Back to CIS Articles and Executive Highlights homepage

Executive Highlights
No 261

New deal for communities

Helen Hughes & Jenness Warin

Published in The Courier Mail 1 March 2005

Third World unemployment, welfare dependence, housing, ill health and violence in remote communities contrast starkly with the quality of life of other Queenslanders that is envied worldwide.

The deprivation of remote communities is the result of a 30-year socialist experiment with the lives of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. The Coombs, Brandl and Snowdon (A Certain Heritage ) program for a utopia of traditional hunter-gatherer communities, culminating in a nation independent of the rest of Australia , was supported by Mabo and subsequent judgments that transferred large areas of land to communal ownership.

The resulting remote community "living museums" have become separated from mainstream Australia by apartheid entry permits so the media cannot report on conditions that would be regarded as extremely fraught in the Kalahari desert or in the rainforests of the Amazon.

Fortunately a few Aboriginal leaders, notably Noel Pearson, have begun to draw attention to the deprivation of the remote communities and to call for reforms.

Government expenditures to support the Coombs experiment are high. Commonwealth spending alone is running at more than $70,000 a year for each Aboriginal household. State funding is additional.

Yet average household income in remote communities in Queensland is only some $16,000 a year. It is clear from the state of education, health and housing that most public spending does not reach its targets.

Without individual property rights, land "ownership" is an empty chalice. Nowhere in the world has communal ownership ever led to economic development.

Some of the remote communities are in the most beautiful and productive locations in Queensland . Yet they are poverty stricken. Communal land cannot be sold or used as collateral for the capital that is essential to modern production. Together with human capital (education, skill and professional training) and technology, capital is the mainspring of the high productivity that yields decent wages and salaries.

Access to productive, well-paid jobs is the core problem. The remote communities are too fragmented to provide productive employment.

The Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), a principal source of welfare, is a socialist sham that patronisingly is used to reward uncompetitive work. No wonder it is contemptuously known, together with other unemployment relief, as "sit down money".

Without work opportunities in the whole range of trades and professions, there is no work satisfaction, no decent remuneration and none of the enjoyment of mainstream Australian lives.

THE deliberate withholding of the teaching of English at an early age has failed a generation of Aborigines who are less well educated than their parents who were considered by missionaries to be fit only for domestic and bush jobs.

It is profoundly patronising to suggest that it is difficult for Aborigines to learn English. Children worldwide are now introduced to English from the earliest preschool years. But by the time children are permitted to learn English in the remote communities they have been bored out of their minds by years of learning nothing except what they know from everyday life.

Aborigines complain that they have taught anthropologists more of their languages than they have been allowed to learn of English.

Adults in remote communities are overwhelmingly illiterate. They do not have enough English to be able to express themselves. They cannot read instructions for simple do-it-yourself jobs, they cannot read food and cleaning material labels or directions on medicines. Is it any wonder that they are angry and bitter and get drunk and violent?

Queensland must throw out the present remote community curriculums and replace them with early phonetic literacy training in English, real maths and general knowledge from preschool years to give Aboriginal children the high school and post-secondary opportunities of other Australian youngsters.

Immediately, as Pearson has suggested, mainstream boarding school scholarships are essential for progress to the professions and management. A "literacy corps" and Internet cafes could give remote communities essential literacy within three years.

Any group subject to the conditions created by the Coombs experiment, regardless of ethnicity, would have shocking health and would be subject to alcoholism, other substance abuse and violent behaviour.

Remote communities are tired of being deprived and weary of academics and consultants and their reports. The Howard Government has begun to review the CDEP and land tenure.

Action is now needed by the Commonwealth and states across the board to dismantle the Coombs experiment and give Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders a new deal.

Emeritus Professor Helen Hughes is a senior fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. Jenness Warin is a recent visiting fellow at the CIS. A New Deal for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Remote Communities, is published today and available at