Aborigines, culture and economy The past, present, and future of rural and remote indigenous lives

Australia’s indigenous citizens live in a wide variety of circumstances across both rural and urban Australia. Increasingly, their location is an urban or peri-urban one. Nonetheless, rural and remote Aborigines still comprise a sizable number, around 140,000 in an indigenous population of 460,000. Many reside on their countries and many have received land rights in the past 25 years. For most, engagement with a cash economy has been quite recent and brought with it expanding institutional links beyond an immediate locale. Made ‘remote’ because their regions lack interest for the national economy, or because previous industries have waned with enduring rural recession, these Australian citizens are confronted with the possibilities but also the challenges of cultural difference and rapid change. Among the latter, is marked population growth within remote communities that have relatively little net out-migration.

This circumstance embodies an explosive situation in which young men in particular will pass from youth into manhood in increasingly large cohorts with little education and few job prospects. Notwithstanding some variation in the circumstance of women and men, the overall situation is distressing and exacerbates often tense gender and family relations. For many young adults, the more conventional ‘make work’ and welfare policies have been unable to support desired levels of well-being. Moreover, this form of social-economic and cultural condition can obscure the relevance of literate education when the latter has limited impact in a failing labour market. Consequently, both children and parents struggle to make education a priority.

In this debate, effective responses are more difficult than critique. Moreover, the nature of public (and even academic) opinion adds further complexities. A striking feature of debate is the relative lack of information that most people have concerning remote Aborigines: their histories, and past and present engagements with the Australian economy along with the cultural commitments they retain. Too often the circumstance of poverty and demoralisation is interpreted on the one hand, simply in terms of weak ‘moral fibre’ or, on the other, as limited in relevance to a politics of cultural difference. Yet no cultural specificity can flourish in these conditions. An element of denial is involved in these responses to a situation that Altman has described as ‘intractable.’

The proposed workshop would employ the imprimatur of the ASSA to sum, analyse and, through publication, broadcast this circumstance, including its implications for well-being and culture. Initiatives, including new perspectives on indigenous education, small business, regional integration and hybrid economies will be discussed. Moreover, current policy will be placed in the context of a discussion of the appropriate expectations of citizens, especially remote citizens, in the nation state.

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