For over a hundred years, people have lamented the plight of the Aborigines. Those of full-decent seem to have been trapped in a state of perpetual poverty and despair. Many have tried to help, spending untold millions helping them remain living on their ancestral lands with an endless procession of on-site training programs and meetings. Despite the millions of dollars and countless hours spent, their situation has not improved. In some ways, it is worse than ever.
Milton James, a long-time professional social worker who has spent much of his life working with Australia’s Indigenous people has been deeply troubled by this situation. He has now distilled his life’s work into two books that not only illuminate the real causes of this situation but also offer real solutions. These books are not the standardised, polished works of an academic, but rather a raw, honest account of the actions of a diverse range of stakeholders that have contributed to the predicament that Aborigines face today.
First, in The 1960s Aboriginal Fruit-Picking Scheme – A Critical Evaluation (2nd edition), James traces the history of the Australian government’s early attempts to help Aborigines adapt to the modern world. These began with the establishment of several state-run settlements and church-run missions in order to serve as temporary training centres that would transform them from stone-age hunter-gatherers to productive members of a modern industrialised society.
After initial efforts to create long-term and sustainable jobs in and near the settlements and missions had failed, a new approach was adopted. Willing Aborigines would be transported to other areas of the country, taking on seasonal jobs in the horticultural industry.
Despite highly encouraging results, the scheme soon fell apart. In the 1970s a radical left-wing ideology took root in Australia’s institutions. Under this new regime, the settlements and missions were quickly transformed from temporary training centres to permanent “communities”. These communities were separated from the rest of modern Australian life, and had no industry or economy to sustain them. These communities and the people living in them became completely dependent on the government. The consequences were horrific. The pervasive unemployment and generational dependency on welfare had psychological effects that contributed to a phenomenal increase in violence, outrageous levels of grog addition and a large and growing drug problem, child abuse and neglect, chronic but preventable illnesses, failing education, and paralysing apathy. Despite this, the focus remained on keeping Aborigines on their ancestral land rather than helping them to regain their dignity and self-reliance.
In his other book, Work, Not Welfare – Critical rural social work practice and the history of the Work Placement Scheme, James tells the story of his own attempt to correct the situation. In 2005, he began the Work Placement Scheme. This scheme focused on helping troubled Indigenous youths by taking them out of what had become nothing more than welfare ghettos and helping them get work in another area of the country. At the time, James didn’t realise that he was following the same path others had taken a generation earlier. Just like that earlier scheme in the 1960s, James’ scheme experienced success from the outset.
Unfortunately, the same mindset that destroyed the original scheme soon turned its attention to the Work Placement Scheme. James was appalled to see that his scheme and its results were being pushed aside in favour of political correctness.
The Work Placement Scheme was seemingly rescued by the intervention of one of the nation’s most respected Aboriginal leaders, Noel Pearson. Pearson took control of the project, intending to improve it with his concept of work orbits. However, it quickly became apparent that he had bitten off more than he could chew, as the Work Placement Scheme was soon run into the ground and the situation was made even worse by an influx of foreign workers taking up jobs that could have gone to Aborigines.
These two books provide readers with unique insight into the Aboriginal welfare industry. By analysing both of these schemes and their histories, it becomes clear why the Australian government has failed in its stated mission to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and will continue to do so for at least another generation.
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