Plan to overhaul Aboriginal welfare


2007 June, 19

KERRY O'BRIEN: North Queensland Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has been a man on a mission for at least the past seven years to try to find a way to break the vicious circle of despair, welfare dependence and social breakdown which he says has almost destroyed his community.

Pearson's Cape York Institute today produced a 350-page report recommending radical solutions to Federal and State Government to end "passive welfare" as he calls it. Those solutions would be trialled in four north Queensland Aboriginal communities. It comes within days of a Northern Territory report on widespread sexual abuse linked to alcohol and drug abuse in remote Aboriginal communities in the Territory.

Under the Pearson plan, parents or guardians would have welfare frozen if children were neglected or didn't go to school. Drug and alcohol abuse and sexual abuse of children would be particularly targeted. It remains to be seen how the plan will be received by other Aboriginal leaders, but the Federal Government has given it an in-principle thumbs up. I spoke with Noel Pearson in Canberra today.

KEVIN O'BRIEN: Noel Pearson, you say the era of passivity is over, the abandonment of responsibility is over. How are you going to deliver that?

NOEL PEARSON: We need the Federal Government to work with us, to pass legislation to attach conditions to welfare payments which hitherto have not had conditions attached to it.

These are basic conditions about basic responsibilities that individuals and families in any normal society, including Aboriginal society, would fulfil if they weren't living in a situation of passive welfare.

KERRY O'BRIEN: What happens if a parent or guardian responsible for children does not, in your terms and the terms of that legislation, live up to their responsibilities, welfare is taken from them. How do they survive, how do the children survive?

NOEL PEARSON: We propose for the State Government, and we need both Commonwealth and state legislation to complement one another. The Commonwealth attaches the obligations to the payments and we need the Beattie Government to create what we've called a Family Responsibilities Commission. This is a retired magistrate with two elders from the community, two justices of the peace from that local community, who know each and every family, who know each and every individual down the street. That irresponsible parent will be brought in front of the Commission and the Commission will at first recommend that they take advantage of a support service, a budgeting program, a parenting program or rehabilitation for addicts. If they don't take advantage of those support programs, then there's two options available to the Commission. The Commissioners, including the local elders, can have the option of saying we require conditional income management over the welfare support you receive. So the money is not lost to the family, it is put in trust and it is managed to pay rent, pay electricity, pay for the children's food, pay for the school books and so on.

The third option available to the Commission if the circumstances allow it, is to say, "alright, there's a grandmother there and that grandmother is responsible" actually responsible for the kid, we will direct the payments to that person to make sure that the family's needs are met. But the Commission has to have regard to the question of whether that grandmother will be vulnerable to humbugging or violence or threats and so on. So we don't want to create a situation where responsible family members who have been given that responsibility are not the subject of hassling and humbugging. But those are the three options that we propose the Commission would be able to impose. Now they might impose that for a time period, three months, six months, 12 months. The whole aim of this is to get the irresponsible parent to take up their responsibilities and the minute they take up their responsibilities, they resume freedom and over their own finances and so on.

KERRY O'BRIEN: What do you say to those inevitable critics who will say to you that what you're reimposing is another form of paternalism, as there's an element of the Uncle Tom in this. I'm sure there will be some who'll say it.

NOEL PEARSON: Well we're proposing that community elders be the driving members of the Commission at the local level. These are elders who know the circumstances of every family down in the village. We're seeking to attach normal obligations - send your child to school, to make sure that every child is not subject to abuse or neglect, to make sure that the behaviour of adults in the household do not produce a situation of unsafety for the children, and fourthly, to make sure you live up to your housing tenancy obligations.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Of course the timing of this is almost hand in glove, coincidentally with the release of the Northern Territory report that has detailed amongst other things a high level of sexual abuse in various communities in the Territory. You're saying there's nothing new in the findings of that report. Are you aware of those kinds of abuses in other Aboriginal communities? Is it more widespread than the Territory? Queensland as well?

NOEL PEARSON: Absolutely. These are problems right over the country.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Why has it taken this long to make these headlines to a point where hopefully actions get taken finally?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I think that there's not been a proper confrontation with the drivers of these problems. There's been an unwillingness, for example, to make the connection between grog and the abuse. And, you know, these problems go back a long way. I come with a great deal of scepticism about many of the reports because the original Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, 17 years ago, didn't - it identified grog as an issue, but it didn't bring it out in relief. You know, the same as the nose on your face is in relief, it didn't bring the grog out like the nose on your face.

KERRY O'BRIEN: What about the things that drive Aboriginal people to grog and other substance abuse?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, the principal driver of it, in our analysis, has been time on your hands, free money, and access to the pub. Those were three factors that came into play in the 70s. Once you got young men who have got a free source of income, who have now got the citizenship right to enter the pub - and they're no longer working on the cattle station, they're actually got free time on their hands - those three ingredients produce a vortex of binge drinking. At first innocent, and then it draws in more and more people, then it draws the women in and it starts to undermine - grandmothers are left with the kids - and that's when children become vulnerable then, and you create a generation where there's been interference with children, a few isolated incidents of abuse and it's those kids who were abused originally 30 years ago...

KERRY O'BRIEN: That are committing the abuse now.

NOEL PEARSON: ...that are committing the abuse now.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Of course where there is alcoholism, where there is drug dependence, those things can be dreadful illnesses. Are you demanding of Government, that as part of this process, as part of the deal, that they provide adequate rehabilitation for those people who might be left high and dry if their access to booze is cut off or the drugs?

NOEL PEARSON: We want the situation where the Family Responsibilities Commission is able to take a family with their problems, to acknowledge that these families have difficulties and have got problems, and to say if there's an alcohol problem,"listen there is a rehabilitation service here" and Government needs to provide the money to create those services. At the moment in the area of substance abuse, there are not these treatment services available at the community level.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But those treatment services aren't going to be instantly made available but you want to impose these.

NOEL PEARSON: Absolutely. There has got to be government investment in the support services that are needed, and treatment and rehabilitation is a key missing ingredient. But at the same time there's also...

KERRY O'BRIEN: Has Mal Brough undertaken to address that on behalf of the Federal Government?

NOEL PEARSON: That what we put in our proposals. That, you know, there's got to be parenting courses. You know, we need to be able to refer people that need support programs, we need to make sure that those programs are available to direct people into. You know, the whole aim here is not to condemn people for their problems. The whole aim is to support them, to get back on their feet again and to take charge of their own families again.

KERRY O'BRIEN: There are very important elements of what you're putting up. One is to do with tenancy. You want to put Aboriginal tenants in Aboriginal communities on the same footing with the same rules as people who might be using public housing elsewhere in Australia. You're also demanding of Government that the whole process of CDEP, which is a kind of "work for the dole", be changed?

NOEL PEARSON: Yes. What's happened is that many CDEP positions in the communities are subsidising Government service jobs and other service industry jobs that really should be properly funded as Government jobs in health or education or land management and so on. Convert those positions into real full-time paying jobs and stop bludging on the CDEP as a source of subsidy for it. Secondly, we've got to get young people pursuing jobs in the private sector and elsewhere in the vicinity of the communities.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You used an illustration, and I think you said a nephew, who had the choice between taking a traineeship with Comalco, which would lead ultimately to a good paying job, or going on to CDEP and not having to do much work for it because - and in the short term, the choice would probably be for CDEP because it actually paid more. But how many Comalco traineeships really are going to be available for young people in Aboriginal communities around Australia, in depressed communities?

NOEL PEARSON: Um... It's not a complete solution to the employment challenge but geez, there's a lot of them going begging. There's a lot of full time jobs in these communities that are going begging. Why should we have 50 non-Indigenous people come into a community of 800 people and occupy all the full time jobs because there's no local takers for those jobs? We have in some communities, cleaners' jobs in schools, full-time paying jobs as cleaners in the schools, that can't be filled by local people. Now that's the effect of CDEP and the welfare system, that it's in fact easier to not take up those full-time jobs, it's easier to remain on the handout.

KERRY O'BRIEN: How confident are you that you're on the right track in pushing for home ownership in - given this prevailing view that much of the Aboriginal ethos and culture is one of communalism and that in people buying their home ownership, that you may break that down?

NOEL PEARSON: I think that's rubbish. As long as we don't lose the underlying communal tenure, we have got to create some private stakeholding on top of that communal tenure and that means individual families and members of that community should be able to say, "this is our 99 year lease, this home is ours and importantly, we have a stake in it now. We're responsible for it its upkeep, we're responsible for its state. We can't just smash the windows."

KERRY O'BRIEN: But you're also proposing that governments' part in that particular aspect is that a house that might cost $400,000 to build might only be worth in true value $100,000 and you want that to be subsidised for the person going in to buy the house.

NOEL PEARSON: It's got to be economically rational. What I don't want is for my nephew and niece to end up paying $400,000 for a house that has a market value of $100,000 or $150,000.

KERRY O'BRIEN: We've got a very high debt.

NOEL PEARSON: We don't want to force people into economically irrational decisions. In fact, you'd be better off buying a house in Cairns or Weipa or Cooktown than buying a home back in the community. So the decisions have got to be economically rational and we don't want to saddle people with unrealistic debt.

KERRY O'BRIEN: How much support do you think you have amongst Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal leadership, outside the four communities represented by the Institute and by this report?

NOEL PEARSON: Not much at all. I think that our agenda of personal responsibility and welfare reform and a full-frontal confrontation with substance abuse is not a prevailing agenda.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And you're not swayed at all in your confidence about being on the right path by the fact that you are almost the only one in step?

NOEL PEARSON: No, I'm not. I'm absolutely convicted that welfare reform and land rights are part of the solution. They're both two parts of the same coin. Land rights, native title and welfare reform are part of the solution and I'm absolutely determined to join the two things together.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And how determined are you to ensure that this won't be cherry picked by politicians to take the parts that they want and not deliver on the parts that you want?

NOEL PEARSON: That's always been, that's always been a vulnerability in the campaign I've pursued over the last seven years. But I've never resiled from the facts that our rights to native title and our history and recognition as a distinct community have to be married up with the determination for welfare reform, social reform and a full frontal confrontation with grog and drugs. They're both parts of the same coin. Yes, we are vulnerable to government's cherry picking, but you know, I hope that some day we're going to get a convergence here, some day we're going to get a convergence. When Mabo and welfare reform sit like that.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Noel Pearson, thanks very much for talking with us.

NOEL PEARSON: Thanks, Kerry.

Plan to overhaul Aboriginal welfare