False barriers to useful work

Release Date: 
5 November 2013

"Yes we can". Barack Obama's slogan in the 2008 election campaign was a masterstroke in changing the mindset from one of problems to shared optimism. The clear intent was to focus on what could be done, not what could not.

This same mindset shift is desperately needed in our collective thinking on Indigenous employment.

As Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister with a focus on Indigenous Affairs, I have been dismayed to find that too often language about remote Indigenous Australians does not focus on what people can do but on the barriers that prevent them from being "work ready".

It is a debilitating terminology reflecting an attitude that must be discarded.

With very few exceptions, every person is work ready because there are lots of meaningful activities and jobs any person can do immediately, even if they live in the remotest Indigenous community with the poorest skills.

I recently visited a remote community in central Australia covered in garbage. I asked the local providers of the Remote Job and Community Program why there weren't basic activities organised such as cleaning up the community when 200 able-bodied people of working age were sitting idle. I was told that these people weren't "work ready" and such activities were outside program guidelines.

The mythical division of citizens into one category that is work ready and one that isn't misses the fundamental point that we are all somewhere on a spectrum in relation to the work we can do.

In another Indigenous community, I was firmly told that the poor condition of the gravel road to the nearest large town was a barrier that prevented the 150 idle able-bodied adults from commuting to the jobs that were available one hour's drive away.

But I met one person who was commuting every day: the community's non-Indigenous RJCP job service provider.

In most remote communities, policies to get people into jobs are caught in a downward spiral. Every reason under the sun is accepted as a barrier against work, even if the evidence for the folly of the idea of barriers is right in front of their eyes.

Stephen from Ntaria (Hermannsburg) is one of the people providing this evidence. The people of Ntaria have a strong connection to their land and a rich culture, but Stephen didn't see this as a barrier. When the construction company consortium New Future Alliance came to Hermannsburg to build public housing, Stephen took the chance to become a trainee and learn a trade. When NFA began construction work in another remote community, Stephen and several mates from Ntaria went with them.

Without doubt Stephen has embarked on a life trajectory of work, training, good income and freedom. Some of the Indigenous people in the community where he's working now have decided to become trainees with NFA, perhaps inspired by him.

But Stephen's example fails to make an impression on most remote people, young people in particular. In my mind, society's insistence through attitude and policy that barriers stand between them and employment is a key source of their misfortune. Most of us would have succumbed to such an oppressive attitude from government and society.

George W. Bush famously spoke about the "soft bigotry of low expectations", but the de facto public policy towards many of our indigenous citizens is no expectations, or even worse: an outright hostility against the notion of expectations.

Indigenous Australians are not the only group who have suffered from this attitude. Historically, the outlook of some people towards people with disabilities was similar: focusing on what they could not do rather than what they could do.

We should never forget the suffering of Indigenous Australians particularly during the eras of dispossession, decimation and discrimination. But the attempt to compensate for past mistreatment with a policy aimed at helping indigenous people overcome barriers has made things worse.

Instead we must switch to Obama's creed in our approach to every able-bodied person. What can you do today? What can you work towards doing tomorrow? How can we support you on that journey?

It is only with this attitude that people will be active, engaged and employed - the ultimate lever for ending the disparity.