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How the commonwealth government can help stop Aboriginal welfare dependency

By Noel Pearson - posted Friday, 15 December 2000


There are mainly two groups talking about welfare reform in this country: the Federal Government and Aboriginal people, who are most suffering from the social problems that passive welfare dependence has caused. Apart from isolated commentaries and the backbencher Mark Latham, the Federal Labor Party has largely left welfare reform policy to be articulated by the Coalition.

The predicament of Aboriginal people has thrown into sharp relief the problems with welfare. The safety net as a guarantee for those temporarily disengaged from the real economy and as long-term support for the disabled and the aged, is a measure and mark of our civil community and consensus.

The safety net as a permanent solution for able-bodied people, is not just undesirable, it is destructive. The experience of Aboriginal Australians disengaged from the real economy tells us this plainly. As Joe Ross, the Chairman of Bunuba community in the Kimberley told reporters at the recent Roundtable hosted by Senators Herron and Newman: "Everyone is sick of welfare. You people not on the dole, try being on it. We have to talk to this government regardless of what colour they are."

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There are two ways to see welfare reform. Firstly, we can see it negatively as a matter of punition, moral judgment and superiority, and ultimately, government cuts and relieving the public fiscal obligation. Secondly, we can see it as a matter of fixing up failed thinking and practice, and about devising ways for people to re-engage in the real economy and to take responsibility. In terms of facing up to the problems of welfare dependency there is a convergence in the observations of the Federal Government and Indigenous community leaders and members in Cape York Peninsula, and elsewhere. But my sense of the rhetoric of welfare reform is that there is an assumption that reciprocity is a social, attitudinal principle that needs to be restored as a matter of moral imperative. Mutual obligation is therefore seen as a social or political value that can be enforced without reference to whether it involves engagement in a reciprocal economy. We should never lose sight of the fact that it is engagement in a real economy that underpins reciprocity in society. Unless we are helping and hassling people towards engagement in the real economy, then mutual obligation as a matter of philosophy or attitude is meaningless.

From the point of view of our agenda to move beyond passive welfare dependency in Cape York, our first task has been to get our thinking straight. There is no use in seeing the parlous situation of the Aboriginal community as requiring increased funding.We first have to unshackle ourselves from much of the confusion that prevails. There is much confusion in the 'progressive' thinking that has informed social policy in Australia and it permeates the thinking of the professional and pseudo-professional 'service-deliverers' in the bureaucracies, and their intellectual allies in the academic, legal, medical and media establishment. Indeed, our current policies are often the justification of their existence as a class whose role is to service social dysfunction, which explains why they refuse to rethink even as the consequences of their policies reach genocidal proportions in Aboriginal Australia. I cannot otherwise describe a situation where the members of a people have several decades taken from their lives.

The wider Australian society needs to appreciate the different impact that policies in the areas of welfare and substance abuse have in mainstream society versus Aboriginal society. Mainstream Australians participate in the real economy and enjoy the support of functional families. Aboriginal people live in an artificial economy which has detached people from reality and made our communities defenceless against the irresponsible policies and drug liberalism of the service deliverers and their allies. The current situation threatens our lives and our culture. What we do with the welfare resource in the next few years will be decisive.

There is a sense of hopelessness about Aboriginal Australia that many feel, but nobody admits to. Nobody says it out loud but many people do not really believe that a change for the better will ever happen. It is possible that Aboriginal separate development eventuates in a way totally different to what those who feared 'a nation within a nation' thought. We might end up with enclaves, permanently illiterate, permanently outside the real economy, permanently paralysed by drugs, kept alive with minimal government support and conveniently remote from mainstream Australia. Outside these enclaves Aboriginal Australia would be just a dark shade in the skin of part of the underclass (and a small group in the middle class).

To develop policies that really can make the wider community believe that something can be done, and give our people hope and insight, is a formidable challenge. A discussion about the current failed policies has begun, but I fear that the necessary radical break with the prevalent thinking has not yet happened. At the recent conference on Aboriginal welfare and the Community Development Employment Scheme (CDEP) the participants are reported to have called for 'resources', 'programs', 'appropriate funding', 'welfare service transaction centres to coordinate government services' and a 'more streamlined payment structure'. Of course coordination and refocussing of current schemes is necessary, but must be combined with a determination to understand and solve the very deep structural problems. Limited space does not allow a detailed discussion of our earlier theoretical fallacies and the new policies we are developing in Cape York Peninsula. I have attempted to initiate a debate with my submission to the Roundtable convened by Senators Herron and Newman and other texts (see www.noelpearson.com).

Some recommendations that I put forward are:

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1. All policy and program proposals aimed at addressing the social problems afflicting families and communities in Cape York should be part of the over-all aim and the over-all strategy of moving Aboriginal society in Cape York Peninsula beyond passive welfare dependence. It is time to draw together all of the threads of land rights, economic development, governance reform and community development so that social development can ensue. 1. All policy and program proposals aimed at addressing the social problems afflicting families and communities in Cape York should be part of the over-all aim and the over-all strategy of moving Aboriginal society in Cape York Peninsula beyond passive welfare dependence. It is time to draw together all of the threads of land rights, economic development, governance reform and community development so that social development can ensue.

2. The Commonwealth Government and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) should join the Queensland Government in the development and implementation of Cape York Partnerships, which is now state government policy, in order to achieve structural reforms.

3. The principles underlying community development partnerships should be:

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This article was first published in Options No 12 (December 2000), the Newsletter of Member for Sturt, Chris Pyne. It is republished with his permission.



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About the Author

Noel Pearson is director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership in Cairns.

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