Need to embrace Aboriginal success


2013 April, 15

EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: For the past five years, Indigenous leader Noel Pearson has been at the forefront of the Cape York welfare reform trial that's shown some impressive results in terms of lifting Indigenous opportunity. Central to the project has been a family responsibility commission which puts the onus back on the parents to ensure children are reaching their full potential. I caught up with Noel Pearson earlier today in Melbourne for this exclusive interview.

Noel Pearson, thanks so much for speaking to us today.


EMMA ALBERICI: Many of our viewers wouldn't be aware that you've actually been quite ill. You're in remission from lymphoma. Can I begin by asking how are you?

NOEL PEARSON: Yeah, I'm good. It was my descent into hell in 2012, but I had the great joy of spending 12 months with my youngest child. I started child business very late, but I'm absolutely delighted with my children and my youngest one, Ivy, named after my mother, spent her first 12 months with me attending to her every day, so there was a good side of it.

EMMA ALBERICI: And part of your healing. You looked after her and she looked after you.

NOEL PEARSON: Yeah, it was. Absolutely. And, um, I - it was a necessary time, I think.

EMMA ALBERICI: You clearly haven't slowed down because you were still quite busy in the background with your Cape York trial.

NOEL PEARSON: Yeah. It's five years since we started the trial. It was, um, our proposition to the former Howard Government that started in 2008. We were very grateful that Jenny Macklin took the agenda forward. And I've got nothing but admiration for her support for our agenda over these five years. Um, what people don't realise is that the Northern Territory Intervention was concocted around about the same time as our agenda and was announced in our ignorance at the same time. I was a supporter of any form of intervention into the crisis in remote Australia. But the exact details of the design that Brough took forward in the Northern Territory was unbeknownst to us. I think our Cape York reforms were better designed than what they produced in the Northern Territory. And there were elements of Brough's agenda, I think, that were ill-conceived. But I think my general retrospective assessment is that something needed to be done and it was better doing something than nothing.

EMMA ALBERICI: What was ill-conceived?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, in our Cape York agenda we only intervene if there's a failure of responsibility. So our Family Responsibilities Commission does not actually have any impact on welfare recipients unless they fail to send their children to school or they fail to look after their children. Whereas in the Northern Territory, the blanket was thrown over everyone, including many responsible parents. And I think that sent the wrong message. And it also didn't really point to the kind of responsibilities that ought to have been encouraged by the reform. And there was resistance to it, and unfortunately, that resistance spilled over into Cape York. Many people misconceived our reform agenda in Cape York and conflated it with the Northern Territory Intervention, whereas we'd spent a long time thinking carefully about what we do in the Cape.

EMMA ALBERICI: Let's look at some of your achievements because the Cape York welfare trial, I understand it's seen a significant increase in school attendance from something like 46 per cent in 2008, I think it reached 71 per cent or thereabouts last year. What do you put that down to?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, part of it was putting the responsibility square onto parents. Too many children attend because - do not attend because their parents haven't gotten them ready for attendance. Food, uniforms, got them off to school, transport and so on. That takes you a long way down the track, if you put the responsibility squarely onto parents. But the school has also got to change. The school's gotta hook the kids in. And the school's gotta convince the parents that it's worth sending your kids to school. So, one of the decisive things we did was we formed, a year into the - our reform, a new academy, Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy. And it probably represents the high watermark in terms of maintaining a public school, but under a joint governance by our academy and the Queensland Education Department. And so we were able to introduce pretty - a new program called Direct Instruction Into the School, but also an extended school day. We're the only schools in Queensland that run from 8 o'clock to 4.30 and we introduce a very rigorous club and culture program as well as our class program.

So, it's a comprehensive - in many ways, our reform in Cape York Peninsula is a bit like the charter schools in North America and in England, but we're doing it under a public school rubric. And we've had three years' operation now of the academy. And I see that unless you have an offering at the local state school that says to parents, "If you send your kids here, they are gonna learn to read and write, they're gonna get the best education that they deserve." If you don't do that part of the equation, then I think you're really letting people down if you're forcing them to send their kids to school, which was what was happening. We got to the stage in Cape York where in one community the school attendance was 95 per cent, and yet the NAPLAN results were really, really bad. The kids were fronting up, but they weren't getting the education they deserved.

EMMA ALBERICI: Which is what's happening across the country.

NOEL PEARSON: Absolutely.

EMMA ALBERICI: Not only in Indigenous communities.

NOEL PEARSON: Absolutely.

EMMA ALBERICI: And we're going to talk about Julia Gillard's education reforms shortly, but I just want to cover a little bit of other territory first. In assessing your Cape York welfare reform trial in the first five years, what hasn't worked?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, home ownership hasn't worked. We - our agenda was to move from social housing into private home ownership and we've been extremely frustrated in that agenda. We have not got one example of home ownership happening in any of our trial communities. There are complexities with home ownership on Aboriginal land involving tenure and so on. But we have been - we were frustrated by the massive social housing investment that's been made federally right across the country since 2008-'09. We're gonna look back on it in 10 years' time and say, "Gee, how did this very new investment of 10 years ago deteriorate so badly?" And I think the answer is that there's no skin in the game. The ...

EMMA ALBERICI: But how do Aboriginal people own their own home if they haven't got a deposit, if they - where do they live? I guess that will be the question that comes back.

NOEL PEARSON: And many Aboriginal people in these communities earn full-time wages and so on. Some of them work for adjacent mining companies and so on and yet they can't own a home on their own land. We were swamped by the whole social housing agenda and our message that we should move from social housing to home ownership is yet to be heeded. And I'm hoping that that's an agenda that's still alive and that ...

EMMA ALBERICI: Heeded by who?

NOEL PEARSON: Um, by the Federal Government. I mean, there was lip service paid to our home ownership agenda, but, as I say regretfully, very little progress made.

EMMA ALBERICI: Marcia Langton talks about a sense of entitlement having poisoned Aboriginal society. Do you agree?

NOEL PEARSON: Yeah, it has. I mean, it's been a tragic disability. Unfortunately, it accompanied the kind of flipside of our - the opening up of the doors of citizenship to our people was the provisioning of welfare. Whereas what should've been provided was opportunities to engage in a fair place in the mainstream economy. That's the door that should've opened to our people, not the door to unemployment benefits. And we're reaping - you know, we're reaping that tragedy that was sown back then, very late in the day. By the time we got to our reform agenda in 2007, it was 40 years too late. And there's a lot of wreckage in Cape York Peninsula that we're trying to put the pieces together again on. That is just to restore some basic functionality.

See, I grew up in a two-bedroom house which my father had built himself. Those things don't matter, how poor your circumstances are. What does matter is that if you have parents, who will look after you, who will give you whatever Vegemite there is and whatever Vita Brits there might be in the cupboard and send you off to school and teach you to have respect for your elders and your teachers and so on and never countenance you spending a day away from school, then magic happens. These small ingredients of family empowerment is what welfare has broken down, and that's what Marcia means by this mentality of entitlement that has been such a tragedy for our people, but not just for our people. I see it in white communities across the country as well.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now her lectures are about a quiet revolution as a result of the resources boom. In fact she essentially gives the mining companies credit for the rise of the Aboriginal middle class. What's your view on that?

NOEL PEARSON: Yeah, it's a strange irony, that. Because, you know, the revolution that she's talking about is one that is absolutely tectonically happening, and yet I'm old enough to have seen that change happen. I mean, we were bitterly - we were in bitter negotiations with Rio Tinto in the early part of my work in Cape York Peninsula. And the negotiations that finally led to an agreement with Rio Tinto at Weipa with the bauxite mine and this new paradigm emerged from there. And what is happening under that paradigm is the creation of a new Aboriginal middle class. And what has struck me about Marcia's essays for the Boyer is her use of the somewhat shocking term middle class with the words Aboriginal in front of it, because - and that is indeed what is happening and we should not at all lament that. After all, that is our objective, to get more of our people into the middle class.

EMMA ALBERICI: She talks about a need for what she calls a more sophisticated view of Aboriginal people. What is it that you think needs to change in the sort of national conversation about Indigenous affairs?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I think we've got a - we have got a - I think you can't get out of poverty unless people are striving for a better life. You know, if you're not sanctifying the striving for a better life, you are not setting an agenda forward for getting out of poverty. If you're not sanctifying a striving for more income, for a better shot for your children, for jealous regard for the prospects of your own family and so on, you're basically saying to people, "Well, remain in poverty." And I think that the mentality ...

EMMA ALBERICI: Who or what is frustrating those efforts?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, just the mindset in relation to Aboriginal people. We still haven't got out of a mindset of, you know, of Aboriginal people being the poor benighted victims of Australian society and we haven't got onto the story of striving and success that Marcia is talking about. As a country, we've gotta embrace Aboriginal success. Money and materialism shouldn't be seen as anathema to Aboriginal identity. Because it's not anathema to the rest of Australia, so why should it be anathema to the identity of Indigenous people? And there's still a lot of resistance to the idea of Aboriginal success. On the one hand we say we want it, but on the other hand there's a kind of strong cultural and social resistance to it.

EMMA ALBERICI: What do you think of Julia Gillard's education reforms announced on the weekend?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I think there's a lot of opportunity for getting Indigenous education right, but the story the world over - I've thought a lot about education policy and the story the world over is that - and the story in Australia of the last seven years is one of increased investment without an increase in success. And what I would say to the Government is that, you know, I think the lesson from the world over is that if you don't - if you don't get the instruction right, if Australia doesn't get quality instruction coming from teachers to every child, we're missing the whole point of the increased investment. Teacher performance equals effective instruction. They must impart effective instruction to each and every child, and ...

EMMA ALBERICI: Do you get a sense that this new money being allocated by the Government, being earmarked, are you confident that the Government knows how to spend that well to improve teacher quality?

NOEL PEARSON: Um, no, I'm not. I think that there's a missing - you know, a lot of the things that we have done have simply not translated into more effective instruction in classrooms. I've seen that if you get the instruction right - with Aurukun School, for example, one of our academy schools, the most marginal school in the state of Queensland. It would be the contender when we took it over for being the worst school in Queensland. And yet today, children are reading, children are counting, children are writing. And it's because, you know, at the end of the day you can do everything - parental engagement, the whole show, but if you don't have teachers who are imparting effective instruction to the children, then you have nothing. And my concern is that I don't discern in current Federal Government policies a strong understanding of what should drive school reform. And this is absolutely critical for remote communities.

EMMA ALBERICI: Unfortunately we've run out of time. Thank you so much for speaking to Lateline today.

NOEL PEARSON: OK, thank you, Emma. Thank you very much.


Need to embrace Aboriginal success