14. Viability of Aboriginal communities
The NTER Taskforce has recommended an approach to the long-term sustainability of Aboriginal communities based on an assessment of their viability. Future government funding for services would be linked to such assessment. The Taskforce appears to anticipate that only larger communities will be viable and therefore provided with: "adequate housing; a police station; a health clinic; an early childhood centre; a primary school; a store; independent employment opportunities; and access to a secondary school (which may not be in the community)".51
AMSANT is concerned that the issue of the ‘viability' of communities is being raised and decisions are being made without input from affected Aboriginal communities and in a manner that does not adequately address current evidence and future prospects concerning the economic, cultural, social and health aspects of communities. Instead, it appears that ‘viability' is being defined according to subjective criteria that under-values the role and benefits of smaller communities and outstations. It also appears to signal the intention of government to retreat from its responsibility to provide equitable access to services to all Aboriginal people in the NT.
Aboriginal communities and community-based organisations must be included in the debate about viability - not as an afterthought, but from the very start - and must have input into the development of any criteria around viability as it concerns the availability of government services and infrastructure.
Such input is likely to elicit evidence around the benefits and strong desire of some Aboriginal groups and families to live in smaller communities on or near their traditional lands. The following are some examples of existing and potential values of smaller in-country communities.
Public health benefits of outstations and homeland centres
There is increasing evidence of improved outcomes in the health and well being of residents living in outstations and homeland centres. Such communities have been associated with better outcomes in terms of:
- Chronic disease
- Parasitic and infectious diseases
- Family violence
- Suicide and self-harm
- Alcohol and other drug abuse
Any analysis of the economic viability of such communities must also take into account the savings to government that accrue from reduced costs relating to treating what would otherwise be higher rates of these pathologies in larger, centralised communities.
Economic potential of in-country enterprises
Recently there has been increased attention on the potential and benefits of developing Aboriginal employment and enterprises that can be carried out on traditional lands. Examples include:
- Employment and enterprises based on cultural and natural resource management;
- Traditional art-based enterprises;
- Cultural tourism;
- Cattle-based enterprises.
The existence of significant areas of traditional lands as existing or former cattle stations, and large areas protected as national parks or Indigenous Protected Areas present many opportunities related to the development of Aboriginal cultural and natural resource management expertise and enterprises.52 In addition to the economic benefits of such enterprises, recent research has shown superior health outcomes for Aboriginal people employed in cultural and natural resource management or ‘caring for country' work.53
Some opportunities cannot be predicted with current knowledge. For example, the innovative carbon abatement enterprise developed in western Arnhem Land54 was not possible until recent research demonstrated the reduced greenhouse gas emissions of traditional burning patterns. This has potential to be expanded to other parts of the Northern Territory and beyond.
It is clear that the NTER and ongoing planning around community issues must examine the economic, health and cultural benefits that are currently and potentially available. In these terms, the decision to cut CDEP was extremely short-sighted.
51. Northern Territory Emergency Response Taskforce: Final Report to Government, June 2008, p15.
52. Altman, J.C. (2007), Alleviating poverty in remote Indigenous Australia: The role of the hybrid economy. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Topical Issue No. 10/2007.
53. Burgess, C.P; Johnston, F.H, Healthy Country: Healthy People. Indigenous Natural and Cultural Resource Management and Health. Stakeholder debriefing paper. May 8, 2007. Menzies School of Health Research, Darwin, NT.
54. Altman, J.C. (2007), Alleviating poverty in remote Indigenous Australia: The role of the hybrid economy. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Topical Issue No. 10/2007.