Friday, August 07, 2009

Lessons from Australia's convict past

Yesterday in Finding jobs for young men I suggested that we should redesign, create, jobs for young men as a way of overcoming Australia's emerging social problems. We can learn something here from Australia's convict past.

This country was founded by criminals. You can cut it whichever way you like, but them's the facts.

Some of those criminals remained criminals, others went on to establish business empires, others became politicians, some just solid everyday citizens. They did so because there were opportunities.

For a person prepared to do physical work, there were jobs, jobs, jobs. Now there are benefits, benefits, benefits. The jobs were relatively well paid, the benefits just allow you to survive. Which is better?

I am not against benefits. I am against a system that turns benefits into an alternative to work.

Modern Australia's answer to benefits is to create systems that attempt in one way or another to force people off benefits. To my mind, this is quite silly.

Most people will not stay on benefits if they have a decent alternative. Many don't. So we try to create safety net systems that will at least stop them starving. Social housing is an example.

I look at a place like Bourke, one of Australia's poorest communities. Or another NSW town, I won't give the name, that officials won't even go there on a voluntary basis because it is just so dreadful.

In the case of Bourke we buy water rights and take away jobs without compensation. We create a town that costs Australian taxpayers, State and Federal, millions of dollars a year. I could give you a ball park figure with a few calculations, we know from the census data how many people are on benefits, but for the purposes of this argument I do not think that I need to do so.

Note that I have no time for people who will not help themselves.

We have to combine hard and soft. Consider this.

Let's say that we say the following to Bourke Shire Council.

Over the next ten years the State and Federal are going to spend x million dollars in Bourke on welfare. If we were to give you half this amount, what could you do in service development and local development? I suspect the Shire Council would come up with some very innovative answers. I also suspect that welfare costs in Bourke would drop to blazes.

Makes one think.


In writing the above I was not suggesting some form of of national work service for the young, an idea that has been floated in Australia from time to time, nor am I blind to the policy difficulties involved. I just think that we need to think in new ways.

Yesterday's Australian carried a number of stories about problems in actually delivering homes to Aboriginal people in remote areas of the Northern Territory, a theme continued in today's paper under the headline Red tape strangles homes program.

Over the last three years I have written a fair bit trying to explain why these types of failures are an almost inevitable result of current systems of public administration. I hear a fair bit of discussion about ways of making current systems work better, much less on the inherent failures in the systems themselves.

I have no doubt that homes will be built in the Northern Territory, its just that the whole process is going to take far longer than it should have.

Of itself, building homes is a relatively simple thing. Yes, there may be particular problems to be resolved such as availability of land or supply of tradespeople in an area, but these are known problems.

If we struggle just to build homes, then what hope have we of resolving more complex problems within our existing systems?