Welfare flaws clear in Arnhem Land insight, The Australian

Release Date: 
26 September 2014

Last week history was made when Tony Abbott took the seat of government to Yolngu country in East Arnhem Land.

To spend time in an indigenous community is an enriching experience: theory becomes practice; statistics become people of flesh and blood; gallery pieces become living culture.

We saw the inspiring as well as the heartbreaking. Discussions were held with indigenous people over their strengths and gifts to our country, as well as the problems we have to solve together.

Foremost among the inspiring was a deep culture, rooted in tens of thousands of years of practice. People proudly explained the interwoven family connections — how each person belongs to a clan and a moiety and that one must marry from the other moiety.

One cannot visit Yolngu country without appreciating they are a distinct people, maintaining a distinct language and identity, within the sovereign state of Australia. Many walk seamlessly in two worlds. The aspiration of the leaders is for all Yolngu to do so.

In the small community of Yirrkala, traditional owners are working with government to - establish 99-year township leases that will enable home ownership and business development. Incredibly, these fundamentals of modern society are just now starting to be possible across the large part of the continent that is indigenous-controlled.

The indigenous people of East Arnhem Land receive royalty payments from the Rio Tinto bauxite mine in Gove, the largest town. The leaders invest those payments in business initiatives such as timber-milling and furniture-making to get local indigenous people into jobs.

Micro-tourism ventures are under way, supported by Sydney business people such as Mark Carnegie. The opportunities in tourism — combining stunningly beautiful country with an engagement with the oldest culture in the world — seem limitless.

One could walk away having seen only these things and feel inspired for the future of these fellow Australians and the path they are leading. But beneath these examples remain deep- seated problems which, if they continued, would probably overwhelm all else, including their ancient culture.

Despite local attendance officers being employed and the presence of a Clontarf Football Academy, the attendance rate at Yirrkala Primary is at 55 per cent. Half the population is under 20, so poor education now will have an overwhelming impact in the future. Although there is a large local mine, the jobless rate among indigenous people in places like Yirrkala remains high.

I asked an indigenous elder why there were not more indigenous people employed locally when some jobs, at least, were available. She replied, "Drugs and alcohol."

The welfare system is possibly the biggest factor holding indigenous people back. More indigenous working-aged adults collect welfare than collect a salary.

It's an eye-opener to see our system malfunction on the ground. A local indigenous employer explained how the local Centrelink office had asked him to confirm a man he employed was no longer at his workplace.

This was despite the employer keeping the job open and telling Centrelink he wanted the man to stay in the job. But the employer felt compelled to confirm so his employee would be able to take the welfare option. Instead of doing everything to keep the man in his job, government was facilitating his transition to welfare.

It's too easy to be a welfare recipient when you do not have to justify your welfare payments. You can collect family tax benefits for caring for your children and sending them to school,  but you don't actually have to send your kids to school. You can be perfectly able to work but choose not to and collect Newstart instead.

Our welfare system was designed to act as a safety net and help those that genuinely need it, not to be a lifestyle choice. The problems we saw in East Arnhem Land were a perfect case study as to why our welfare system needs to be reformed. Why would you work when your house is provided and you can collect Newstart and family tax benefits with few obligations in return?

Indigenous leaders, including Galarrwuy Yunupingu, understand the poison of passive welfare better than anybody. In his farewell to the Prime Minister in East Arnhem Land, Yunupingu repeated his view that "government handouts are a one-way ticket that lead us nowhere".

Our commitment to indigenous Australians is we will engage, just as eight ministers and departmental secretaries did in East Arnhem Land. We will work with you to change the culture of hand-outs. We will work with you to get kids in school, adults into work and communities safer.

Government will no longer act as a vehicle handing out money without obligation; it will act as the enabler for indigenous Australians to take control of their future.