The need for evidence-based policy for Indigenous outstations

On 4 August 2006, Larissa Behrendt and Ruth McCausland appealed for evidence-based research to be the basis for sensible policy formation in Indigenous affairs. In their article for the Centre for Policy Development (link here), they referred to the needs of the 25% of the Indigenous population who live in remote Australia and to the even smaller proportion who reside at remote outstation or homeland communities. I focus here on these smallest of communities because they demonstrate so very clearly the antipathy to evidence in current ideology-dominated Indigenous policy making.

Australian Ethical Investment


In her last major speech as Minister for Indigenous Affairs in December 2005, Senator Amanda Vanstone raised the issue of the future viability of outstation communities owing to their small size and extreme remoteness. These communities were initially established in the early 1970s as part of the outstations movement that saw people move out of larger townships, the now decolonised settlements and missions of the assimilation era. Now some 30 years on their viability is being questioned, but with little reference to the evidence base currently available for policy making.

The latest available and official 2001 Community Housing and Infrastructure Needs Survey (CHINS) data indicates that there are nearly 1000 discrete Indigenous communities with populations under 100, most in the NT and in remote parts of SA, WA and Queensland. 87% of outstations are in very remote and 9% in remote Australia; their total population is estimated at only 20,000 people and hence their average size is 20 persons. This population represents less than 5% of the Indigenous population and almost all outstations are linked to about 100 outstation resource agencies (ORAs) in larger Indigenous townships.

The current policy approach to outstations remains broadly determined by ATSIC's national approach developed in the 1990s. This policy framework differentiated national principles for establishing and maintaining outstations (including secure land tenure and access to potable water) from regional assessments of needs and priorities and requirement of minimum standards in infrastructure provision. The ATSIC policy stated unequivocally that outstation residents could not expect the same level of housing and infrastructure and services as available at existing communities. Support for outstations was mainly provided by the Commonwealth for historical reasons and some States; some States do not even have an outstations policy.

Analysis of CHINS data indicated that housing and infrastructure at outstations was not greatly different from larger Indigenous communities with populations over 100. In fact housing is less crowded at outstations, temporary dwellings are rare, almost all have access to potable water, electricity and sewerage. This is a surprising finding that suggests that ATSIC's programs and ORAs had effectively delivered housing and infrastructure. Access to education at outstations, on the other hand, a State government responsibility, was very limited – 8% of communities with populations of less than 50 (the CHINS analysis switches here) have access to secondary schooling compared to 28% at larger communities of more than 50 people. This was the main concern raised by Senator Vanstone in relation to outstation services.

On the issue of economic viability, an assessment of Western Arnhem Land data (where I often undertake research) from the 2001 Census indicated that while education and home ownership are better at townships, employment and health are better at outstations. Median adult income in both is similar. Other sources of data, like the 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, show that customary economic activities, like hunting and fishing, are strongly prevalent at very remote communities in general and may be even more significant at outstations (link here). This suggests that census social indicators do not accurately capture livelihood realities at these communities.

It must be emphasised that such comparisons have limitations because of high movement between outstations themselves, between outstations and larger communities and vice versa. The research reported here highlights that contemporary policy understandings of outstation residence and especially of the culturally distinct, but evolving, patterns of Indigenous mobility and migration, are extremely limited. Looking at communities by settlement size and imagined population stability is problematic: it is important to look at Indigenous populations regionally and not locality-by-locality on some arbitrary size criteria.

The evidence summarized here highlights some emerging policy concerns that resonate with those raised by Behrendt and McCausland.

First, people moved to outstations in the 1970s in part to improve their livelihood options and to reduce state dependence. There is a danger that the current policy focus on mainstreaming and on the economic equality 'practical reconciliation' agenda will perversely reinvent the extreme dependence outstation people experienced at townships in the 1960s, a level of dependence many have managed to escape.

Second, it is emerging that despite the whole-of-government policy framework, different mainline agencies have very different views on and approaches to outstations. In particular, the new CDEP guidelines developed by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR) are likely to limit income support to outstations because there are almost no mainstream jobs at these localities. And despite the signing of some bilateral agreements between States and the Commonwealth, there is no coherent intergovernmental approach. This development does not augur well for outstations.

In the 1980s, it was demonstrated with empirical evidence that outstation living was good for people's livelihoods. This was recognized in the last serious government inquiry into outstations Return to Country: The Aboriginal Homelands Movement that was completed in 1987 the Report gave politically bipartisan support to outstations and the homelands movement.

I want to end though by contemplating the opportunities that will be foregone for Indigenous people and the nation if the Indigenous estate that now covers over 20% of the Australian continent was emptied of people, if it became terra vacua or empty land. Some research currently underway is overlaying the 'chunkier' parts of the Indigenous estate (like the 100,000 sq km Arnhem Land) onto the natural resource atlas maps produced by Land and Water Australia. This mapping shows that some of the most intact and nationally important wetlands and riparian zones, forests and rivers and waterways are located on the Indigenous estate. While the Indigenous estate is relatively intact, it is hardly pristine. Again mapping shows that there is species contraction and major threats from exotic weeds and feral animals, changed fire regimes, pollution and grazing pressures evident in different parts of the Indigenous estate. During a period of heightened global concern about sustainable use of natural resources, the environmental impacts of development pressures and the likely impacts of climate change on biodiversity and water quantity and quality, ensuring the effective management of natural resources on over 1.5 million sq kms of the Australian continent is an issue of unchallengeable significance.

What has all this got to do with an outstations policy? First and foremost, effective natural resource management needs people and it is Indigenous people who are out there living on country? Second, there is growing evidence that Indigenous people whether in Indigenous Protected Areas or national parks or off-reserve on the Indigenous estate, are providing important environmental services via community ranger programs. Indeed it could be readily argued that it is in the national interest to have the Indigenous estate populated with outstation communities as is currently the case. The missing ingredient in the equation is appropriate resourcing of the provision of environmental services that many Indigenous people are keen to provide as a livelihood option.

There is an emerging dominant policy discourse initiated by Senator Vanstone and now promulgated by the new Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough that the economic future for outstation people will be dependent on mainstream development. Recent amendments to land rights law, for example, explicitly aim to increase exploration and mining, a particular form of development, on Aboriginal-owned land. There is an alternate subordinate policy discourse that needs to be heard – the aspirations of Indigenous people at outstations to have their land rights remain intact, to enjoy a range of livelihood options and to ensure the environmental sustainability of their country.

There is clearly a mismatch at present between Indigenous affairs and environmental policy frameworks despite the 'whole-of-government' rhetoric. Resolution of this mismatch could see very positive outcomes for Indigenous people at outstations enhanced economic opportunity in the provision of environmental services for appropriate remuneration. This could also see Australia's biodiversity and environmental goals being addressed seriously through the mobilization of Indigenous effort on the under-populated, remote and vast Indigenous estate.

Based on CAEPR working Paper No. 34 available here.

Leave a Comment