Reciprocity resurrected

Opinion Article

2007 May, 12

“He didn’t listen to me. He kept butting in on me with that word of his. He didn’t listen to me right through to the end. An important man listens to another person’s talk. This young man butted in on me with his ignorance.”


These angry words were spoken by an Aboriginal Nyangumarta Elder from east of Port Hedland in describing his failed attempt to communicate with a social security officer. The incident occurred when unemployment benefits rather than the Commonwealth Development Employment Projects work-for-the-dole was the source of income to Aboriginal people in this region.


The reason the Nyangumarta Elder approached the social security officer was that younger members of his people who received unemployment payments were not behaving responsibly in the community where the Elder lived. This small community had been established 20 km from Port Hedland by people who wanted to get away from the drinking and chaos in the town, so that they could maintain social order and traditional culture. The residents took responsibility for infrastructure development with their own income and their own labour.


However transients, predominantly younger relatives, descended on the community. They collected welfare and bought alcohol in the nearby town, but spent most of their time in the small community. Traditional Aboriginal culture obliged the original residents to tolerate their dysfunctional kin and provide shelter for them.


Linguist Barbara Sayers published an enlightening analysis of the Elder’s attempt to influence the welfare bureaucracy. The old man’s interpretation of the situation was, as Sayers points out, that by giving money to the young men who caused trouble in his community, the government welfare providers had set up a kind of quasi-kin relationship with them. According to Aboriginal custom, providers of resources have authority over the recipients in a kin relationship.


The old people of the community should normally have been able to exercise authority. But the dysfunction and alcohol abuse among the transients perverted the social relationships. Most importantly, the Elders had not supplied the money and therefore had no authority over the young men in relation to its use and their behaviour.


The Elder assumed that the welfare officer would understand his agency’s obligation to exercise its authority over the young men and make them work. He said: “They are smashing our belongings. They are not working. In the morning they just turn up at the social security office”. Not realising that he was asked to exercise his authority over the young men, the social security officer replied: “How are you going to stop them? How are you going to pay them if they are told to work?”  It must have appeared to the Elder as if the bureaucrat provocatively dodged his obligations and shifted them onto him and the other responsible people in his community.


Two important facts are highlighted by this story. First, kin relationships and the obligations that follow are fundamental in Aboriginal communities. Social policy that does not take these factors into consideration will not be successful. Second, the introduction of passive welfare into Aboriginal communities was a disaster.


Kin-based relationships are universal in Aboriginal Australia. Our traditional culture was a culture of sharing based on reciprocity. This was necessary in a society and an economy based on harvesting of sometimes scarce and unreliable natural resources. Living in nature is hard and work is a daily imperative.


Of course Aboriginal people are today capable of understanding and analysing the differences between the traditional Aboriginal world view and the European outlook. Aboriginal people can generally walk in two worlds and intellectually transcend the cultural barriers. But the traditional Nyangumarta Elder could not comprehend the social security officer’s world view. Unconditional welfare was completely confounding to traditional understandings and expectations. Giving something for nothing. Giving money and the failure of the money-giver (the then Department of Social Security) to take responsibility for the relationship they created with the young, transient, drinking recipients – was appalling to the Elder. The government gave the money to the young drunks, and according to traditional reciprocity they thereby had authority over them, but they refused to take responsibility for it. They didn’t make the young people work for it, and they didn’t control their resulting drunkard behaviour. They just left the old people to the chaos they funded.


Something for nothing (i.e. passive welfare) was a foreign and bewildering phenomenon, which threw Aboriginal relationships, values and expectations into a spin. Addiction took over, and exploitation and humbugging soon became the new culture.


Traditions remain important to social interaction in indigenous communities. Obligation towards kin is perhaps the most resilient social value of our culture, and it has survived in one form or another all over Aboriginal Australia when dispossession and disruption has taken its toll on the structures and principles of traditional societies. It is as strong in the suburbs of Brisbane and Sydney as it is in the remotest communities.


Our culture of reciprocity had been a source of strength during the lean and mean times of discrimination, but in the passive welfare era it has become clear that our social and cultural values are susceptible to manipulation and corruption. In communities where social order has broken down, receiving no longer involves reciprocity. The vortex of substance abuse and passive welfare has distorted our system of reciprocal obligation into a culture of humbugging, bludging and one-sided obligation, chiefly on the part of responsible Elders to irresponsible drinkers.


The agreement signed yesterday by federal Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough and the leaders of the Hope Vale community in Cape York Peninsula is an important milestone in our welfare reform crusade. However, the scope of the changes is more limited than has incorrectly been reported in media this week. The main areas of reform in this agreement are tenancy, home ownership and home improvement.


In mainstream politics, housing is not thought of as a welfare issue. However, in Cape York Peninsula communities housing has been delivered by governments on passive-welfare principles.


Households that sign a tenancy agreement and participate in voluntary Family Income Management (FIM) will be eligible for a range of benefits. Tenants who contribute their labour and some money will receive generous Government financial assistance for external and internal upgrading of the tenants’ homes. A proportion of rent payments made by households successfully participating in home improvement and school attendance programs will be deposited into home ownership accounts, which are accessible only for the purpose of purchasing a house. Homes will be available and affordable because the Government is committed to providing home ownership solutions on conditions that take into account affordability and constraints on the market value of housing in remote areas.


The Hope Vale Agreement constitutes the first stage of welfare reform. However, there is no mechanism for compelling people to contribute fairly and welfare income remains discretionary. A large number of Aboriginal people have been affected by passivity and dysfunction since the introduction of passive welfare. We need to acknowledge that it will not be possible to influence this behaviour until the Government introduces complete conditionality as the basic principle of Aboriginal welfare.


Legislative change is needed for the next stages of Indigenous welfare reform. It is therefore very important that the Commonwealth and Minister Brough have made a commitment in the Hope Vale Agreement to pursue enabling legislative reform to further reduce passive welfare dependency and to ensure obligations are met.


The model which I and other community leaders are discussing with the Queensland and federal governments involves the establishment of a State statutory body at the community level, the Family Responsibilities Commission. This body would be comprised of Indigenous Elders, and a person from outside the community, such as a retired Magistrate. Community members would be referred to the Commission under circumstances such as a Child Concern Report being issued by the Department of Child Safety. The eminent Elders sitting with a suitable law officer would have authority to direct individuals to take advantage of support services or to manage their income.


Contrary to media reports, no income will be lost or surrendered. Rather the income will be made subject to budgetary management if the adults concerned are not fulfilling their obligations to their children. As soon as these adults take up their responsibilities, compulsory income management will cease. Only irresponsible behaviour will be affected.


I believe that these measures will be the most effective solution to the child protection crises. If we support and oblige adults to fulfil their responsibilities to their children, then we will avoid the exodus of children from their families because of neglect and abuse. It is the avoidance of this evil – the removal of children from their families and their community – that most animates our crusade to restore order to families through the supports and the obligations that we propose.


The basic idea of this reform is that the government provides the welfare resources, and only the Government can impose conditions on the recipients.


However, the street-level work of restoring social norms in the communities will be performed by Indigenous community people themselves. Government authorities cannot do this, but State and Commonwealth legislative support is essential to empower community leaders and Elders.

Reciprocity resurrected