Tough talk

Sydney Morning Herald - 19th August 2000
Author: Tony Stephens

Why did Noel Pearson invoke the Howard mob's catchcries to outline the problems afflicting Aboriginal communities? Tony Stephens reports.

NOEL Pearson told the Aboriginal Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne three years ago he had come to a conclusion that would be "pretty radical" to many of his people. He said indigenous Australians were within sight of the end of their long struggle.

Many delegates to the convention did think Pearson's conclusion pretty radical. The Aboriginal leader and lawyer explained, however, that his people had overwhelmingly accepted the compromise handed down by the High Court in the Mabo decision, "a compromise struck by white judges in a white court under white law".

He was confident that the big victory had been won because the history was being read.

June 3, 1992, the day of the Mabo judgment, was Australia's day of redemption.

Addressing a lunch organised by the Festival of the Dreaming in September 1997, a few months after the reconciliation convention, Pearson suggested that reconciliation might not be as far away as many people thought.

He said Australians were accepting black history through such events as Paul Keating's Redfern speech and the stolen generations report. He said land rights and a proper place for Aborigines in the community were within reach. The outstanding problem was overcoming disadvantage.

Pearson's Ben Chifley Lecture in Bathurst last weekend suggests, on the face of it, that he now doubts a proper place for Aborigines in the community is within reach. It suggests that the problem of overcoming disadvantage is more outstanding even than three years ago. The 6,000-plus words of the lecture suggest that Pearson is more pessimistic than he was three years ago.

That is one way at looking at the lecture. Another is that Pearson, widely respected as a shrewd politician, is seizing on the flexibility of government in 2000 and the popular emergence of such notions as mutual obligation and social partnerships.

Speaking of his people in Cape York Peninsula, Pearson said: "The nature and extent of our problems are horrendous ... Our society is in a terrible state of dysfunction."

Of the breakdown of values and relationships, he said that social life for Aboriginal people had declined over the past 30 years, even as material circumstances had improved greatly with citizenship.

"The violence in our society is of phenomenal proportion," he said. Policies had produced a "social disaster". The number of Aboriginal people in jail produced "outrageous statistics". The levels of "grog consumption" were "ridiculous".

Petrol sniffing in some places was so endemic that crying infants were silenced with petrol-drenched rags on their faces. One Cape York community of fewer than 1,000 people recently witnessed three murders in a month.

"And we don't know what to do," Pearson said poignantly.

The former chairman of the Cape York Land Council blamed much of the problem on dependence on the welfare state.

He said much "progressive" thinking on Aboriginal issues was destructive and urged a new emphasis on law and social order, and the empowerment of communities.

The Herald editorial on Thursday said most Aboriginal leaders would not like Pearson's arguments because they challenged the prevailing rhetoric "and the leadership's determination to win further welfare entitlements for their communities".

Many indigenous leaders, however, support his views.

The academic Marcia Langton welcomes Pearson's address and points to "Too Much Sorry Business", an appendix she wrote for the 1991 report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The appendix makes similar points to those made by Pearson, particularly in regard to substance abuse.

Bill Jonas, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, says: "Most people will agree with Noel, when they understand what he is saying. I have always been impressed by the way in which he gets on top of the issues of the day and moves on as his thinking develops.

"Our fear about mutual obligation has been that it could lead to victim bashing but, at one level, Aboriginal society has practised it for 40,000 years."

And Marjorie Thorpe, who is an executive member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, says: "I agree with a great deal of what he is saying. We are dealing with a catastrophe. The present policies are not working and there has to be a new way of approaching the problem."

Yet Pearson said he believed in the welfare state and that the labour movement had not been given enough credit for "this civilising achievement".

"The predicament of my mob," he said, "is that ... we haven't even benefited from the existence of the welfare state. It has meant security and an opportunity for development for many of your mob ...

"The problem of my people is that we have only experienced the income support that is payable to the permanently unemployed and marginalised. I call this `passive welfare'."

Pearson went on: "The irony of ... 1967 was that after we became citizens with equal rights and the theoretical right to equal pay, we lost the meagre foothold that we had in the real economy and became almost comprehensively dependent upon passive welfare ... In one sense, we gained citizenship and lost it at the same time."

He said any group of people relying overwhelmingly on passive welfare would end up in the same position. "Our social problems do not emanate from an innate incapacity on the part of our people ... We are not a hopeless or imbecile people.

"Our life expectancy is decreasing and the young generation is illiterate ... Our people's experience of the welfare state has been negative. Indeed, in the final analysis, completely destructive and tragic."

Pearson said that "progressive" ideas on indigenous policy were, in fact, destructive. "The real need is for the restoration of social order and the enforcement of law. You ask the grandmothers and the wives ... The only thing that happens when crimes are committed is that the offenders are defended as victims."

He argued that alcoholism or petrol sniffing be treated as an addiction rather than a symptom of dispossession, racism, trauma and poverty.

He said his thinking would strike many people as conservative. It will, particularly in his reference to law and order, an old conservative catchcry.

He added, however: "I propose the reform of welfare, not its abolition."

Pearson's words could have come from the McClure report, released this week.

"This country needs to develop a new consensus around our commitment to welfare," he said. "This consensus needs to be built on the principles of personal and family empowerment and investment and the utilisation of resources to achieve lasting change ... Our motivation to reform welfare must be based on the principle that dependency and passivity are a scourge."

Pearson's Chifley Lecture was not so much a radical departure as a development of his thinking. He expressed doubts about the welfare system before the 1996 election and elaborated on them last year in a paper he has turned into a book, Our Right to Responsibility.

Tim Rowse, of the Australian National University's Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, believes Pearson, attuned to mainstream thinking, wants the attachment to mutual obligation to be the occasion for empowering Aboriginal communities.

"I don't believe Pearson has taken a backward step on indigenous rights," Rowse said. "He remains strong on native title. It's more likely that he sees that a right-based approach to problems does not produce the best policy."

The long struggle for Aboriginal people continues, with Noel Pearson in there still punching.