Noel Pearson’s beacon of hope to end 50 years of failure

28 Mar 2015 1:00 AM - Publication: The Australian - Natasha Robinson & Rick Morton

A radical “opt-in” system of indigenous management that would sweep aside 50 years of failed ­social policies and create a formal legislative compact between ­Aboriginal people and government has been launched by a group of the nation’s most influential indigenous leaders.

The plan, endorsed by eight Aboriginal communities, aims to create a “new centre of gravity” in Aboriginal affairs, based on ending decades of passive welfare and deepening disadvantage.

That mindset would be replaced by a fundamental shift towards indigenous empowerment, development and productivity.

The report, Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples — which lays out a policy reform agenda that redefines the role of government in indigenous policy — is released today, and is now being considered by federal ministers and senior bureaucrats.

The report finds that an estimated $30.3 billion (or 6 per cent of total direct spending) was spent by the states and territories on services for indigenous peoples in 2012-13. This is $43,449 for each Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander compared with an estimated government spending of $20,900 per person for other Australians — figures that underscore the disparity in indigenous and non-indigenous outcomes.

In an interview with The Weekend Australian, Cape York leader Noel Pearson laid out his ambition for a new policy era of indigenous empowerment that would wind back decades of top-down government intervention and passive service delivery.

It is the culmination of more than 15 years of his thinking. “My soul is close to this aspiration and it has been a great privilege working with indigenous leaders who have shown great leadership on these issues,” Mr Pearson said. “If I have any contribution to make to public policy in Australia this is it. I ­believe this is our best shot to chart a future not just for our eight ­regions, we really have to be a ­beacon for the rest of indigenous Australia.

“There’s certain kinds of government service delivery that compound welfare dependency. The welfare trap is as deep as ever.

“A lot of what goes on under the banner of services is actually now an industry. There’s been a massive growth in that industry. But a system that nationally allocates $33bn each year in the name of ­indigenous people is a system that has huge scope for productivity.”

The report is the culmination of intensive policy development by indigenous leaders from Redfern and La Perouse in Sydney, the ­central coast of NSW, Cape York in north Queensland, northeast Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, West Australia’s Kimberley and the NPY Lands in Central Australia, together with a high-level steering committee of senior state and federal government mandarins and corporate and business leaders. Co-ordinated by the Jawun indigenous Partnerships Corporation, the policy builds on the rights and responsibilities agenda laid out by Mr Pearson more than 15 years ago.
Social norms of school attendance, housing responsibility, abiding by the law and ensuring the safety of children and old people are at the policy’s centre, along with a dramatic scaling back of the passive welfare system that strangles Aboriginal freedom.

Empowered Communities ­advocates a fundamental shift away from traditional Australian social policy thinking about disadvantage. “The problem with the current paradigm of indigenous affairs is that it is sclerotic,” the ­report says. “Its centre of gravity is the old disempowerment, based on passive welfare and government overreach into areas where indigenous people need to be responsible.”
It is envisaged, using the “opt in” principle, that more communities will join the Pearson system. That depends on its success.

East Kimberley leader Ian Trust said the indication of failed social policy could be seen no more clearly than in the region’s incarceration rate, which 50 years ago was below the national average and now was “through the roof”. “I think things are just as bad as ever here,” Mr Trust, chief executive of the Wunan Foundation, said. “I don’t think school attendance has gone up at all and we’ve got very high rates of suicide, ­especially in young people.

“You can almost measure the level of dysfunction in the community by the level of services. 

“Governments think the way to solve a problem is to provide more services, but ... it doesn’t support people’s strengths. People need to have skin in the game.”

For three decades, indigenous leaders in inner Sydney’s La ­Perouse have been fighting for their people to make their own path from birth until death, a project frustrated at every turn by ­bureaucracy and their own false steps.

“What we never had was an opportunity to influence policy and programs as a community,” La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council chief executive Chris Ingrey told the Weekend Australian.
Mr Ingrey took on the role in his early 30s and the father of three — including two-week-old Violet — has set his sights on a ­future where young people are nurtured into leadership roles, self-reliance and jobs.

“In the past, our community was very reactive to the government, captured by flavour-of-the-month policies and funding for programs we didn’t need because that is what was on offer,” he said.
Empowering Communities, he said, was a way to right those historical wrongs and grasp opportunities smothered by the all-encompassing bureaucracy.

“We are going to map out all the services available and all the gaps, with a focus on education and employment for the young and aged care for our old ones,” Mr Ingrey said. “The goal is to help individuals be more responsible for their families and themselves.”

Taking inspiration from the National Competition Policy reforms instituted between 1995 and 2005, the Empowered Communities reform agenda comes with a suite of immediate practical initiatives. It calls for the creation of pooled regional funding in favour of tied grants; reformed purchasing arrangements based on ­demand-driven markets, and the introduction of a voucher system to enable direct purchasing wherever possible. Funding agreements would tilt resources towards organisations that opted in to the Empowered Communities agenda, and the welfare/service delivery framework would be stripped back to increase direct ­accountability of providers to indigenous people.

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