Welfare Or Gas Money In The Kimberley?

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Premier Colin Barnett won a resounding victory in the recent WA State elections – but in the seat of Kimberley, Greens candidate Chris Maher’s close contest shows that many in the electorate have reservations about the Premier’s gas precinct project in the Kimberley.

Barnett said that Browse Basin resource development would be the local Indigenous people's “one opportunity for economic self-determination”, their “one roll of the dice” after “thousands and thousands of years of occupancy”. The state policy push to industrialise the West Kimberley is now, he said, an issue of “Indigenous disadvantage”:

"I think the pressure is not only should there be some development or no development at all. The pressure is really: do we leave our people on welfare dependency or are we brave enough to give them opportunity at economic self-determination, independence and the pride and the place in the wider society that comes with that?"

For the Premier, the choice is stark — stay dependent on welfare or take up employment and training through the Browse LNG Precinct development project in the Kimberley. Given the right choice, over time Indigenous living conditions would be expected to be indistinguishable from the standards that prevail among other Australian citizens.

The Premier wants to see the "individualisation" of Aboriginal lifestyle and its transformation from welfare dependency to economic independence. How? Through participation in industrial developments such as the one planned at Browse Basin. He said:  

“How patronising is it if you think for a white community to say we want to have no development there and to offer no opportunity for Aboriginal people to achieve self determination and the dignity of pride of working, owning their own land, owning their own homes, seeing their own children properly educated and high health standards.”

The Browse Project Agreement (pdf) was signed by the State and native title party in 2011. It includes state commitments through LandCorp and the Broome Port Authority that will provide business development, contracting, employment and training opportunities for Indigenous participants.

Government employment and self-governance training programs will serve to facilitate the shaping of the political agency of Indigenous people.

Commenting on the $1.3 billion benefits package that traditional owners were bound to receive for giving consent to Woodside and the State government’s LNG Precinct development project, Professor Pat Dodson, Broome Yawuru elder, told ABC Radio National's 360:

"Just a lot of rearrangement of public sector funding. Most of it is just a rearrangement of what governments would be required to outlay if they’re going to address the inequities that are already in existence. I have a difficulty as a citizen having to go and beg for a government to provide me with the services that I require to have an equality of life in my own Country."

Sydney and Melbourne residents don’t have to sell their backyards. The Aboriginal people are the only people who have to trade their citizenship entitlements in order to get some benefit – and it’s dolled up as if it’s some form of compensation. It’s not compensation. It’s the public sector outlay that should already have been made to fix the gap.

Dodson may have a point. Among the regional benefits listed in the state’s project agreement with the native title claim party are a Regional Education Fund  — $20 million (indexed to CPI) (paid by instalments over a period of 20 years) commencing upon the securing of a Foundation Proponent and a Regional Indigenous Housing Fund  — $30 million (indexed to CPI) (paid by instalments over a period of 25 years) commencing upon the securing of a Foundation Proponent.

Whether regional benefits should, strictly speaking, be part of the native title party compensation is another question.

For the native title party itself, the state agreement includes $10 million for the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr Economic Development Fund; 2900 hectares of land (freehold or other tenure that Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr chooses) in the claim area; $20 million for the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr Housing Fund; $12.1 million Broome House and Land package; $5 million for the establishment and operation of the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr Body Corporate; and a block of land in the Blue Haze estate to build the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr Body Corporate office.

Some of these benefits – such as land and the housing fund – do appear to be citizenship entitlements. Others such as the identified Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr Economic Development Fund may have to do with the management of assets they would be able to access.

The funds earmarked for the Goolarabooloo Jabirr Jabirr Body Corporate would be used to fund the establishment and operation of the native title party’s interests.  This kind of development combines economic entrepreneurship and institution building.

Dodson attributed the “appalling level of social disconnect”, high level of incarceration and poverty, drug problems, Aboriginal youth suicides to “an interruption to a lot of the cultural knowledge and connection to Country”.

He saw the reason for the persistence of Aboriginal disadvantage, as essentially cultural, not economic. While acknowledging that “Aboriginal culture can’t be frozen in time”, he claims that the “ill effects of modernity” have a debilitating effect on Aboriginal cultural identification. Aboriginal people therefore should not be condemned for “not jumping into modernity”. 

The “ill effects of modernity” Dodson refers to might be due to the lack of recognition of the diversity or distinctiveness of Indigenous culture or, in the inequities that Indigenous people experience. In his view, one big hurdle is that Indigenous people lack real choice to meet their own needs and aspirations:

"We are not coming to the table as equals. We are coming to the table with a Westernised legal system that is weighted in favour of the industry, not with the Indigenous people’s needs and aspirations."

Professor Marcia Langton argues that in treating Aboriginal people “as victims of a brutal colonial legacy”, the state has been disposed to treating them differently and thus deserving of “exceptionalist” government income support. The result is programs such as the Commonwealth Development Employment Program (CDEP) and the Northern Territory Emergency Intervention that tended to isolate the “Aboriginal world from Australian economic and social life”. That is why she eschews the focus on Indigenous people as culturally different.

Rather she prefers to focus on the "here and now". “[W]hat works and what doesn’t work” depends to a great extent on “the effectiveness of statutes and mechanisms for the management of impacts rather than the political and ethnic categories into which groups fall”. She found that through indigenous employment as “an important part of agreements to mine on indigenous land”, the resources boom could transform the lives of Aboriginal people.

She saw merit in the willingness of mining companies to enter into agreements with Indigenous people and provide social infrastructure such as “literacy and numeracy programs, family and community support programs and mentoring of indigenous employees”. Such activities are part of the mining companies’ “social licence” that the government requires before they are given their legal licence to access their mining rights.

Deputy President of Broome Shire Council, Dr Anne Poelina, argues such arrangements are a transfer by the government of its social responsibility for infrastructure building to mining companies.

Professor Jon Altman views these changes in the bigger picture.  His 2009 monograph co-authored with David Martin depicts a political economy that sets the agenda for Australian governance, and frames the state’s development discourse from the perspective of energy-intensive industrialization.

He explains:

"[T]here has been an acceleration of a new economic order predicated on world trade and energy-intensive industrialization that is right now being challenged by a global slowdown. As a commodity-export dependent economy, Australia has been at the vanguard of the neoliberal order that has been so dominant in recent years … At such a time it is extremely difficult for any alternative development perspective, based on proven links to land and continuity of custom, to gain political traction."

This is especially the case because the Australia state is in the process of depoliticising Indigenous institutions and mainstream political channels. According to Altman, the dominant development agenda today has the support of the major political parties and of both the Commonwealth and the Western Australian governments. This agenda concerns the overarching framework to improve the condition of Indigenous Australia through mainstreaming indigenous Australians.

He argues that the goal of normalisation will not work because Indigenous people themselves possess agency and some are likely to resist enforced assimilation. Altman observes that governments are increasingly intolerant of diversity and seem unable to structure a state engagement with Indigenous citizens who have a right to live differently.

State and society are distinct interactive and dynamic entities. The state focuses on governance and institution building; society’s cultures and needs are more diverse. These are the dynamics we see at play in the Kimberley as Colin Barnett moves into his second term as Premier.

New Matilda

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