The former NSW magistrate Pat O'Shane has come out of retirement to head a key body associated with Noel Pearson's Cape York Welfare Reform Program.
The outspoken Aboriginal activist says the decade-old program needs an overhaul because it's failing communities, and she's critical of a core component of it: the use of income management for welfare recipients who break the law or fail to send their children to school.
Pat O'Shane's appointment by the Queensland Government comes as the Commonwealth and the state remain at odds over the future of this program.
Cathy Van Extel has this exclusive report.
Cathy Van Extel: 78-year-old Pat O'Shane was approached by Queensland Deputy Premier and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Partnership Minister Jackie Trad and Departmental Director General Chris Sara, a few weeks ago to take on the role of the head of the Family Responsibilities Commission.
Pat O'Shane: I hadn’t really dived into it until I had this conversation a few weeks ago and I thought okay let me get a handle on this and so I started doing my research and I thought oh my god what’s this job, this sounds like the job from hell! I mean they’re going to be a huge amount of work starting to progress these communities.
Cathy Van Extel: Pat O'Shane will start in her new role next Monday, she says the Cape York Welfare Reform program is in need of an overhaul based on her reading of the annual reports and the Queensland Productivity Commission assessment.
Pat O'Shane: It’s truly an indictment of the Cape York Institute and its activities in those communities. The Productivity Commission of Queensland expressed the opinion that the state of affairs in those communities had gone backwards.
Cathy Van Extel: The Family Responsibilities Commission or FRC is at the heart of the Cape York Welfare Reform program, it’s a statutory authority that empowers locally appointed indigenous elders to impose income management on welfare recipients who cause trouble in communities or fail in their responsibilities such as sending their children to school.
Pat O'Shane is opposed to income management.
Pat O'Shane: in fact I’ve heard many complaints about that system I’ve realised that in fact it was almost identical with the Commonwealth intervention in the Northern Territory and parts of South Australia to penalise, to inflict or impose a monetary penalty on people who are impoverished and already have very limited income is an extreme punishment indeed and I have absolutely no trust with that kind of behaviour on the part of officials.
Cathy Van Extel: So I’m wondering how as the commissioner you are going to preside over these regime which is about implementing a system that involves income management.
Pat O'Shane: In my opinion, and this is something I will have to discuss with the minister, it should not be left to a commissioner to in fact manage the income of the individual members of the community.
Cathy Van Extel: As the head of the Family Responsibilities Commission, Pat O'Shane will lead a team of twenty two FRC local commissioners who are respected elders in the five Cape York Welfare Reform communities: Hope Vale, Coen, Aurukun, Doomadgee and Mossman Gorge.
Pat O'Shane: I haven’t met a single local commissioner and I don’t know the names of any of them. I will be going out fairly shortly and I will be talking to all the communities and I will be meeting people and I will be talking to them about what they do, more to the point I will be asking them, I won’t be imposing things, my ideas on them, I will be asking them what changes they would like to see and in particular how they can change their roles to affect greater, better, more satisfactory outcomes.
Cathy Van Extel: Pat O'Shane is on a six month interim contract, her appointment comes amid uncertainty about the future of the FRC and the Cape York Welfare Reform program. The federal government’s offered funding for a further three years, however Queensland has committed to just one year while it looks to redesign the program as part of its Thriving Communities agenda
Long-standing FRC commissioners fear the proposed Queensland reforms could unwind progress made over the past 11 years and place their communities at risk.
Doreen Hart from Hope Vale is one of the founding commissioners.
Doreen Hart: I love what I do because it’s assisting my people to make better choices, it is helping the children of the community to have a better lifestyle, making people understand what their responsibility is within their family place or within the community, helping them and supporting them to work with all the family members to make a great family environment.
Cathy Van Extel: There are some though who question whether the Cape York Welfare Reform regime has really made significant inroads over so long now, over more than a decade. What do you say to that? What have you seen in your community?
Doreen Hart: I think that’s just used as an excuse not to continue with the program because there is significant evidence and I think about six reports that have said that FRC has definitely made a difference.
Cathy Van Extel: Doreen Hart warns that communities will be placed at risk if the FRC is axed.
Doreen Hart: I’m really concerned for the safety of our communities if the government goes ahead with taking away FRC.
Fellow commissioner Karen Gibson from Mossman Gorge, who’s been in the role since 2011, shares those concerns.
Karen Gibson: When I came into Mossman Gorge community I’ve seen alcohol abuse, neglect of children not going to school, there were concerns around parents drinking because that was the normality at that time but now you hear the occasional house that still stacks in its way but there is a big difference we don’t see alcohol abuse as before even the gambling. There is a lot of contributors but FRC played a pretty big part in it.
Cathy Van Extel: The Cape York Welfare Program has been driven by Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute in partnership with the state and federal governments. As FRC commissioner, Pat O'Shane will be joining Noel Pearson on the FRC board. Do you expect that you’re going to find yourself in a battle with him over the future of the FRC?
Pat O'Shane: I don’t know that he is even involved in it anyway, but if he is, I have no intention of entering into a battle with him. I have been told what my job will be and I will be putting forward my best efforts to make a fundamental change for the better for the people who live in the Cape York communities. That’s not something that he can say. I’m not going to tolerate him trying to tell me how to do my job once I started in it. The Queensland government actually invited me into this position and they must have done that for a reason.
Pat O'Shane, former New South Wales magistrate and indigenous activist has just been appointed to Noel Pearson’s Cape York Welfare Reform program.
That report from Cathy Van Extel, and Cathy did approach both the Deputy Premier Jackie Trad and Noel Pearson from the Cape York Institute but has so far received no response.