Saturday, April 26, 2014

Real jobs in an unreal world

'Subsidised jobs in the area of arts and culture and land care are real jobs, with real career paths and they deliver genuine skills and employment capability. Case studies and anecdotal evidence show that involvement in arts and cultural activity – by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities – often has powerful flow on social and economic effects.'

How do you make a positive and lasting difference to the chronic issue of Indigenous disadvantage – the fact that on almost every important measure Aboriginal Australians are worse off than every other Australian? For a long time the view has been that ultimately it’s all about jobs – without ongoing jobs, so the argument goes, there will never be an improvement.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating
We are fast approaching the most serious test of the Government’s commitment to make a real difference in the area of Indigenous employment and to show the imagination and flexibility to actually make it work. The government's review into indigenous training and employment programs, chaired by Andrew Forrest, is expected to report to the Prime Minister on its findings in the near future.

Indigenous art centre in Yirrkala, East Arnhem Land, that spans the whole gamut of new media and film, painting and print-making and crafts.

Yesterday Bruce Martin, one of the 12 members of Prime Minister Abbott's Indigenous Advisory Council, called for a doubling of the number of indigenous rangers working to protect almost 50 million hectares of land across the continent. He said the program was a ‘pivotal’ source of employment in remote areas and should be expanded.

He said the language sometimes used to describe the ranger jobs was inaccurate. ‘When people talk about ranger jobs being “pretend”, I think that does an injustice to the work that's being done,’ he said. ‘Everyone puts a lot of weight in jobs in the mining sector in regional areas, but the fact of the matter is the mining sector employs a quarter of what the health sector employs. ‘The ranger jobs have been absolutely critical.’ He said they got people in areas of little employment out on country and enabled them to fulfil their cultural obligations at the same time.

Arts and cultural jobs
Exactly the same situation exists with jobs in Indigenous arts and cultural organisations. Just like the rangers, these jobs are subsidised by Commonwealth government programs, like the suite of Indigenous cultural programs and related Indigenous jobs programs managed by the Attorney-General’s Department.

Like so many areas where government and communities collide, the views about jobs can seem narrow and lacking imagination and flexibility. The latest thinking seems to be that when we talk about Indigenous jobs we mean jobs in the the private sector, in mining or real estate or primary production.

Yet many of these types of jobs also receive their own direct and indirect subsidies. Publically-funded infrastructure, such as roads and railways and ports, for example, benefits them immensely. The legal and financial framework provided by government that enables them to operate at all in order to generate wealth is critical.

Subsidised jobs in the area of arts and culture and land care are real jobs, with real career paths and they deliver genuine skills and employment capability. Case studies and anecdotal evidence show that involvement in arts and cultural activity – by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities – often has powerful flow on social and economic effects. By building self-esteem and generating a sense of achievement; developing a stronger sense of community; increasing skills and capabilities through involvement in engaging activities relevant to modern jobs and thereby increasing employability; and by helping to generate income streams however small, cultural activity can have profound long-term effects.

It may involve some paid jobs, it may be more likely to involve income going to artists even if it doesn’t involve jobs as we traditionally think of them. What it does mean is income streams generated by communities themselves, even if the underlying mini-infrastructure of a centre and a manager is subsidised.

This can be seen on a daily basis in the network of Indigenous arts centres across Australia, particularly in remote areas. The income generated by art sales may be the only source of independent income in the community apart from government benefits and the centres are also likely to be the social and cultural hub for the whole community. It’s also true of the complementary network of community-based Indigenous language centres and the cultural centres operating across the country.

Creative industries – mining a new seam of value
An important aspect of many of these jobs is that they are in the crucial new and growing industry sector of the creative industries. For a long time this has been relatively under-recognised in the minds of politicians, who seem obsessed with declining industries of the 19th and 20th centuries, but this has been changing.

What is important here is that one of the most valuable assets possessed by Indigenous communities is their culture. This culture, and the intellectual property that translates it into a form that can generate income in a contemporary economy, is pivotal to these under-recognised jobs. They may not be in mining but they mine a far richer seam – authentic and rich content that has already been recognised internationally for its high value, just like our iron and coal.

Unfortunately if the jobs concerned are government-subsidised ones, the argument runs, then they are not sustainable and ultimately do not contribute to any long-term solution. Yet if we look beyond Indigenous communities, there are plenty of jobs in the cultural sector that are partially or even wholly government-subsidised. No-one has (yet) suggested that the many jobs in the non-Indigenous cultural sector, in libraries, museums, galleries and arts and cultural centres, should only exist if they are totally self-supporting. Jobs in these organisation have always been and will always have to be subsidised. If not the private sector would long ago have muscled in to turn a buck.

Why are arts and cultural jobs in Indigenous communities any different? If a contribution by government leads to worthwhile jobs that have career paths and useful skills and make a genuine contribution to Australia, is that a better use of government funding than out and out welfare, so-called sit down money?

The question is: are these roles valued enough by the Australian community that they are worth supporting by government?

As Peter Shergold has accurately pointed out, government support for community organisations is a way of delivering services that the government is required to provide far more cheaply than it can ever be delivered by government.

Community organisations leverage the core government funding they receive to enable them to run on a daily basis to attract a wider pool of financial and other support. This is often extremely diverse, from private businesses, philanthropic bodies and individuals. The value of the unpaid volunteer contribution alone to these organisations can be substantial.

If the Forrest review and the government response fails to demonstrate the flexibility to recognise that jobs, such as the arts and cultural (and ranger) positions, while subsidised, are a critical element in the mix of measures needed to address the issue of Indigenous employment, then they will have failed. In the end, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating.

See also

Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities
‘It is becoming abundantly clear that in our contemporary world two critical things will help shape the way we make a living – and our economy overall. The first is the central role of cities in generating wealth. The second is the knowledge economy of the future and, more particularly, the creative industries that sit at its heart. In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, both of these come together in a scattering of evolving creative clusters – concentrations of creative individuals and small businesses, clumped together in geographic proximity. This development is part of a national and world-wide trend which has profound implications’, Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Black diggers - telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. ‘Black Diggers’, ‘the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered’ is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

See also the series of articles about the impact of the Budget on arts and culture

Support for small scale arts and culture
'Budget cuts only to uncommitted funding sound benign but will end programs by letting them peter out over several years.' After the Budget: Government support for small scale arts and culture – here today, gone tomorrow.

Long term effect of broader Budget cuts far more damaging
'Wider budget cuts combined over years will have a compounding effect on arts and culture far more damaging than anything immediate.' After the Budget: the future landscape for Australian arts and culture.

Selective drive-by shooting
‘The Budget was a selective drive-by shooting with easy targets including small arts. Entitlement continues for others.’ After the Budget: a selective drive-by shooting.

Things could be worse
‘The problem is not just the level of arts cuts, which may well be lower than in many other areas. It’s the nature of the cuts.’ After the Budget: things could be worse.

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