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Rabbit proof fence not Jigalong's only barrier


One of the lasting images in my mind of the eternal absurdities in Aboriginal affairs comes from the Jigalong community, about 1500 kilometres north east of Perth and about as remote as can be.

This community, on the Canning Stock Route, was in 1977 about 400 people strong, comprised mostly of people who had come in from the desert to the north and the east, and their children and grandchildren. It had, for a time, been in the charge of an Americanised evangelical mission, and there was not a good deal to show in the way of creature comforts, or even basic items such as running water.

Among the kids, evidence of respiratory disease, trachoma, middle ear infection and skin infestation was virtually universal, and about a sixth of the people aged 60 or more were legally blind, generally from corneal disease and cataract. The only discernable source of water was a tap near an administration office.

But there were some things of which it was not short. On the wall in the admin office was one of a host of attractively presented posters prepared by the Western Australian Department of Health. One should wash one's hands after going to the toilet, it said.

I was discussing this, years later, with a (white) former denizen of those parts, who remembered visiting the community about 10 years later, delivering water by truck as a gesture from a nearby (300 kms away) mining company. In the same admin office, he said, was a delivery of mail which had just arrived, containing an unsolicited Gold American Express card for virtually every resident.

Had these been enthusiastically used to build up a massive pile of debt all over Western Australia, I think I would have cheered, but I very much doubt that the marketing exercise cost American Express much. There are not a great many Amex-taking businesses in those parts, or, for that matter, not an enormous number of people who can sign their own name.

It's quite a while since I've been back to Jigalong, but I would be prepared to bet a fair sum of money that there has not been a lot of discernible material or spiritual progress in the lot of its inhabitants. Sooner or later, however, a man from the Government will be along to offer them what will appear on its face the equivalent of the Amex card, together with some advice about as useful as the Department of health poster.

It will be the prospect of their own individual land title — or at least a 99-year lease over the bit of dirt upon which their shack, if they have one, is constructed. And a very generously subsidised mortgage with which to buy the shack will be offered — perhaps even the money to build a bigger one.

I do not expect haciendas. One cannot, apparently, get a mortgage unless one's income is $15,000 per annum, at which point the interest rate will be zero, together with various bits of help, such as a thing called a co-payment grant of $25,000 over ten years, an establishment grant of up to $13,000 (for legals, furnishing etc), a 'good renters discount' of 20 per cent on the sales price and 'money management education'.

Mortgages can be up to $300,000 — a bit problematic since it has proven impossible for mining companies, Aboriginal housing trusts, or, for that matter, privatised contractors hired by government appalled at Aboriginal incompetence, to build decent houses for anything like this in such places. Once one buys, of course, maintenance will be up to the buyer, which is somewhat problematic given that one should spend a minimum of about $25,000 a year in routine maintenance of even well-built dwellings in those parts.

No Aboriginal housing body is funded to do any such thing, of course, one of the reasons why, as the Minister responsible for Aboriginal affairs, Mal Brough, complained late last year that "we have invested around $2 billion in indigenous housing over the past 10 years without an appreciable increase in the number of houses".

The schemes will turn in part on improving rental housing services, and upping the shanty-ante, or rent, in such a way calculated, no doubt, as to make purchase attractive. That a good many people in places like Jigalong get significantly less than the dole because they subsist on work-for-the-dole schemes may also mean that many will find the $15,000 income minimum a bit of a glass ceiling.

Given the gap between the cost of providing houses and $300,000, even for those who can, as it were, smash this ceiling, the chasm between cost and value, and the lack of a real market for houses, it will be a challenge for banks, valuation agents and others to determine the fair price for a house. My guess is that, willy nilly, government will fund the gap with even less accountability than before, and that building companies, at least, will make a good deal of money.

There may be other conditions involved. Mal Brough was recently saluting the beginning of a process by which a few families in a Northern Territory outstation were put on the path, as it were, to eventual home ownership after being rented some houses. If they are good tenants, and if they send their kids to school, they will be allowed to start buying in two years. My guess is that the notional value of the house on sale will be about a quarter of the cost of construction, and that the length of the heavily subsidised mortgage will be about 10 years longer than the present actuarial calculations of the owners' likely life spans.

It looks, rather, that it is yet another variation of the notion that one can create economies out of everyone taking in each other's washing. If that is to be the case, it will not only be yet another cruel hoax on Aborigines, but a cruel hoax on taxpayers, many who want to see real progress for Aborigines, and who are being conned, by ministers and others, into thinking that this is on the way.

But silly as some of this seems, there may be some good ideas behind it. At the least, anyway, the direction of some of the changes is no more absurd, and no more calculated to fail, than some of the policies it is replacing, and anyone who thinks so is as much the problem as those whose faith in the new system blinds them to what one might charitably describe as the teething problems.

Remote Aboriginal communities suffer greatly from the undeveloped nature of their economies, and the institutional barriers we have created to prevent them developing. A good number of these barriers come from well-meaning but stupid ideas about cooperatives, petty socialism, antipathy to petty capitalism and distrust of markets.

It is, for example, generally agreed that cooperatively-owned stores in remote communities have inferior ranges of items for sale, often nutritionally inadequate, and sell goods for up to 50 per cent more than stores elsewhere. Moreover they are often badly managed, often defrauded (usually by imported white 'professionals' who escape punishment), invariably make no profits to reinvest, and provide little in the way of local employment, or worthwhile experience in self-management.

Organisations such as Woolworths and the Hollows Foundation are working hard to deal with some of these problems, but the biggest problem, it seems to me is that such stores are monopolies and that there has been, at least until Government recently has begun pushing for it, no competition. In even largish communities, moreover, there has been little evidence of the sort of small businesses — hairdresser shops are my favourite example — which even small villages have.

A major part of the Government's thrust is to get competition, and markets, going in such places, which could, or should, itself play some role in increasing the amount of economic activity and stopping the present cycle by which a great deal of the money spent on communities never gets there at all, or is immediately spent, from the community, on something imported from elsewhere. A market for housing, instead of uninspired management of housing cooperatives, is a part of this, not least if the encouragement of some entrepreneurialism brings in outsiders needing housing them must buy.

The cynic, however, must notice that the longest single document on the website of the Office of Indigenous Policy website is a report on how to get rid of red tape in Aboriginal communities. A quick reading suggests that its length is due to the fact that it doesn't think it a really bad problem.



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Existing comments

I was a District Officer in the then Department of Native Welfare in the mid 60's - a decade before the author's visit. The aboriginal residents of Jigalong lived in two separate camps as they were distinct cultral groups. One from the Pilbara and North., the other belonging to the Gadadjura and pitjanjara people. I recall a large ceremonial gathering at Wiluna with people from the North (jigal;ong) and east into the Great Sandy Desert.

Ther was one tap provided for the aboriginal people and it was disconnected as the missionaries told me that taps were left running and water was too precious. I have a photo of a woman digging into the creek bed to get water seeping up.

in a time when miners had a bad press, Mt Newman, then in its infancy, employed two Jigalong people, both arrivals from the desert with no English. Mt Newman camp, as it was then, contained many new arrivals to Australia and English was not a common language!

An interesting side issue was that both men had three wives and several children. The site accountant prepared their first ever tax return and claimed for each wife. The tax office objected but it was pointed out that under Western Australian law, 'tribal' marriages were recognised no matter how many wives were involved!

Another point that I recall favourably was that there were two families living at Mount Newman and the company respected them and placed their land out of bounds while construction went on around them.

Keith Martin | 13 June 2007  

Having just returned from a week long services trip to Jigalong, I suggest a rider be placed on this article detailing it's considerably outdated observations. General store costs were comparable the nearest 'white' township of Newman.. Using a western society hairdresser shop as progress waypoint .. oh dear .. the place now has 1/2 Olympic size swimming pool , cool atriums with tables and chairs and radio .. a mobile phone tower connects them to 3G and internet .. a net cafe also ! All housing has power, hot+cold water, the township has reverse osmosis water plant, satellite Tv per premise ! .. phonecard payphone !! Largest issue faced by remote communities are those distant correspondents who control the allocation and application of funding ... who stereotypically have not visited to acknowledge the desolate remote lifestyle, community needs and associated service/support requirements. regards Wayne

Wayne | 19 March 2015  

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