Painfully slow progress for Indigenous affairs

Jamie Walker | The Australian | January 01, 2010

The glacial pace of progress for indigenous Australia is brutally highlighted by federal cabinet deliberations three decades ago to kickstart a national employment strategy for Aborigines.

The Fraser government records, released under the 30-year rule, detail the frustration of ministers wanting a return on the investment in jobs for indigenous people in remote areas.

Go to our 1979 Cabinet papers special section.

While Community Development Employment Projects had employed 600 people in the bush, and training programs to "encourage" indigenous people into the mainstream workforce were yielding encouraging results, the overall rate of unemployment for Aborigines had continued to rise.

By 1979, when cabinet received a progress report, about 40 per cent of the potential indigenous workforce was unemployed.

The last census, in 2006, listed the indigenous unemployment rate at 16 per cent, still three times the then national average. However, the definition of joblessness used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics excluded those participating in so-called work for the dole, through CDEP, meaning the true rate of indigenous employment was higher.

In April 1979, employment minister Ian Viner told cabinet the government was insisting that in areas where Aboriginal workers were available, it should be a condition of all commonwealth building contracts that locals be employed. However, "it seems that only a few additional jobs" had eventuated.

Prime minister Malcolm Fraser had written to all state governments enlisting support in expanding training opportunities for indigenous people. All states except Queensland had agreed to provide this, Mr Viner told cabinet.

That was not Canberra's only beef on indigenous affairs with Joh Bjelke-Petersen's state government. The federal Coalition government was at loggerheads with Queensland over a bid by the Yarrabah community, south of Cairns, for self-management and more secure land tenure.

Then federal Aboriginal affairs minister Fred Chaney told cabinet in November 1979 that Queensland had, generally, refused to co-operate on indigenous policy since the commonwealth had entered the field.

Exhaustive negotiations had gone nowhere with Queensland, and it was time the federal government took a stand on Yarrabah; then senator Chaney recommended that if necessary, Canberra should legislate to take over the community.

While cabinet agreed with him that a negotiated outcome with the Queenslanders was preferred, it stopped short of backing his fallback of taking on Bjelke-Petersen and taking over the indigenous community.

(National Archives of Australia)