies of ‘mutual obligation’ and ‘welfare dependency’ and the policies of circa 1530 in Britain. Clearly the linkages between the current Australian Government welfare policies and those of church and parish welfare policies would stretch back even further into antiquity. This raises a number of central questions:

  • What is it which makes such outdated social concepts so acceptable to the Australian Liberal Government?
  • Why are present welfare policies so closely linked to pre-17th. Century views of welfare relief rather than being based upon the understandings provided by modern social science research?
  • As we start on a new millennium why are 500 year old moral imperatives appropriate to apply to complex social questions today?
  • Are the 16th. and 17th. Century Christian values appropriate to enforce upon Indigenous individuals and communities in 2002?
  • If such antiquarian views are to be enforced upon Indigenous citizens what regard is to be given to traditional Indigenous views about appropriate reciprocal relationships?
  • What regard is to be shown towards the self-sustaining system of Indigenous reciprocity which has evolved on the Cape in the post-invasion period?
  • If this central aspect of Indigenous culture and interpersonal relationships is simply to be supplanted by 5 century’s old European Christain views about obligation, is this not then a further extension of Eurocentric colonisation?

We do not have space to deal adequately with these questions. We simply assert that it is imperative that those who wish to impose such outmoded views about obligations upon Indigenous citizens establish the beneficial impact of such policies before they attempt to again impose such policies upon people on the Cape. We further assert that 5 centuries of experience has yet to demonstrate the claimed beneficial impacts of these policies. We would regard any attempt to impose such policies upon people living on the Cape, before the beneficial outcomes of such policies have been established, as amounting to a racist disregard for the lives and dignity of Indigenous people who have survived two centuries of invasion and dispossession.

What sort of Income Support system would work? A hand-up not a hand-out

In recent times welfare assistance has become associated with wastefulness/ profligacy. In 1970 the American community worker Si Kahn wrote “If anyone else still has illusions about this country, it’s not the poor. They know that this country will spend $20 billion to put a man on the moon but will not spend twenty dollars to put a man on his feet. They know it will spend more to keep weevils from eating the cotton than to keep rats from eating the fingers of babies in Harlem (p.124)”. Depressingly such a meanness of spirit has become part and parcel of Australia’s social security and community service systems.

Professor Robert Goodin (2001) has written:

But let us…accept for the sake of argument that ‘work’ is an undeniable good for the person who does it. Let us further suppose that it is the legitimate role of public authority to force people to do what is good for them in this respect.

The question I want to pose is simply this: even granting all that, for the sake of argument, does welfare reform of the sort proposed [by McClure (2000) and Pearson (1999)] follow from those propositions?

Clearly not. If we seriously believed that work is good for you and that it is the state’s legitimate role to force you to do it, then we would have no grounds for confining our paternalism to the poor. Paternalistically speaking, it would be equally important to make the rich work too (pp.197-198).

The standard justification for the provision of welfare services has been that people needed them and were unable to obtain them by other means. We have looked at the existing system of social security in Australia and contend that:

  • many of the people excluded from the social security system are poor,
  • many people who have an entitlement miss out,
  • many people who are confined to low levels of income support are dissatisfied,
  • the social security system does not advance social justice for all permanent residents,
  • it does not protect the human rights of all residents,
  • the system does not remove many obstacles to inclusion of people with a disability,
  • people of different genders, ages and ethnic groups are treated unequally or inequitably,
  • there is inequitable treatment provided to city and country people, and
  • the system of income support does not provide sufficient security to recipients so as to allow them to contribute to society in ways with which they are comfortable?

There are alternatives to the existing confusing array of targeted, categorical, means and asset tested allowances, benefits and pensions. There are alternatives to imposing ‘work / participation obligations upon the recipients of income support. There are alternatives to using the family as the unit of income for social security calculations. The Australian Taxation system, for the most part, uses the individual as the unit of income.

It is as if governments believe there is no way to ensure a productive society other than to compel those who have the least opportunities. Governments in English speaking western countries seem obsessed by the cost of income support. The more important question is whether income support is affordable. Generous income guarantees become affordable when the amount of government revenue is raised. Presently governments have a preference for providing minimal welfare rather than increasing taxation. Just take one example: wealth taxes are an anathema to the rich in Australia, as a result there are no wealth taxes (in the form seen in many OECD countries). But Australia does have wealth taxes. They are called asset tests and are imposed on many forms of social security payments. Australian wealth taxes are applied at the very time when people are experiencing financial crises and result in only small savings to government outlays. It would be possible to tax all wealth and vastly increase government revenue and hence be in a position to expand the quality and coverage of income support. Instead governments have been content to let the welfare system evolve from the Poor Laws to poor laws (Stretton 1996).

The system of income support which we advocate is that of a universal unconditional Basic Income paid to all permanent residents in this country.  There would be no form of obligation associated with this payment.  It would simply be an entitlement of permanent residence it would need to be paid at the single age pension rate.

Van Parijs (1992[a] p.229) claims that because a Basic Income is paid, irrespective of all other sources of income, it can be used by those who desire work as a wage subsidy; yet, because it provides sufficient income on which to live, it does not compel any potential worker to work under conditions which that worker finds unacceptable. He concludes that “Whereas a rising means-tested benefit makes it increasingly difficult for unskilled people to find a job, a rising basic income makes it increasingly feasible (Van Parijs 1992[a] p.229)”.

There are efficiency arguments which can and should be mounted in support of an unconditional Basic Income.

  • A Basic Income requires the least interference in the lives of citizens.
  • It supplies all permanent residents with equal assistance.
  • It is the most inclusive form of income support payment and the most secure, thus enhancing citizenship.
  • It provides sufficient income to allow the possibility that people will explore their creative capacity.
  • It removes many of the obstacles to a reinvigoration of the industrial, technical and computing infrastructure.
  • It allows the State a fuller understanding of the impact of its other social wage policies.

However, a Basic Income is just that – an unconditional universal income guarantee. It delivers an income floor without interfering with productivity. It is a vast improvement on categorical selective social services. It is an advance on all social insurance and private provision schemes which invariably result in the ‘individualisation of risk’ (Lerner, Clark & Needham 1999 p. 11) and as a result create a ‘do it yourself welfare state’ (Klein & Millar cited in Page 1998 p.307).

A Basic Income is not a utopian panacea – it will not abolish all social difficulties. But, it will allow the State to construct its other social welfare, health, education, disability, ethnic and community service policies on a firm and known foundation. In this regard it may not be the best income support policy, in any absolute sense, just the best income support policy capable of being implemented in the early 21st. Century in Australia.

Basic Income is not a new idea

As Walter Van Trier (1995) and Philippe Van Parijs (1992[b] p. 25) reminds us, ever since the first book length plea for Basic Income written by Dennis Milner (1920) economic efficiency arguments have played a major role. Milner wanted to ensure the inadequacies of the British poor law system were overcome, to enhance national productivity, and to provide a more equitable base from which workers might negotiate wages (Van Trier 1995 Part 1).

A not dissimilar income support arrangement was put to the Australian Government by Professor Henderson in the First Main Report of the Poverty Inquiry in 1975. During the Fraser Government a compatible income support system was specifically suggested for Aboriginal People living in remote parts of Australia (Turnbull 1980 part 2).

The idea of a Basic Income is being actively considered in many parts of Europe and the Americas and even closer to home in New Zealand. [See The Basic Income European Network BEIN web site: http://www.etes.ucl.ac.be/BIEN/bien.html and the Universal Basic Income New Zealand web site: http://www.geocities.com/ubinz/ and Tomlinson (2001).

From the frontier economy to a mission economy to a surreal economy

Idleness is not the problem. Impoverished, depressed, meaningless, optionless idleness is the problem.

CDEP– the Community Development Employment Program – the extent of the problem

The real level of exclusion from Pearson’s real economy is revealed by ATSIC News 2001 p.17 “only three of 102 adults in Kuranda …received a non-CDEP wage.” Phil Bartlett of the Wila Gutharra Community Aboriginal Corporation in an article entitled “Milking the CDEP cow dry” notes that the “CDEP has been going for 23 years…CDEP provides activities, training and employment to about 33,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout Australia. CDEP has allowed withdrawal of government services in rural and remote communities, the downsizing of government departments…CDEP is far cheaper to run than other programs of a similar nature such as Work for the Dole (Bartlett 2001 p.19).

If you want milk and you have only one cow that’s the cow you milk.

The CDEP and the Coombs Legacy

So the mythology goes…in the whitemans’ dreamtime (about the early 1970s) a wise old public servant whom everyone respectfully called ‘Nugget’ sat down with some Aboriginal elders in Central Australia who were worried that if unemployment benefits were paid to Aboriginal people, just like they were paid to other unemployed Australians, that the young people would see such money as sit down money and would become lazy and cheeky and get on the grog. To stop that happening Nugget and the elders though up this scheme called the CDEP – the Community Development Employment Program – whereby Indigenous men and women could get a payment about the same rate as the unemployment benefit but they had to work a couple of days each week in return. The very eager to please Government set up the CDEP on Indigenous Communities all over Australia.

Many young people got cheeky and got on the grog because there was no way the CDEP allowed them to escape poverty. The CDEP let the Government off the hook as far as finding jobs for people was concerned. Some young people pointed out that the CDEP is very much like the training wage system which existed before the CDEP was introduced on Indigenous communities and it is also like the ‘susso scheme’ they had for white people in the 1930’s Depression.

The moral of this story is that great people do many great things and have many great ideas but that does not mean that every idea a great person has is a great idea.

Economic Development

One of the authors was recently standing in the butcher shop of a town with a population of 600 and a long conservation was taking place between an elderly woman and the butcher. After the woman had left the shop the butcher exclaimed “fancy expecting home delivery in a little town like this.” This is the very essence of making sure your small business stays small.

This is a typical lose lose situation. The old lady does not get fresh meat as often as she needs it and the butcher loses out on potential sales as well as the opportunity to provide a community service. Few people are likely to desire home delivery, the town is geographically compact, the butcher could, without any great inconvenience, deliver the meat on his way home from work.

Some issues

Technical skills
Markets and
Miners import labour rather than train locals Underdevelopment


These are not prescriptive suggestions, there will be many other ideas which people will rather pursue; people in each community will decide which if any suit their aspirations.

Eco and Cultural tourism Artifact production
Lure production
Bush tucker
Exotic fruit
Fishing charters
Barramundi , Threadfin Salmon, reef fish.
Catch and release-Jungle Perch, Tarpon Archer Fish Commercial Fishing
Pearl shell/meat prawns
partnerships with alternative technology companies
partnerships with bio-technology companies
Service industries
Petrol stations
Local government
Health/welfare/education/alcohol or drug rehabilitation/after school youth worker Conservation
Turtle, Emu, Cassawarry, tropical pigeon breeding programs for conservation purposes Feral pig eradication
Maybe try to domesticate magpie geese or wild duck
Pig and fowl farming

The job of any change agent is to find out what prevents economic or other community desired things happening.

In search of the real economy

Noel Pearson (1999) has spent much effort condemning the social security system for undermining Indigenous society. We are not suggesting that the existing system of social security in Australia is without flaws. On the contrary, the manner in which the existing system of social security operates may lead in many cases to the outcomes about which Pearson and others warn. This is an argument to move towards a generous universal system of income support rather than reduce people’s access to social services. (See: What sort of Income Support System would work?)

Pearson goes as far as suggesting that “In order to leech the poison out of welfare we have to build responsibility, reciprocity and ‘mutual obligation’ into all of the economic relationships and transactions in our society.”

Pearson’s condemnation of the way community government and Indigenous enterprises are funded on the Cape leads him to attack the “welfare economy” which he sees as composed of the social security payments and all the other government provided funds which are intended to help individuals and communities on the Cape to function. He sees such a welfare economy as separate from and inferior to the real economy which he sees controlled by the market. Creating such a theoretical duality may be useful if the intention is to discuss idealised economic models but such distinctions have very limited practical utility.

Pearson himself realises that “Aboriginal people participated in the real economy for most of Australia’s colonial history, and we did so at the lowest end of the scale. Engagement in the real economy was quite degrading and involved tragic exploitation.” He goes on to suggest “all that was needed was for our parents and grandparents to be paid and treated equally – and we would have been better off keeping our place in the real economy.” Though he accepts that “the impact of the equal wage decision (1967) on Aboriginal labour in the cattle industry was decisive. People lost their place in the pastoral economy and returned to the increasingly welfare-based economy of the settlements.” It is clear that Indigenous people in Australia have seldom been offered the opportunity to participate on equitable terms in the market economy. Part of the challenge facing Australian governments at the moment is finding ways to incorporate Indigenous communities into mainstream society / economy or to find other paths which white and Indigenous communities can take which will have equitable outcomes for each.

A reading of Rosalind Kidd’s (1997) The Way We Civilise should give the lie to any suggestion that the pastoral company was a real economy unsubsidised by Aborigines, rural labour and governments. Queensland Governments were involved with enforcing the system of indentured labour (setting wage rates and periods of employment). Queensland Governments kept the lease rental for cattle stations artificially low and provided other subsidies to the pastoral leasees. The Queensland Government through its police and mission protectors controlled [and often misappropiated ( Kidd 1997)] the income of Indigenous workers and that same Government set the rates of training wages paid on settlements and missions – the major form of alternative work available to Aborigines.

A reading of The Mapoon Story demonstrates the extent to which the Queensland Government was prepared to disrupt entire Indigenous communities on the Western side of the Cape in order to facilitate the development of Comalco’s alumini mining operation. Nearly 6000 square kilometers of Aboriginal reserves were transferred to Comalco’s control (Kidd 1997 p.204, Roberts, Russell & Parsons1974). In November 1963 Aboriginal people at Mapoon had their houses burned and were shifted by armed police to Bamaga on the tip of Cape York. The Comalco operation was consistently assisted by governments. Comalco, like many other mining companies, does not confirm to Pearson’s definition of a real economy.

If one were to review the industry subsidies provided to primary producers during most of the 20th Century, the publicly provided transport infrastructure (rail, port and road), the tax subsidies and emergency assistance then the bulk of primary production does not meet Pearson’s definition of a real economy. In 2001 the Federal Government provided massive assistance to the housing, airline and tourism industries to prop them up during a lean period. The forestry industry has been throughout the post-colonial history one of the most heavily subsidised industries. No forestry operation pays anything like the replacement costs of the wood it logs or woodchips. The subsidies provided to Australian ship builders, foot wear and clothing manufacturers, steel industry and others have decreased substantially in recent years, but car manufacturers continue to demand and receive subsidies in the hundreds of millions of dollars. These and other industries are assisted by existing tariff protection. Senator Bob Brown estimates that Australian Industry received $14 Billion annually in government provided assistance (Van Dyke 2000). Again these industries would not meet Pearson’s real economy test.

The public service, the parliament, universities, the school and health systems, the community services all receive massive subsidies from the public purse they would not qualify as being part of Pearson’s real economy.

The reality is that, in Australia, economic enterprise which operates without any direct or indirect assistance from government is a rarity. Why then would one expect community enterprise on Cape York to be any different. Pearson himself suggests “The geographical remoteness of the communities of Cape York means it is nigh on impossible for Aboriginal people to engage in the real economy”. Pearson points out that the colonial dispossession removed the possibility of Aboriginal self-sufficiency. The result was that people were forced to move between taking jobs at exploitative wage rates in the pastoral industry or engage in what he terms “an institutional subsistence economy” on a mission or settlement. Pearson points out that until the 1970’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders on the Cape seldom received social security payments but today these payments are widespread and this, plus the assistance community government or community enterprises receive from governments is, he suggests, “the welfare problem which is undermining Aboriginal society”. This remarkable conclusion cannot be supported by the facts.

In section 6 of his report he asserts that were/are three types of real economy on the Cape, namely the traditional subsistence economy, the mission or modern subsistence economy and the white fella market economy. Each of these economies are real he suggests because in them “If you don’t work, you starve”. Yet seven pages later he contradicts this assertion in relation to the traditional subsistence economy when he writes “prior to the impact of welfare, the exchange of resources within the community followed these traditional pattern of rights and obligations between people who were socially connected. ‘Cadging’ – borrowing food from people when one is out – was common and occurred on a reciprocal basis between community members.” On Hopevale Mission where Pearson grew up the ration system may have encouraged self-provision and work, yet people who were unable to provide for themselves were not allowed to starve. In Australia the market economy is underpinned by a welfare system for those unable to maintain themselves. So the ‘starvation’ test for real economies does not have practical utility.

Pearson claims:

The people and communities of Cape York Peninsula are now almost completely welfare dependent. Most of the income is from government transfer payments to individuals and Aboriginal organisations. The economy of the communities is artificially sustained by government welfare transfers. These transfers create the job opportunities that are available in the communities.

On the tests of real economies which Pearson sets up it would appear that few Indigenous or non- Indigenous people living on the Cape are working in real economies. This then poses a number of questions:

  • what is it about the styles of economies which exist on communities on the Cape which are leading to dissatisfaction?
  • are there more sensible measures/descriptions of the effectiveness of the types of economies on the Cape than have been used so far?
  • what would need to change to result in more desirable outcomes for the Indigenous people living on the Cape?
  • would the extra expenditure be affordable?
  • Would governments and bureaucracies be capable of tolerating the change?

Welfare provision at community or individual levels is a strange place to start if the aim is economic development. If economic development were the desired outcome on the Cape, then the necessary infrastructure to allow such development would need to be put in place. There have been large scale economic developments which has taken place on the Cape since the 1960’s but it has only peripherally included some Indigenous people. Where economic development has been undertaken, in places such as Weipa, the Indigenous owners have been considered an encumbrance rather than partners. The real resources which Aboriginal people owned – land and mineral resources were just taken from them.

The prevailing view on ownership of minerals in Australia is that ownership resides in the Crown. Professor Rowley points out that this was not always the case. For some Aborigines state legislation has been at least as important as actions taken on the national stage. As Charles Rowley put it:

the epoch-making Lands Trust Act of 1966 aroused considerable resistance in the Legislative Council, which succeeded in removing the provisions for mineral rights, although these would not have been revolutionary in South Australia, where proprietors of land grants made before 1880 have retained mineral rights alienated from the original grants (1972 p. 280).

The Commonwealth’s Northern Territory Land Rights Act drafted by the Whitlam Government in 1975 amended and then passed by the Fraser Government in 1976 provided Aboriginal people who had maintained close links with their traditional lands the opportunity to reclaim unalienated crown land in the Northern Territory. The South Australian legislation and the NT Land Rights Act have been the vehicle by which Aborigines in these two regions have recovered ownership of considerable areas of land and have consequently been able to start to develop a secure economic future (Crough 1993). The ceding of mineral rights on indigenous land to local indigenous communities is occurring in parts of the world such as Canada.

It would be a significant step towards reconciliation were the Crown (State and Federal Governments) to restore the ownership of mineral rights to Indigenous people, at least in relation to land where native title has been held to have not been extinguished. This would substantially change Indigenous people’s capacity to control the pace and direction of mineral extraction on their land.

If the ownership of minerals were to reside with Indigenous communities then it is likely that the minimum requirements which would need to be met before a mining operation would go ahead would be:

  • All sites of significance would be protected.
  • The quality of life in the communities affected would need to be safeguarded.
  • Environmental protection systems would need to be in place prior to the commencement of mining.
  • Indigenous people would have a minimum of 50% ownership of projects.
  • Work for all local Indigenous people who required it would be found.
  • Training would be provided to Indigenous local people to assist them with careers in the operation.
  • Imported mine staff would undergo training in relation to local Indigenous culture.

The Crown’s conceding Indigenous ownership of minerals would be one of the few ways governments could transfer substantial resources to the Indigenous community without affecting any individual white interests. However as became apparent in the aftermath of the Mabo and Wik judgements it is likely that white pressure groups would emerge which would whip up a backlash. We observed the Howard Government, responding to pastoralists and miners calls for certainty, following the Wik judgement legislate to install its 10 point plan. The uncertainity experienced by Indigenous people about what (if anything) remained of their property rights as result of 212 years of invasion, encroachment, legislation and administrative excisement was conveniently ignored. This 10 point plan took property rights from Indigenous people which the High court had found them to have retained and gave those property rights to lease holders whom the high court had found did not have such rights (Reynolds 1999 Ch.14). Such responses towards perceived gains by Indigenous people are fuelled by a downward envy promoted by the very same politicians who have set out to diminish poor people’s access to welfare services in recent years. There has been a conscious drive to replace concepts such as entitlements and rights with earlier ideas of obligation and duty. Along side this debate have been attempts to deflect Indigenous Australians from their efforts to gain land rights, self- determination, reparation, sovereignty and a treaty.

Practical reconciliation

The Howard Government has emphasised what it has termed ‘practical reconciliation’ as its ‘solution’ to the issues which Indigenous Australians face. The essence of ‘practical reconciliation’ is the provision of at least basic health, nutrition, sanitation community and educational services. No non-racist would oppose Indigenous Australians being assisted to gain access to decent shelter, nutrition, clean drinking water, safe sanitation facilities, appropriate community and educational infrastructure.

There are in the order of a hundred communities which don’t have access to clean drinking water. The prevalence of ill-health amongst Indigenous people is a national disgrace(). Obtaining adequate nutrition is constant issue in many Indigenous communities. Getting decent sanitation is a major problem confronting many communities. There is a massive housing backlog throughout Indigenous Australia. The standard of housing occupied by nearly half of Australian Indigenous families is inadequate ( ). Overcrowding is a major contributing factor to the spread of disease, the prevalence of violence, strained interpersonal communications and so forth. But ‘practical reconciliation’ has too often been ‘provided by the government without involving local people in finding ways to solve the issues in their own ways’. The Australian Army has come in and put on the water supply or outside contractors have started building houses without using skilled builders from the communities.

The failure of State and Federal Governments to ensure that Indigenous Australians have access to adequate shelter, nutrition, sanitation, health and educational services is used by the Howard government to argue that Indigenous leaders should be solving the practical issues rather than pursuing self-determination and land ownership issues. There is almost unanimous agreement amongst Indigenous leaders that self- determination and land ownership issues are intimately linked with the immediate housing, health and other everyday issues which plague Indigenous communities. Just one example of this is that without a secure land title it is impossible for Indigenous people to get finance for a house.

Housing a measure of progress

In 1971 Frances Lovejoy estimated the cost of providing adequate housing all Indigenous Australians at $3 billion. The Whitlam Labor Government in 1973 promised $30 million dollars a year for 10 years. In 2001 the Chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Geoff Clark pointed out that additional funding in the 2001/2 Budget of $ 75 million over 4 years “will make little dent in the $3 billion deficit in this area (ATSIC News Autumn 2001 p.3).”

In 2001 the housing industry suffered a slump the Federal Government doubled the subsidy provided to first home buyers purchasing new homes in order to boost the economy.

Such Government funding directly subsidises those who already have considerable savings and indirectly subsidises the housing industry. It does nothing for homeless people, whether they be Indigenous or non- Indigenous. Had the public money which went into subsidsing first home buyers been directed towards public housing or Indigenous housing then many of those facing the most severe housing crisis would have been directly assisted and the housing industry would still have been indirectly assisted. The Howard Government however would not have experienced increased electoral popularity in the outer suburban seats which it needed to retain to hold office.

The provision of adequate shelter, nutrition, sanitation, health, community and educational services is an extremely important part of the struggle of Indigenous people to obtain equity with other Australians. But before other Australians can claim that Indigenous Australians have received anything like equitable treatment there has to be an accommodation found between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in relation to land rights, self-determination, reparation, sovereignty and a treaty.

Recognising Human Rights, Land Rights as the first step towards Self-Determination

All I can suggest is that somewhere in this section we refer to Bill Jonas’ Paper in Martin Nakata “Indigenous Peoples, Racism and the United Nations.

Drinking and Violence

Drinking does not occur in a social vacuum.
Petrol sniffing does not occur in a social vacuum.
Unemployment does not occur in a social vacuum.
Domestic violence does not occur in a social vacuum.
Equal employment does not occur in a social vacuum.
Economic development does not occur in a social vacuum.
Mickey Mouse training programs

Anthropologist Jeremy Beckett (1965) examined Aboriginal drinking in Western New South Wales and concluded “drinking and even drunkenness provide a means of obtaining certain ends which we know from aborigine’s own statements they value. Such means may not be the best imaginable, but they may be the most practicable in the given circumstances.(p.46)”

Existing structure/belief

Many accept the existing structures, beliefs and ways of behaving

Every person’s ideas are constrained by boundaries imposed by their previous experience, training, culture and upbringing. Their imagination is the one force which lets them see what lies outside the paddock.

Those who object to the existing structures, beliefs and ways of behaving may indicate this by: setting out their objecting in their home communities or they might just leave if they have the option.


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unpublished, circulated 2002