Address to QLD Media Club

QLD Media Club

2008 August, 27

Address to QLD Media Club

Let me acknowledge the indigenous people of Brisbane and distinguished guests.

I have been prompted by Tony's words to recollect my first appearance in this room 18 years ago. The then premier Wayne Goss hosted a major national conference on dispute resolution arising out of disputes on Stradbroke Island and Fraser Island and so on.

We turned up with the incomparable David Byrne who worked for us in Cape York. David was a formal young liberal member of parliament in the early seventies and his first lesson to us, and my first lesson in politics, was to put a suit on. So we went to a suit hire shop somewhere downtown here, and a whole lot of us put these hire suits on - probably from a wedding party or something - replete with a rubber neck to put under your collar. And I discovered then that if you put a suit on you get onto TV. It’s a really simple formula. If you’re a black fella and you you want to appear on TV, put a suit on. And it’s a lesson that served us well over the years.

In fact, I noticed Sally Ann Atkinson here this morning as well. She prompted all of this. She gave us our first invitation to advance our cause on land in Cape York Peninsula when she invited us to meet Prince Phillip up here in Brisbane, and that was many, many kilograms ago for me.

I was thinking in recent days that when you're 25, you really feel sad, and you yearn for, the body that you had when you were 18. And then when you're 32, you'll be happy enough with the body you had at 25. Now, at 43, I’d be happy to have the body I had when I was 36. And coming back to this town, the home of Ballymore and all things good, I'm astounded that I did consider myself once a contender like Marlon Brando along the waterfront, I thought that I was a contender. But the terrible fact was that I was a Mark Ella brain trapped in a Tony Koch body.

You know, this business that we set ourselves the task of solving is the country's most important enterprise. It's the most important call. For all of the things that we set before us as Australians, the business of overcoming indigenous misery has got to be morally the most important. It's just unacceptable to all Australians that indigenous Australians should live on average 20 years less than everybody else. In this our own country, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don't enjoy a fair place. You'd have to go to Sub-Saharan in Africa, or some of the darkest places in the former Soviet Union to find life expectancies as miserable as ours.

In fact, I recently read a development report by a famous world bank economist that says that, you know, of the 6 billion people on planet earth, 5 billion are heading up upwards in terms of their prospects. And this includes many millions of people, tens of millions of people in India and China whose prospects are heading upwards. But the indigenes of this country, this wealthy first-world country, our prospects lie with that billion or so people whose position is not advancing, and in fact, in many cases is deteriorating.

So, we have ourselves a challenge of overcoming indigenous disadvantage. Overcoming indigenous misery, and bringing in some form of parity to the possession of the original peoples of this country.

But how do we do it? Lifting the life expectancy from less than 50 in Cape York Peninsula to something approaching the Australian average is not a task that's easily going to be achieved. Presumably we’ve got the right policies. And we've got to implement those policies in a competent way over a long period of time. And we can't seem to summon the agreement about what those policies should be, let alone some of the resources and capabilities to stick to an implementation of the policies that are needed over the kind of timeframe that we want to stick to the task.

For example, indigenous deaths in custody was the subject of national conventions, approximately 18 years ago. We had a massive inquiry into the problem of indigenous deaths in custody. And we have all of the governments engaged in that exercise. And hundreds of millions of dollars was allocated in pursuit of the 330-plus recommendations. The finding of the Royal Commission was not that indigenous people disproportionately die in custody. In fact, we die per head less than the mainstream. The rate of death of indigenous people in prison is less than the Australian average.

But of course, the problem of deaths in custody is one of the over-representation of indigenous people in jail. 30 - 40% of the prison population is routinely indigenous. 3% of Australia is contributing to 30 - 40% of the prison population. That's the problem: over representation. But you see the Royal Commission made a whole raft of recommendations and governments pursued those recommendations and have allocated funds for those recommendations consistently for 18 years. And what's the sum total today? No less than a doubling of the numbers of indigenous people in jail.

How is it that we can set a public policy goal of reducing a social problem and in such a concerted way apparently apply ourselves towards that goal, and end 18 years later with a doubling of the problem? We here in Queensland are over the halfway mark in a goal that we set ourselves five years ago, of reducing by 50% indigenous people participation in the criminal justice system. We set ourselves a 10 year ago of a 50% target reduction. Well, the midway review has found that there has been an increase in the number of people in prison.

So, we set ourselves all of these grand policy goals routinely in indigenous affairs. Every five years I've seen the convulsion in indigenous policy, be it health, be it education, or be it representation in the criminal justice system. And we have a whole new report and a whole new policy framework and then when we count the numbers in five years’ time, the numbers are still unassuaged. There's been no amelioration in the disaster.

So, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said that the goal of indigenous policy must be to close the gap, he is surely right. He is surely right. But in order to close the cap on life expectancy, we need movement on a full range of parameters: school achievement, health, smoking rates, year 12 completions. The full range of factors we need to make progress on in order to eventually drive a reduction in the life expectancy deficit of indigenous Australians. I don't think there's any contest from any quarter about the rightness of the policy goal articulated by the prime minister. Closing the gap is as plain as the nose on our faces. It must be our policy goal. We must accept firstly that that goal is not going to be achieved in short order. This is a generational challenge. We must also not abandon our responsibility to stick to that goal and make it realistic, and to be held to account for it, rather than pursuing a set of policies that could be as long as a piece of string. We can't just leave it to the next mob to eventually make final progress on the goal.

The fact of the matter is that it lies within our hands in this generation to make the decisive gains towards closing the gap.

So, the starting point in Cape York Peninsula was to try to get our thinking straight. It beheld us to revisit our policy convictions because too many of our convictions were not producing the kind of return that we expected. And yet today we still treat the Royal Commission's recommendations as holy writ. Even as the numbers of people in jail increases, we still refer to the Royal commission's recommendations as the framework for policy. There might have been slippage in terms of implementation by governments. There might not have been sufficient funding allocationsm, but the funding, and the commitment of governments and everything else, is not a sufficient explanation in my view, for our failure. We’ve got to revisit our thinking.

And so, the thinking that we embarked upon in Cape York Peninsula went back to first principles. We asked ourselves, how do you progress in the world? How do miserable people climb up in the world? How does the world permit people to improve their lot? What are the rules of the game for success? How does this ruthless society work? Because it seemed to us, given our position, that this society was ruthless indeed. And when we asked ourselves the question about the rules of the game, we came up with the metaphor of the staircase. It seemed to us that in a market economy where people win, and people lose. In a market economy the means of uplift can perhaps be explained through the metaphor of the staircase. And a staircase has three basic parts.

Firstly, staircases require strong foundations. And it seemed to us that strong foundations are built on strong social norms where individuals and families grow up in communities and neighborhoods where there are strong, prescriptive norms about how people should behave, how people should respect themselves, their children and their families, and their fellow community members.

Indeed, it seemed to us that some of the most successful groups in society were groups that were strongly prescriptive in relation to the norms. Asian-Americans and Asian-Australians seem to prescribe a lot more in relation to the formative years of development than ordinary Australians and certainly indigenous people. In the formative years of a young Asian-Australian or Asian-American’s life, there appeared to us to be more prescriptions. They weren't given tremendous latitude. But the amazing thing was, that upon their maturation, upon their adulthood, they ended up with the capabilities that gave them the fullest range of choices in life.

We began thinking in pursuit of the Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen’s illumination of the importance of capabilities.

The capabilities form the second part of our metaphor. The infrastructure underpinning the stairs we call capabilities. Now capabilities aren't in the old parlance of the social democrats, opportunity alone. It's not just a question of opportunity. In order to have capability, you need opportunity and responsibility. You need to be given the opportunity of good health, and good education, and good housing, and good infrastructure. But they yield you very little on their own if you, as an individual or your parents in your stead, don't take responsibility. You can have available to you a good school, but if your parents don’t take responsibility for fronting you to that school, you're not going to build the capabilities. We can provide all the penicillin in the world down at the health center, but if somebody does not take responsibility, we can't convert those opportunities into real capabilities.

And Amartya Sen’s great insight was to, in a sense, expose a glaring conceit in liberal thinking. And that conceit was the idea that people's prospects are simply determined by the good or bad choices, or the wise and foolish choices, that they make in life. For me, the galvanising insight of Amartya Sen was that in order for people to genuinely have the capacity to choose, they must have the capabilities. In Sen’s formula, one which we have adopted in our thinking in Cape York Peninsula, Sen said that the purpose of public policy is to put people in a position where they have the capabilities to choose lives they have reason to value. The capabilities to choose lives they have reason to value.

So to my mind, Sen confronted the liberals and said that it's not just a matter of people making good choices. A young indigenous girl afflicted with bad health never given the opportunity of a proper education cannot be said to be possessed of real choice. She in fact, possesses no choice. For us to say that a young indigenous girl in remote Australia has the dignity to choose the orientation of life that is her personal preference, we have first to arm her with capabilities. She's got to be healthy. She's got to be educated. So that the life path she eventually takes is one taken with capacity. She has simply not been condemned by the absence of capabilities to a particular pathway in life. So, I found Sen very illuminating when he said that in order for humans to function and to make choices, they must be armed with capabilities.

The third part of our metaphor is strongly consistent with liberal thinking. That is the stairs should be rationally aligned and they should head upwards. And there's a good reason why people climb stairs. It's because the prices, as you ascend the stairs, increase. There are incentives for climbing.

So, it struck me, upon reflection, that our three-part metaphor resonated with the three great schools of western social and political thinking. Our thinking about the foundations of norms was strongly conservative, and is strongly conservative. We believe that personal responsibility must be the starting place. Personal and social responsibility must be the foundations upon which we build our progress. So, we get a lot of resonance from conservatives when we talk about social norms. We get a lot of resonance with social democrats when we think about the guarantee of capabilities and the provisioning of opportunities. The social democrats are surely right that society has an obligation to ensure a universal opportunity. And there has to be social investment in the provisioning of health and education and infrastructure. Too many liberals forget the earlier social investments made in their capacity. They bask in the success of their current choices, often forgetting the original social investments that underpinned their development.

Of course, the incentives and choice dimension of our metaphor strongly resonated with liberal thinking. It's got to be rational for people to progress. And the other thing that our metaphor told us was that these stairs have to be climbed by individual humans. Stairs just don’t exist. They’ve got to be climbed. If there’s going to be progress, those individuals have got to be climbing. And we began thinking that the rules of success don’t allow social climbing. They don’t allow entire groups of people to hold hands together and climb together. The rules of success say that stairs have got to be climbed by mum and dad clutching the children and improving their lot in life.

The people of Hope Vale, 1400 strong of them, as dearly as I love them, will never progress until we all understand that each and every 1400 of us, has got to start climbing. No one, no political leader, no government, has ever developed in the system that I witnessed, a mass elevator for social uplift. No premier, no prime minister has invented a social justice forklift whereby people can be improved on mass by government fiat. Stairs have got to be mundanely climbed by human beings. Usually, parents clutching their children with them moving a few stairs forward and launching their children on the next part of the journey.

And the story of Australian progress in this very ballroom is a story of how peat bog Irish people came out here with nothing and your grandparents launched your fathers further up the stairs and you have launched your children further up the stairs. And the people from peasant fields of the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe have similarly progressed through the 20th century via similar means.

If that's the story of progress, that people take responsibility and they start climbing and there's a social investment in their capabilities, then how is it that we harbour this sense that indigenous progress is going to happen through some other unique means? How is it that we harbour the sense that indigenous equity and social justice can be achieved via some other method? And what is that method? If there is another one.

And it seemed to me, one of the greatest failings of progressive thinking has been the failure to realize that there is no magical social justice forklift. That somehow the only thing standing between misery and indigenous uplift is sufficient commitment and courage and willingness on the part of governments to better their lot. It seems to us, the rules or the guidelines say that individual progress is key to social progress. In fact, social progress is but the sum of individual progress. And we as a community, if we're concerned that uplift is not just to be on the part of isolated individuals, then we have to take responsibility for the norms within our community, so that we have expectations of one another. That we are looking after our children and we are investing and hope in our children. And we're fulfilling all of the responsibilities that are necessary to give our children the capabilities to climb.

Part of our thinking about the challenges that lie before us, has required us to think about self-interest. And I constantly marvel at the hesitation when it comes to indigenous people about the importance of self-interest. We’re supposed to be animated by some other passion, other than self-interest. We're supposed to be unique as a people in that we have higher motivations than self-interest. And yet the story of progress, be it in the first world or throughout the third, the story of progress is about how societies have been able to mobilize people in the pursuit of their own self-interest. And in indigenous policy, the greatest engine for our progress will be the lighting of the flames of self-interest.

In indigenous policy, to jealously prefer your own family is somehow a blight. Is somehow illegitimate. In fact, those of you who hang around the ridges of indigenous policy, would well know the notorious problems with family fighting and nepotism. But these are problems, not because preference for one's family is wrong, these are problems in the indigenous sector and the indigenous field, because those passions are directed in the public domain, which is the only place in which indigenous people can gain opportunity. So we necessarily have nepotism and families pulling each other out of the road.

In the communities that I'm concerned with, the communities where the only well of opportunity is a government well, centered in a very public place in the community. It's completely understandable when you think about it. That all the families should be elbowing each other out of the road in order to get to the well. I say to white Australians; if you lived in a society where all of the goods and opportunities existed down at the community well, nepotism and family fighting amongst black fellas would pale beside the jealous preferences of mainstream Australians.

We've got to understand that jealous preference in favor of one's own is an important resource for development. The mother who’s jealous regard is for the prospects of the children is the most powerful engine for social progress. I'm fond of Lee Kuan Yew’s insight that the technological and scientific advancement of Singapore was driven by the mothers of Singapore. He and his fellow leaders instilled into the mothers of Singapore a passion and commitment for mathematics. The mathematics revolution was driven by the mothers because Lee Kuan Yew understood that there is no more jealous and no more powerful a driver of progress than the tender regard that a mother has for her own.

So, it seems to me that if we're going to have indigenous progress, we're going to have to stop the double standards. We're going to have to understand that indigenous self-interest is as legitimate as non-indigenous self-interest and price calculations by indigenous people are as keenly made as price calculations by the people within this room.

Surely, we are cultural beings, we are social beings and we have a range of values that are not just material, but we first have to accept that we are as materially motivated as anybody. And indigenous people are going to advance the same way as everybody else in pursuit of their own self-interest. And we've got to stop the public double standard that somehow an indigenous person in pursuit of his own interest, or her own interests, is somehow not acting aboriginally.

And one of them, one of the features of this great cultural confusion around the place of self-interest in indigenous advantage and uplift, concerns our ecology. There seems to be a cultural expectation that indigenous people should be ecologically more responsible than the mainstream community. That somehow, we should disavow our entitlement to material uplift in favor of ecological correctness. And we should, by our very identities, own a much more hesitant view of man's place in the environment than the mainstream.

I said that our thinking is that Amartya Sen was right. We need to have capabilities to lead lives we have reason value. And I know that indigenous people's values are frequently much more concerned with environmental values than mainstream Australians. But what I reject is the idea that somehow it is that we should choose to live in poverty because of our cultural preferences. Because of our cultural identity.

And one of the real challenges for social policy, I think, particularly in remote and Northern Australia, is the challenge for mainstream Australia not to impose upon indigenous communities, standards of ecological responsibility that mainstream Australia is unwilling and would never dare to impose upon your children and upon your families, and upon your neighborhood.

Let me now briefly talk about the problem with welfare. If you take our metaphor of the staircase, our analysis of the problem of welfare is one where if you can imagine a first step at the very bottom of the stairs, which is higher than the next run on the stairs going upwards. I explained this on the whiteboard at a community meeting in my hometown, and one of the grandmothers dubbed this fair stair, the welfare pedestal. That pedestal that our young people are sitting on.

It’s important to understand that the problem of the welfare pedestal is that the price of that pedestal is higher than the stairs in the real world. And young people are routinely making a price calculation between the $14 an hour on Work for the Dole program versus the price you get as a first-year nurse or a security guard or some other job in the real economy. Take my nephew for example; finishes year 12, is offered a traineeship by Comalco and the traineeship wage is $170 a week. And he has to make a price calculation. A price calculation between $170 per week in a workplace where there's some white fella pushing you around, making you do all the crap jobs, versus going back to your hometown, sitting around on the CDP getting $220 a week. Well, is there any wonder that six weeks later he chucks the traineeship in and he's back on $220 a week. He's made a price calculation. But the problem with that calculation is that he might be on $170 a week now, but what will he be on in three years’ time? In five years’ time? Seven years’ time when he's got a trade. But the calculation my nephew is making is one about his present price. And that is that life on the Work for the Dole program is more attractive than life in the real economy. And so his fellow trainees are on $80,000 a year now and he's still back on $12,000 a year. And in a few years’ time, his mates are going to be even more richly rewarded. And he's still on $12,000 a year. And the great challenge for indigenous welfare reform is one that has to confront the difficulties posed by a very generous family tax benefits system, because you can’t just make a calculation about the pedestal based on their income, you've got to add family tax benefit into it.

And by the time you had $12,000 to the family tax benefit for three or four kids, then you're talking about a virtual salary. There's no way that another nephew of mine aged 26 years old with five kids, there's no way he's going to make a calculation to get down off the pedestal and into a real job when he does the sums about the CDP plus the family tax benefit, versus the price on the real job.

But life on the pedestal is mean, and it only provides a certain level of comfort. But it dissuades young people in particular from getting off the pedestal and out into the real economy where their prospects could soon be so much better than life on the Work for the Dole program.

Now, our problem is that there's no appetite in the Australian community for reforming the family tax benefit system, which is a massive contributor to the size of the pedestal. This is middle class welfare. We can't really do much about the disincentive effects of family tax benefit without a willingness on the part of the wider Australian community to confront the disincentive effects of that form of redistribution.

One part of the welfare problem that we are moving on and we've got federal and state government support for implementing, is the business of mandating some basic social responsibilities. That is to reconstruct the strong foundations underpinning the stairs.

Last week, I had a meeting in my hometown and I said to the people in my hometown, when I talked about this metaphor, that had we been talking about this in 1968, there would have been no necessity for me to talk about the strong social foundations. There would be no necessity for me to talk about personal responsibility. You would have to, the same as Amartya Sen and anybody else working in the third world, you would talk about opportunity and the need for investment and opportunity. You could take social norms for granted. Because of the norms in my community, the school attendance was much higher than the Queensland average. There were less people in jail in 1968 and in 1978, than the Queensland average. People were hard working and taking more responsibility. The problem back in 1968 was that when you didn’t work - picking fruit, slashing cane, building the railways, working on the mine - when you did the work, the protector looked after your money and frequently stole it.

The problem back in 1968 was that the door to uplift was closed. My father was as literate as anybody's father, but he could only go to grade four because the doors of opportunity were closed back in 1968. And you want hard workers and people who took responsibility for sending their kids to school and teaching them to respect their elders and their fellow community members and not get in trouble with the law.

I read a recent paper by an agricultural economist about the history of the Kimberley in the 1960s. And in 1963, the rate of indigenous people in prison in the Kimberley was lower than the Western Australian average. There were less black fellows in jail back in 1963. And yet today we are routinely 30, 40% of the prison population.

So, back in 1968, we didn't have to talk about social norms. We'd simply be talking about opportunity and opening the doors of opportunity. Problem is we're having the conversation in 2008 at a time when the doors of opportunity are indeed open but we're not armed with the norms to seize them. We've got to rebuild responsibility. And what do you do when things have fallen apart so much? What do you do when people are so gripped by poisons? And those poisons are stronger than the love for their children? As tender as that love might still be.

We've got to start the whole story of rebuilding. And the story of rebuilding after 40 years of passive welfare and the rise of substance abuse and gambling problems, is a hard road. The story of rebuilding after 40 years of people becoming unused to working for their own livelihood. And you've never grown up to see your father work, is a hard road. Because there's no appetite necessarily to change things.

The great problem with passive welfare is that it's very hard to disavow. Who doesn't want obligation free income? Who doesn't want obligation free income? Who will readily give away income as entitlement? There's no huge market for letting go of the poison. And the problem with this obligation-free income is that over time it just corrodes things. It corrodes relationships, it corrodes individuals. Their own sense of achievement, purpose, and pride.

So we've got to rebuild responsibility in a thin market. And in my view, when things have fallen apart, as they have in indigenous Australia, at least the communities that I know, as they fall apart in too many white suburbs that I see as well. There's no escaping the need for mandating responsibility. There's no escaping the need to mandate some basic personal responsibilities.

And those personal responsibilities that we're mandating in the Cape with the support of the Bligh government and the federal government concern four things.

Firstly, send your kid to school. You're obliged to do it. If you get money from society for your sustenance, then you're obligated to send your kid to school.

Secondly, you're obligated in return for the money you get to make sure your children are looked after. They're not neglected and that they’re protected.

Thirdly, that you should obey the law. Your behavior should be such that the prospects of your children are not dimmed. You should be obliged to make sure that you obey certain standards of behavior.

And fourthly, that you abide by the conditions of your housing tenancy. Those are the four basic conditions. Send your kid to school. Make sure they're free from neglect and abuse. Obey the law. And abide by your basic housing and tenancy obligations.

And if you fulfill those obligations, or if you are presently already fulfilling those obligations, then the reforms that we propose don’t touch you at all. If you're taking responsibility, you should continue to be free to make your own choices. The interventions that are taking place in Cape York Peninsula in four communities only apply to those people who are not fulfilling those basic responsibilities. It's only if your kid is not at school that you are at all affected by these changes. And you will be affected in a way that gives you a very clear message that if you fulfil your responsibilities and you take them up, then you will be given back your freedom to make your own decisions.

And in my view, our approach in the Cape York Peninsula respects the importance of the freedom of choice. We're not trying to dampen, and we're not trying to restrict the importance of people continuing to have sovereign control over their lives. But what these reforms do unequivocally mandate is that people take their basic responsibilities. There'll be no more funding of irresponsible behavior.

And isn't that a fair deal? Shouldn't society make this deal with every one of us? A deal that says we will provide you support for your needs, but in return for that support, you should send your kid to school. You should fulfill your obligations to make sure that they're not neglected, and so on.

It's been a terrible history. The Western history of obligation-free social support. We’re counting the cost today, black and white of an unintended history really. Because back in the days when many of these supports were first conceived, disengagement from work was a six-week thing on average. People were just moving between jobs, when unemployment benefit was first conceived. These supports were conceived in an earlier time when people being out of work was a momentary thing, a transitional thing. Whereas today, people moving out of the workforce can turn into a generational circumstance.

And so the reforms that we are now implementing in Cape York Peninsula are reforms that are respectful of the importance of people retaining sovereign control of the decisions relating to themselves and their families. But the day when irresponsible choices are made by people and funded on a weekly basis by the government have got to come to an end. The government and society cannot continue to fund people's drug habits. Government and society cannot continue to keep funding the preferences of adults to blow all their money on drink. That has come to an end. And if you want to spend all your money on drinks, get a job, get a real job yourself. And you can say, this is my money. And my choice is to blow it all. But when society provides you with the means to look after your children then it seems to me that it is absolutely correct that society should expect you to spend that money for the benefit of the children on whose behalf you are receiving the income.

Let me finally say that we are 18 years into this long struggle that we've had. To vest our people with rights, that was the first phase of our work; we wanted our rights to land, to our language, to our culture. The first phase of our work was concerned with our rights, but we realized very early on in the piece that we're not going to change everything if we don’t address the responsibilities part of our agenda. And for the past eight years, we've been steadfastly pushing the agenda of responsibility so that we take charge of our lives.

And I think we made halting progress here in Queensland. I think we wasted many years under the former premier. There was a commitment, but there was not the diligent application in the four terms of the Beattie government. We've made more progress in the 12 months of Anna Bligh than we did in the four terms prior to that. And we’re making pumping progress now, we have a premier and a bureaucracy here in Queensland that is steadfastly committed and is making the changes that are needed.

I watched that last term of the Beattie government and it was just a story of no progress. The state was consumed with all kinds of other priorities. And it kind of underlined to me how easily it is that indigenous affairs and the prospects of the most miserable, can so easily be put off the agenda. And you’ve got to wait three years before you get another chance again.

We're not going to make progress unless there is a generational commitment across political parties and across elections. I’m really hopeful and I'm very pleased with the present government's progress under Anna Bligh’s leadership. I really sense that we're making gains.

And I just want to say in closing that I thank very much the Queensland Media Club for this opportunity to talk about and demonstrate the Far North.

Thank you.