Interview with Emma Alberici on Empowered Communities


2015 March, 30

EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: May 27th, 1967 was one of the most optimistic days in Australia's history. That was when more than 90 per cent of the country voted to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people.

It brought a great sense of hope for Indigenous Australians. It also ushered in a top-down approach to Aboriginal affairs.

For almost 50 years, policy has been set in Canberra, often thousands of kilometres and another world away from the towns where those policies are eventually implemented.

Now a group of eight Aboriginal communities wants to turn that approach on its head. They've released a report called Empowered Communities, Empowered Peoples. They want more decision-making taking place at the community level with less direction from governments.

SEAN GORDON, COMMUNITY LEADER: I think that's a fault of government is that when governments look at Aboriginal communities, they effectively try to develop policy that will impact the whole of the country. And something we've always known is that these regions are unique, they are different, demographically, culturally and the way in which they undertake - the way in which they go about doing their business is quite unique.

Empowered Communities recognises the uniqueness of each of the regions and allows each of the regions to put together their own structures.

ANDREA MASON, COMMUNITY LEADER: Back in 2013, around 90 leaders came together. We represented Aboriginal communities across the metropolitan, regional and remote areas of Australia. Really because we were all organisations interested in creating or furthering ideas to create safer, prosperous and more dynamic communities. And so the beginning of EC was around finding common ground across a range of Aboriginal organisations and leaders and that has been the basis of the design of the Empowered Communities model.

EMMA ALBERICI: The idea is to create a formal arrangement between Aboriginal people and the Government. Communities could then opt in to the system. Policy decisions would be made at the local level, while spending would focus on development and productivity.

The report says governments spend - spent $30.3 billion on services for Indigenous people in 2012-'13. That works out at $43,449 for each Aboriginal person and Torres Strait Islander. If you look at what the Government spent on other Australians, it's less than half that amount, at $20,900.

One of the leaders behind this blueprint for change is Noel Pearson and he's with me now in the studio.

Welcome back to Lateline.


EMMA ALBERICI: Now at the centre of our policy is for Aboriginal communities to have more autonomy over their decision making at community level. How would those leaders be nominated and what role would government play?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, it's up to leaders to work with their own regions. I can only ever really represent and carry the people of Cape York with my fellow leaders from that region. It's not possible for me to carry the agenda for Indigenous Australia. So what we've done with Empowered Communities is I've worked with like-minded fellows from seven other regions across the country and I've said to them, "Listen, we can't do everything that we want to do in Cape York Peninsula unless we have some national scale." We need to work with people across state and territory jurisdictions and we all need to present a united policy to the Commonwealth Government. And we want to do that on an opt-in base basis. So opt-in has become the principle. We eight communities opt in to this policy design. But within our regions as well, the communities and organisations that agree with our reform direction are given the ability to either opt in or stay with existing default arrangements.

EMMA ALBERICI: Before we go to the specifics of your ideas, the report notes that governments spent in the order, as I just mentioned, of $30 billion a year on services for Indigenous people. In the main, what was that money actually spent on?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, this huge apparatus that exists both within the bureaucracy and in organisations, the non-government organisations, including Indigenous organisations. But increasingly since the demise of ATSIC, a growing private sector that is servicing the "Aboriginal problem", quotation marks. And the servicing of Aboriginal need is now very clearly getting us nowhere. As long as we see the Aboriginal predicament as a kind of service delivery problem, there's kind of no end to the budgets that we require from Parliament to solve those kind of service delivery needs. And the paradigm we're promoting in our concept is actually - we've got to get clear that this is a challenge of empowerment and productivity. We need to get a better bang out of the money that's going into Indigenous Australia and - because a lot of that money is not achieving the objectives and the anxious desires that we have for our people and the tender concerns that we have for our people are not being realised, though the investment is vast.

EMMA ALBERICI: So how do you ensure accountability under your system?

NOEL PEARSON: We need to make government work for us. That's our problem as an Indigenous people. We're three per cent of the country. We're the three per cent mouse against the 97 per cent elephant. And in our democratic and governmental system, the mouse can't really get the elephant to work for it. And so can you imagine the mouse and the elephant sitting on a seesaw? You've got to create a fulcrum somewhere between the mouse and the elephant so that there's a level playing field. And our concept is that we adopt the policy of empowering the mouse to take charge of their own affairs and their own destiny. They need the elephant's support in doing that. But in order for a level playing field to exist between this extreme minority and these two or three layers of government, we need an umpire to sit between them. And that is what we propose that the Commonwealth Government eventually create - not immediately, but over the next few years, create the equivalent of the Productivity Commission to sit between Indigenous Australia and the governments and act as an impartial, objective umpire to make sure that the relationship between the two is one of empowering the Indigenous side rather than compounding welfare.

EMMA ALBERICI: The PM Tony Abbott said he would be a Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs. Is that the way the Indigenous community sees him?

NOEL PEARSON: Well that was the hope and I still harbour that hope and I think it's - it can be achieved. If he recognises the agenda we have put forward here, which is an agenda about social and economic empowerment. There are other Indigenous agendas afoot as well - constitutional recognition and the ongoing recognition of Indigenous rights. What we've proposed is not a comprehensive agenda, but it is a very substantial part of the challenge which is social and economic empowerment. Because this $30-plus billion is just not achieving the return that Australians should rightly respect - expect from it.

EMMA ALBERICI: Why have existing policies not worked?

NOEL PEARSON: Because we've - in fact our policies have disempowered Indigenous Australians. And we kind of - we spray a very large budget across Indigenous Australia. A lot of it is actually undermining the self-determination of Aboriginal people. Because those programs are not premised upon the empowerment of Indigenous individuals and families and communities. And so there needs to be a strict kind of filter through which all of this investment goes to ask the question: is this investment going to result in Indigenous people taking charge of their lives, taking charge of their families, setting their children up for educational success and so on and participating in the economy, or is this investment going to compound a problem of passivity and welfare dependency?

EMMA ALBERICI: And before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about the Labor MP Billy Gordon in Far North Queensland ..


EMMA ALBERICI: ... where you're obviously also from and I know that you know him. He has now left the Labor Party. Annastacia Palaszczuk suggests he should leave the Parliament. What's your view?

NOEL PEARSON: I think that's a matter for the electors of Cook to decide. It's not up to the Premier or the Speaker or the Opposition to demand his resignation from Parliament. He has obviously fallen foul of the rules of the Labor Party in respect of disclosure of his personal history and so on. That's a matter for the Labor Party. But the question as to whether he's entitled to remain, as elected by the people of Cape York, is up to the electors of Cape York at the next poll. I - you know, I was a young boy when the first Indigenous member of Parliament was elected in 1974, from my home community, the late Eric Deeral, and it was a moment of great happiness and joy in my community that we finally had one of our own in the state Parliament and it's been a kind of desert ever since. So Billy Gordon's recent election was again the subject of great enthusiasm amongst people in the Cape and in the Torres Strait. I feel that they have thrown him under a very brutal bus and, you know, the - I don't think that he's been afforded all of the natural justice that he should've been afforded. And I think it's up to the electors of Cook to decide whether he should resign from the Parliament.

EMMA ALBERICI: Noel Pearson, we have to leave it there. I thank you very much for your time this evening.

NOEL PEARSON: Thank you very much, Emma.

Interview with Emma Alberici on Empowered Communities