After many years of campaigning by Cape York Peninsula organisations, passive welfare has been recognised by both sides of politics as a major problem in Aboriginal affairs.
But our policies have been partially misunderstood. Passive welfare has been interpreted as a problem of the welfare clients.
It came as a revelation to Australia’s top bureaucrats when I explained at a seminar in Canberra that passive welfare delivery by government agencies represented a large part of the problem (see The Weekend Australian 30 September).
The experiences of my colleague Milton James, who works at the coalface with young Aboriginal people, underscores this point. Originally from a farming background Milton has worked as a social worker for more than twenty years.
Milton is not a conventional welfare worker. For the past two years Milton has been placing young people from remote Aboriginal communities into rural work in Victoria and South Australia. The operation led by Milton, the Work Placement Scheme (WPS) provides air fare for a young person to travel to work down south. All other costs are paid by that person from his or her earnings. The participants have proper jobs in the private sector: they are not in a welfare program.
The scheme has worked for a large majority of participants. But one instance of failure illustrates a catalogue of the problems created by a passive-welfare approach.
Milton sent us the following report recently about an Aboriginal youth who left the WPS: “A young man aged 18 years from a Cape York Peninsula community left the Victorian town where his work group was placed. His story serves as an example of how the approach used by many welfare workers in Cape York Peninsula has skewed the world view of young people.
“On my last visit to his home community, the young man asked me if he could join the WPS. I agreed and he entered the scheme. The young man left the WPS of his own volition; he was not sacked from his employment nor did I direct him to leave. He was, from the day he arrived, a poor worker, barely making enough money to live on and regularly disrupting other participants.
“The situation came to a head on a Saturday when the young man brought alcohol into the caravan park in defiance of the WPS rules. He went on a rampage, walking around the caravan park with a knife in his hand, vandalising, threatening other residents and throwing a bike wheel at some small children. The following morning the manager of the caravan park contacted the WPS saying that he wanted the young man out of his caravan park.
“I refrained from pre-judging the situation. However, the young man chose not to explain himself. Instead he told me that he had contacted his father and arrangements had been made for him to leave the WPS.
“Now, readers need to understand that this young person is well acquainted with the administrators of the welfare service industry – social workers, child protection workers, and the like. The young man now fancies himself as a master at manipulating these people, an art form that I call ‘dancing the welfare worker’, others call it being street-wise.
“My first comment to this young man was: ‘Now that you say you’re leaving, and you say that all the arrangements have been made, the only thing I need to know from you is when are you leaving?’
“With a flick of his head and a smack of his lips, he replied: ‘When are you gonna send me home?’
“I answered; ‘I’m not going to send you home: you know the rules. Besides your father is organising for you to go home.’
“He then said: ‘I didn’t want to come down here in the first place, I wasn’t ready.’
“I replied: ‘You said you wanted to join the WPS and I told you that this wasn’t going to be easy.’
“He then said he was sorry and asked if he could he stay until his father had arranged everything.
“I replied: ‘Saying sorry to me is not going to solve your immediate
problem. Your problem is that you have been kicked out of the caravan park.’
“There was a short silence as he was contemplating his situation. He then said: ‘What if I apologise to the manager?’
“I replied: ‘You can do that, but I don’t think he will change his mind.’
“Seeing that the usual method of apologising was not working, he then decided to change his tactic and try and portray himself as a victim. He said: ‘Well, I will go and live on the streets.’
“Not wishing to buy into this one, I replied: ‘Your plans are your business mate.’
“This young man now moved to play the blame game. He said: ‘If I go and live on the streets and something happens to me, you’re the one that’s gonna get into trouble, you’re the one who is responsible.’
“I replied: ‘Look, you said your father has arranged everything, if you are now saying you have got some other plan, that’s your business, it’s got nothing to do with me.’
“He was now getting rattled by my responses, so he decided to labour the point. He said: ‘You’re not talking to a stupid blackfella here, I know how it works, you’re responsible for me.’
“I calmly replied: ‘You’re 18 now, aren’t you; you’re an adult.’
“He now realised that this approach was not going to work. He then said: ‘Well I’m gonna hang myself.’
“I smiled and said: ‘Listen you best contact you father and tell him to hurry up.’
“At this point he was getting highly frustrated. He could see that this sort of threat was not working so he tried another form of threat. He said: ‘The people in my community know you, they know what you’re like, and they are going to get you.’
“Again I smiled and said: ‘Well, I think I have finished here, I need to go now.’
“In a last ditch effort to try and turn the table around and portray himself as a victim, he said: ‘So you’re kicking me out?’
“Sill determined to block him, I replied: ‘No, I am not kicking you out. You said your father has already made the arrangements, this is unfortunate but there is nothing I can do. The only thing I need to know is when you are leaving.’
“At this, I got up and left. Of course the likely reality was that no arrangements had been made and that I was simply calling his bluff.
“This young man was plucking away at all the right cords that would normally send a welfare worker into an immediate panic and the formulation of a rescue plan. They would perceive this young person as a child: disadvantaged, unskilled, uninformed, vulnerable, innocent, dependent and in urgent need of care and protection.”
At this point in Milton’s report, I want to reiterate what I said initially: The Cape York reform agenda is not about making people like this 18-year-old responsible for the history that has led to his disadvantaged situation. When we talk about responsibility, we mean that he should be assisted to take responsibility for his future life.
To understand why he is in this situation, we need to look at passive service delivery by publicly funded organisations.
Milton’s report continues: “The same evening, the young Aboriginal man discovered the services of a local Aboriginal organisation. A local Indigenous man rang me to say that this young boy needed to be flown back home and could I arrange it. What the local man wasn’t expecting to hear was me telling him that this young man had a good paying job which would enable him to pay for his own fare back home. All he needed to do was find somewhere to live. If he was unable to do that he was welcome to contact his work group supervisor for some help. I never heard from the man again.
“A few days later I received a call from a Queensland welfare bureaucrat saying that he had heard about what was going on and that he had organised for the young man to be flown back home to his community. I immediately contacted the bureaucrat’s manager. As it turned out, the welfare bureaucrat had incorrectly advised his manager that the young man had been expelled from the WPS. When I informed his manager that this was not true, the manager immediately cancelled the young man’s flight.
“The welfare bureaucrat contacted me again saying that the young man was still residing at the hostel and wanted me to make contact with him so that the matter could be progressed. In other words, the welfare bureaucrat, the local indigenous man and possibly others created a situation by shielding the young man from the consequences of his actions and now they were stuck with him.
“Again I repeated our position, saying that the young man had not been sacked by his employer, norhad he been expelled from the WPS. If he wished to go back to work he needed to advise us of his new address. If he had no fixed address, he was welcome to contact his work group supervisor asking for his assistance in finding accommodation. This was unacceptable to the welfare bureaucrat who insisted that I should make contact with him. When he realised his insistence on trying to get me to take responsibility for his mess was not working, he decided to raise the stakes.
“The bureaucrat said: ‘There are cultural factors that prohibit him from making contact with you’. At first he was not forthcoming on what exactly he meant by this. After my insistence, he said the young man was a remote area Aboriginal and didn’t have the ability to find the work group supervisor’s name and number and telephone him. I told him this was claptrap.
“I said the only issue here was the young man’s refusal to take responsibility for his actions; it had nothing to do with culture. I put it to the bureaucrat that to try to suggest that the young man’s culture prevents him from contacting us is to have a very low opinion of Aboriginal culture: ‘Since when is not being able to carry out a simple task a culture matter? Since when is refusal to take responsibility for one’s own actions a cultural matter, and therefore warranting some sort of exemption?’
“I said: ‘To me, this sounds very much like a racist comment; to have such a low opinion of Aboriginal people’s ability to carry out the simplest of tasks.’
“Infuriated, the bureaucrat declared himself to be part-Aboriginal and that if I repeated this claim he would take action against me. I said: ‘If you are part-Aboriginal, then all the more reason why you should think better of Aboriginal people than what you are. I, for one, believe that Aboriginal people are capable people and that they can take responsibility for their actions.’ At this, the bureaucrat hung up the phone.”
Milton James concludes: “This is a good example of what I am talking about when I say that the welfare approach is about rescuing people from competition and from taking responsibility for their own actions; to patronise and infantilise Aboriginal people.”