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Issue #1652      August 20, 2014

Dispossession, disempowerment

The Forrest “solution” for first Australians

Mining magnate Andrew Forrest’s “Creating Parity” report is a recipe for wiping out Native Title, clearing outback Indigenous communities off their land, private sector control of their lives and assimilation. It is a simplistic, paternalistic, racist strategy for the dispossession and further disempowerment of Indigenous Australians, produced by a mining magnate and his head office team for the sole benefit of mining corporations.

Andrew Forrest.

The report goes far beyond its terms of reference – Indigenous jobs and training – proposing a radical overhaul of the whole social security system. In particular, income support “payments” for working age Australians would no longer be made in cash but through a “Healthy Welfare Card”. TAFE would be replaced by employer-driven training provided by private companies.

The government-commissioned review was released by the Prime Minister on August 1. It purports to be a strategy to “finally end the cycle of entrenched Indigenous disadvantage” and there is a great deal of rhetoric about “empowering people in remote communities to end the disparity themselves.” But nothing could be further from the truth.

Forrest’s report is based on the myth that Australia is becoming welfare dependent, mostly due to the failings of those receiving government payments, who do not want to work and cannot manage their financial affairs. This is pure fiction on all counts.

An examination of the figures shows that over the past decade income support payments have shrunk as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP). Newstart (dole) payments cost the government $7.49 billion or 0.5 per cent of GDP annually. (See www.solidarity.net.au/abbott/the-myth-of-soaring-welfare-costs)

Forrest likes to be seen as a philanthropist, who loves and respects Aboriginal people and promotes Aboriginal jobs. He has actually established programs for Indigenous employment.

At the same time his company has a reputation for the lowest payments in Western Australia for land access agreements with the holders of native title.

“No individual has benefited more from this mining boom than Andrew Forrest, whose personal wealth derived from massive iron ore deposits on his company’s mining leases in the Pilbara is well into the billions,” Kerry O’Brien said, on the ABC Four Corners program. (“Iron and Dust”, 18-07-2011 – transcript available at abc.net.au/4corners/content/2011/s3272125.htm)

Since then his iron ore operations have been expanding at a rapid rate. But Forrest has proved very reluctant when it comes to recognising the rights of Indigenous people as illustrated by Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group’s divisive war of attrition against the Yindjibarndi people in the Pilbara in WA. FMG took out 43 exploration tenements covering half of the 13,000 square kilometres of Yindjibarndi land.

“Andrew Forrest is replacing government welfare with mining welfare, which in effect creates native welfare all over again. This is because Aboriginal people will still not have the sovereignty over their land and the autonomy over their communities and destinies,” Michael Woodley, CEO Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation, told the Guardian in an interview with Richard Titelius (“Yindjibarndi Aboriginal people take on WA FMG mining magnate”, Guardian, #1512, 03-08-2011)

“Welfare dependency”

Chapter 5 is titled “Building capability, dismantling the cash barbeque and eliminating disincentives”. This “cash barbecue” (income support payments) according to billionaire Forrest, acts as a disincentive to work and training, so must be removed. Never mind the loss of dignity or independence that this inflicts on its victims. All government income recipients are tarnished with the same brush of being incapable of managing their own affairs and having no desire to work.

“Our all-cash welfare system hypocritically encourages continuance of poor short-term choices, steering a person further way from the workplace and a healthy lifestyle,” writes Forrest attempting to defend his report. (Australian, “We have a mutual obligation to end the welfare trap”, 02-08-2014)

Income management

“Regrettably, a proportion of first Australians have been left behind and suffer circumstances similar to those of many other disadvantaged Australians. These outcomes are not caused by their Indigeneity, but result from unemployment, welfare dependency, poor choices, limited capacity, remoteness, and a lack of education, prenatal care and early childhood development.”

Forrest ignores the obvious – genuine job creation programs, more schools, better health services, Indigenous people managing their own affairs, etc. He also does not recognise the importance of languages and culture, and attachment to land.

Instead he would “empower” them and “increase their capacity”, with a new “healthy welfare card”.

It would replace the present welfare debit “Basic Card” in use in the Northern Territory since the 2007 Intervention and extend it to all income support payments except for age and veterans pensions.

The card would replace cash and restrict what can be purchased with it. Forrest claims that giving unemployed first Australians cash payments has disempowered them.

Income management reflects an underlying thread of coercion rather than support and education that runs through the report.

Withholding cash

“Ramping up income management and withholding all cash from 2.5 million people is a deeply alarming suggestion and the government needs to reject it completely,” Senator Rachel Siewert, Australian Greens spokesperson on family and community services said.

“The idea that all working age income support recipients would have their payments withheld is beyond excessive and cannot be justified.”

The extra administrative cost of administering the Basic Card, according to the Canberra Times Editorial (03-08-2014) is about $100 per week per family – an extra $100 per week in payments and provision of essential services and housing would be far more effective in reducing hardship and improving social conditions.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s response is quite disturbing: “Labor will not stigmatise everyone who receives a government pay of working age and just put everyone in the same category.” So Labor will only stigmatise some people?!

Kirstie Parker, the co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, described quarantining of payments (income management) as “a tool to disempower people, including the majority of welfare recipients, who do the right thing, who look after their families, who send their kids to school and do actually look for genuine, meaningful employment.

“Taking control away from people over even the basic decision making in their lives is disempowering and will make them more ‘welfare dependent’ and far less job ready.”

Relocation

The review sets out to provide strong incentives for Aboriginal people to relocate from remote communities to cities and towns. These include priority access to public housing, rent advances for the private rental market and assistance with accessing schools and health care.

Forrest claims that housing systems that charge low rents create incentives for people to stay in remote communities as opposed to moving to where the work is. Nowhere does he recognise attachment to land or what Indigenous Australians want.

He blames lack of private home ownership for overcrowding of homes, lack of individual responsibility for social problems, rather than the lack of affordable housing and government neglect of its responsibilities.

As for any new public housing in remote communities, this should be on land with “secure tenure” such as freehold title that can be used for business investment and private home ownership.

Higher rents

“Across Australia the lowest rents are paid in the most remote social housing tenancies. For them, the social housing system often undermines job aspirations and entrenches welfare reliance. A person can be discouraged from taking a job because state and territory housing authorities deem that an income higher than the dole means eviction from social housing.”

The review proposes that priority in the allocation of social housing be given “to families in employment and meeting social obligations, such as their children regularly attending school, over those who are capable of working but choose not to.”

“Rents should be set at 80 percent of market rates or at least cover the cost of the asset,” instead of a proportion of income. That would put almost all accommodation in Sydney out of reach for those on government payments.

Rent should be deducted on “a compulsory basis from income support entitlements for social housing” and the money used “to subsidise rent for people who move to take up employment and pursue a career.”

Home ownership

“Home ownership is a critical incentive to keep people in jobs and out of the welfare trap,” the report claims without a single shred of evidence.

“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 percent 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,” the report notes.

Here lies the crux of the report. Native title is a barrier to economic wealth, but not as Forrest suggests for the traditional landowners but for mining expansion and maximising profits.

Forrest continues by proposing, “That governments create the ability for traditional owners to convert their land to freehold or hold the underlying title with a 99-year lease owned by the home or business owner, so that it can be mortgaged or traded through the open market and so that traditional owners can build their houses on allotments on their own land.”

The real agenda is not stated. The aim is to move traditional owners off their land to be assimilated in the wider community. Those who remain would see communal ownership replaced by private land titles and home ownership. It is nothing more than a recipe to dispossess Indigenous Australians; an attempt to extinguish native title and wipe their culture.

The financial institutions and retailers are set to make a killing out of income management and subsidised loans for home ownership. Low interest loans would be available “for all first Australians, provided they have been employed for 12 months or more.”

Training employer-directed

“That, in order to create job-specific employer-directed training, the Commonwealth, state and territory governments … introduce vouchers for employers redeemable at education providers to replace all funding for the vocational education and training system, particularly the TAFE system.” (emphasis added – Ed)

“These vouchers would only fund training that is designed by, and meets the needs of, employers” and is linked to a guaranteed job at the end. Employers and industry bodies would drive the content of courses under the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF). Payment would be based on performance, on students completing courses.

You could only study if you had a job lined up and then the course would be narrow (no education component) and specific to an employer.

Cheap conscripted labour

Remote Jobs and Communities Programs would be replaced by “demand-driven Job Centres” with training to get people into guaranteed jobs.

The government’s policy of Work for the Dole would be mandatory for all unemployed people from day one. For those who need it, training in literacy, numeracy and getting a driver’s licence would be a compulsory part of Work for the Dole.

There are some practical and potentially beneficial suggestions regarding prenatal and early childhood from conception to three year of age. Whether the government is prepared to implement them is another story as they cost money.

Most other recommendations would save money and are very much in line with the government’s thinking and policy direction. After all the powerful mining corporations who replaced a Prime Minister and Opposition leader, are dictating the government’s policies.

“I suspect some of the things in the report will be testing for public opinion as it currently stands,” Abbott said, failing to reject a single proposal. In other words, public opinion still needs shifting and the likes of the Murdoch media are going all out to do just that.

The so-called “Creating Parity” is a blueprint to drive those already doing it tough into deeper poverty, homelessness and destitution. “To address poverty and disadvantage, the government should be investing in better employment services and training opportunities and ensuring that income support payments are adequate and provide the assistance people need to live without being exposed to poverty,” Green’s Senator Siewert said.

In addition, the Land Title Act should be strengthened to provide Indigenous Australians with exclusive possession, the Intervention and income management cease, and the government invest more in basic services, schools and genuine job creation programs for remote communities.

Andrew Forrest, Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and BHP and Rio Tinto should at the least be paying significant royalties to the people whose lands they mine and resources they plunder.

Next article – Editorial – Gutter politics, gutter media

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