The prime minister’s recent assertion that the government cannot afford to fund the “lifestyle choices” of remotely based Aboriginal people is an opportunity to increase the debate about the future of outback Australia.
Tony Abbott was repeating that time-worn assertion that Aboriginal people represent little else but a drain on the public purse. While many Australians do not like this view of ourselves, there is no doubt the prime minister’s view has a wide currency and is loaded with electoral appeal in Australia.
In response, commentators have argued that Aboriginal people have a right to continue in their own cultural ways; that they are not taking a “lifestyle choice” by living there; that they will become fringe-dwelling immigrants with all of the marginalisation that this entails; they are potentially not welcome in other parts of the country.
Others have argued that Aboriginal people living remotely have a special and continuing relationship with their own lands that is crucial to their health and wellbeing; that movement off their lands would be a threat to their Native Title; and that hundreds of other, non-Aboriginal rural towns have been uneconomic for decades.
Dr Gracelyn Smallwood, NAIDOC Person of the Year, has argued that history demonstrates that the threatened forced closures of Aboriginal settlements are likely to cost the state more than if people were supported to stay in their homelands. This example highlights how polices in Aboriginal affairs generally are not developed out of consultation or a research base.
The reports of the need for more support for remote Australia are seemingly ignored by government policy directions. As Pat Dodson, senior Aboriginal leader from the Kimberley, argues, there is an absence of effective government policy in this area
There are many reasons why we need to think clearly and strategically about remote Australia, the existing crisis in governance and what we want the future to look like. Remote Australia is approximately 85% of the land mass and only 800,000 people in a highly urbanised country.
Eighty five percent of the population lives within 50 kilometres of the coastline. This is the voting block that is driving government policies. Thus it is this area of Australia that our present governance system overwhelmingly addresses.
In September 2012 the national organisation Desert Knowledge Australia released a report, Fixing the Hole in Australia’s Heartland, that identifies the defining features of remote Australia. Importantly, it sets out the challenges of governance faced by all nations with similar remote lands.
The project team and the reference group comprise an impressive array of people with considerable knowledge and experience of remote Australia. Notable are the former Minster for Aboriginal Affairs, the Hon Fred Chaney AO and Dr Peter Shergold AC who was at that time the most senior public servant in Australia.
Above all this report moved away from defining the issues to do with remote Australia as an “Aboriginal problem”. To quote from the report:
The governance of remote Australia should not be cast as an “Aboriginal issue” – it is about ineffective government arrangements, disengagement and national indifference.
These problems are too often perceived only in the context of the dysfunction of remote Aboriginal settlements and seen therefore as purely “Aboriginal” issues rather than issues of government capability. That is a mistake. Many non-Aboriginal Australians face similar issues as a result of their remote location.
I recently interviewed the project coordinator and lead author of the report, Dr Bruce Walker. He admitted the government response to this report has been negligible and disappointing. He is adamant that the need for an Outback Commission recommended in the report is now urgent and critical to address the needs of the people who live in remote Australia.
The Outback Commission would be an opportunity for governance to focus entirely on remote Australia, have funds for crucial developments there, operate across jurisdictions to get things done and importantly, focus on a narrative for settlement of this region that provides security, safety and services to 85% of our land mass.
The market will not resolve issues in remote Australia. There is a decline in agricultural production and not enough population to service production and conservation needs.
The Outback’s global significance as we move into the Anthropocene
The recent Pew Charitable Trust’s report – The Modern Outback: nature, people and the future of remote Australia – documents the huge diversity and value of this part of the world. It is one of only a handful of large natural areas remaining on Earth including the rapidly diminishing wildlands of the Amazon basin; the boreal forests and tundra of Canada, Alaska and Siberia and the Sahara.
The move to cities will increase as the degradation and loss of productivity of lands increases. Clearly, we need people to live well in what many find as hostile environments. Aboriginal custodians have a long history of creating abundance in the natural world and are those most likely to want to be there. They need to be supported to stay.
Evidence for the sustainability of Aboriginal settlements on their lands exists where Aboriginal people are moving increasingly into collaborations with scientists and other researchers to maintain the viability of fragile ecosystems on their lands.
Their role in mapping biodiversity, crucial to maintaining sustainable country in remote places, is unique and without parallel. This activity has important spin-offs in education and employment.
Maintaining populations in remote Australia will involve increasing investments in renewable energy, water and food supplies, including wild foods. This will have short and long term economic and educational benefits for all of us as we move further into the Anthropocene.
These benefits are beginning to be obvious from the innovations that are already occurring in remote Australia. One good example is the renewable energy initiatives of the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) in the Desert Peoples Precinct in Alice Springs. Projects include the solar-powered Bushlight that is now being exported to villages in India, and renewable energy projects in Australia and the Pacific.
Perhaps the most important argument for supporting Aboriginal people to live on their own lands in remote Australia is that their capacity to survive over many thousands of years in changing environments demonstrates resilience. It is this quality that we will need in bucket loads in the future.
What we now urgently need is a government with the vision and the acumen to put in place policies that match the demands of our future in this country and on this planet – policies that meaningfully include Aboriginal people in ways forward, as part of the solution, not the problem.