Visions of brighter future can liberate camp dwellers

Opinion Article

2006 May, 7

In its editorial of April 16, The Sunday Age asked why the Prime Minister, the Chief Minister of the  Northern Territory and myself allow Aboriginal Australian children to live in dangerous conditions in  Alice Springs. 

In Alice Springs, three kinds of solutions are needed: short-term responses to emergencies; medium-term urgent measures; and long-term solutions. Emergency measures must include immediate child  protection, which federal minister Mal Brough made a priority a few days ago.  

Urgent measures that need to be taken within a year might include ensuring children receive a normal education. Only people in the Northern Territory and the Federal Government can help with short- and  medium-term responses.  

I and my associates in Cape York Peninsula cannot intervene directly in Alice Springs. But as The  Sunday Age's editorial pointed out, there is a core problem that needs a long-term solution: that people  do not see any other choice in life than becoming camp dwellers.  

This is where our work in Cape York Peninsula may be relevant. If we can develop a method to  influence people's behaviour, it may be possible to use our experiences in the formulation of policies  for other regions in Aboriginal Australia.  

We believe that there are three areas where things are not right for Aboriginal Australians: first, many communities lack a strong foundation of social values and norms; secondly, people lack capabilities  such as good health and education. And finally, government programs do not encourage people to  climb out of the poverty trap.  

To develop strong policies in these three areas would create a staircase for Aboriginal Australians.  

Aboriginal Australian communities must consciously rebuild and uphold social norms of education  and work. In Cape York Peninsula, we called for the legislative support of the state of Queensland in  order to bring about alcohol management plans. We are also working to lift people's understanding of  the power of education.  

The second part of a program must be substantial government investment in building the capabilities of  Aboriginal Australians.  

Those two components of the staircase, norms and government support for building of capabilities, will  only effect change if there is a new set of incentives, especially in the welfare system.  

In late April, Brough announced the Government's support for a study of welfare reform to be  conducted by the Cape York Institute. In collaboration with community people of [Cape York  P]eninsula, the institute will present recommendations to the Government. The Government will then  decide whether to trial the recommendations.

One thing needs to be clarified. Aboriginal Australians have in many communities more extreme  problems than the mainstream, but they have the same rights as other Australians. The welfare system  that creates crippling disincentives in Aboriginal Australian communities is, by and large, the same as  the ordinary welfare system.  

The ordinary welfare system cannot be reformed quickly enough, and in such a comprehensive way,  for the reforms to make enough of a difference in Aboriginal [Australian] communities. Therefore, the reforms must take the form of an offer to Aboriginal Australian communities rather than a set of  compulsory changes to welfare programs. It must be an offer of a new deal - a set of opt-in solutions in  which Aboriginal [Australian] communities can choose to participate.  

The changes would, if consent is given, be binding for that community. 

There are two areas where Aboriginal Australian attitudes differ most from the mainstream. First, there  is less understanding of the fact that education is the most important determinant of a child's life  prospects. Second, there is less appreciation of the importance of purposeful geographic mobility for  work and training.  

Some people will be critical of my ideas about welfare reform because a narrow focus on welfare dependence suggests that the problems of Aboriginal Australians are caused by our own shortcomings  and attitudes.

Welfare reform is only a part of the picture. True reconciliation would also mean that Aboriginal Australians could walk in two worlds; that they could seek work and education in places far away  without losing the link to their homelands.  

[However, it is not a question of whether the reconciliation process is going the way Aboriginal  Australians want. Under any circumstances, w]e must change the current system, because it does not  provide incentives for young people and their parents to think about the future. There is no substitute  for geographic mobility, education and work experience; without them, Aboriginal Australian culture  will collapse.  

[Another foreseeable objection to the Cape York Institute’s work is that discussions about specific reforms for Aboriginal Australian communities are racially discriminatory.  

However, offers from the Government which are made on an opt-in basis are not discriminatory.

Aboriginal Australians need quick and fundamental changes to the welfare system. The only realistic  mechanism for that change is that we participate in the development of, and voluntarily accept, changes  that can be enacted more quickly and go beyond what could be achieved through the slow process of  mainstream national welfare reform.

Visions of brighter future can liberate camp dwellers