Marcia Langton
The silence on Indigenous issues in the 2016 election

Why the very loud silence on so many of the key Indigenous policy issues during this election campaign? This question – among many more – is being asked by ordinary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country.

I could start with any of the questions that Australians of any culture or origin are asking. “When will I get the NBN to my place?” for instance. Or: “Why is the NBN so slow?”

Indigenous Australians are asking these questions, too. But the media coverage of Indigenous issues spins on a few old shibboleths: corruption in Aboriginal communities, where this time it was the whitefellas cleaning out the bank accounts; the Queensland government closure of the Aurukun school, and uninformed, biased speculation about the results of the Good to Great Schools approach at the school, initiated by Noel Pearson; Queensland independent MP Billy Gordon’s drink-driving charge; and the AFL’s Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round. To talk about anything else is too difficult, too serious. It doesn’t keep First Australians where they are supposed to be; doesn’t use the same old stories to keep us in our place.

But back to the NBN. Because it is important. Out in the bush, connectivity is a high priority, not that you would learn about this by listening to election debates. In remote areas, getting clear radio reception is a challenge.

Daniel Featherstone, the general manager of the Indigenous Remote Communications Association, issued a Call for Government Support for the Indigenous Media Sector. The document asked the major political parties eight questions. These questions were neither complex nor abstract. Together, they gauge each party’s commitment to providing essential communication and broadband services, and satellite-delivered remote Indigenous radio services. Self-help radio retransmission services in remote Indigenous communities are critical during emergencies, cyclones, floods and storms, and the Indigenous media sector as a large part of our civil society beyond the Great Dividing Range does more than its fair share of voluntary work for the nation.

The response, though, has been that very loud silence I mentioned. There has been not a peep from any minister or candidate as far as I can tell, although Featherstone sent letters far and wide to all concerned in the political class. He told me no one has got back to him.

Do you know anyone under the age of 25 who is not on social media? I can’t think of anyone. In the bush, the larger proportion of Indigenous people are under the age of 30 and many use social media. The use of social media to communicate with Indigenous people was raised when Mick Sherry of the Australian Electoral Commission in the Northern Territory told the ABC that it was likely half of the Northern Territory Indigenous population is not enrolled to vote. The highest proportion of Indigenous people are in the Northern Territory – about 30 per cent of the entire Indigenous population. Many are young. Aboriginal leaders suggested that the electoral commission use social media to connect with them.

Nationally, 57 per cent of the Indigenous population is under 25, compared with 34 per cent for the general population. These young cohorts in the Indigenous population use new media as their basic, everyday means of communication and news. With their health, especially the health challenges they face, and their status as the majority of our population, government commitments to the Indigenous media sector should be immediate and intelligent. Sadly, that is not the case.

But that is not a story in this campaign. Instead, once again, news that says “New DNA technology confirms Aboriginal people as first Australians” is the order of the day. Which is important only in case you end up in the inevitable argument with a taxi driver who believes in the little pygmies that we were supposed to have wiped out.

An anxious panel of Aboriginal hipsters debated with Stan Grant whether this discovery challenged the ancient beliefs about our origination in special places. They wrangled the science and belief systems into shape without too much embarrassment and showed how modernity and our ancient traditions can coexist.

But this dissonance between the modern and the ancient is not the main game for most Indigenous Australians. Their phone credit and internet coverage is of much higher priority. And, it must be said: it’s the economy, stupid.

The disastrous new model of funding the Indigenous sector, the so-called Indigenous Advancement Strategy, that left hundreds of frontline essential service organisations without funding while church and sport groups fared well, has not rated a mention. Nor has the punitive impact of the Community Development Program been in the media, despite the suffering it is causing. These programs with Orwellian names represent a raft of pointless policies that operate, not as the disincentives for economic disengagement that underpinned the original reasoning, but as instruments for bludgeoning Aboriginal people who are unable to find work. Kate Wild of ABC Radio’s AM program reported thousands of suspended social security payments in remote areas where the Community Development Program operates. To receive full payment under this work-for-the-dole scheme, people must work 25 hours a week over five days. After its Coalition government rebranding and insertion of punitive clauses less than 12 months ago, the program has resulted in severe detriment: more penalties than jobs, and food sales have dropped in some areas after tightening of dole conditions

Lisa Fowkes of the Australian National University, quoted on AM, said Department of Employment data released last week showed about 6000 people had their work-for-the-dole payments suspended for eight weeks between July and December 2015.

The chief executive of the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation, Alastair King, confirmed that the sale of fresh food at the association’s stores had dropped 10 per cent since January, when the government tightened rules on penalties for people who did not meet their work-for-the-dole conditions. He said the organisation was prompted to check its supermarket figures after reports that people were arriving at work-for-the-dole activities hungry.

King said sales of baby food and meat had dropped more than 20 per cent since January, and people were buying cheaper tinned and processed food.

He said he was confident the sales figures were connected to work-for-the-dole financial penalties because the two trends started at the same time. The minister responsible, Nigel Scullion, denied these trends could be attributed to the scheme.

The hand-wringing at the next annual Closing the Gap event in Canberra will be ferocious as the health and unemployment targets move further away under the weight of this policy mess.

What should also be of great concern to all Australian taxpayers and the political class are the levels of financial literacy in the Indigenous population and of superannuation savings in our working population. Both are at woefully low levels. Josephine Cashman, of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, and I have written about these two issues and urged policy reform. Again, we have met that very loud silence.

We reminded the nation during the week of the Closing the Gap report in February this year that the target of halving the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2018 will not be reached without rewarding employment in the usual ways that apply for other Australians. Record levels of public funding are failing to produce any direct impacts towards economic sustainability for Indigenous Australians. Instead of motivating Indigenous people to work towards their own financial wellbeing, it has encouraged a continued reliance upon government for Indigenous welfare. We recommended that the federal government redesign the Community Development Program to equip participating workers with the necessary financial literacy to enable them to participate in the economy.

The scheme’s reach is vast. It is delivered across 60 regions to more than 1000 communities, which are dispersed across 75 per cent of Australia’s landmass.

These regions are typically characterised by weak labour markets, which make it difficult to find work or to gain work experience and skills. There are nonetheless some 37,000 people supported by government in Community Development Program jobs, of whom 80 per cent are Indigenous Australians, and in each of the scheme’s regions is a provider that serves as a single point of contact for all participating workers and employers.

Cashman has advised that Indigenous Australians generally have lower coverage and balances than the general population. Superannuation coverage for Indigenous Australians is about 70 per cent for men and 60 per cent for women, compared with rates of 85 per cent for men and 80 per cent for women for the general population. Balances were also lower than for the equivalent Australian population as a whole. Increases in the superannuation coverage and average balances of Indigenous Australians would be clearly associated with improved involvement in paid work and wage increases. Labour market measures, rather than superannuation policies, would drive these labour market outcomes.

Superannuation is an integral part of Australia’s financial system. It boosts national savings, provides capital for financial markets, and guarantees a nest egg upon retirement. Superannuation has become more than a financial asset; it is a national retirement solution.

Yet there remain many inequities that bar First Australians from entry into superannuation. The need for reform is urgent. Australia’s existing superannuation provisions are inadequate for Indigenous people, particularly those who have worked in jobs funded through government schemes, such as the former Community Development Employment Projects, without paying any superannuation. The need for tax reform for low-income earners and improved access to superannuation services also present significant barriers. However, it is improved financial literacy, which is so fundamental to addressing economic disadvantage overall, that is critical to ensuring Indigenous Australians are adequately equipped to participate in superannuation fully.

It is not DNA science but economic issues that most concern Indigenous Australians. Unfortunately for us and our future, politicians are not listening, much less talking.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2016 as "Silent issues".

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Marcia Langton is an Aboriginal writer, a descendant of the Yiman people of Queensland. She is professor of Australian Indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne.

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