Govt, Indigenous community reach welfare deal


2007 May, 11

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: The Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has accused people from his home town of being a pale imitation of their forefathers and selling out their children's future.

In an impassioned address in the remote Queensland community of Hope Vale, west of Cooktown, Mr Pearson and Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough launched a radical welfare program and challenged the town to confront its demons. Under the scheme, the Federal Government will provide $15 million for home improvements and low interest loans for home ownership, in exchange for part of residents' fortnightly welfare cheques.

From Hope Vale, Lateline's Tom Iggulden reports.

TOM IGGULDEN: Tough times are nothing new for this town of 1,200 people, four hours north of Cairns. Every year, 80 children are taken to Cairns and put into foster care from Cape York Aboriginal communities. Hope Vale supplies as many to this grim migration as any town in the region.

NOEL PEARSON: This is my place. Half of those kids there are my grandchildren. If there's nobody willing to stand up and speak for them, I'm sure as hell not sitting down.

TOM IGGULDEN: Noel Pearson has long championed change here, today a sign of things to come in Hope Vale is being unveiled. The Indigenous Affairs Minister has made the trip up to sign off on a new mutual obligation agreement between the council and Federal Government. New tenancy agreements will force locals to maintain their houses, send their children to school and put aside a portion of their welfare payments or face eviction. People are nervous about what the changes will mean.

TIM MCGREEN: I urge all community members to think before agreeing to it. Before giving your welfare payment to the plan.

TOM IGGULDEN: Mr Pearson thinks self-determination and free handouts have ruined his community and is demanding immediate change.

NOEL PEARSON: You have within your reach here in this community the potential to be great again, the potential to live up to the achievement of your grandfathers. Because at the moment we are an embarrassment to their heritage. We are a pale moral shadow of their original achievement. They didn't have 2 cents to their name but they never neglected their children.

TOM IGGULDEN: The Federal Government is offering to pump $15 million into Hope Vale, small handouts for paint and home renovations for those who keep up their end of the new tenancy conditions and there will also be a new business precinct to provide jobs and training, starting a local economy that barely exists today out of the welfare system. The aim is to move some residents out of public housing and into their own homes, bought and paid for in the open market. The council has just bought freehold land next to the town, which they'll sell off in blocks to those who can afford it.

MAL BROUGH: If you have doubts, if you think it's getting hard, go to the school and have a look at the kids, have a look at them, look at your future and say, 'Do I want them to have something I missed out on?' We'll back you 110 per cent to the best of our ability.

TOM IGGULDEN: Change will not come easily to Hope Vale. Councillors talk of open threats made against them, intimidation, they say, designed to maintain the status quo. The town's future is riding in people's support for the new plan.

MAL BROUGH: I have said things about this place that have hurt people. So I get a bit sleepless about that because I know that it's hard for people to just say that, yeah, he's speaking the truth because they can't put aside their basic fidelity to the place as well, you know.

TOM IGGULDEN: But meetings and consultation are beginning to have an effect.

TIM MCGREEN: I am in the community, no one had consulted me when I came to a public meeting about these issues and everything and that's why I was a bit angry, but then after Noel started talking it made it clear to me and I said all right.

TOM IGGULDEN: The Federal Government's chosen Hope Vale for this landmark deal because it enjoys a lot of advantages over other remote Aboriginal communities. It has strong leadership and nearby natural resources. But that also brings extra pressure on the community to succeed and succeed quickly.

But it is true, isn't it, because of the head start Hope Vale's got, the solutions here aren't going to work in other places?

MAL BROUGH: No. I have said all along that you can't roll anything out - governments of all persuasions love rolling out solutions, not in Indigenous affairs. Hope Vale has some unique opportunities and some unique challenges, just as the central desert has.

TOM IGGULDEN: The Federal Government will sign similar deals in the Northern Territory next week.

Govt, Indigenous community reach welfare deal