Basic Income A No-Brainer For Remote Indigenous Australia


This week is the 8th International Basic Income Week. It made me contemplate yet again Basic Income as an alternative worthy of serious contemplation as the employment situation in remote Indigenous Australia teeters towards disaster.

Even the optimistic spin peddled by the government’s latest annual Closing the Gap report notes that only three in 10 Indigenous adults are in work resulting in high welfare dependence, poverty and in some situations social dysfunction associated with inactivity. For many young people who experience even higher levels of unemployment there is a deep sense of anomie and hopelessness about future prospects.

Since colonisation and the destruction of the hunter-gatherer mode of production Indigenous people in remote Indigenous Australia have faced constant livelihood challenges. These challenges were exacerbated by centralisation associated with the establishment of missions and government settlements; colonial and mission authorities kept people busy but usually without any pay.

This all changed from the late 1960s with citizenship and notional equality; now people needed to be paid for their labour or else be entitled to receive welfare.

In the late 1970s, and with the intellectual guidance of HC Coombs, a new approach was piloted called the Community Development Employment Projects scheme, or CDEP. This was an innovative program that saw notional welfare entitlements pooled to provide funds to pay people for part-time work. The scheme began in 1977 and by the time it reached its peak in 2004 it had expanded to total 35,000 participants, primarily in remote Australia, and 265 administering community councils or organisations.

In 1987 I was commissioned by the now defunct Australian Council of Employment and Training to canvass options for providing cash to the smallest and remotest Indigenous communities called outstations or homelands. Using the Canadian Cree Income Security Program as a model, I recommended the establishment of a Guaranteed Minimum Income for Outstations program (or Basic Income) and a Capital Fund for Subsistence (Stakeholder Grants) be established.

My own research undertaken while living at an outstation, and literature search of the available Australian evidence indicated that people at outstations were generally active in self-provisioning but lacked access to cash income. Social democratic welfare payments designed for people assumed temporarily unemployed were not a suitable policy response to these unusual post-colonial circumstances where there were no mainstream labour markets.

While my recommendations were never taken seriously by the Hawke government, during the following decade a similar approach was developed on the quiet by some CDEP organisations. CDEP was refigured to distinguish its application in a variety of ways including to pay for part-time employment, as originally intended, but also to provide basic income support to people living at homelands.

CDEP worked well as basic income in such situations because people were not defined as unemployed and so were not ‘activity tested’ by social security officials. Importantly, any additional income they earned was not income tested and so they did not experience the disincentive effects of the social security taper – extra income earned did not result in the reduction of basic income from CDEP. And those receiving CDEP as Basic Income were trusted to pursue productive activity uninterrupted by the constant surveillance of the state and its agents.

From 1996 with the election of the Howard government, CDEP came under discursive assault; it was demeaned as being no different from welfare and like welfare seen as playing a part in the perceived dysfunction of Indigenous communities.

From 2005, after the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission that administered the program, CDEP was incrementally dismantled over a decade, first in more settled regions and then in remote Australia. The ideologically-laden economic rationalist reasons for abolishing CDEP were that it promoted inactivity, it was a ‘comfort zone’ that prevented people taking on mainstream jobs, real or imagined, and that it provide a means to avoid labour migration, including to available work in mining during the boom times.

CDEP was initially replaced by the Remote Jobs and Communities Program (RJCP), cunningly rebadged the Community Development Programme (or CDP) from 1 July this year in an attempt to cash in on the relative popularity of the previous scheme: CDEP and CDP are difficult to pronounce differently especially in Aboriginal English.

But CDP is fundamentally different, its 37,000 participants all in remote Australia and almost all Indigenous are all classified as unemployed. If aged 18–49 years they are required to work, up to 25 hours a week, 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, for a Newstart payment well below minimum awards.

The only incentive to participate in what is defined even by the government as ‘work-like’ activity is the threat of being breached and left destitute.

Published job seeker compliance information to March 2015, that my colleague Lisa Fowkes alerted me to, shows that over time RJCP participants are copping more and more financial penalties for non-compliance — see here — and that is even before the tough love new rules have been implemented.

In August 2016 the national census will be undertaken. In my view employment outcomes for remote Indigenous people will be so disastrous that they will have ‘the power to persuade’ government to adopt some form of basic income for Indigenous people who live where there are no jobs.

While there is an old adage ‘history shows that we never learn from history’, it is my optimistic view that a new Basic Income scheme might prove the exception.

A new Basic Income scheme has the potential to deliver remote living Indigenous peoples an alternative economy, where there is little mainstream opportunity and no intention to migrate.
CDEP as basic income especially at outstations has provided evidence that it can support productive livelihood activity especially where market, state and customary (or non-market) opportunity can be creatively mixed.

It is unfortunate that many of the community-controlled organisations that successfully delivered CDEP have been shattered and depoliticised as part of the ‘reform’ strategy.

Some of these institutions of Indigenous Australia took years to build up the capacity needed to support productive activity by their community members. It is likely that it will take years again for appropriate institutional strengthening to evolve to facilitate productive livelihoods for remote living people many living on their ancestral lands, many delivering important ecological services to the nation.

Basic income has been a successful mechanism for supporting ways of economic life remote-living Indigenous people value in the past and could do so again in the future.

With time, like CDEP it might be adopted in more densely populated regions and by non-Indigenous Australians. The marginal cost of such a scheme will be small, its potential to close all sorts of gaps significant.

Neoliberal governmentality paradoxically favours very orthodox imagined solutions to complex issues of remote development where diverse unorthodoxy is urgently required.

The time has come, as employment gaps for Indigenous Australians grow, to trial basic income as an alternative and objectively evaluate the outcomes – if such evidence-based policy making remains possible in today’s hyper-politicised policy environment where ideology seems to be the key factor in any assessment.

I suspect that in any objectively-assessed competition of policy approach for remote Indigenous Australia a Basic Income scheme will win easily – a far superior approach to the current neo-paternalism masquerading as a work-creation program that is destructive and deeply impoverishing already impoverished Indigenous people.

A version of this article was published on a blog for social policy commentary The Power to Persuade.

Jon Altman

Jon Altman is a research professor in anthropology at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, Melbourne. He is also an emeritus professor in anthropology at the Australian National University and was foundation director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) from 1990-2010 and a researcher professor there until September 2014. He is currently affiliated with the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the ANU and a University Professorial Fellow associated with the Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University.