Interview with Leigh Sales on passive welfare


2007 June, 26

LEIGH SALES: Now to our interview with Noel Pearson, the director of the Cape York Institute, and for many years now, one of the country's most respected Aboriginal leaders.

Recently he handed a report to the Federal Government which called for an end to "passive welfare", meaning conditions would be attached to all welfare payments to Indigenous Australians. The Pearson plan calls for a trial of the scheme in four north Queensland communities.

He joined us from our Cairns studio just a short time ago.

Noel Pearson, thanks for joining us this evening. It's now five days since the Prime Minister announced he was taking emergency action to stop the sexual abuse of Indigenous children, we've had time to watch the reaction to that play out. Are you surprised or disappointed at how quickly it's descended into a political storm?

NOEL PEARSON: I'm amazed that anybody would put the protection of children secondary to anything, particularly when those children are subject to imminent abuse, abuse that takes place on a regular basis that's the subject of binge drinking, week in, week out. I'm just amazed that anybody would put the protection of children secondary to anything else. I think that those who have objections to immediate intervention have to ask themselves whether they're willing this whole exercise to fail, and geez, if you're willing the whole exercise to fail, what kind of priorities do you have in relation to the wellbeing of Indigenous children?

LEIGH SALES: Do you think that this negativity that we're seeing could have that much of an impact as this policy's rolled out? That it could cause it to fail?

NOEL PEARSON: It will depend on Indigenous people at the end of the day asking themselves and answering the question, asking themselves whether they believe the integrity and wellbeing of their children is the number one priority in the world, and if it is, if it is, let's understand that everything happens within a political context. Of course this is a political context. Of course we don't like that person and we don't, we don't like that party and we don't - we suspect that person's motives and so on, but geez, the imperative here is the protection of our children and we as Indigenous people have got to ask ourselves the hard question - do we put the protection of our children ahead of everything else? Ahead of the fact - ahead of the question as to whether we like the Prime Minister, or we don't like the Prime Minister, or we like that Government or we don't like that Government.

I mean, quite frankly I couldn't care less whether John Howard or Kevin Rudd ruled this world. My priority is to take advantage for immediate intervention for the protection of children.

LEIGH SALES: There might be some out there who would have expected that the majority of Aboriginal leaders would say, "look, thank goodness, we've been calling for action on this for so long, now something's going to happen". Why have we seen this negative reaction?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, you would think so. You would think so. This is almost a form of madness. I can't understand it myself. But I suppose it is an explanation, it gives you some kind of explanation as to why we have not done anything effective to prevent this abuse hitherto. It does provide some kind of explanation as to why we have never done anything effective up to now. We haven't come up with the ideas to prevent the abuse. Did we - we're in fact saying, I hear people saying in the commentary, that this abuse has been known about for a long time. People say in defence of, in objection to what the Government is doing. people say, "oh, the Government should have known, we've known about this problem for 20 years." Geez, if we've known about it for that long, why is it not that we've come up with any kind of effective solution to the problem?

LEIGH SALES: So it's not just the Government's fault, it's the people's fault as well?

NOEL PEARSON: Absolutely. I mean, you know, the first and best defenders of an Aboriginal child has got to be Aboriginal people. You know, these are our children at stake here. You know, it's quite, it's quite to be expected that the first people who should have regard for our children are ourselves, and, you know, it's just an absolutely miserable show that we see people who have never come up with any solution to prevent this suffering in 20 years of knowledge about the problem, but the minute somebody suggests trying to do something decisive about it, you've got all of them finding every excuse under the sun not to do anything.

LEIGH SALES: We heard accusations today that rumours are being spread in Mutitjulu that the police and army are going to be coming in to take children away. Who would be spreading such disinformation, and why?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, you know, I think that - I mean, I've been taking the stick quite a bit to progressives in relation to Aboriginal policy. People on the - people who have always professed a regard for Aboriginal people, and you know, there's something mad going on from in the midst of many of our traditional supporters because they're putting quibbling about politics and putting all kinds of objections in the road. For example, the suggestion that this is about land rights. You know, I've got as much objections as anybody to the ideological prejudices of the Howard Government in relation to land, but this question is not about a 'land grab'. The Anderson Wild Report tells us about the scale of Aboriginal children's neglect and abuse. This is what this is about. It's an absolute alibi to try and characterise this debate as being about land grabs and so on. Who wants a land grab in main street Hopevale, for goodness sake?

LEIGH SALES: Isn't it valid, though, to ask the question whether the Prime Minister is playing politic given that, as you say, these problems have been known about for a long time, the Prime Minister has been in power for 11 years and now we're a few months out from a federal election and all of a sudden, action is taken. Isn't it a valid to ask the question, "is he playing politics"?

NOEL PEARSON: Absolutely, ask the question by all means, but I think the response of the Leader of the Opposition today has made very clear that though these things happen in an election context and so on and people, politicians and governments make electoral calculations about the measures they take and so on - nevertheless, this for the Leader of the Opposition, as it is for me, is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to do something decisive, it is an opportunity that I want to take advantage of in Cape York Peninsula for my own people and our own children up here, to be provided with the necessary protection and the necessary supports to make sure that we are - Rex Wild QC said in his report the other week, he said he hopes from now on no Aboriginal child suffers abuse. We should all, we should all hold that hope, but in order to give effect to that hope, we've got to stop the grog, we've got to get the police in there and we've got to have an absolutely vigilant attitude towards the behaviour of adults around children, particularly if they're drinking and particularly if the circumstances of children are such that they're vulnerable to abuse.

LEIGH SALES: Government logistics teams will head into some Northern Territory communities tomorrow, obviously they're going to have to tread sensitively. Given the emotions swirling around this and the situation in those communities, are you concerned that things could go wrong?

NOEL PEARSON: You know, the big danger for the Government, I think, is that they can't go marching in like cowboys. They've got to go marching in with humility, with support, not with arrogance, and they've got to enjoin the Aboriginal people of that community. Because you talk to me about one community that does not have within it sober grandmothers, sober mothers, sober men who are concerned about these problems and who would not welcome relief for their children and for their community.

There is within every community good people, and it's an absolutely shameful thing that those good people are misled by people whose children sleep safely at night. You know, that's the horrendous thing here. That the people who are nay saying any kind of intervention are people whose children, like my own, sleep safely at night. And I think that's a terrible indulgence.

When our children sleep safely at night, we seek to put road blocks in the way and we wish failure, we wish failure upon any decisive action that's going to deliver some relief of suffering to vulnerable children.

LEIGH SALES: The Prime Minister has said that he and the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, will accept full responsibility for how this plays out. Do you also feel some responsibility given your input and influence into this policy?

NOEL PEARSON: I feel responsible and I will absolutely be responsible for the actions that I take in Cape York Peninsula and the actions that I have advocated. Now there's points of difference between myself and the Government in relation to implementation. I urge once again that the Government enjoins Indigenous leaders, because at the end of the day you have to engage Aboriginal people in this process. You have to get moral ownership of this issue and, you know, it's a poor reflection on us as a people if we put politicking ahead of the moral ownership of this question of protection of our children.

LEIGH SALES: What are those points of difference that you have with the Government?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, in relation to welfare payments, I absolutely concur with the idea of attaching obligations to welfare payments and to intervene in relation to those payments. But the intervention that I want is one where it is only people who are being irresponsible where the intervention takes place. Where parents, and there are many Aboriginal parents who are responsible in relation to their children, and they should be left and encouraged in the continuation of that responsibility. We should only intervene where people are doing the wrong thing so that we send the right message. We send the right message to everybody that if you do the right thing, then you exercise all of the privileges of making your own decisions as a parent. But listen, the day has come when there is an end to the day when you as an adult can abuse the money that you get, don't use it for the benefit of the kids, use it for drinking, use it for gambling, use it for drugs and create living hell for your children. That day has got to come to an end.

LEIGH SALES: On a personal level, how do you feel about some of the negative comments that have been directed towards you during this debate. For example, I read one comment on the weekend from a senior Aboriginal leader saying that "Noel Pearson's not our Messiah?"

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I'm sure the person who said that is absolutely correct in the advice. But I have to say that that's absolutely water off a duck's back to me. I'm just - I would just urge Aboriginal leaders to get real, to get real here. I couldn't give a damn whether John Howard is the PM this time next year or whether Kevin Rudd is. The issues facing our people are so much more important than that question, and the election issues and the escalation of the child abuse issues - which your program has to take so much credit for in bringing to national focus here - those two storms have come together to create an opportunity and I was very pleased today to stand next to Kevin Rudd, and I detect, I detect a very clear commitment on his part, that though these be political circumstances, this is not going to be a political issue.

LEIGH SALES: With the Federal Government now seizing control, what will it take from here on to persuade the Prime Minister, whether John Howard or Kevin Rudd in the future, to devolve power to the Aboriginal people, or has the moment for self-determination now passed with this move?

NOEL PEARSON: Listen, self-determination - in the proper meaning of the world, if self-determination means that we should be put in artificial office, we should be given titles, we should be given travel allowances and all of the trappings of office, but we don't care about the suffering of the children and we don't do anything about the disintegration of social circumstances in our own communities, if that's the meaning of self-determination, then I don't want any part of it. But if self-determination is about taking real responsibility for your people's solutions and for your people's problems, if that's what self-determination means, if it means hard work and responsibility, and accountability, not just saying, "well listen, our children are miserable, they're malnutritioned and somebody else is to blame for that", that's not self-determination in my view. But real self-determination is about Indigenous people taking responsibility for the results, and I can tell you the results that are out there at the moment are very, very miserable and shameful. And, you know, it is a measure of our performance that - it's a measure of our performance in fulfilment of what we have called self-determination, that the results are so miserable.

LEIGH SALES: Long term - when this immediate crisis is hopefully stabilised - do you think there's a role for another body, similar to ATSIC, perhaps on a better model, to be developed to help Aboriginal people take greater control over their own futures?

NOEL PEARSON: Absolutely. We've got the take charge. We've got to be given back responsibility. Might I say the collapse of responsibility that we see, the wasteland of responsibility in Indigenous Australia is the consequence of government and bureaucracies and welfare organisations, including NGOs, who have intervened in Aboriginal affairs and said, "listen, you don't have to take responsibility. You have a whole suite of rights, including the right to welfare, the right to drink, the right to party all night, the right to have the trappings of office without being accountable for any return on your role."

You know, it's been the intervention of government and bureaucracies in this way that has really crumbled what were strong and proud people. You know, when - in Aboriginal families that are functional, there's no greater love of children than Aboriginal people who nurture and look after their own children, and you witness that time and time again. But, you know, in recent decades, this very precious thing of the Aboriginal love for their own people has come under severe assault and has severely unravelled because responsibility has been taken away from us and we've abandoned it. We've been quite happy to abandon it, and ultimately the solution to our problems will require us to pick up the mantle of responsibility and take it up because nobody can save us as surely as we can save ourselves.

LEIGH SALES: So you would like to see a new ATSIC in place?

NOEL PEARSON: There's got to be some kind of structure in which we interface with government to ensure - because I can tell you, you try and get responsibility out of a welfare agency. You try and say, "well those Aboriginal people there should now exercise full responsibility." This is like... Dracula to garlic or something, you know. Dracula to a wooden stake. They hate the idea of giving back responsibility to Aboriginal people and, you know, we have turned into a nation of cripples because of those policies that have treated us like children, and the time has come for black fellas to wake up to the real meaning of self-determination.

You know, I hear people bleat uphill and down about self-determination and in my view self-determination is about people taking responsibility for themselves, for their own families and for their communities and, you know, it's an absolutely shameful hour that has descended on us, absolutely shameful hour where even an emergency intervention to protect the safety of our children is hindered, is hindered by people who supposedly have good will for Aboriginal people and in fact, those people are willing, they are willing the protection and succour to Aboriginal children to fail in the same way and as vehemently as they will failure in Iraq.

LEIGH SALES: Noel Pearson, thank you for your time this evening.

NOEL PEARSON: Thank you very much, Leigh.

Interview with Leigh Sales on passive welfare