The Invisible Indigenous Economy

Posted by in Culture, Development, Ecology, Economics

“As insiders in the indigenous advancement business know, and concerned outsiders suspect, and politicians flinch from acknowledging, remote Aboriginal Australian communities are caught in a downward spiral and the prospects for the foreseeable future are bleak. Official statistics on Aboriginal social trends are artfully framed to blur the true picture but on the ground the truth is plain enough to see.” (condensed from Nicolas Rothwell’s article in the Australian June 4 2016)

Preventable diseases are present in plague proportions, there is an epidemic of self-harm and suicide among the young, marijuana abuse is everywhere. Initiatives to improve education outcomes and boost school attendance in the bush have proved unavailing; despite vast investment, there is a grave housing shortage; every brave new economic or social policy blueprint tried in recent years has failed.

Yet there is no longer any well-informed public debate or discussion of this continuing disaster or its long-term implications for Australia. What a contrast with the landscape just a decade ago, in the run-up to the Northern Territory Emergency Response, when fresh exposes on social chaos and child neglect in remote communities were broadcast almost weekly and federal ministers spoke in heated terms of a national crisis unfolding in the bush. Then it was crisis; today it is mostly silence.

One voice can still be heard regularly, scrutinising and explaining the fine detail of indigenous policies, teasing out the implications of new announcements and schemes advanced by the federal government, seeking to provide some road map to the fresh initiatives and human engineering efforts of the state.

Jon Altman is the founder, in 1990, of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University in Canberra. Altman has a theory to his name: the “hybrid economy” model he advocates as the best path to sustainable development for the remote indigenous communities of the savanna and the north.

Assessments of this hybrid blueprint stand at the heart of Engaging Indigenous Economy, a new collection of essays devoted to Altman’s work. But the real-world test of the idea is already under way, for the hybrid schema is both the road not taken in Aboriginal affairs policy and the road secretly travelled.

engaging indigenous economy

The schema itself is straightforward enough. It can be simply represented as a Venn diagram of three intersecting circles: the state-funded economy, the market economy and the “customary” economy. Where these realms intersect, Altman argues, the most productive linkages occur.

The idea grew out of his experiences while observing clan life at Mumeka in the Northern Territory, home of the celebrated Kunwinjku artist John Mawurndjul. His fieldwork began in mid-1979, in memorable fashion. He drove from Canberra to Mumeka outstation in a well-equipped, capacious trayback four-wheel-drive, which he immediately succeeded in bogging in the Mann River, close by his destination. Mumeka was deserted — all its residents were at an important ceremony elsewhere in the plateau country of Arnhem Land.

A few months later, though, his apprenticeship was well under way. He learned about the links between his Kuninjku hosts and their environment by living with them and “engaging in their very human economy”, by sharing their world and seeking to understand its precepts. At this remote out­station Altman was able to track the continuing importance of customary hunting and food gathering. This led him to the realisation that the traditionally accented life lived on such family settlements was not only healthier than subsistence in a large, welfare-dependent community but it could also provide the basis for a new way of conceiving a bush-based economics.

Much of Australia’s most pristine environment and many of its key biodiversity areas were within Aboriginal-owned land estates and needed to be managed. Indigenous people in the bush could thus reframe their social position and develop new streams of income. They could work not just as artists and makers of artefacts but as rangers and fire managers, as custodians, public servants of a new kind, charged with responsibility for overseeing and safeguarding their own land. Altman married this idea with his enthusiasm for the locally run Community Development Employment Projects scheme: the basis for a new way of structuring the remote economy shimmered into view.

This vision collided with the hard reality of national politics in 2007, when prime minister John Howard and indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough announced their decision to intervene in the Northern Territory. The CDEP undertakings were axed and an era of intensive controls over remote community life began.

Independent-minded experts are no longer of value in the new environment: “There has been a rapid increase in the number of research organisations and consulting firms willing and able to undertake research work to government-dictated agendas, as policy development has been commoditised, and, in the name of competitive tendering, governments pick and choose.”

This new governmental world has several striking features, and there has also been a crucial change in the institutional architecture — for it has been possible to impose broad-brush coercive policies with such bold abandon only since the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission’s demise and the silencing of representative indigenous voices from the bush.

In the wake of the intervention, backed as it is by both major political parties and by prominent Aboriginal opinion-makers, there is scarcely any scope for reasoned debate or argument about the design and implementation of policies for the communities of the bush: the enthusiasm for Aboriginal art, dance, film and music serves as a strange counterpoint to the pervasive ignorance and neglect of conditions on the ground in the surviving heartland of the indigenous world.

Meanwhile, systematic governmental failure has bred official subterfuge. The pattern of deception and misinformation about the state of remote Aboriginal communities and the impact of official policies has now reached an Orwellian extreme: day is night and night is day. One would have to look back more than a decade to find the last halfway accurate media release issued by a minister for indigenous affairs.

Viewed from today’s perspective, with smoke still clearing from the rubble left in the wake of the initial Emergency Response, six years of Labor’s Stronger Futures policies in the bush and three years of chaotic restructurings by the Coalition government, several striking points become plain.

First, the new dispensation promised for remote communities by the intervention has yielded nothing: there has been no uptick of local private enterprise, no rush to take up home ownership opportunities, no marked increase in investments in the Aboriginal bush.

Second, the various pilot reforms and programs associated with the new thinking have proved ineffectual. The costly Cape York reform project has generated no appreciable economic change in its four trial sites; statistical research finds no great behavioural change in the wake of the intervention in the Territory; and the nationwide Empowered Communities scheme now being promoted by Noel Pearson and the publicists of his Cape York Partnership is viewed by many senior bureaucrats as a complex and ill-engineered distraction from the problems of the remote world.

Third, and most intriguing, there is an emerging, de facto new model already in place in several communities and outstations, both in the desert inland and the remote north. It is a ragged system, inelegant, underfunded and unco-ordinated — and that model is a vague, distorted cousin of Altman’s initial blueprint for a hybrid economy.

There is a system of community-based work, mostly ill run by distant job service network providers; there is a fair amount of indigenous “customary” hunting and foodstuff gathering to supplement the high-cost supplies available in the stores; there are art centres in place that pay locals to create emblems of their traditional culture; there are publicly funded activities and extensive ranger programs; there are training and municipal employment schemes aplenty.

This is a vast archipelago of overlapping interventions and social remediation projects under way, though they often have the air of being deployed more for the benefit of their employees than for the Aboriginal men, women and children they are notionally designed to assist.

This does not mean the hybrid economy model has been put into practice in any conventional sense of the word or that it should serve as the natural blueprint for community development, Aboriginal advancement or sustainable management of the remote environment — merely that something like it has emerged as a stopgap and filled a vacuum.

A strange state of affairs, given the ferocity of Altman’s critics. Several of them are in full voice in the essay-chapters of Engaging Indigenous Economy, itemising and assailing the flaws and limitations in the hybrid schema, both as description and prescription. The approach has an element of utopianism, it is a model that can apply only in the remote bush, its dream of securing rent-like land income may lead to increased dependency.

The charge-list is long, the scornful questions sharp. Do indigenous marine rangers know their seas and coastline? Is traditional knowledge any real use in managing a savanna forest? Are the conservation projects in operation today much more than white fantasias employing token Aboriginal frontmen?

The bar indigenous environmental engagement ventures must surmount is twofold for such sceptics: the scientific and economic worth of the projects must be proven and their indigenous content as well.

Altman’s response to his critics is tactful and tentative. He doesn’t just fall back on the key argument that managing the remote reaches of the Australian continent requires a modest degree of occupation and human presence, and the only population now available to fulfil this role is the indigenous population already in place.

Altman likes to highlight the messy, haphazard nature of the modern frontier, where the points of contact and engagement between the mainstream and indigenous realms are so various and fast-changing that simple plans and blueprints inevitably fail. “It is important,” he says, “that the complexity and diversity often evident in such situations should be properly complicated rather than absurdly simplified into false binaries, like modern or primitive, metropolitan or remote, white or black, market or customary, individual or group.”

It is clear that his engaged perspective and his personal commitment to Aboriginal remote communities stem not merely from an intellectual or political analysis but from an emotional loyalty. “I have never abandoned Mumeka and have been back there over 50 times,” he writes. “I try to repay people there for my training and their hospitality by advocating for them and their very different way of living.”

This is the perspective of the modern anthropologist; it also has something in common with the methodology of some writers and artists. It is a perspective that seeks to know, rather than to reshape, the world it studies.

Nicolas Rothwell is a senior writer on The Australian. This is an edited version, the full text can be found at

Engaging Indigenous Economy is edited by Will Sanders ANU Press, 306pp, $45