Outback escape can be a better life

Author: Dr Mark Moran
Head of Australia Program, World Vision Australia

Gary Johns (Myth of outback escape is unrealistic, Australian 4 June 2009) is wrong to argue that life in the outback is joyless for Indigenous people. For many people it is a peaceful, happier and healthier existence. Of course for some it isn’t. But this is no different to urban life which is good for some but not everyone.

To understand what life is really like for Indigenous people in the outback you need to spend more than a couple of hours in a cinema watching Samson and Delilah.

Instead you need to spend time with people in the outback to understand that life is not simply black and white and like any location, some people do well and others don’t.

World Vision is working in a number of remote communities in the Northern Territory. Life isn’t always easy there but most families in these communities are a far cry from being traumatised, despondent and in need of some kind of ‘escape’or mass exodus to urban centres.

We have to let go of the simplistic idea that squeezing Indigenous people out of the outback will solve problems of disadvantage. There is both advantage and disadvantage in urban areas, as there is in remote communities. We need a more complete understanding of the ways people who are disadvantaged can improve their lives, and of the support they need to do so.

There are jobs in the bush, including natural resource management, mining, eco-tourism and the arts. Aboriginal people face many barriers getting them but they are not insurmountable. It is these barriers we should be concentrating on lifting, by supporting skills training, education and access to jobs. It’s not about location. Proximity to jobs does not equate with increased employment.

The Argyle Mine in Kununurra employs large number of indigenous Australians. It did so by supporting Aboriginal people to learn the skills required and to overcome social barriers.

Greater effort in market development in remote areas is also needed. Markets around these economic activities are often missing entirely, or they are emerging or underdeveloped.

Research by the CSIRO shows a new carbon industry could create more than a thousand new jobs for Indigenous Australians and generate millions in income from land management practices such as fire management and reforestation.

Australian history is littered with the consequences of the relocation of indigenous people. We should be deeply wary of repeating these mistakes by adopting policies that result in the migration of Indigenous people into urban centres, especially if this leads to increased unemployment and social problems in these centres.

Census data confirms that employment and income levels for people living in town camps in Alice Springs are actually worse than people living in remote settlements. Migration of Indigenous people to the outskirts of towns like Mount Isa and Halls Creek have created marginalised communities with compounding social and economic problems.

By comparison, research by the Centre for Chronic Disease at the University of Queensland shows that Indigenous health is better in the outback, due to factors such as better social environment, better family support, a healthier diet, more exercise and lower rates of substance misuse. New research by the Menzies School of Health Research also demonstrates an association between Indigenous ‘caring for country’ practices and a healthier, happier life.

This is hardly controversial: the importance of the link between access to traditional lands and resilient communities is recognised in the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage framework, introduced by the former Liberal government.

There is no doubt that there are chronic issues of disadvantage in remote Indigenous communities. And we should all be concerned about the high rates of alcohol abuse, domestic violence and child abuse. Reform is desperately needed including welfare reform. The move by the Northern Territory Government to create more resources in 20 towns must be supported. But they need to be encouraged to go further and reach out to remote communities with the resources that encourage development.

Much of the recent debate has rightly focused on the plight of outstations, but in addition to this, there are more than 100 communities in the Northern Territory that are neither outstations nor the 20 proposed ‘growth towns’. What is the plan for these communities, many of which are the same size as Victorian country towns? Are these people to commute or relocate to the 20 ‘growth towns’ or to other regional centres?

As World Vision has seen from 30 years of working with indigenous communities, solutions must be created within and by communities themselves. There are successful job programs in remote settlements which have found synergies with local aspirations and skills including indigenous art, eco-tourism and natural resource management. The system needs to be more demand responsive to these opportunities to help strengthen communities.

Helping communities in the outback is in the national interest and the commitment by the Rudd Government and COAG to invest $5.5 Billion in remote housing and associated employment concentrated in 26 communities should be applauded. This now needs to be accompanied by appropriate market and skills development programs in those communities, to help people progress along development pathways that they have agreed for themselves. In addition, the Rudd Government must outline how it plans to service the need in the multitude of other remote Indigenous settlements.

Dr Mark Moran is Head of World Vision’s Australia Program. Mark’s paper ‘What Job What House was recently published by the Australian Review of Public Affairs (www.australianreview.net ). 

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