Reforming the Australian welfare state
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- Notes on the contributors
- Chapter 1. Issues in Australian welfare reform
- Chapter 2. Welfare reform and the family: Lessons from America
- Chapter 3. Welfare dependency and economic opportunity: A response to Lawrence Mead
- Chapter 4. Welfare reform in Britain, Australia and the United States
- Chapter 5. Trans-generational income support dependence in Australia: Early evidence
- Chapter 6. Australian youth and the dependency culture
- Chapter 7. Passive welfare and the destruction of indigenous society in Australia
- Chapter 8. Mutual obligation: What kind of contract is this?
- Chapter 9. A sorry tale: Welfare against the family
- Chapter 10. Families, work and welfare
- Chapter 11. Labour market issues in welfare reform
- Chapter 12. Examining the assumptions behind the welfare review
Chapter 7. Passive welfare and the destruction of indigenous society in Australia
By Noel Pearson
Aboriginal society in Australia’s Cape York Peninsula today is not a successful society. These are just some of the signs that our society is not functioning: our people die more than twenty years earlier, on average, than other Australians; our health is by far the worst of any group in the Australian community; our people suffer from diseases that other Australians do not have; we are vulnerable to new health threats such as HIV; our children do not participate in the education system anywhere near as successfully as other Australian children; we are over-represented in the juvenile justice system, the criminal justice system, and the jails; and there is more violence amongst our people than in other communities in Australia.
Whilst other communities and groups in Australia and in the world experience many of these same problems, the degree to which our society suffers from such problems is extraordinary. In a number of key areas our situation has deteriorated over the past thirty years. Probably the clearest indications of this are the decline in life expectancy, and the fact that the per capita consumption of alcohol in Cape York Peninsula is the highest in the world. This social deterioration occurred despite the vast improvement since 1970 in the material circumstances of our communities resulting from the government resource transfers that came in the wake of our citizenship and the recognition by the Australian state of our material poverty.
Despite the fact that ours is one of the most dysfunctional societies in the world today, none of the current discourses on the subject gives me any satisfaction that the underlying issues have been grasped, let alone confidence that the right measures are being taken to change this situation.
Even as our traditional society was ruptured by colonial invasion, our ancestors struggled to keep our Law alive. Our traditional values and relationships shielded us against loneliness and provided sustenance during desperately mean times. They still do. But when we look at our society in Cape York today, and the nature of our problems, we see our traditional values and relationships unravelling before our eyes.
I contend that it is passive welfare that has caused this social dissolution.
Aboriginal people’s sad inheritance from the welfare state
Transfers from federal and state budgets to individuals and families without reciprocation is the principal source of income of Aboriginal society in Cape York Peninsula today. It has become common usage to equate welfare with such unconditional cash pay-outs to needy citizens of whom nothing further will be required. I have coined the term ‘passive welfare’ in order to distinguish between this narrow usage of the word and the full scope of ‘the welfare state’.
In the wider sense, the term ‘welfare’ includes, for example, universally accessible health care and compulsory education. In most modern industrialised countries the state has assumed an overall responsibility for these domains, even if there is a mixture of state and private enterprise in these sectors of the economy. In the welfare state, working taxpayers collectively finance facilities aimed at their own wellbeing, development and security. Welfare in the wider sense does redistribute resources from richer to poorer citizens, but it also redistributes the resources of the individual over her or his own life cycle.
During the end of the nineteenth century and for most of the twentieth, all highly industrialised countries developed into welfare states to at least some degree. Why did this happen?
During this period the lower classes consisted mainly of a huge, homogenous industrial army and their dependents.
Since they lived and worked under similar conditions and were in close contact with each other, they had both the incentive and the opportunity to organise themselves into trade unions and struggle for common goals. They possessed a bargaining position through collective industrial action.
At the same time it was in the objective interest of the industrialists to ensure that the working class did not turn to radical ideologies, and that the workers were not worn down by the increasing speed and efficiency of industrial production. Health care, primary education, pensions, minimum wages, collective bargaining and unemployment benefits created a socially stable and secure working class, competent to perform increasingly complex work in industry and able to raise a new generation of workers. Workers with an income above the minimum required for survival and reproduction also constituted a market for the immense collection of commodities that they themselves produced.
These two factors – the organisation of the workers and the objective interest of the industrialists – produced an era of class cooperation: the welfare state. Thus it was in Australia during the long period of bipartisan consensus that Paul Kelly calls ‘the Australian Settlement’, established by Deakin at Federation and lasting up to the time of the Hawke and Keating governments in the 1980s.
Now this has changed. The modern economy of the developed countries is no longer based to the same extent on industrial production by an homogenous army of workers. The bulk of the gross domestic product is now generated by a symbol and information-handling middle class and some highly qualified workers. These qualified people have a bargaining position in the labour market because of their individual competence, whereas the workers in the manufacturing-based economy were interchangeable and depended on organisation and solidarity in their negotiations with employers.
The lower classes in developed countries have lost much of their political influence because of the shrinking and disorganisation of the only powerful group among them, the working class proper. The shift in the economy away from manufacturing, and economic globalisation, which makes it possible to allocate production to the enormous unregulated labour markets outside the classical welfare states, has deprived the industrial workers in the developed countries of their powerful position as sole suppliers of labour for the most important part of the world economy. The lower classes are therefore now unable to defend the welfare state. Nor is there any longer any political or economic reason for the influential strata of society to support the preservation of the welfare state.
Employees who have important functions in the new economy will be employed on individual contracts, and will be able to find individual solutions for their education, health care, retirement and so on, while the majority of the lower classes will face uncertainty. The welfare state will increasingly be presented as an impediment to economic growth.
It therefore seems likely that great changes will be made to the welfare systems which are the major source of income for Aboriginal communities. One might argue that it would be politically easier to defend welfare schemes specifically aimed at dispossessed indigenous peoples, but this is far from certain. Aboriginal Cape York Peninsula cannot continue to rely on support systems with such a precarious future.
But there is a further compelling reason why the current passive welfare dependency of Aboriginal communities in the Peninsula must be reversed. I will argue that passive welfare is in itself a destructive influence on Aboriginal society. Further, that unless our passive welfare dependency is soon addressed, it will inevitably cause the disintegration of our communities and the annihilation of our culture.
Economic and social history of Aboriginal Cape York Peninsula
In order to understand why we in Aboriginal Cape York Peninsula are now totally dependent on passive welfare, and to understand the contended relationship between our social problems and passive welfare, one needs to know our history. In particular, one must understand the difference between ‘real’ economies and the artificial economy of passive welfare, and our experience of these different economic systems throughout our history.
In real economies there is a correspondence between what we consume and what we produce. Broadly there are three kinds of real economies that we know of in Cape York: the traditional subsistence economy, the institutional modern subsistence economy, and the market economy of white Australia.
Hunting, fishing and gathering has been practiced within our communities in Cape York Peninsula throughout our modern history. Traditional subsistence activities continue to contribute a significant proportion of the food consumed by the people of Cape York. A valuable feature of this practice is that traditional subsistence activities revive the social values of responsibility and reciprocity, which have been eroded by our passive welfare dependency.
During the ‘protection’ phase of our colonial experience, our grandparents were removed to missions to live in what I call the institutional modern subsistence economy. The state established an elaborate system to regulate relations with the outside mainstream economy and sanctioned a system of unequal pay. All income was managed through the administration of missions and government settlements.
Within the missions the authorities and their inmates developed community ventures in the fishing industry, cattle and various agricultural experiments, which were supplemented by traditional subsistence, and by raising domestic animals and maintaining food gardens.
Our colonial dispossession is the ultimate historical cause of our welfare dependency. Upon our dispossession, the traditional economy of our ancestors was ruptured and we were dragged into the colonial economy for purposes of exploitation. Our ancestors managed to survive at the bottom end of the market economy doing whatever work was available. Our official and actual place until 1967 was in the underclass. Aboriginal people have therefore participated in the market economy for most of Australia’s colonial history.
The welfare-based economy of Aboriginal society came about as a consequence of our official incorporation as Australian citizens and the assumption of responsibility for Aboriginal Affairs by the Federal Parliament after the 1967 referendum. The great tragedy of Aboriginal history in the last decades was the Australian failure to remove the discrimination that our people suffered in the mainstream economy, and keep us there. We got the right to equal pay but on those terms we were no longer able to find employment. Aboriginal people withdrew from participation in the real economy.
The impact of the equal wage decision on Aboriginal labour in the cattle industry was decisive. People lost their place in the pastoral economy and were forced into the increasingly artificial economy of the former missions.
The Aboriginal peoples of Cape York are now firmly embedded in the passive welfare economy. Most economic activity, including the operation of community enterprises, occurs within the passive welfare economy, and is reliant upon government transfers. We share many problems with rural Australia generally, such as the decline of rural industries and the lack of infrastructure. When these difficulties are compounded by our social disintegration, our lack of resources and education, and by the low expectations the wider community has of us, it is difficult to see how a real market economy could replace this passive welfare economy.
Passive welfare has corrupted our society
Passive welfare has several aspects, which together constitute what I call the ‘passive welfare paradigm’.
First, passive welfare is an irrational economic relationship, in which transactions between the provider and the recipient are not based on reciprocity. Unlike commercial transactions, no mechanisms promote rational and constructive behaviour either on the part of the recipient or on the part of the provider, which is usually the government. As Kant (1798:87) observed: ‘Welfare, however, has no principle, neither for him who receives it, nor for him who provides it, one will place it here and another there.’
Second, welfare is a method of governmental action, or governance. The welfare mode involves a superior power having all of the rights and responsibilities to both make decisions and take actions on behalf of relatively powerless people. People on the ground are seen as passive recipients or clients. Whilst clients may be ‘consulted’ and the bureaucrats talk frequently about ‘community ownership’, the welfare mode invariably concentrates all initiative and resources at the discretion of the people who are supposed to save and serve the hapless and the helpless. Welfare as a method of governance is increasingly becoming a method of managing marginalised groups at minimal cost, without even maintaining the fiction that a lasting solution to the problems is sought.
Third, welfare is a mentality. It is a mentality which accepts the principles underlying the economic relationship and the method of governance described above. This mentality is internalised and perpetuated by recipients who see themselves as victimised or incapable, and having a right to assistance without reciprocation. But the mentality is also held by people in power, white and black.
This passive welfare paradigm has been particularly destructive in the governance of Aboriginal society. The notion that passive welfare is an important right of citizenship, and the fact that alternatives to the welfare economy of the communities of Cape York Peninsula are so difficult to conceive, let alone achieve, has meant that passive welfare has been at the centre of Aboriginal policy and economy for the past thirty years. Passive welfare is almost seen as the Aboriginal way, part of the culture. Recipients of passive welfare are far removed from the real economy and have been for a long time now. Children who have grown up in this environment have little understanding of and have never experienced life in the real economy.
One reason why passive welfare has been so devastating is that it was introduced into a society with a highly sophisticated and complex system of social relations, which placed high value on the sharing of resources and concern for the wellbeing of other members of the group. In the communities of Cape York Peninsula, prior to the impact of passive welfare, the exchange of resources within the community followed the traditional patterns 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. People who did not have resources now could provide for others when they did.
Passive welfare has distorted these cultural arrangements, and the traditional balance between the rights and responsibilities of our people in our society has been corrupted. Whereas the traditional system had reciprocity as a fundamental principle, the passive welfare-based Aboriginal society has removed responsibility and left obligation in place (on the part of others). Exploitation of weaker members of the society is now a strong feature of the system of social relationships amongst our people.
The economic is the social
My central thesis is that it is the economic issue of passive welfare dependence that continuously corrupts Aboriginal social relationships. If we do not get rid of this continuous source of social corruption, whatever good changes people try to make through social programs are simply not going to work.
The way in which economic resources circulate in the community has a clear impact on social relationships. Whilst in theory there tends to be a general acceptance of the relationship between economic issues and social problems, in practice economic issues relating to Aboriginal policy tend to be relegated to the ‘too hard basket’. To date, effort has been focused on specific health problems or behavioural problems such as domestic violence. But we cannot defer tackling the fundamental issue of the economic structure of our society. There has been too much of a separation of the social from the economic in both analysis and policy.
It is the nature of passive welfare that explains our social crisis. It explains the phenomenon that even as our material condition improved over recent decades, our social condition deteriorated. The nature of passive welfare has come to be the dominant influence on the relationships, values and attitudes of our society in Cape York Peninsula.
The influence of passive welfare on our relationships, values and attitudes soon came to be directly at odds with our traditional relationships and values. Invariably the outcome of the ongoing conflicts between our traditions and the nature of the economic base of our society, is that our traditions succumb and are eroded daily. We are now at a stage where the traditions we purport to follow are too often merely self-deceptions (that we care for each other, that we respect our elders, that we value our culture). The ‘traditions’ which we do follow are in fact distortions of our traditional values conditioned by the pathological social situation to which passive welfare has reduced us (that we sit around in a drinking circle because we are Aboriginal, that you are trying to be a flash white fella if you refuse your brother money for grog).
Why is the impact of passive welfare so decisive? The answer lies in Kant’s observation, that welfare has no inherent principle. The resources of passive welfare are fundamentally irrational. Whereas the dollar earned through a commercial or labour transaction has a rationale, the dollar given as a matter of course has none. Everyone in a passive welfare economy is susceptible to irrational (mis)appropriation and (mis)expenditure of money, because that is the very nature of the money. Money without principle is expended without principle.
When people have only one means of existence the nature of that income obviously influences their whole outlook. The irrational basis of our economy has turned us into a wasteful, aimless people. Like other people who can not see any connection between their actions and their circumstances, we waste our money, our time, our lives. We neglect our material possessions, our education, our social and economic development. We do not seize opportunities that arise. There always comes another day and another cheque. No one feels the need to use a sum of money for a meaningful investment or to use a day to build something that lasts.
The worst consequence of this lack of purpose is that it has compounded the effects of dispossession and trauma in making us susceptible to an epidemic of grog and drug abuse. In turn, this epidemic now has its own momentum and has made it inevitable that our scarce resources increasingly finance irrational and destructive behaviour. We must now deal with both passive welfare dependency and substance abuse simultaneously as these two problems feed off one another and undermine any efforts toward social recovery.
Limited space prohibits me from discussion of how we are going to fight the grog and drug epidemics in our communities. Suffice to say that if we are to get anywhere with these problems it must be clearly understood that the notion underlying most discussion about substance abuse, the theory that substance abuse is only a symptom of underlying social and psychological problems, is wrong (Bejerot 1978: 13).
Addiction is a condition in its own right, not a symptom. An outbreak of substance abuse is a psychosocially contagious epidemic (Berjerot 1978: 17) which breaks out in societies where there are people psychologically susceptible to trying the substance, and then spreads rapidly among people who did not use the substance at first, as it becomes less and less a breach of social norms to do so. Of course our history (including dispossession, genocide and the introduction of passive welfare) has indirectly caused the epidemic of grog and drug abuse in the sense that it made many of us susceptible to start using alcohol and drugs, and made many of us too weak to resist being sucked in. But the epidemic of substance abuse is now established in our society and independent of the original causes of the outbreak.
Achieving recognition of our land rights, improving our social conditions, treating our individual and inherited traumas, that is, doing something about the factors that made it easy for grog and drugs to spread, will not automatically end the abuse of grog and drugs, for two reasons: First, the addicts will simply use any improvement in our circumstances to facilitate their abusive lifestyle. Second, it is evident that, for most addicted people now, the critical factors that made them start using grog and drugs were the availability of the addictive substance, a modest income, time available and the example of others. It was not psychological or social problems.
Not even changing the passive welfare economy to an economy based on reciprocity will remove our grog and drug abuse, it will only make it easier to prevent new outbreaks of substance abuse once we have cured the current epidemic.
Passive welfare alone would probably not have caused our social disaster. But passive welfare dependence and the drink and drug epidemic reinforce each other and will, if not checked, cause the total breakdown of our traditional social relationships and values. The intrinsic force in the epidemic is now stronger than the force of our traditional social norms and values. What (when people are not drinking but hunting) is an obligation to share food resources with countrymen, is turned into an obligation to share grog. But now mutuality only occurs between people who are engaged in exploitation. Whilst the relationships between adults drinking might involve mutual obligation, these are the only mutual obligations that are honoured. The non-drinkers are also expected, and ultimately forced, to contribute resources to the drinking circle. And feed the families – including those who have spent their money on grog.
Drink and drug abuse coupled with an outlook determined by a passive welfare economy has proven to be fatal. People highly motivated by their addictions now regard and treat other people in our society in the same way as the passive welfare resource: these people (wives, girlfriends, parents, grandparents, children, relatives, friends) are no longer valued and respected. They will always be there and the addicts do not have to take any responsibility for them. These people are simply another source of resources (money, shelter, food, comfort and care) and they are treated accordingly.
Racism, dispossession and trauma
I have suggested that the nature of the passive welfare economy is reflected in our social relationships, and that it is passive welfare dependency which has corrupted Aboriginal society. But this is counter to the prevailing explanation of Aboriginal social problems in contemporary policy discussion. Our social problems are most often interpreted as a legacy of the experience of ‘colonisation’.
Who is right? Obviously the impact of the ‘colonial experience’ on our society has been immense. I will need a very strong argument for my interpretation of our history, in order to challenge the established view. Before I present my argument we need to consider the prevailing explanations of our social breakdown.
In discussions of our historical legacy there are three general themes that arise: racism, dispossession and trauma. These are said to explain our position in Australian society and are seen as the origin of the problems which this paper is seeking to confront.
Racism is a fundamental theme. Racism played a decisive role from the moment Europeans set foot on the continent and has never abated as a key issue for black people since then. When people talk about racism today they usually have discrimination in mind. Not official racism by the state, but informal discrimination caused by attitudes and expectations remaining from the days of legally endorsed discrimination.
Dispossession is also a fundamental theme. Much discussion has rightly centred on the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples from their traditional homelands. One of the features of the struggle for Land Rights however is that, in its discussion of dispossession, it has largely focused on the historical events which accompanied the process of dispossession: the acts of bastardry and shame of our frontier history. The discussion is also very strong on the psychological and spiritual effects of the alienation of Aboriginal peoples from their homelands (and this is of course related to the trauma which I will next discuss). The emphasis has arisen from the spiritual relationship of Aboriginal peoples with their land.
However, when one considers the dialogue regarding dispossession in the Australian context, one is struck by how little focus there is on the economic effect of dispossession on Aboriginal society. Whilst the loss of livelihood and access to hunting grounds is mentioned in discussion, the economic aspect of colonial dispossession is largely passed over. Of course dispossession is seen as not just a matter of history, it has a continuing legacy.
Trauma is the third theme. The process of dispossession and the operation of racism throughout history has resulted in trauma which is also rightly seen as a major issue in our people’s history and our contemporary society. Trauma is both historic and continuing. As well as the trauma associated with alienation from homeland, trauma is seen as affecting individuals and families who have experienced particular episodes of abuse (such as the taking of children from their families). The contemporary social problems experienced by individuals and families (alcohol and drug addiction, domestic violence and so on) are seen as related to past trauma. These social problems in turn create their own traumas: a ripple effect. Trauma is not just seen as an issue for individuals and families – it is seen in the context of communities (the community is traumatised) and indeed Aboriginal peoples are rightly seen as a sector of the population for which trauma looms as a large issue.
Our recent history can be seen as a sequence of phases characterised by the roles dispossession, trauma and discrimination have played at different times. Initially we were for a brief period simply formally dispossessed. This followed upon the (discriminatory) judgement that we were inherently less capable of using this land for the good of ourselves.
A phase of traumatic confrontation necessarily followed: murder, sexual enslavement and abductions. The effect of these crimes was compounded by the spread of diseases against which we had little resistance.
Official discrimination was the dominant aspect of the third phase of our confrontation with racism: the recent period after the breakdown of traditional society when we became a ‘protected’ people. The survivors of the traumatic confrontations were held down as an underclass. It was during this phase that institutionalised discrimination became the dominating aspect of racism. An enormous legal and bureaucratic apparatus was developed to manage the remnants of the beaten peoples. This system regulated the smallest movements and events in our lives, and we were still being traumatised, but more often through administrative decisions, for example in relation to the removal of children, and less so by violent assaults.
Today, during the current phase of our confrontation with racism, after the abolition of official discrimination, dispossession is still in place. Traumatic decimation of our people and disruption of our culture and families is the dominating factor of our collective psychology, and trauma is daily recreated in our dysfunctional communities. Whether today’s unofficial discrimination is just a regrettable residue of past official discrimination, or if it fulfils the same function of holding us down, is a matter of dispute. But it is there.
In the light of all this it is perhaps understandable that racism, dispossession and trauma are the prevailing explanation for our present difficulties.
I want to emphasise that I do not belittle the debilitating effects of racism and the trauma associated with the history of our dispossession. Racism is a major handicap – it results in Aboriginal people not having access to opportunities, in not recognising opportunities when they arise, in not being able to seize opportunities when they arise, in not being able to hold on to opportunities when they have them. Trauma is an especially difficult issue to come to terms with because its personal manifestations can be incapacitating. The many Aboriginal people with personal traumas caused by separation of family members and by abuse and violence are often truly incapacitated.
However, it is my view that we need to look more carefully at the economic effect of our dispossession. One reason for this is that it is a structural issue that we can actually do something about. This might be dismissed as mere pragmatism. But it can easily be demonstrated that my interpretation of our history reveals the origin of our problems and enables us to attack them at the root in a way that the prevailing, racism-focused interpretation of our history does not.
It is a widely held misconception that the egregious social problems suffered by our people in Cape York Peninsula today have been with us since our traditional society was ruptured. This is not the case at all. Anybody who knows the history of our communities knows that the kind of social problems that afflict our society today – and their severity and extent – were not always with us.
The abuse and neglect of children today does not resemble the situation in the Cape communities of the 1960s and earlier. The numbers of Cape York people in prison and juvenile institutions today are unprecedented: these are statistics that started to emerge in the 1970s. There was not one Hope Vale person in prison in the early 1970s. At any time today, there are up to a dozen or more people in prison. The same dramatic differences apply to the other communities in the Peninsula. Alcohol abuse in Cape York communities developed into the huge problem that it now is, only in these same recent decades. Petrol sniffing amongst children and youth in Cape York Peninsula was unknown until recently. The bashing of old people for money for grog was inconceivable in Cape York communities in earlier times.
Even if there is a range of reasons why these social problems have emerged in the last three decades of the century, it is certainly significant that the emergence of these problems coincides with the period when passive welfare became the economic basis of our society.
And yet the ‘service deliverers’ ignore the fact that the nature and extent of our social crisis is of recent origin, and their entire policy proceeds from this ignorance. This is hugely problematic for at least three reasons.
First, it obscures the fact that our society was once functional – not just back in the long distant pre-colonial past, but only a bit more than three decades ago. We have ourselves internalised this forgetfulness and we therefore lose hope. Second, the (racist) assumption of the service deliverers is that our social problems are endemic to our society. They proceed with their programs as though we were subhuman. Third, by ignoring the historical development of our problems, this assumption reinforces further misconceptions about their source: the erroneous assumptions that our social problems are the legacy of racism, dispossession and trauma and that our chronic welfare dependency is the end result of these social problems.
This generally accepted causal chain – racism, dispossession and trauma create social problems which create passive welfare dependency – is wrong. Both steps in the reasoning are wrong. Firstly, prior to the 1970s, even though racism was state sanctioned, dispossession had been well effected, and trauma was still fresh and ongoing in our society, we did not have the kind or degree of social problems we experience today. Secondly, our social problems did not come before our passive welfare dependency – rather our social problems arose out of the economic condition of passive welfare dependency.
Of course racism, dispossession and trauma are ultimately the explanations for our precarious situation as a people. But the point is: they do not explain our recent, rapid and almost total social breakdown. If we build our ideology and base our plan of action on our justified bitterness about what has happened to us we will not be able to claim our place in the modern economy, because our current social dysfunction is caused by the artificial economy of our communities and by the corrupting nature of passive welfare.
Why have we missed this insight? It is because the service deliverers, who do not know our communities and our history, have obscured these basic facts in their domination of Aboriginal policy. They have confused our earlier poverty with social degeneration. We have allowed Aboriginal policy to forget that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents struggled mightily to preserve our families and communities – our society, our laws and values – against great and constant attack, and we survived. Whatever our material deprivations, whatever our poverty, we had a strong if bruised society.
Our social degeneration in fact accompanied the vast improvement in our material condition from our earlier poverty over the past thirty years. We are socially poorer today despite vastly improved material circumstances.
It should not be necessary for me to say that I am not urging poverty as a solution to our social predicament. Rather I am seeking to draw the distinction between material poverty and passive welfare dependency. It is the latter which harbours the seeds of social destruction. The argument in this chapter is that poverty needs to be overcome via the development of real economies for our society and that we should utilise our welfare resources to develop an economic foundation to our society that is based on real principles. Antipoverty programs based on passive welfare have only produced ‘opulent disasters’ and this is now surely plain to see.
Principles for a solution to the welfare dilemma
The central thesis here is that we have suffered two catastrophic disruptions: first dispossession and then the introduction of the passive welfare economy. Is, then, welfare bad?
Not necessarily. Our problem is that we have been impacted by one aspect of the welfare state, namely unconditional assistance. Our experience of welfare undermines our traditional values and stops us from developing the attitudes necessary for successful participation in the modern economy. Our situation is a dilemma in the true sense of the word: a choice between two alternatives which both have disastrous consequences. We cannot remain on passive welfare, but we need welfare support for our immediate survival.
The solution does not lie in government abandoning its responsibility for the provisioning of resources to the Aboriginal communities of Cape York Peninsula. To say that passive welfare corrupted our society, is not to say that the resources embedded in passive welfare provisioning are not valuable. But when delivered as passive welfare, these resources are useless. If these resources were properly applied on real economy principles, they would not generate the problems which passive welfare has generated over the past thirty years. They could in fact ultimately facilitate our participation in the real market economy.
Why is it the government’s duty to provide resources for the development of our society? Some people have argued that cash pay-outs are compensation for dispossession, a kind of rent. But even if you accept this argument, the rent is not paid in a form that benefits us and we cannot live in an artificial economy indefinitely. No, the government’s responsibility is simply its usual responsibility to coordinate and facilitate the solution of an urgent social crisis. It has the responsibility to facilitate our return to the real economy.
But the government can only facilitate a solution, it cannot solve the problem. It also follows from what I have said that the government’s responsibility is only transitory, or at least not indefinite.
The reality is that we are not going to develop self-reliance in the short term. We are now 95 per cent reliant on the welfare economy, and our communities are not going to make even modest inroads into self-sufficiency in the next few years. We are for the moment stuck with government being the provider of these basic resources. Our focus must therefore be on how we can fundamentally change the nature of welfare while improving our engagement in the real economy.
Economic development is a generational challenge. This is because of the lack of resources and the need for education and training, in addition to all of the problems that attend economic development in remote Australia. Remote Australia is not an easy place to get economic enterprises going. The least skilled, least resourced people are living in the areas of Australia where it is hardest to get economic development going. That is our predicament.
The first step in leeching out the poison from passive welfare is to ensure that government stops interacting directly with individuals in our society, by 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. Reciprocity and responsibility must be built into all government-financed programs in Cape York Peninsula, the first aim being to stop the corruption of our society, with the longer term goal being to develop a modern economy.
I am conscious that this proposal may appear to go against the grain of the Aboriginal struggle as many people conceive it. It will be seen as discriminatory not to deliver passive welfare to Aboriginal Australians on the same terms as other citizens receive these benefits. But welfare reform is being discussed (and this book is being published) largely because of the negative effect passive welfare is seen to have on the lives of the relatively small marginalised group in the wider Australian community. A support system that has such a negative impact on the recipients obviously cannot be allowed to form the basis for the economy of an entire people.
If it is going to be possible to deliver the available resources on principles of reciprocity and achieve real development, a new interface between Aboriginal society in Cape York and government must be created. This needs to be established by complementary state and federal legislation so that all agencies of government – state, federal and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Council (ATSIC) – are involved in the interface. Government agencies, with their resources, need to sit on one side of the interface, and Aboriginal representatives of Cape York need to sit on the other side. All government programs and inputs must be coordinated through this regional interface. In the regional interface the people of Cape York Peninsula and the government representatives will jointly develop policies which move beyond the passive welfare paradigm. The question we must ask about each program is whether it will promote empowerment and economic independence in the long term.
The right to a real economy
It is said that we Aboriginal people have a right to passive welfare. Indeed, it is an entitlement which flowed from the recognition of our citizenship in 1967. Aboriginal leaders routinely defend access to passive welfare as a fundamental indigenous right.
But this is wrong thinking. We have (as all citizens in this country have) a right to an economy. Passive welfare does not offer our people a real place in a real economy. Nor does it enliven or energise recipients to take a real place in the real economy. Our failure to properly distinguish between passive welfare dependence and the real economy has seen us pursue, advocate, design and deliver policies which have more usually exacerbated problems than solved them.
Unconditional cash transfers were originally only a minor aspect of the welfare state which developed in the market growth economies. This was just intended as a temporary safety net. In white society passive welfare has become the only source of income for a small minority. Aboriginal people on the other hand have collectively lost their foothold in the real economy.
Yes, we have always said that we do not want welfare as a permanent destination for our people. But we have been living in passive welfare dependence for three decades now and the social consequences of this condition are devastating, as anyone who understands these communities knows. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities that have not experienced full-body immersion in passive welfare dependence do not appreciate how devastating it is. But look hard at the social problems in Cape York Peninsula. If my analysis is correct, passive welfare has caused some of the worst social disasters the world has known.
Our struggle for our rights is far from over. Nothing I propose casts any doubt on the correctness of our struggle for rights – including our unique position as the original people of this country. But ever since the Whitlam Government introduced the language of self determination into official Aboriginal policy, we have never been agreed as to its meaning. There is still interminable musing about the ‘powers’ and ‘rights’ which self determination should afford to Aboriginal people – but no clear idea, let alone consensus.
We have a right to an economy. We have a right to the resources currently tied up in passive welfare. We need to apply these resources on real economy principles to lift us out of the passive welfare economy. This is the right we have. We have the right to demand of government that we have access to resources for a real economy.
However, we have to be as forthright and unequivocal about our responsibilities as we are about our rights. Otherwise we will eventually get all of our rights and our society will have fallen apart in the meantime. The critical insight for those concerned with Aboriginal policy, at the highest levels and at the grassroots, is that in claiming the right to self determination, we are claiming the right to take responsibility.