Lives saved, futures bettered

Opinion Article

2013 May, 4

When Julia Gillard announced her frontbench reshuffle recently, she said: "We are ensuring that indigenous affairs is in the most capable hands that it can be in and that is Jenny Macklin's hands." 

I thought: "This is not just rhetoric, Gillard actually believes this and I think she's right." 

Macklin has been a courageous minister. Her support for tackling welfare reform and alcohol abuse, and her support for women and children in our country's most distressed communities, has been principled and unstinting. She has saved lives and laid foundations for better futures, notwithstanding relentless condemnation from the green left lobby of Sydney and Melbourne. 

I knew Macklin understood what we meant by passive welfare when she talked about Heidelberg, in her electorate, before Labor won office in 2007. This island of high intergenerational unemployment and its associated social problems told the same story we were telling. 

After five years of the Cape York Welfare Reform trial, we have been considering what has worked well, what has worked partly and what has not worked at all. These are personal opinions, based on my perspective and experiences through the course of the trial. 

It was most unfortunate that our trial started at the same time as the Northern Territory intervention. It resulted in a lot of misunderstanding in the wider public about the differences between the Cape York and Northern Territory policies, and how they came about. This carried over into our communities. Frankly, the Territory intervention ended up being a real burden for the Cape York trial. It meant we faced much of the ideological and political opposition from the same quarters. 

Whereas we spent a long time consulting community members, and community leaders were involved in the planning of the trial, a meme developed that welfare reform was imposed without consultation. This was the same meme as the Territory intervention, where it was imposed; but in our case that was not true. 

There were four focal areas for the trial: social responsibility, education, home ownership and employment. My broad-brush assessment is that we reached about 65 per cent of our objectives. 

I think the trial made strong gains on the social responsibility front. This is where the Family Responsibilities Commission and welfare conditionality has worked out for the better for the individuals and families who have been supported. 

Combined with the opportunity programs offered to families and the counselling facilities now available through the Wellbeing Centres, there is clear evidence of growing success with our aim of rebuilding social expectations and personal responsibility. 

There is tangible evidence of progress being made by individuals and families who are taking advantage of opportunities to manage their money better, to support their children in education, to better their home environments and take advantage of parenting and other support programs. There is now a new paradigm for family empowerment, and it is showing results. 

I think the trial also made strong gains on the education front. The breakthrough came when Macklin and Gillard cajoled then premier Anna Bligh to help us establish the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy and to introduce Direct Instruction into three schools. This has been a strong feature of the trial, not just in terms of school attendance but the improvement in teaching and learning at the schools. 

I think the trial failed with home ownership. We supported one family in Coen to buy and build their own home outside of the official welfare reform program, but that was it. We simply could not get the responsible government departments to align on our home-ownership agenda. 

The fact is, our agenda for private ownership was swamped by the government focus on social housing. After five years we are still a long way from our home-ownership goals. 

I think the trial had mixed success with employment and economic development. There was modest progress with employment but the reforms we proposed to the Community Development Employment Program that would provide maximum push for the able unemployed (particularly those younger than 21) to take up work were not able to be implemented.

Our work reform ideas were swamped by the new national policies introduced in 2008, and these reforms have largely not succeeded. The decision not to breach people in remote areas jeopardised the federal government's new policies. So the main thing that happened was people on CDEP shifted to Newstart. 

One of the concepts that was part of the trial's economic development program was that of a lighthouse enterprise. There has been spectacular success with one of the proposed lighthouse enterprises - the Mossman Gorge Gateway tourism project - which is now under way. As expected, it has become the major source of employment, training and enterprise for the Mossman Gorge community. 

This multi-million-dollar tourism enterprise is a great success and would not have happened without the trial. 

So the score card in relation to economic activity is mixed. Some good things have happened in some areas and in others there has not been much progress at all. Reform of land tenure to enable economic investment is still an outstanding agenda. 

This is my rough score card on the trial. There are good reasons for those who have done the hard work in the communities to feel proud of the progress they have made, but there are still challenges ahead. 

I like to think we are climbing a big, steep mountain. The summit is still way ahead of us. But the base camp where we started is now far below. We have to keep climbing.

Lives saved, futures bettered