Saturday, 28 March 2015

Who's Unsustainable? Aboriginal "Lifestyle Choices" VS Agriculture Propped Up By Travellers And Cheap Labour

I'm very sad to make this one of my last posts from Australia. But here is one of the few unique things I can add to a really, really shitty time for Indigenous Australians.

As if they don't have it hard enough already.

I came to Australia on a working holiday visa for 1 year. You can apply for a second year, and living in Melbourne has been great, so I considered it.

The condition is you have to do at least 3 months' of "specified work" in a "designated regional area" - including plant and animal cultivation, fishing and pearling, tree farming and felling, mining, and construction.

So basically, agriculture, or mining and construction, out in the country.

I have 2 friends whose stories sum up everything I have heard:
  • the work is unpaid or underpaid,
  • frequently dodgy and undocumented with no work agreements or contracts,
  • by farms and rural employers taking advantage of foreigners desperate to stay another year.

Friend #1 went 2hrs north, only just outside of Melbourne. She worked on a cattle farm, doing standard cattle farm work - often dirty and physical, at very early hours, 6 days a week.

They were paid nothing. There were others doing the same work. They were also paid nothing.

Friend #2 barely even found work. She went to New South Wales and did some basic tasks for an old lady far from anywhere, but this only lasted a few weeks. Hearing about a zucchini farm over the border in Queensland, she caught a ride with a fellow traveller - only to find that the farm was so full of backpackers, the waiting list for work was 2 weeks long.

The farm had an army of unskilled labourers, all desperate to do back-breaking work for little pay, like a scene from Depression-era California in The Grapes Of Wrath.

Travellers paid for their accommodation, whether they were working or just waiting for work.

You're starting to get the picture, but let me add 2 points:
  • 457 visas: Australians are increasingly angry, rightly or wrongly, with rural employers abusing the 457 "skilled work" visa system to employ cheap labour from overseas - instead of employing Australian workers with decent wages and conditions
  • Brain drain, body drain: Younger Australians are increasingly leaving remote and rural communities for opportunities on the coast and in the cities

To me, the situation is clear. Australian agriculture and Australian remote communities are unsustainable.

Why does Immigration Australia need to bribe foreigners with a 2nd year in return for farm work? Why are Australians unwilling to do this work?

Because farms, and food suppliers, and supermarkets, and Australian consumers, are not willing to pay to the high wages it costs to do manual work in the middle of nowhere.

Then consider that it's more expensive to provide services - healthcare, schools, telecommunications, welfare, etc. - to remote villages and towns than the economic value they provide in return.

That's okay, that's how villages work. They're less efficient than cities, they're harder to access, but we subsidise them anyway, because we don't want to see services shut down and people have to leave their homes and communities.

Unless they're Aboriginals.

What's happening now is that the federal (national) government has announced it's withdrawing funding for services to remote Aboriginal communities in 2016.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who actually made himself Minister for Women when he hates women, similarly made himself Minister for Aboriginal Affairs before saying things like "there was nothing but bush" when white settlers arrived in 1788.

Abbott justified the funding cuts because it was unfair to prop up people's "lifestyle choices" if they wanted to live in remote communities.

Now the state of Western Australia has identified 150 Aboriginal communities it wants to close.

Let's get this straight. Indigenous Australians occupied a whole continent in hundreds of cultures with thousands of languages before white people turned up. Then from 1788 they got 200 years of colonialism, warfare, disease, rape, stolen generations, having languages suppressed, being wiped out in Tasmania, and most crucially having their land taken away from them.

This is not a case of "What did the Romans ever do for us?". This is not even on the same level as colonisation of the Maori in neighbouring New Zealand, where they have the Treaty of Waitangi.

Indigenous Australians suffered a sustained juggernaut of disease, war, and cultural suppression, which is why they are just 3% of today's Australian population and far more likely to die in prison, suffer mental health problems, drug and alcohol problems, have a lower life expectancy, etc. etc. etc.... It's a long list.

In modern Australia, the horrors of colonisation have been replaced with bureaucracy and numbers - these are easier to hide and ignore, especially with the highly conservative Australian media. So instead of sending in police and bulldozers to actively remove Aboriginals from their land, today's approach is simply withdrawing the funding necessary to sustain their communities.

Let's be clear. It is white colonialists who, by aggressively stealing land, forced Indigenous Australians to live in fixed isolated communities - battered, poor and disempowered - and forced them into a situation where federal funding support is necessary.

Now the Prime Minister calls it an unsustainable "lifestyle choice" which shouldn't be propped up by the taxpayer.

That's a crock of shit.

Protestors use the word "genocide". It's a highly emotive word and many people will call it overdramatic. But the problem is actually a limited understanding of what "genocide" means.

We understand today that "rape" takes many more forms than just the cliché of a stranger waiting in the bushes. So too, "genocide" is not simply massacre through bloody warfare - it's the consistent persecution and strangulation of an entire set of peoples.

I'm not a spiritual person. I don't think land is literally sacred. When people talk about Indigenous Australians' "connection to the land", I don't think it's mystical or magical. It is, however, cultural and economic.

This is about persecution and discrimination.

I don't think federal or state governments are actively racist, that they deliberately want to see the death of Aboriginal culture. The racist decisions made by governments are simply the result of a wealthy, ignorant and white political establishment, in the interests of mining profits and tax revenues, against populations without a voice.

Aboriginals are neither rich enough, nor numerous enough, to listen to. They certainly don't change elections.

Most of this is already being said in Australia: the appalling treatment of Indigenous Australians (and attitudes towards them) is well-known by most progressive Aussies.

The purpose of this blog post is to highlight the rank hypocrisy of punishing Indigenous communities as "unsustainable" when Australian agriculture would collapse without being propped up by cheap foreign labour.

It's also to explain the situation to my family and friends outside Australia who may know nothing about the situation here, or heard that Kevin Rudd "said sorry" so it's probably all kind of okay now.

Australia remains with a tiny brutalised indigenous population, an uncaring and ignorant majority, and a gaping hole where a treaty should be.

Take action

This is the tip of the iceberg - there are many other threats and issues facing Indigenous Australians, such as the Northern Territory intervention (military policing of Aboriginal communities in NT), and recent attempts by the Federal Government to remove Aboriginal legal aid. Even Australia's national holiday has no place for Aborigines.

However, this push to remove Aborigines from their communities is an imminent situation which has spurred huge numbers of people across Australia into action.

Whether you are in Australia or another country entirely, you can support Indigenous Australians and oppose these actions via the website and follow the Facebook page "Stop The Forced Closure Of Aboriginal Communities in Australia".

There is a mass nationwide (international?) day of protest on Friday 1st May.

Hashtags on social media include:

The Aboriginal Flag - learn more on Wikipedia

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