Visionary advocate for Indigenous development joins Deakin

One of Australia’s leading public intellectuals in Indigenous affairs, Prof Jon Altman, has joined the Alfred Deakin Institute.

For anthropologist, Professor Jon Altman, retiring after nearly 40 years in Indigenous affairs was not an option. Seeking ways to improve the quality of life for remote Indigenous communities is a lifelong project.

A Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Professor Altman has undertaken prolific research and advocacy in Indigenous economic and social policy.

In 1990 he established the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) at the Australian National University, where he was foundation director until 2010.

He retired from the ANU in 2014, but this year has joined the Alfred Deakin Institute (ADI), where he is keen to help build the research capacity of a “young university” in the discipline of anthropology and in Indigenous studies.

Having emigrated from New Zealand to Australia to teach economics in his early 20s, Prof Altman changed to the discipline of anthropology.

He undertook his doctoral fieldwork at an outstation called Mumeka in remote Arnhem Land. It was a life-changing experience.

In a 2016 collection of essays devoted to his work, “Engaging Indigenous Economy,” he reflected

[testimonial_text]I have never abandoned Mumeka and have been back there over 50 times… I try to repay people there for my training and their hospitality … by advocating for them and their very different way of living.[/testimonial_text]
[testimonial_picture name=”Professor Jon Altman” details=”Research Professor, Alfred Deakin Institute”]

He was recently described by respected “Australian” journalist Nicolas Rothwell as a lone voice “still heard regularly, scrutinising and explaining the fine detail of ­Indigenous policies, teasing out the implications of new announcements and schemes advanced by the Federal Government.”

This commitment has seen him contribute to many parliamentary enquiries, preparing almost 100 submissions and engaging regularly with politicians and government officials. He has written or edited 30 books and monographs, and almost 400 articles for journals and other publications.

Combining a strong knowledge of economics with anthropology provided a unique perspective – reinforcing the links between economic justice and social justice, with a healthy respect for cultural difference.

This led Prof Altman to theorise actually existing remote Indigenous economies as hybrid, and, more recently, to advocate for the value of treaties and comprehensive agreements as crucial means of empowering indigenous Australians with property rights and political jurisdiction, alongside land and native title rights.

His concept of hybrid economies recognises the sectoral overlaps between the state-funded economy, the market economy and the “customary” economy – giving appropriate value to non-market activities like fishing, hunting and gathering that are integral to Indigenous ways of being.

“There is potential for revisiting customary local knowledge and indigenous ecological knowledge,” he said.

“For instance, diverse or plural economies that include the visual arts sector, land management, cultural tourism, services provision, and hunting and fishing, all can combine to provide potential for new ‘post-colonial’ arrangements that can improve the wellbeing and livelihoods of indigenous peoples.”

At the ADI, Prof Altman will continue to explore options and advocate for sustainable hybrid economies associated with the expansion of Indigenous territory across the continent.

In other countries like Canada and New Zealand comprehensive settlements have provided successful development alternatives that match Indigenous aspirations.

He believes that approaches such as these will help to counteract the “triumph of ideology over evidence” that has dogged Australia’s history of Indigenous policy (epitomised by the failed 2007 Northern Territory “intervention” and its aftermath).

“About one third of the continent is now under Aboriginal title, with around 20 per cent of Indigenous people living on their ancestral lands,” he said.

Treaty-like success stories include the comprehensive native title settlement with the Noongar people in Western Australia, which provides compensation and parcels of land in the Perth metro area that will create development options.

In Victoria, settlement agreements with the Gunditjmara people in western Victoria and the Kurnai people in Gippsland, amongst others, have been negotiated through the Traditional Owner Settlement Act (2010).

These are seeing traditional owners jointly manage national parks and reserves, use crown land for traditional purposes and receive some funding to manage their own affairs.

“I am excited by the fact that the Victorian Government has announced it wants to negotiate treaties or comprehensive settlements with Indigenous people living in more settled parts of the State – and where large allocation of territory will not be possible, compensation of various agreed forms will be needed,” Prof Altman said.

“We need to be creative in how we work toward economic justice and alternative development pathways for Indigenous Australians, in all their diverse circumstances. Historical evidence shows us where inappropriate policy design and free market solutions have failed to close the gap – and where fundamentally new approaches are needed to make a difference.”

Are you a Deakin academic with a passion to share your research? You may be interested in writing for us.

Find out more