This paper explores some issues for urgent consideration before any new policy for outstations is developed under the new administrative arrangements in Indigenous affairs. The research reported here is animated by a long-standing interest in the livelihoods of Indigenous people who reside at small remote communities, usually termed outstations, or homelands, or emerging communities. The paper uses official secondary data to demonstrate that there is no compelling case for a policy change that would encourage recentralisation from small discrete Indigenous communities to larger discrete Indigenous communities. Nor is there a compelling policy case for a move from outstations to townships or from townships to larger urban centres to improve Indigenous people’s livelihood prospects.
This paper suggests there is too little research and understanding of culturally distinct, but evolving, patterns of Indigenous mobility and migration in remote and very remote Australia. In particular, there is a danger that policy-makers will fall into the trap of conceptualising Indigenous residence as occurring in some fixed hierarchy of settlements, rather than as occurring regionally and flexibly between larger and smaller communities and between smaller communities. There is a distinct possibility that government policy aspirations are out of touch with the aspiration of many Indigenous people to decentralise. This aspiration is not surprising, in part because the Indigenous estate is expanding and new land owners are likely to want to live on their land. There is also local recognition in some regions that some townships, like Wadeye, are becoming too large and problematic (in part because they lack an economic base), and that decentralisation provides better livelihood options.
While recent ministerial calls for an open debate on outstations is endorsed, it is unfortunate that much of this debate is being conducted with little input from outstations people themselves and with limited reference to expert local and regional knowledge. It might be timely for a House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Inquiry into the outstations situation before too much new policy is made. Such an inquiry might find that there are diverse futures for Indigenous people at outstations at variance with the monolithic mainstreaming perspective that appears to be dominating emerging policy discourse. Such futures might see Indigenous people living on the land they own, moving between larger and smaller communities, and pursuing livelihoods in a hybrid economy that includes payment for the delivery of environmental services, participation in the customary or non market sector, and the pursuit of commercial opportunities. Such non-mainstream possibilities need to be explored.