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Chapter 8: Empowering people in remote communities to end the disparity themselves

Every Australian has the right to choose where they live, but not to disregard the law of the land or accepted social norms wherever they live. The accepted social norms for families and communities all across Australia are that children go to school, adults go to work or are meaningfully engaged, and residents feel safe and secure in their homes and neighbourhoods.

However, this is often not happening when the occupants do not own their own home. Due to the lack of individual responsibility, these houses often become severely overcrowded. Individual land ownership needs to be unlocked quickly for first Australians to resolve this problem themselves and own or build their own houses. This would also save enormous taxpayer-funded construction costs and minimise ongoing maintenance bills.

More than 143,000 first Australians live in remote and very remote communities in Australia.41 Despite improvement over the last 10 years in some health indicators, dependence on welfare has not reduced in first Australian communities. At the same time school attendance and achievement have dropped, people are suffering the effects of alcohol and drug abuse, and there continues to be overcrowding in some locations like the Northern Territory.

Only 35% of first Australians in remote areas are employed in real jobs, compared to 83% of other Australians in the same areas. Of these jobs, only half are in the private sector. A staggering 82% of first Australian 17- to 24-year-olds in very remote communities are not fully engaged in work or study. More than a quarter of young women in very remote areas have already given birth to two or more children (compared to 4% of other young women across Australia) and their children are much more likely to be affected by foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Almost two-thirds of first Australian children in very remote communities are assessed as ‘vulnerable’ through the Australian Early Childhood Development Index.

The Remote Jobs and Communities Programme has not worked. Employers and providers find it confusing and bound by rules. Job seekers are frustrated because it promotes training for the sake of training, and so often real jobs do not emerge after training.

First Australian leaders want to assure a strong future for first Australian children supported by educated, active or working parents. They want every child to be nurtured to reach their full potential. Parents can have no better reason to get and keep a job than to provide a better future for their children.

Sober and respected first Australian leaders with cultural authority in remote communities called for the authority to require young people to earn or learn and not tolerate idleness, so that young children can have strong role models and can thrive in safe and functioning communities. It is imperative that they are supported by government to do so.

Recommendations in this chapter give local communities the opportunity to set up local governance arrangements that support jobs, school attendance and community safety. These arrangements can be built using the approach taken by the Empowered Communities group, but they need to be designed to be rolled out on a major scale. The arrangements should complement not duplicate or compete with functions of local government.

The creation of a national human services data hub based on the New South Wales Government’s existing data hub, set out in recommendations 6.4 to 6.5, will be critical to removing duplication, ensuring funding is allocated to the area of greatest need and allowing the public to hold governments accountable for funds spent and results achieved in servicing all communities. We are relying on the New South Wales Government to prove this system and warmly congratulate its initiative.

Government service delivery to remote first Australian communities has not been sufficiently effective and it is now time to both encourage and prepare community leaders to be responsible for the health, school attendance and career achievements of their member families.

It is difficult for leaders and others in remote communities to understand how and why decisions (that can have a huge impact in a small community) have been made by distant governments in Canberra, Perth or Darwin. A fly-in fly-out service may not deliver sufficiently strong trusting relationships between provider and clients, resulting in low usage rates, poor service and unaddressed need. On top of welfare, this approach creates even more passivity in communities. As Professor Fiona Stanley points out, the answer is to encourage Indigenous people to actively participate in all the decisions that involve them.

Even more important than competent and honest self-management of communities is the ability to own your own home and develop business on your own land. For most Australians economic security comes from home ownership or business investment to build self-reliance and complete the journey out of passivity and into financial independence. Reliable land tenure, predictable under common law, underpins most advanced economies.

Similar to the way mining and pastoral leases can coexist with Indigenous ownership of the land, first Australians should be allowed to take up long-term leases on their land. The Commonwealth needs to actively engage in a promotion of long-term leases that will encourage first Australians to raise finance to buy a home or start a business without affecting the underlying title (just like what happens in the Australian Capital Territory) and to dispel the misinformation concerning this issue. A long-term lease on Indigenous land should be no less valuable than a long-term lease on Commonwealth land.

The ability to purchase and use available land for home ownership and business is the key to prosperity, empowerment and financial independence for first Australians and their families. More than 20% of Australia is now Indigenous-owned under various land rights regimes, or exclusively controlled under native title, but it generates very little economic wealth or independence for the traditional land owners in many areas.

In fact, to underscore how necessary this measure is, there are fewer than 20 homeowners on Indigenous land with long-term leasing in all of Australia. Yet, if we unlock this land in the manner suggested, some 20% of Australia’s land mass, which is currently chronically underutilised, may be put to work by first Australian businesspeople and homeowners. Unlocking this land in the manner recommended in this report with strict timetables for land councils and governments will bring significant sustainable economic advantages to first Australians and, correspondingly, the wider Australian economy. This multiplier effect of introducing reliable individual land title underpins all advanced economies and could be substantial.

Northern Territory land councils and native title representative bodies are funded by the Commonwealth to support Indigenous rights to land recognised or provided through Commonwealth land rights legislation and facilitate the representation and assistance of native title claimants and holders in the pursuit and exercise of native title rights. This is because the formal recognition and exercise of native title rights can contribute to greater economic and social participation for first Australians. The Commonwealth provides annual funding of around $128 million a year for these purposes. Land councils and representative bodies have a significant role in working with land owners and native title claimants and holders, and the work is often complex and sensitive. Nevertheless, there must be incentive to be responsive to the wishes of traditional owners and native title holders for timely advice and action.

Elders, many of whom are native title holders, claimants or land owners, shared with me their aspirations for intergenerational economic and social development. They want to be sure these opportunities are not wasted on poor choices. Rather than just payments to individuals, a package of community benefits can do much to build the capacity of individuals where it helps the community interests and therefore the broader community—for example, low-cost loans or grants that encourage small businesses within communities such as a bakery, a laundromat or a butcher; or lowcost home construction or home purchase loans, scholarships and support to go to boarding school.