Interview with Paul Barclay on Passive Welfare


2009 June, 13

Paul Barclay: By ten in the morning the tropical North Queensland heat and humidity has already set in.

Noel Pearson is sitting in a small office by the water in the Port Authority Building in Cairns, wearing board shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, looking tired. He is still only 35, unmarried, without children, and has the world at his fingertips. But it's a disturbing paradox in Cape York at the top of Far North Queensland he's chosen to grapple with.

Why are so many Aboriginal communities here so chronically dysfunctional, rife with alcoholism, violence and child abuse, when their material wealth has actually improved?

Noel Pearson: On a lot of counters the situation of people in Cape York is deteriorating, and I put that down to a lot of really dangerous thinking. I mean some of the poor thinking is such that Aboriginal people believe that it is Aboriginal to drink, and when you get to the stage where a people actually believe that it is somehow part of the identity of a people that we live in parks, that we sit around in circles and drink, that we sit around and waste all of our money in gambling and stuff, when you get people to that state of mind, or where they actually believe that it's to identify as a true Aboriginal person to engage in those things, I think that's a real indication of how wrong the whole tone and the whole direction of thinking about Aboriginal people in this country has become, you know.

Paul Barclay: Pearson's analysis is that welfare dependency is largely to blame for the situation in some Aboriginal communities. It's a confronting thesis.

Noel Pearson's critique and concepts are unfamiliar and complex. They're spelled out in his book Our Right to Take Responsibility. Here's a reading from the back page.

When you look at the culture of Aboriginal binge drinking you can see how passive welfare has corrupted Aboriginal values of responsibility and sharing, and changed them into exploitation and manipulation.

Paul Barclay: Pearson is an enigmatic man, fascinating because he's difficult to categorise. His present position has evolved over a lifetime of experiencing the problem of Aboriginal disadvantage.

Noel Pearson: In the '60s my family lived in a two-bedroom fibro house, like everybody else in the Mission you know. No hot water, outdoor toilet, bones and tripe to eat at night, you know, terrible diet. Terribly poor. I think the highest wage cheque I ever saw my father draw was $45 for a week's work, you know? And yet despite that material deprivation we were socially strong. There was not the degree of alcoholism as there is today, violence was almost non-existent; there was nobody in jail back then. And yet today we've got all the benefits of life on the safety net and we've got scores of people in jail. Violence week to week, and these tremendous problems.

There's a lot of people who share my sense of question about what has happened and it's those people who I think are seriously saying the same thing I am, that we've got to get out of this dependency, because the dependency has killed the will to live really, the will to work. You know, it sounds terribly conservative and terribly old-fashioned to talk about the fact that we've got to restore work, and work was part of our traditional life, you know, a huge part of our traditional life. It was harder work than it is living in this modern society, and yet we tend to think that Aboriginal people and work are somehow foreign to each other.

Paul Barclay: At the core of Pearson's thinking is a concept very difficult to many people and it sits particularly uncomfortably with the Left. In Cape York, he says, the practice of each individual getting a welfare cheque, with no strings attached, doesn't work. Welfare without responsibility has made many communities of Cape York 'the most dysfunctional societies on the planet', he says. Noel Pearson is only talking about Cape York, and his 'mob' as he calls them. It's part of the Aboriginal tradition that you speak only for your own 'country', or area.

In white society the idea that each eligible individual has the right to welfare and the right to spend it as he or she sees fit, is fundamental to the welfare system. That's fine, says Pearson, but Aboriginal cultures are based on family and family responsibility.

To the progressive 'Left' his ideas can sound like paternalism. But Pearson is actually talking about giving people more control over their lives. He's adamant the problems will only be solved if the bureaucracies come together as one, and then hand over some of the responsibility to Aboriginal communities themselves.

Noel Pearson: I think I've come to a very late-in-life view about the problems of the bureaucratisation of Aboriginal affairs and Aboriginal society. We are inmates of an institution, an historical institution, these communities; and these communities can be really debilitating of individual endeavour and family responsibility and family. I think that we've got to break out of those bureaucratic structures and create more room, more freedom for people to take up opportunities and solve problems. Those are the two things we've got to do. Seize opportunities, solve problems.

Paul Barclay: Pearson wants an injection of entrepreneurial thinking into Cape York. And he's willing to trawl the world for ideas and expertise. Already he's enlisted the support of a Harvard Business School Professor for a proposed indigenous business institute, so that more Aboriginal people can get skills to secure a place in 'the real economy' as he refers to it.

The CEO of Boston Consulting has given advice to the Indigenous people of Injinoo who own and run the Pjinka Wilderness Lodge at the very tip of Cape York. And at a summit in Weipa earlier this year to discuss his plan, Noel Pearson drafted Malcolm Turnbull, and an impressive array of corporate leaders, to the cause.

At the grassroots level too, in Cape York communities like Lockhart River, 'social entrepreneurs' as Pearson calls them, a term he's borrowed from 'third way' political thinking, can make all the difference.

Noel Pearson: The people who are having success are these entrepreneurs. You don't send a bureaucrat in, you send a social entrepreneur into a situation. And those entrepreneurs don't have some kind of preconceived program, they're opportunities, they're people who can actually see that they're not just problems here on the ground, there's opportunities, there's talents, there's people, and if only we went in, not just with a kind of needs list, we actually go in and compile an assets list, and when I've seen operators like that go into a community such as this couple who went into the Lockhart community, which is one that, I mean I don't want to cast aspersions on it, but for me it was a pretty dismal community, and these entrepreneurs went into this, a man and woman, a couple, went into this situation four years ago and they've discovered this great artistic talent amongst young Aboriginal women and men, and they've nurtured this talent, they've connected this talent up with teaching, with art networks, with galleries, and now those young girls are selling $10,000 paintings and they're exhibiting at Biennales and so on. Who would have thought that there was this talent at Lockhart? If you'd walked the streets of Lockhart four or five years ago, who would have thought that within that social disaster there's this amazing talent, amazing pool of talent? 600, 700 people and there's about nine world-class artist amongst them.

And if that's the case in relation to art, what's the case in relation to music? What's the case in relation to sport? What's the case in relation to academics? There's a whole range of areas where I think all of this talent is untapped, and these entrepreneurs are the people, the social entrepreneurs, black, white, people who can go and see an opportunity, nurture it, connected it up and then produce great results. It's a completely different approach from the traditional approach of the welfare bureaucracy.

Paul Barclay: Noel Pearson is from Hope Vale in Cape York, a former Lutheran mission. He won a scholarship to St Peter's Lutheran secondary college in Brisbane and then went on to study law and history at the University of Sydney.

Pearson is where he is today because he got an education and has made the most of it. He's known as a difficult person to get to know, private and sometimes full of brooding intensity. But at home with his mob, he can settle down and relax with his guitar.

Paul Barclay: When I meet Pearson in Cairns, he's working the phone in his office. He's busy on a political experiment he hopes will dramatically change Aboriginal governance in Cape York. It's called Cape York Partnerships. And it's rooted in the belief that uncoordinated, centralised governments have failed Aboriginal communities in Cape York.

What's needed are solutions tailored to each region. What works in Central Australia may not succeed in Cape York, or the Kimberley for that matter.

So how would this regional approach work in practice? Noel Pearson says it's as simple as dusting down a big table in each community and sitting everyone around it who's involved in decision making.

Noel Pearson: We want the government, you know there's 15 different government departments that have got something to do with the situation of youth in the community. We want 15 of those departments to sit down with their money, with their programs across the table from community people who are dealing with youth issues and community leaders, and then we negotiate a partnership at the table. You know, because one government department's got $5,000 to offer and the other one's got $25,000 to offer. This one's got some expertise, it might not have any money, but they actually have an idea. And the same with all the community side. So this whole idea of the partnership negotiation table is one that brings government together and joins government up. You know, we're calling it joined-up government.

But more than that, it's not just about the government people deciding what needs to be done, and getting organised, it's on the basis of equality with the Aboriginal community. We negotiate the partnership. Government doesn't just come in and tell us what it's going to do. ('Listen, we're going to build 15 new houses and we've got the Department of Housing here, we've got the Department of this and that, we've got the Department of Water Resources and the Electricity mob') It's not going to be like that. What we need is negotiations, so the community can say, 'No, we don't just want you to plonk 15 houses into our community while we watch you do it, we want our young people employed on those building gangs. OK so what needs to be done in order for that to happen? Well we need the employment and training department to fund the training program at the same time as the housing is being delivered.' So that's the kind of coordination and holistic government that we want to create through this negotiation table.

Paul Barclay: Noel Pearson has yet to get the support of the federal government for his proposals. But the language he uses, and the ideas he's taken from 'third way' political thinking, are often in line with Government rhetoric.

He was also one of a group of delegates who attended a roundtable meeting last Tuesday, convened by the federal government, that called for a new 'partnership' between government and Aboriginal communities.

Noel Pearson has turned his back on a well-paid career as a bit city corporate lawyer to develop his Cape York Partnerships Plan. And now he's facing up to a monumental challenge: communities such as Aurukun and Kowanyama in Cape York are very troubled places. Queensland's Courier-Mail revealed just how troubled in a Walkley-awardwinning series of newspaper reports last year. The journalist who penned them, Tony Koch, first went to Cape York 19 years ago. He became so affected by the scale of the social tragedy there, he's on a crusade. And the Courier-Mail is now actively promoting Pearson's plan.

Tony Koch: The articles in the Courier-Mail actually challenged Indigenous men to do something about looking after their women and kids. It's all right to stomp round with land rights placards and stomp the world stage and go to Geneva and all that, but I can tell you now, and it was documented in our paper, I was at Kowanyama on Thursday afternoon; there were 300 people there fighting, there was a woman getting her brains bashed out by a bloke with a tree branch and no-one was helping. And I must say the police car was sitting back just watching as well, and it just disgusted me. This particular woman ran off into this apology for a Women's Shelter there. I went over the Shelter later on, the bloody place is full of bullet holes, and is just appalling. And I made an acquaintanceship later on with a lawyer who looks after victims of crime up there, he's got 800 clients on his books, and it's just a dreadful situation.

I mean Aurukun, a community of fewer than 1,000 people, in a six-week period this year had four murders. Four domestic murders. So this sort of thing has to be controlled, looked at; somebody has to do something about it, it's up to the men to do something about it. They're the leaders of the community; the women are desperate for something to be done, and the women are doing great things. And it's taken someone like Pearson, with his intellect and his responsibility to confront it.

Paul Barclay: Tony Koch, senior reporter with the Courier-Mail.

An hour-and-a-half south-west of Cairns lies Topaz, the wettest place in Australia. And drought-free farming country. Here in a spartan shack with a glorious vista of Queensland's highest mountain range, lives David Byrne, budding dairyfarmer, cattle grazier and tea grower.

They used to call him 'the Commander' in the days when he helped Noel Pearson run the Cape York Land Council. Byrne was integral in helping to set up the Land Council in 1990. And he worked there until last year, forming a lasting friendship with Pearson.

He tells me that to Pearson, the concept of 'responsibility' has always been as equally important as 'rights'. Pearson's book is even titled Our Right to Take Responsibility. The call for people to take responsibility has certain connotations in white society, but when Pearson talks about it, it's in the context of traditional Aboriginal culture.

David Byrne: Noel's statements in relation to justice and fairness and rights is one side of the equation; it's the equation of trying to get non-Aboriginal society to appreciate human rights, human rights in relation to culture, in relation to country, in relation to language. But human rights are only one part of the component of the people. People have their rights to be able to take responsibility for their rights. So the fact that Noel enunciates these things at the present moment and in the recent past, is only because the opportunity to enunciate those things arises because there is now recognition in Australian law before its courts, under the rule of law, from the legislation that's come from State and Commonwealth parliaments, that recognises that there are rights. It now provides the scope, which if you like is the next step, to say all rights have responsibilities. If people are to take responsibility for their rights, then what is hindering us? We've looked at what was hindering people to have rights recognised, now we've got to see what it is that hinders people to have the right to take responsibility for their rights.

Paul Barclay: David Byrne says that those people who say Pearson is a radical turned conservative as he approaches middle age, are wrong. He says Pearson has had these ideas for a long time.

David Byrne: One of the things you must understand is Aboriginal societies are very, very conservative societies. People don't appreciate it, you know, people may see Noel Pearson he's a radical. I mean essentially Aboriginal people are conservative. Aboriginal people operated on a law that didn't change. Galarrwuy Yunupingu will say, 'We don't understand your law. You've got a law and you say this is the law, but next day you change it again, and next year you change it again, and in another few years you've changed it again. What sort of law is that?' he'd say. And with Aboriginal people it was the same; it was a very conservative society. It's not a radical society. I mean Europeans will see Aboriginal people as radical because they assert that Aboriginal people should have rights, but essentially Aboriginal society is a very, very conservative society because it was a reasonably closed society. Everybody knew what the rules and laws were, there wasn't a parliament that changed the laws each year because of changing forces from the outside environment. So essentially, the whole principle of Aboriginal society was about taking responsibility. You were respected for taking responsibility.

Paul Barclay: Financial responsibility is something Pearson believes has been corroded by passive welfare. And he wants to re-instil it in Aboriginal communities. So he's proposed a scheme called Family Income Management. It's totally voluntary. And controversial.

Frankie Deemal is right behind the idea; he's secretary of the First Nations Joint Company who are partners in the Chevron Gas Pipeline. He's also Noel Pearson's cousin, and involved with Cape York Partnerships.

To explain the scheme he gives the example of a typical family of, say, ten people each receiving $180 a week in welfare.

Frankie Deemal: Now to an average person, $180 is not enough money, it's not a lot of money. What then happens as individuals in this household, they get that money, they dash off to Cooktown on a bus, you know, they might pay their fare, they're down to $150, they drink in the pub, they buy a couple of packets of smokes, and by the end of the night they've got enough left to buy a carton and a couple of flagons, and they go back to the house, back to the community, they drink all night, Thursday night, they probably drink all day Friday. At the end of that, when all the grog has run out, no-one has paid the rent, no-one has paid the electricity, no-one has bought a slice of bread in that house. And so that particular house has got nothing, despite the fact that in that short space of time $1,800 – if you take for instance the 10 occupants and all the recipients of $180 – $1,800 has gone through that house. Now what we're trying to do is get that house to sign up to this Family Income Management, and what we would do is for instance, 50% of their money would be discretionary. So $900 would become discretionary that they could drink and smoke and do whatever else they would with it, but the other $900 would go into a series of accounts that the community would set up.

Now for instance $300 might go towards their account at the community store, so that when these people sober up, they can go and buy $300 worth of food. There could be an electricity account; they could be a rental account; there could be accounts, you know, with Harvey Norman or with Chandlers where white goods could be bought.

Paul Barclay: So far, three communities have voluntarily agreed to trial Family Income Management. Welfare is pooled among families and half of it is quarantined for the necessities of life.

It sounds radical, even paternalistic, but Noel Pearson equates it to how many of us manage our finances.

Noel Pearson: Families don't have ways to manage their money at the moment. One of the facilities that we enjoy to manage our money, we've got advisors available to us for a start if we wanted advice on personal finances. But also our bank automatically takes out our mortgage, or takes out our Telstra bill or takes out our rent and electricity and whatever.

There's all those facilities available to manage our money like that. There's also savings accounts and an array of a whole lot of the other facilities that are available for people in the wider community. Those facilities are not available to people in the communities, they just get cash, in a keycard or pay packet. With Family Income Management we're actually trying to get families to say, 'Well listen, you can start to have all these facilities, we can establish banking facilities and savings facilities, and create all the facilities for you to save money, and to pool money.'

A lot of families are doing it informally at the moment; they pool the money to buy a motor car or a bike, furniture for the house and so on. Now Family Income Management is about formalising and creating those facilities in a formal way so that families can plan for the long-term, to say, 'All right, yes, we want our family members to have discretionary income, but let's with our young people in particular, let's turn a situation of 100% discretionary income into a 50% discretionary income, and let the young fellow put 50% of his income into some things that he wants, or the family needs.

Paul Barclay: Pearson is adamant individual rights are not infringed by his Family Income Management Plan. But on the left such ideas are cause for consternation.

Certainly many on the left of politics are uneasy at the blunt anti-welfare rhetoric being employed by Pearson.

Warren Snowdon is a Labor left member for the Northern Territory, with a long involvement in Aboriginal Affairs. He says Aboriginal people don't just drink because of the welfare system.

Warren Snowdon: : Northern Territory Labor MP, You can't expect Indigenous Australians to be in a position where they can assert confidently their own cultural imperatives in an economic and social milieu where they don't have the sorts of services which other Australians have, where there are few in most cases, no employment opportunities, where their ability to be able to compete in the wider labour market for example, on the same basis as other Australians, is dramatically impacted on by their lack of skills development. I mean there's no question that people feel a sense of alienation and enmity there's no question about that. But I don't believe you can blame on its own, welfare dependency. I mean welfare dependency's a bad thing, let me get that very clear, but I think there needs to be a lot more sophisticated approach for the analysis of drinking behaviour and substance abuse than that, frankly.

Paul Barclay: Pearson knows his views make many people feel uncomfortable.

Noel Pearson: Generally, in the wider Aboriginal movement and in non-Aboriginal communities, I think there's a great hesitation, there is concern, anxiety, this is not the kind of stuff we expected a guy like that to be talking about; this is not the traditional line on these issues. So I think people don't know how to take what I'm saying. And of course that involves a lot of people who've traditionally and continue to support Aboriginal people and the causes that I've been involved in. I anticipated that the left would be anxious about what I'm saying. I think the left have got to be realistic about the situation of marginalised people.

Paul Barclay: It would be completely wrong to think that all Aboriginal people are drunks, or violent, or break the law. This is clearly not the case. But there's no denying that law and order is breaking down in Cape York, and this is another area where Pearson has broken ranks with the left.

Noel Pearson: When I say about restoring social order, well I got a response from some people from the left saying 'Well this is just a right-wing kind of social order attack', you know? A social order attack against petty crime. Well if swinging a star picket and breaking a woman's jaw and stabbing each other, and the horrendous violence that people get admitted to the Cairns Base Hospital for, if that's petty crime, it's a completely unrealistic conception about the problem of social order breakdown in our communities. So the left have got to get real, you can't just sit around and think that these problems that marginalised people face are completely ideological, they're practical and they're real.

So I have been disappointed at the lack of realism in a lot of leftist response to what's been said.

Paul Barclay: Pearson's views are a radical departure from the conventional rhetoric. Background Briefing approached many members of the Aboriginal leadership for their response to Pearson's views. Peter Yu from the Kimberley Council, Democrat Senator Aiden Ridgeway, ATSIC Chair, Geoff Clarke were all contacted through their media officers. None agreed to be interviewed.

Robert Blackley, the young chairman of the Palm Island Aboriginal Council, was one who was happy to talk. And he wasn't at all worried people like Pauline Hanson would use Pearson's arguments to undermine the case for Aboriginal people receiving welfare.

Robert Blackley: Pauline Hanson, she hasn't got an argument for anything, mate, she's got rhetoric and bullshit. But you know, I'm not particularly worried that people are going to cut welfare because if they cut welfare for one group, according to the law today you'd have to cut welfare for everybody, and I think some of the suburbs of Sydney where you've got four generations of White Australian unemployment within particular families, those people are going to be cut off too, so you're not going to cut it off for one particular group, so I'm not worried about that at all.

Paul Barclay: Robert Blackley concurs with Noel Pearson. In particular he wants welfare recipients to do something in return for their money.

Robert Blackley: I think his central thesis about passive welfare being soul-destroying, and destroying for Aboriginal communities, is entirely correct. You know, his point being that there should be some reciprocity, they should give back to the community for what they receive, and I think especially within our own cultural context, it's very important for us to get people to do something in return for the benefits they receive.

In my own opinion, I think the nature of social security per se is flawed, in that people don't have to do anything. And you see conservative governments trying to make the deal a little bit more so where people have to actually do something for their unemployment benefit, and I think what Noel was saying, is that community people and Aboriginal people and Aboriginal communities, we should be able to contract those community members and get them to actually take part in parent-teacher groups at school, or look after, say the Life Saving Club on Palm Island and take part in a community clean-up, something like that. If you're unemployed, say, and you're living on Palm Island, if you're not studying at TAFE, you should actually be doing something in order to get that unemployment benefit, I think, and it should be towards bettering yourself.

Paul Barclay: Aboriginal people working for the dole, taking responsibility for their lives, You'd think conservative politicians would welcome Pearson's views and be eager to support him. But in Queensland, the Deputy Leader of the National Party, Laurence Springborg, is gunning for him. Some politicians still dislike Pearson for his role in bringing Native Title to pastoral leases.

Mr Springborg has specific concerns. He claims the company at the heart of Cape York Partnerships, the Cape York Corporation, can be controlled by two people: Noel Pearson and Richie Ahmat, the head of the Cape York Land Council. He doesn't say Pearson is financially benefiting from the company but that its structure lacks accountability and transparency. The Cape York Corporation owns Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation, whose Executive Officer is Gerhardt Pearson, brother of Noel.

Laurence Springborg: Monies will be channelled through that particular organisation and there will be determinations made by those people as to the most appropriate way of expending those particular monies and delivering services across the Cape. Now what you do, is you've taken the responsibility from government and semi-government and provided a charter, Government sanctioned for individuals, and only a couple of individuals to be able to determine what they see are the welfare priorities, the expenditure priorities, and the service priorities for indigenous communities on the Cape, and that's a very, very great concern, and also how are you able to track that particular money trail? Because private companies, private corporations don't have the same degree of disclosure as do government instrumentalities, and we talk about freedom of information, we talk about other sorts of processes as well.

Paul Barclay: Noel Pearson reckons these claims are all politically motivated. Mr Springborg has been told, he says, that Cape York Corporation is trustee of an Aboriginal charitable trust, and can't be controlled by himself or anybody else. Nor can it distribute private benefits.

Noel Pearson: Well you know, particularly Springborg is motivated completely for strange political reasons, I've got to say, because I would have thought they'd be the first ones backing us on what we're trying to do here. And they talk about accountability of our organisations but Springborg's been provided with all of the - we have a company secretary of Cape York Corporation, he's a senior lawyer in Cairns; the company secretary has written to Springborg, explained Cape York Corporation is in fact a trustee of a public charitable trust that cannot be privately owned by anybody. And all these details have been explained to him, and yet the criticisms have continued.

And there's a really weird situation with the National Party because I've actually met with their spokesman, Vince Lester, their spokesman on Aboriginal affairs, a decent gentleman, came up here, took a trip around Cape York, saw the situation, had a meeting with us here, we explained some of our ideas and could not have wished for a more positive response from the guy. But you know, in all honesty, he said to me that his position would not determine the day in terms of how the National Party would respond to what we're doing. So there's a lot of people in the National Party that I've dealt with in the past who completely agree with what we're talking about here.

Paul Barclay: There's not just whitefella politics at play here. Bruce Gibson is from Hope Vale, Noel Pearson's home town. And he's a vociferous local critic of Pearson. He's the chair of the Injinoo Land Trust but works out of the Cairns office of the Aboriginal Coordinating Council, or ACC, a body which represents 16 Aboriginal communities in Queensland.

On the phone from Weipa in Cape York, Gibson essentially echoed Mr Springborg's concerns. And he questioned the legitimacy of Pearson's plan, which, he told me, was arrived at without community consultation.

Bruce Gibson: You'll find that all the communities in Cape York would agree there has been a lack of consultation. I mean it was passed last year at the ACC Annual Meeting in Cairns, that consultation must occur in Cape York before any thoughts are given to the partnership plan. And unless consultation occurs within the communities, in fine detail, and the people of Cape York are given a chance to examine the plan, then we might come up with a solution of some sort.

Paul Barclay: Noel Pearson says Bruce Gibson misunderstands how partnerships would work.

Noel Pearson: I don't believe that anything we do with Cape York Partnerships can ever be imposed. It cannot be imposed on this situation in Cape York. We can only create opportunities, put them on the shelf, and people can then decide to take them. It requires leadership, it requires leadership from Community Councils; people like Bruce. In order to have leadership, they have to have some understanding, you actually have got to get your head around what the issues are and what the idea is and what the opportunity is. You don't just say 'Well Noel Pearson's come with that idea, therefore I won't like it.' You know, I might be the world's worst bastard, but if I've got a good idea and a good opportunity there, why thumb your nose at it?

So it's a bit juvenile to simply dismiss good opportunities, and I see in Black Australia, we dismiss good opportunities without even looking just because of the identity of the person bearing the opportunity.

Paul Barclay: The Queensland government has signed up to the Partnerships plan. So impressed with Pearson's blueprint for reform is Premier Peter Beattie, he's provided financial support, an office, and staff.

The premier is hopeful it will be a model the rest of the country can adopt, and he's dismissive of the likes of Bruce Gibson.

Peter Beattie: All those communities in Cape York who want to work with government bureaucracies in a better way, to have more power over how they do business in their communities, can do so. It doesn't matter whether they love Noel Pearson or dislike Noel Pearson, they have the same opportunities to do something for their children who don't go to school, to do something for the lack of resources and facilities on the communities. And that's got nothing to do with Noel Pearson, that's got to do with local communities. Each one of them, whether they support or agree with Noel Pearson is irrelevant. Each one of those communities will be empowered to have an opportunity to advance these matters. Now that is consultation, because in the Partnership plan, the key to it, the mechanism, is consulting about how to do education better, how to do health better, how to provide all those other things better. Now I know the whingers but frankly, I've not seen any credible alternatives.

When I see people come forward with positive, constructive alternative ideas that are better for indigenous Queenslanders, then yes, we will listen. But if they're whinging, moaning in personality politics, family feuds that have gone back for a long, long time, and that's all it is, petty viciousness, then frankly I'm not interested.

Paul Barclay: Petty political squabbles and feuds are a problem in many communities, black and white. But on Aboriginal communities in Cape York, where there are so many big problems to tackle, Noel Pearson says family in-fighting is seriously undermining progress.

Noel Pearson: It's a huge impediment. It's a source of energy loss and frustration I think. A lot of good things are lost because of our disputation. A lot of good opportunities are not taken up because of our disputation, and I kind of have an objective view of that problem, I kind of put that down to the fact that the lower you go in the pyramid of our society, especially if you're down at that bottom crater of the pyramid, the frustrations and internal divisions in fact are greater, tearing each other down and making sure nobody else can climb up. The intensity of all of that is so much greater amongst people right down the bottom end. You look at the pyramid, where's the greatest kind of pressure? The pressure's down the bottom there.

Paul Barclay: So you've got people fighting over the scraps, basically.

Noel Pearson: People fighting over the scraps and people failing to have a vision about it. When in fact as a community if we're going to rise at all, we're going to have to encourage each other. The last thing we need amongst our mob is discouragement. And we've got to unite and we've got to have a common purpose. This is a universal problem in my view in Aboriginal Australia, that the degree of intensity of internal disputation is really debilitating.

Paul Barclay: In Cairns, the knives are out for Noel Pearson. Rumours, misinformation, and baseless allegations abound. And articles have appeared in newspapers implying he's using Partnerships as a vehicle for his own financial self-interest.

Noel Pearson: You know, welfare reform, I talked about the need for us to confront welfare, well that was quickly turned into Noel Pearson wants to take people's Social Security payments and put it into his private company. Well at first I thought 'Well there's no need to answer patent rubbish like that', and that's basically been my policy, that at the end of the day when I talk to people on the ground, nobody actually believes the hyperbolic criticism.

Paul Barclay: Pearson's able to put the personal attacks into perspective. Others in the Aboriginal community face greater vilification than he does, and they're not in the same position to exercise political clout.

Noel Pearson: I don't take it personally. I mean obviously it's hard not to take it personally but I always try to step back from the hurt and the grief that I obviously suffer from time to time, and I see other people. I see a lot of other good people amongst the Aboriginal leadership, even ordinary people in the community. I see a lot of other people get kicked worse than I do. At least I have an ability to prevail and not be dragged down by it, but I see a lot of other people who get pulled down and my view is not to say, 'Well gee, we've got so many bad people'. It's not the case at all, it's our structural condition that's making us behave in ways that are ultimately in the long run, not in our best interests, not in our best interests at all.

If we had ten years of goodwill, if we were actually going to make our first climb out of the hole, we actually need an excess of goodwill for each other. We need actually a bit more encouragement than would normally be the case in the wider community. We've got to be a bit more understanding of our natural failings, and a bit less hypercritical.

Paul Barclay: Noel Pearson would still be up against it, even with total support. As we've heard, some on the conservative side of politics are seeking to discredit him, and he's at odds with many on the left too. There are also pockets of opposition within his own Aboriginal community. Does he think he stands any chance of bringing about lasting change?

Noel Pearson: You know, I have mood swings, and I get periods of great frustration. But to be realistic, I think it's 50-50; there's no guarantee that what we're doing is going to work. There's no guarantee. I see a lot of grandmothers saying 'We don't like the fact that people drink till 4 o'clock in the morning and party and keep our kids awake' and things like that. Well if we were able to put the levers of change in the hands of our people, would they be prepared at the end of the day to pull the levers, and to take the hard decisions. Because when you're confronting addiction, when you're confronting dependency, there's going to be an initial reaction against it, and you're going to come under a lot of pressure. Will our people be prepared and our leaders be prepared to take the hard decisions? I don't know the answer to that, that's why I say it's a 50-50 question.

Paul Barclay: Hard decisions will need to be made. Pearson, for example, is urging zero tolerance of alcohol and substance abuse. The problems are huge, and he may fail.

His sense of history though, tells him that Aboriginal people, including his parents and grandparents, have endured greater adversity.

Noel Pearson: Well I look at the achievements, the achievements of our people in the wake of colonisation. I always think about my grandparents; my grandfather was brought as a 10-year-old, or 8 or 10 years old to the mission at Cape Bedford in the early 1900s, and he met my grandmother, his future wife. She was a young girl brought from west of Cairns you know, out of Chillagoe, hundreds and hundreds of miles to the mission at Cape Bedford, completely torn away from her family and so on. And so was he. And they gathered together in this mission with scores of other young Aboriginal children torn away from their families. And it was desperately mean living, you know, life in a mission was very hard.

But out of that destruction and out of that loss, they built up a family, they got married when they came of age. They had nine children, and those nine children have now had nine children each, and their children have nine children each, and now the Pearson clan is a huge clan, built up out of two people who survived that terrible history. And not only that, they passed on to their children values and they created something almost out of nothing. And I look at many other families in the same situation that survived and see throughout country Australia that there's Aboriginal people who are resilient, who built their families up again despite these ravages.

So I take strength from that.

Paul Barclay: Pearson is after generational change. A paradigm shift in thinking by governments, the bureaucracy, and Aboriginal people. And he's taking it on at the grassroots level. He could enter politics and tackle the bigger picture.

David Byrne for one has advised against it. He once thought he could achieve change by becoming a politician. A State Liberal MP for Queensland, one of the youngest in the State's history, he was soon disillusioned. He's convinced Pearson would be wasting his talents by joining the parliamentary fray.

David Byrne: Well my advice always has been not to. Having been a member of parliament I appreciate that members of parliament can achieve very little, and the fact that you may become a minister, that's fine, but I mean: Noel Pearson, member of parliament; Noel Pearson, minister; minister for Aboriginal Affairs. He's going to be a minister in a cabinet of non-Aboriginal people who are making decisions on behalf of the interests of mainly white Australians, and he would find himself in an invidious position where he could neither represent the views of his people because they couldn't find resonance with the views of any political party in terms of their fullness, and he couldn't find that he could fully represent the views of that party. I mean it's a simple thing to say, 'Oh he speaks well, he's clever, he's intelligent, he's capable' he's all these things so he'd be a great member of parliament.

Paul Barclay: Back in 1997 when the Wik debate looked like it was going to trigger a race-based double dissolution election, Noel Pearson tentatively put up his hand for Labor Party preselection. He was greeted with a lukewarm response, and the prospect evaporated within days.

Today, becoming a Member of Parliament seems the furthest thing from his mind. Anyway, which party would he fit into? Labor? Liberal? The Democrats?

Pearson is one of relatively few Indigenous people for whom a good education has made such speculation possible. And to him, this means he doesn't have the luxury of simply indulging his own ambitions. His future is dictated by obligations.

Noel Pearson: I feel that I'm trapped, unlike my fellow white Australians who'd be in a similar position to me, who've got the world at their feet. When you're an Indigenous person I think your life choices are fairly constrained, because of your obligations. I mean educationally and opportunity-wise, and the people I know, and all the chances available to me, they're vast you know, there are vast opportunities, simply brought about by education. That's why I say to young people in Cape York 'A good education, and the world's ours, and the worlds are yours.' But that's conditioned; the fact that the world's at our feet is conditioned by the fact that especially at this stage in the history of our people, it's conditioned by the strong obligation that we've got to chuck the ladders down into the hole and we're going to bring the rest of our people up.

So it's very difficult for me to see a life free of that obligation. So I think that my own sense of what I'm going to do is to work with people to try and improve our situation.

Interview with Paul Barclay on Passive Welfare