The Staircase to Success

AICD National Conference

2008 June, 1

The Staircase to Success

At the Cape York Institute, we are at a stage where we are reflecting on some of the agendas we are pursuing. The starting point for working out the nature of our predicament, and what we might do as a people to get on top of some of our notorious problems, is for some of us to think about how the world works. It’s been my concern to try and understand how it is that people succeed. If we want success, if we believe our society is crumbling and failing, then what is it about other people and groups in society that underpins their success? How do people climb up in the world? How do people achieve a better lot for themselves and for their families and their communities? These are critical questions to ask if we are going to imagine some journey forward and imagine the kind of destination we are seeking.

The Cape York Institute’s vision statement is taken from Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen who articulated the reason for public policy, particularly in the development field, should be that people must be placed in a position where they are able to choose lives that they have reason to value.

The great power of liberal thinking is very much where Amartya Sen comes from, but he exposes one of the blind spots of our popular understanding of liberalism. Liberals who succeed in the world often forget that their success is the product of capabilities and that investments in health, education and infrastructure are the hidden underpinnings of that capacity. But Amartya Sen overlooked the importance of norms within society and amongst people.

I began to think of a three-part analysis – the liberal importance of choice, the social investment in capabilities and the importance of families, individuals and communities having strong social and cultural norms. At Cape York, we came up with the “staircase model” of how the world works. It attempts to capture the way in which individual and social progress does in fact happen. There are three components to the staircase model.

Firstly, the successful staircase needs strong foundations – that is “social and cultural norms”. They tend to be conservative in character. They prescribe stability to neighborhoods and families, and values that enable us to maximise the chances that young people in their formative years will develop to their utmost potential so that they can have the widest choices when they become adults.

I was much concerned about the question of norms because of the obvious breakdown in norms in my own community. I am a witness in my own lifetime to a community that possessed strong cultural and social norms, and to how these have crumbled in a very short space of time.

The imprisonment rate in my community, as it was throughout much of Northern Australia in the 1960s, was lower than the Australian average. Yet, today routinely our people occupy 40 per cent of the prison population in Australia. We have gone from a position of being under-represented proportionately to an outrageous over representation in prisons, in juvenile detention, in child protection and so on. The attendance when I went to state school was higher than the Queensland average. Across a whole range of norms, the community that I grew up in was much more conservative and much more stable than the Queensland average. And yet, in a matter of decades, I have witnessed the humbling of those norms.

The second part of our staircase metaphor concerns the structures under the stairs – the investments we make socially in health, education, infrastructure, housing, and all those things that many people may take for granted in the underpinning of their own success.

The third part of our metaphor concerns the actual stairs – the incentives on the steps. Why do people desire to improve their lot? Why do they climb? They climb because the dollar signs, in the most fundamental way, increase as they march up the stairs. There’s good reason why they move forward. It’s because the incentives are right and rational, so they head upwards towards a better life.

It was by thinking about the problems of welfare down at the very bottom level of the stairs that we realised that the problem of welfare wasn’t some kind of trap, or if you call it a trap, it was actually the inverse of a trap. If you can imagine a staircase where the first rung is higher than the next step, where the rate of pay you get per hour is actually higher than the rate you get as a first-year nurse or a security guard or for other kinds of entry work. The problem with our passive welfare situation is that we have our people perched on $14 per hour on the Work for the Dole program and for a very good reason, our young people are not going to jump off the perch, down to a $12 an hour job. They are making a rational calculation about the pain that involves getting off the perch.

We talk about the welfare pedestal and this pedestal is not just a problem of hourly wage rates. It’s actually a problem because of an extremely generous family tax benefit system we have in this country. If you’ve got three, four or five kids and you add that to your $200 a week Work for the Dole program, you then have a pretty decent wage with no incentive for getting off the pedestal and joining the real world, where starting on $11 or $12 an hour, you may go to $14 or $18 an hour and so on. We just never get our people on to that trajectory because life on the pedestal is not set by the market. It’s set artificially by government.

A key part of the Cape York Institute welfare reform agenda, in the absence of an Australia wide reform, is to get communities to voluntarily attack the welfare pedestal and to make the choices, of young people in particular, more rational.

Our staircase metaphor tells us that the way in which the world works is that people have to climb the stairs themselves. The problem with the world that I live in is that people imagine that there’s some other vehicle for social progress – that somehow “social justice” will mean that someone is going to invent a mass elevator into which people can enter and be raised up in the world. The world doesn’t work like that. If even the most destitute are going to make progress, it is going to involve walking... climbing. When individuals clutch their children to their breasts and climb, and carry them to an improved life, and their children launch themselves from that foundation on to better prospects for themselves, that’s when we will get social progress. When all families do this across a community, that’s when we will achieve true “social justice”.

The problem in the world I live in is that self-interest is a dirty word. Jealous regard for one’s self-interests and the interests of one’s own children should be a powerful engine for progress, and yet we can’t harness that because we live in these artificial communities where everything is public and the great big funnel into the community is the Government’s way of distributing support and resources. It’s no wonder that everyone is gathered around the government well, jostling one another out of the way to get to the government tap. It’s not a way in which development can proceed.

The starting point of our crusade has been the belief that the single most important power that can assist us to move forward is created by taking our own responsibility. We’ve got to take charge. Indigenous responsibility is the greatest transformative power we have.

Ultimate empowerment is responsibility. In dysfunctional situations, such as exist in my own community, there comes a point at which responsibilities must be mandated. People must be held, once again, to basic responsibilities. Cape York mandates four basic obligations for welfare payments. They are that you send your child to school, that your child be free from abuse and neglect, that you obey laws related to behaviors in the community and that you abide by the conditions of your housing tenancy.

The idea is that, for the first time in Australian history, all welfare will be conditional in these communities. In Australia, we’ve become used to the idea that welfare is a right. They even call it an entitlement. People have been on welfare for decades. They have grown up to think that nothing needs to be expected in return for the help they get.

Passive welfare, in my view, has brought to crumbling ruins some of the things that my grandparents had put together in the ruins of dispossession – some really important things about families, responsibility for children and so on.

Passive welfare is not just a problem that revolves around income. It’s a problem of government service delivery.

What we’ve seen in the four welfare decades is the growth of a huge welfare service industry on the part of the Government that has displaced family, community and individual responsibilities, all to no avail. The original investments in service delivery in the 1970s produced a range of further problems. Today’s welfare programs are fourth generation problems aimed at fixing problems caused by the earlier generations.

There’s no realisation from government that we have reached the dead end of human service delivery. There’s this sense that government ultimately can design a program to fix these problems when, in fact, part of the solution must be a definite retreat by government and assumption of responsibility by those who need to hold it.

I don’t blame my people. I blame the industries that have been constructed around our misery. But to get their fangs off the throat of aboriginal passivity is a huge institutional challenge.

It’s also a huge challenge to adopt a policy on how we rebuild responsibility where, in normal circumstances, mums and dads possess those responsibilities, not a health worker or some agent of the state. These agents belong to a self-interested industry. Senior bureaucrats have empires and ambitions and jobs and salaries to look after.

The most common line I hear is: “Don’t blame the victims”. That line stops us from putting responsibility in the hands of those who need to exercise it.

While we are working on these problems from the ground up, at the end of the day, the fundamental question of our relationship with government has to be sorted out.

[This is an abridged version of the speech; a full copy has not been located.]