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February 18th 2013 print

Ian Mitchell

A program so good it had to be stopped

Few now remember the Indigenous Family Resettlement Scheme, an astonishingly successful pilot program to help Aboriginal families start new lives in urban centres. Billions of squadered dollars after opponents of assimilation saw it scrapped, the simple and cost-effective scheme is well worth reconsidering



Four decades ago, a now almost forgotten proposal to help Indigenous families rescue themselves from poverty, lack of opportunity and cutlural isolation was given a trial run. Blindingly simple, the idea was to encourage and support those prepared to relocate to urban centres, where jobs were available and the social ills of their former hometowns and settlements were left far behind.


The results, as detailed in the Results section below, were impressive — so much so opponents of "assimilation" lobbied to have the initiative scrapped. Now and then, if there is one thing the Aboriginal Industry does not need, it is hard evidence that there is a better way than gold-plated paternalism, with all its well-heeled administrators and advocates of perpetual victimhood 

Sadly, as author Stephanie Jarrett lamented in her recent Q&A with Quadrant Online, the scheme, known as the Family Resettlement Plan, was allowed to wither and die. Yet, in terms of dollars spent and results achieved, the pilot program remains a demonstrable triumph. With Jarrett and others calling for the program’s re-activation, QoL presents the edited highlights from a 2006 address by one of the scheme’s architects, Ian Mitchell, who expounded on the experiment with Counterpoint’s Paul Comrie-Thomson:

The Conversation That Began It All

‘You look happy!’ The Senior Welfare officer noticed the pleasing look on Gary’s face. ‘What gives?’

‘Just had a good month of shearing at Weilmoringle and got the cheque today. It will do us for a month or two, but there is no more work in the offing. I dunno, Ed, but you try to get good employment to keep the growing family. We want the kids to go to school, but Iris is sick again, so a lot of dough will go to doctors and chemists.’

‘I know how you feel, Gary. Even with a regular job, family expenses seem to outstrip income.’

‘Why can’t we find a place where there is regular work for blokes like us? We haven’t got many skills because we mucked about at school, and when we did get some qualifications, the white fellas got first choice of the few jobs available.’

‘I know that there is good work in Newcastle at present, but that would mean moving from here.’

‘Would be worth it, though; just to get on top of the cycle,’ Gary mused.

‘You wouldn’t leave here. What would Cathy say?’

‘Well we’re sick and tired of living in this camp! There’s no work, we are always sick, there’s no plumbing and the people spend time fightin’ over what they can’t have. I reckon that if we got the chance, we’d give it a try. I was only talking to a couple of my brothers last night about getting’ out the place.’

‘If you are dinkum, Gary, give me a few days to do some groundwork and I’ll come back to you.’

Starting Up

  • This casual conversation in February 1970, was the germ of an idea that would cost the Australian Government half a million dollars but save it countless millions. The initiative for resettlement did originate with the indigenous participants, who raised the matter with a government officer out of genuine concern.
  • The Aboriginal Reserve at Bourke in the late sixties did comprise a dysfunctional community and those residents who tried to be independent were hampered by familial obligations.
  • At the time, consequential housing, health, employment, educational and social order problems that were exacerbated by the conditions, and which, when supplemented by the racial attitudes of the townspeople—among the worst in Australia at the time—made any solution for the triers unachievable.
  • There were abundant job opportunities for unskilled labourers in Newcastle.
  • The government officer was alive to his charge and not a stereotypical desk warmer. He thought through the idea, discussed it with a visiting research team, approached the head of his department, and ultimately became the Counsellor who featured so prominently in the program.
  • These concepts became some of the grounding Principles, on which the operation was based. Indeed, the Principles were virtually a set of research hypotheses. As the program continued, some were affirmed, some rejected (though none completely) others added, substituted or changed and several were enlarged to embrace corollaries.

A View of the World

Resettlement has become a ‘dirty word’ in some parts of the world. A deliberate program to include West Papua into the sovereign state of Indonesia by transferring people from the overpopulated areas of Java, or the forced migration of Chinese to Tibet to demonstrate to the world that the Himalayan-locked country, is a natural part of the Republic of China, or even the incarceration of German speakers of South Australia during World War II ostensibly to ‘protect them,’ may satisfy political objectives but are not participant-friendly and therefore unlikely to be thought of as ‘successful’ by those involved. Papers on any of these situations (and many others) make disturbing reading.

Nearly all failed as transmigration schemes — for numerous reasons, not least of which because the people were compelled to move and they were left with a lesser quality of life than they had originally enjoyed. Whether or not the transportation of convicts to keep out the French from British Australia, could be dubbed ‘successful’ can be left to others!

Governments certainly must be involved if resettlement is to be considered seriously, but

  • the participants must be volunteers;
  • maximum assistance must be provided that allows the migrants many more benefits than they experienced in their original places of living;
  • there must be means of escape for those dissatisfied with the move.

There are also many disastrous voluntary resettlement schemes. For example, the drift of Aboriginal families from outlying settlements in the Northern Territory to Darwin may fulfil some of the criteria outlined above, but of course omits the fundamental of maximal care. This pattern is not just Australia bound; refugees seeking economic opportunities elsewhere, but finding the transition impossible, is one of the major demographic problems of the world today.

Description of Program

There three basic objectives:

1. To assist some indigenous families fulfil their quality of life aspirations;

2. To measure the parameters of transmigration; and

3. To test a social policy for government consideration.

The program, and hence the first three years of the research, occurred from mid-1972 to mid-1975.

Initially, seventeen families, comprising 102 people, were assisted to move from Bourke to Newcastle in New South Wales. Subsequently other axes of migration were established and administered by the not-for-profit organisation managing the government grant. For example, towards the end of the research period, an axis was developed allowing Wilcannia Aboriginals to move to Albury. For the purposes of this paper, however, only families covering the Bourke-Newcastle sponsored migration shift are covered.

During the course of the research, five families returned to Bourke.

The majority of research publications on population movement centred on analysing migrant adjustment in retrospect. This program measured the subjects both before and after their movement.

Moving

It was critical to ensure that the household was the unit of transmigration. This did not always mean a man, his partner and their children. Some had extra adult males, adult children, broken families, and so on. As well, if a man wanted to move because of employment prospects, but his partner had reservations, he was encouraged to wait until all adult members of the household were in agreement.

Moving was much more complex than handing a train ticket to the successful candidates.

The planning determined that a counsellor be appointed. Without going into detail, a very suitable person was selected under appropriate criteria, his employing authority kindly released him for three years initially, and the resettlement organisation became the employer. He was given a full brief by, and worked closely with, the research team.

The families chosen also satisfied strict criteria. Beginning with the man who initially had spoken with the Senior Welfare Officer, and then his family, it was agreed that at first, only close relatives of the first family would be sponsored. The concept of moving related families was emphasised by other transmigration studies and in this project, proved wise. The first six families were all related through either or both of the adult partners. Indeed, it was found that at least a sibling relationship among migrating adults was the strongest bond in the target town.

The counsellor prepared families for the transition, arranged employment for the bread-winner, and prepared a house for the family, with provisions for a few weeks, bought bedding and other essential items for settling into the new environment. He then physically transported them, one family at a time, in a utility and trailer to Newcastle.

Having arrived, he helped them into the new accommodation, accompanied the men to their place of work, took the women shopping, went with either parent to enrol the children in school (having bought their school uniforms), and showed them how to use facilities such as the kitchen appliances, the washing machine, the gas stove, the weekly garbage service and a range of other domestic responsibilities. The families were introduced to a helpful general practitioner who examined them thoroughly and agreed to a bulk-billing arrangement should any need further treatment.

After moving, some sponsored families were required to buy material necessities from a small wage packet. To pay they fell behind their non-Aboriginal neighbours, compounding the stress experienced by those already adjusting to a strange environment. It was an important principle, therefore, that migrants to Newcastle should not be disadvantaged materially from existing residents and this often meant spending money on new or near-new clothes, furniture, school demands, and so on.

For a few weeks, the counsellor visited the families daily. He accompanied them on any necessary trips, shared the stories of beginning in a new work, conducted weekend barbeques to bring all of the families together, and transported them to sports and to other activities.

It was labour intensive, with a minimal caseload, and therefore expensive. But after the first few months, most families gradually assumed responsibility for their own affairs and became less a burden on the organisation and the counsellor.

Concomitantly, the costs to government reduced dramatically. There were no welfare payments, the wage earners began paying taxes, the families themselves gradually bore the costs of living, the children settled quickly and willingly into school and health expenses plunged. None came to the notice of police.

The expectation, which proved correct, was that after a few families had successfully integrated into their new life-styles, there would be a chain migration effect. Indeed, once this had begun, the ‘old’ families acted as counsellors to the new.

One by-product of the scheme was that a number of single people also moved to Newcastle of their own volition and then sought assistance from the counsellor to obtain housing, employment and some of the other benefits accruing. If all applicants for assistance were given help, however, the cost would have been too great. The counsellor was instructed to keep his caseload small so that advice could be intensive.

Notwithstanding the considerable assistance, it was imperative for the families to take many collective decisions themselves. Matters which were given to them early included nominating the next family to transfer, the formations and administration of a social club, disciplinary action against deviant migrants and later, improving relations with authorities.

If families chose to return to the donor communities, assistance was given both to return and settle back into the old environment without criticisms or stigma.

Regular contact with the town of origin was also a feature of those who resettled. Families went ‘home’ for a few days on special occasions such as funerals and sports days, and, conversely, relatives from Bourke visited those who had moved to Newcastle.

Costs

The salary and expenses for the Counsellor, the preparation of the house, the costs of purchasing basic furnishings, school uniforms, food for several weeks, rental subsidy until a full regular wage was received and so on, were met by the organisation. This assistance continued for several months after migration.

Time does not permit a full analysis of the figures. Furthermore, they varied considerably because of family size, needs, salaries earned by the respective breadwinners, the number of families moving, the amount of time required of the Counsellor, and so on. On average, in 1970 currency, each family cost about $3,500. This amount was a little more than that paid to at least one person in each family for unemployment benefits at the time.

When the severe reduction in health costs, the incredible rise in self-esteem, the wage earner’s tax and other hidden costs are taken into account, however, the government gained financially as well as being rewarded with respected and contributing citizens more willing to commit themselves to the country.

Quality of Life Measures

Had the migrants remained in Bourke, they would have drawn unemployment benefits, incurred health and community expenses, received inadequate education and been regarded as second-class citizens by the majority population.

In the host town, they enjoyed status, competed equally with whites, were subject to less discrimination, yet continued to identify themselves as indigenous.

The Management

In order to retain some independence from government, and to allow the project to follow a research pattern as it operated, funding was made to an independent non-for-profit organisation. It paid the counsellor, audited his expenses and accounted for the grant to government. The arrangement also permitted the counsellor to meet expenses according to need. This could mean that some families received more benefits than others. Government ‘welfare’ programs tend to be managed by regulation which demands absolute equality of conditions and benefits, irrespective of circumstances.

Measurement of Results

Employment: Since employment was one of the push factors for migrating and the project found jobs for all breadwinners prior to their moving, the success of the program was predictable. Clearly not all men stayed in work, or at least the work found for them, but with few exceptions, those who moved grasped the opportunity to earn regular wages. Thus the pattern of ‘taking a spell on welfare’ was avoided.

Income: The average weekly income for all families surveyed in this study in 1972, before migrating, was in the vicinity of $41 per week—for those weeks employment was available. Post migration, these families took home a little under $100, and of course, the amounts were regular, with several being given bonuses after a few months at Newcastle. Some also undertook training provided by employers, such as for operating forklifts and specific machinery, thereby increasing their incomes.

Expenditure: Families living in Bourke spent money only on what they considered essentials (which included alcohol, gambling and tobacco) while seldom if ever paying for dental services, vehicle insurance and fresh foods. Families who resettled became accustomed to receiving and spending greater amounts of money and there were a greater range of purchases. Items such as medical insurance, electricity, school needs, car repayments are recorded on settlers’ post-migration accounts.

Budgeting proved to be one of the most difficult adjustments for migrants and the Counsellor spent as much time on helping with the detail as with other tasks.

Education: A telling measure was the number of absentee days for children involved in the program. Four children attending Bourke School for the year 1972, migrated during the Christmas holidays, then attended Newcastle schools in 1973. At Bourke, those four children totalled 69.5 days away from school. That is over 17 days of absenteeism for ach child in a year. Those same children a year later in Newcastle had a total of only 7 days.

Health: The deplorable state of Aboriginal health has been well documented. Of the children under 5 years of age living in Bourke, 72 per cent were admitted to the Bourke District Hospital at least once in the pre-migration year of 1972. Sixteen percent were admitted over four times. After migration, no child was hospitalised although several did visit the doctor. Additionally, the extent of alcoholism reduced markedly.

Accommodation: As mentioned above, the Counsellor found rented houses, and the first few weeks of rent paid by the resettlement organisation. All houses were owned by the State Government’s Housing Commission, which collected the rents, monitored maintenance and so on. The arrangement proved very satisfactory. The one or two families, who moved within Newcastle, subsequent to the research, did so for personal reasons, such as an enlarged family, but they remained rent payers.

In respect of the management of the homes, tenants showed a capacity to care for them, although they had lacked experience in the use of household appliances and possessed few tools to effect repairs. The role of the counsellor was vital to the success of house care.

Esteem: Not surprisingly, the self-esteem felt by the migrants was greatest among the children. They competed comfortably with their non-Aboriginal peers, grew socially in a manner that would have been unthinkable in Bourke, took part actively in sporting and other leisure pursuits and found friends from the school irrespective of their Aboriginality.

Overall, all of the families expressed the strong belief that they experienced far less racism in Newcastle than they believed possible. In turn, this created a sense of self-value as Australians.

Others: There were measures of changes in such activities as leisure and religion, but although there were some changes, the impact on the lives of the migrants was minimal.

Sudden alterations in people’s social environment cannot be matched by changes in their personal adjustment. In a matter of hours, a family can transpose to a new house in a different district, take a regular job, which will earn an adequate income, or enrol in schools that have little resemblance to the previous ones. Changing attitudes to cope with those new experiences, adjusting to a new set of norms, and responding to different pressures, cues, sanctions, emergencies and situations, however, are a longer process.

Freedom or Fiasco? (What is the Downside?)

Assimilation & Identity: Funding for the scheme terminated after about a decade, because Aboriginal activists persuaded the bureaucrats that the program was a back door to assimilation. There is probably some merit in the argument since the results allowed Aboriginals to live in decent housing, enjoy health and education facilities akin to those of the broader community.

Some worthies protested that in the process, families lost their Aboriginal identity. If people were being taken from situations where cultural practices were extant; indigenous language was in common use; there was an organised kinship system; and traditional leadership and law were practised, identity could have been lost by moving. In a fractured community like the Bourke Reserve, however, where the majority wanted to escape, the criticism was unjustified.

Leadership Drain: That the selection of candidates for the program left the Reserve bereft of its leadership was another criticism. Coupled with this was the allegation that moving some people was breaking extended families in Bourke.

Obviously, those who form the backbone of donor communities are the ones wanting to move. True, fractured communities will be further decimated, but this can lead, sometimes painfully, to positive results. First, others will take over more leadership roles. Second, people are leaving to enhance their own lives. Third, numbers remaining on the Reserve are reduced.

Racism: Some antagonism from existing Newcastle residents was expressed, especially by families occupying houses adjacent to those selected for renting to Aboriginal migrants. The Counsellor spent quite some time on pacifying the families, with varying success. Ultimately, however, dreaded fears were not realised. In fact, there were many more welcomes from neighbours than there were rejections. Furthermore, gradually the settlers developed many new relationships with long-term residents, whom they met in clubs, jobs, sporting occasions or school meetings.

An unexpected reaction came from some Commonwealth, State and local politicians who were fearful that ‘thousands of Aboriginals’ would invade towns within their electorates. Considerable correspondence had to be answered from the Directorate of Aboriginal Welfare and its Minister at the State level, allaying their suspicions.

Non-sponsored Migrants

One of the strongest criticisms from Aboriginals already living in Newcastle before the project began was that certain benefits were available to those who wanted to move under the project, whereas those who had taken the initiative to move to Newcastle earlier received nothing! The major dissatisfaction arose from the availability of housing for those sponsored whereas these who had come themselves found it very difficult to find reasonable housing.

Expansion

When the project was first conceived, the administration was managed by a small committee of advisors, together with the Counsellor. Decisions were made to suit specific situations arising at the time, precedents were unimportant, and the volume of work for the committee was limited. As the program expanded, some ground rules for decision-making had to be formulated, comparisons between operations were inevitable, uniformity of procedure was instituted, and the work became too onerous for a small committee of volunteers. Any future program should be confined to one axis organised by an appropriate committee, including a majority of Aborigines

Rejection

As mentioned above, five of the 17 families chose to return during the life of the research. Two of these, returned yet again to Newcastle after the research period had closed. Nonetheless, the fact is that 34 per cent were not able to cope initially. The cost of returning to Bourke and taking up their old lifestyles was an additional expense borne by the grant. Some of the reasons for opting out included, being unable to manage finances, domestic disputes leading to a break down of the relationship, problems arising from a daughter’s lover insisting on accompanying one family then refusing to take up employment in Newcastle. In themselves, these are not unusual incidents in the domestic life of families living close to the poverty line, but in the context of resettlement, can disrupt already tenuous relationships and may prevent some people from successfully adapting, when otherwise, they would have coped.

Misgivings about the unfamiliar target town

Nervousness about moving to unfamiliar Newcastle, was anticipated. The idea of migrating from a remote rural centre to a large industrial city was contrary to recommendations from studies of sponsored migration elsewhere. It remained a problem for some time until the resettled families suggested that their intending relatives might visit the city, (at the project’s expense) for a day as an orientation. It proved helpful although it scarcely contributed to lessening the anxiety felt in the early stages of settling. Unfortunately, at the time, Newcastle was the only real city providing unskilled labour opportunities. Unfamiliarity also manifested itself in unusual ways. For example, as one group drove towards the coast, the Great Dividing Range loomed ahead; the wife was too frightened to proceed until pacified by the Counsellor.

Terminology

In designing the program, questions of terminological definition are raised. The use of ‘resettlement’ carries overtones of forced migration of people to undermine an existing population such as from the USSR to Latvia, where people were moved by governments to act as yeast to leaven the indigenous people. We used the terms, resettlement, transmigration, sponsored migration and so on, interchangeably but we were aware that the use of some terms was not welcomed and became an issue for the people.

Conclusion

Obviously, such a program is not a panacea for Aboriginal development and there are many situations where it would not be successful.

As well, over three decades have passed since the resettlement program began and conditions both in the donor towns and host towns have changed.

Would it work now?

  • Yes! Providing that adequate resources were available from government (noting that the returns would far exceed the cost.)
  • Yes, providing that the caseload for Counsellors allowed intensive interaction in the short term.
  • Yes, providing that the framework was clear and administered rigorously.
  • Yes, providing that Aboriginals, who were committed to the scheme formed the Board of the non-government organisation managing it.
  • Yes, providing adequate provision, without penalty, was made for the return of those who found it difficult to adjust.

This paper is headed Quality Of Life Or Querulous Betrayal? because many will support it and many will heavily criticise for real or spurious reasons. Like many programs, the personality of the leadership is crucial, as is a strong adherence to the Principles on which the program is based.

In his extensive analysis of Aboriginals conditions in the 1960s, C.D. Rowley wrote:

‘Perhaps this process of re-location could be accelerated as one aspect of a national plan to assist those Aborigines who desire it or opt for it. These are the people in any society who are in the forefront of social change.’