Need to embrace reciprocity

Opinion Article

1999 July, 28

Lest I be promptly if discreetly arrested by comrades from the Left and condemned to some remote gulag, let me confirm that my first concern lies with the situation and prospects of the marginal and dispossessed in this country.

Like my elders and colleagues in Cape York, I am worried for my mob. Our situation is not good and our future not bright.

Imagine if the average life expectancy of the town of Gatton were only 50 years and sliding. Imagine if the population of Cairns were in prison to the same proportion as the people of Hopevale or Arukun or Lockhart River. Imagine if more than 38 percent of the 15 to 40-year-olds in Atherton had a sexually transmitted disease. Would we be as complacent about the statistics as we are when faced with the reality of the social disaster of Cape York's Aboriginal society? No. There would be a state of emergency.

The creation of the welfare state is one of the great civilising achievements of our democracy.

The key problem with welfare is that it inherently does not demand reciprocity. Welfare's gammon economy has had tragic social consequences for Cape York people. During the past 30 years it has torn our society apart. In identifying negative welfare programmes as a source of social disruption, we must recognise that such programmes represent extremely valuable and important resources. But for those resources to be beneficial rather than destructive, we must fundamentally transform it.

On Cape York we need to establish an interface between the outside structures of government, the Queensland Government, the Commonwealth Government and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the Cape York community.

It is at this interface that we need to meet our two basic policy challenges, turning negative welfare into positive and making all inputs into the region holistic.

The interface needs to become the meeting place between the state and the Cape York community and its leaders.

It is at this interface that the 15 health programmes, 200 education programmes and dozen economic development programmes that various agencies now administer in a disparate, overlapping way need to be brought together.

When we think about reciprocity at its most simple level, the community needs to ensure that if there is an income support programme that has been provided for a specific purpose say, for the wellbeing of children then it should be the children who benefit.

We need to engage Aboriginal parents in the educational system. Now, it is as if the community schools are state colonial outposts the same with health clinics and hospitals. Parental and wider family involvement in the community education system is an area ripe for new ideas. Making the school a focal point for the community, through the involvement of community members and the development of adult education programmes, would underscore the primary importance of education for the future of the community.

It would boost children and attach value to education, both for children and their parents.

Similarly, in relation to health services, it is now patently clear that resolution of our health problems will not be achieved through a passive system of state delivery. The state must come to the interface with resources and the preparedness to devolve responsibility, to amend its programmes, to overhaul its priorities, to make efficient decisions and to be amenable to the community taking the role of senior partner on devising and implementing strategies.

The Aboriginal community must come to the interface with the preparedness to take responsibility, to put negative welfare behind us and to be involved with the solution of our own problems. The state's role will be one of ultimate but minimal regulation and the provider of the resources.

The regional interface will need to devolve responsibility to the communities of the peninsula and the community structures in turn will need to devolve responsibility to families and to individuals.

Premier Peter Beattie has committed the State Government to partnering us in a new relationship and in the development of a new method of governance for indigenous Cape York. The Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Senator John Herron, has similarly committed himself to partnering us in this quest.

These are fundamental ingredients to the achievement of a new direction.

The private sector will need to be the third party in this enterprise. Only by incorporating Aboriginal people in the real economy will we achieve our goal of taking our share of the country.

Need to embrace reciprocity