Call for end to passive welfare


2007 December, 12

ALI MOORE: The fallout from the gang rape case at Aurukun on Cape York continues with the prosecutor now stood down pending an investigation. The prosecutor Steve Carter said the case where a 10-year-old girl was raped by nine men involved what he described as consensual sex in a non legal manner. And he called those involved, quote, "very naughty". He did not recommend any of the perpetrators, aged from their teens to 26 face jail. As well as reviewing the case, the Queensland Attorney-General is appealing against the sentence and reviewing other sexual abuse cases across the cape over the past two years. Noel Pearson who comes from Cape York is among the country's most respected and influential Aboriginal leaders. He's long argued passive welfare is to blame for a complete breakdown in social norms in Aboriginal communities. He joined me from Cairns a short time ago.

Noel Pearson, the Cape York community is your community. A 10-year-old girl is gang raped in Aurukun. Is this an isolated case?

NOEL PEARSON, CAPE YORK LAND COUNCIL: This is the tip of a tragic iceberg. And it's a problem that has been going on for a long time. It's a problem that we've been trying to highlight for a long time now. And it's a problem that is not disappearing. There's nothing that we are currently doing that is decisively avoiding this kind of tragedy.

ALI MOORE: But are you suggesting when you say it's the tip of the iceberg that this sort of behaviour is considered acceptable by some in communities like Aurukun?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, it's not just Aurukun, it's across other communities in Cape York Peninsula. There are in our region 80 reported cases of child protection per month on average. Now, these are not all sexual abuse cases. They involve neglect of children as well, the vast majority involve neglect of children from malnutrition or general care, but they do also include abuse cases. We will get 80 cases reported month, 30 are substantiated, and this is an average monthly reporting level for child protection. Now, in my view, this is a crisis. And it's a crisis that the State Government has attempted to respond to through its new child safety system and through alcohol limitations and so on. But it's not a crisis that we are on top of.

ALI MOORE: Is part of the answer removing the children at risk? The girl in this case had in fact been removed but then returned to the community just before this rape happened. Is putting a child in foster care the answer?

NOEL PEARSON: It's the immediate answer, absolutely. We have got to shed any hesitation whatsoever about the notion that we should take children away from abusive situations and place them into foster care whether it be with Aboriginal families or European families. We've got to shed any kind of silly hesitation about that. The paramount issue has got to be the safety of the children and in my view that hesitation that has prevailed in child protection practice has contributed to a great deal of harm to children.

ALI MOORE: These perpetrators, these men, some of them were in fact only boys, they were teenagers. Should they have gone to jail?

NOEL PEARSON: Absolutely. There is absolutely no justification for leniency. In fact, part of the whole breakdown, the social and cultural breakdown that we see in our communities is the consequence of courts taking into account the historical and social background of Aboriginal offenders. You know, there's been in the past 30 years, there's been a tendency for the judicial system to take into account this cultural and historical background of Aboriginal offenders and therefore resulting in leniency when in fact the imperative has all along been to make sure that social norms are observed and maintained in communities. If we want to diminish in the long term the number of Aboriginal people in prison, we have got to have low tolerance of anti-social behaviour and criminal behaviour. We have got to have low tolerance to interference sexually with children. We have to have low tolerance with adults who are behaving badly and affecting sober members of the community and so on.

ALI MOORE: Partly to that end, you have a plan which really involves establishing a families commission. You've won federal funding, federal approval to trial in this four Cape York communities. When will it start?

NOEL PEARSON: We have the funding. We have approval from the previous government and the Rudd and Macklin Government have confirmed their continued support for this. So we have Commonwealth support for the program. And the program involves putting obligations on every person that receives income support from Government. And those obligations are to send your child to school, to keep your child free from abuse and neglect, to make sure that you abide by the law and to make sure that you look after your house and abide by your tenancy rules. Those are the four conditions. Now, what we need in order for this to work now and we're proposing to start the implementation of this program in January next year, in four communities, including Aurukun, four communities in the Cape are ready to go with this new approach to welfare conditionality. But what we need is state legislation, Queensland Government legislation, to create the necessary decision-making body. Now, we had Federal legislation passed by Mal Brough in July. So the Commonwealth part of the jigsaw has been put into place. The money has been put into place. The third part of the jigsaw which is the state legislation to create this body is still missing.

ALI MOORE: Premier Bligh told this program last night that in fact she'd already agreed with the Federal Government to "a family responsibilities commission." Those aspects are already in the process of legislative drafting as part of the agreement Queensland has with the Commonwealth. You don't believe that is the case?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, the problem is timing here. We had federal legislation in July. We had the money committed by the Federal Government in July. We've had six months to create this state legislation so that we can kick off in January. Our hope was that in the beginning of the school term next year those new conditions will kick in: send your kid to school, make sure they're looked after and fed and so on.

ALI MOORE: So who is derailing the process? I guess, what is the problem?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, in a sense this is the first, this is the first kind of stop the buck passing, stop the blame game problem that's confronting both the Queensland and the new Federal Government. This is the first challenge for stopping the blame game. And the challenge involves Queensland acting quickly to create the necessary commission. And in my view the urgency of the Aurukun case really, you know, begs the question as to whether Parliament in Queensland should urgently resume to create the necessary body that we need, this family responsibilities commission.

ALI MOORE: Noel Pearson, you did make the point that Kevin Rudd and the new Minister Craig Macklin have supported this plan. But before the election you labelled Kevin Rudd heartless when he refused to commit to a referendum on reconciliation. You said you had long experience of Rudd's cynicism and opportunism under the Goss Government. And you dreaded Rudd Government. Do you still?

NOEL PEARSON: My comments were about the specific issue of the renege on the constitutional amendment. But on these human questions of social tragedy involving young children, I have detected complete empathy and sympathy from both the Prime Minister and Minister for Aboriginal affairs. And I'm confident that there is solid support for the welfare reform program that we have. In my view, unless we tackle grog and welfare, the problems of this 10-year-old child at Aurukun ultimately will have no solution.

ALI MOORE: Noel Pearson, many thanks for talking to us.

NOEL PEARSON: Thank you, Ali.

Call for end to passive welfare