Costello hears elders' despair over children

By Michael Gordon

July 23, 2005

Peter Costello plays football with Aboriginal children in Coen, on Queensland's Cape York Peninsula.
Photo: Eddie Safarik

Peter Costello yesterday heard an impassioned plea from elders in remote Cape York communities to support tougher welfare rules aimed at forcing parents to take responsibility for their children.

Aurukun elder Rebecca Wolmby told the Treasurer she was driven to despair by the neglect of some parents, saying some children opted to sleep on the streets rather than at home.

"Nowadays, mothers and fathers, they don't worry about their child. I've seen this with my own eyes and every one of us here will see it," she said during the Aurukun justice group's meeting with Mr Costello.

Support for changing rules to divert payments to responsible family members was also expressed by community leaders at Coen, where Mr Costello was shown how a program that helped families manage their incomes had contributed to a 40 per cent drop in violence.

He vowed to ensure that funding for this $1.3 million program in six communities, provided by Prime Minister John Howard when he visited two years ago, continued when the agreement expired in March.

"We'll make sure that we keep that program running," he told The Age. He also said that pleas from the elders for welfare payment changes made sense.

"What they were saying is, if parents were wasting their payments on grog and not caring for their kids, that . . . the money could be given to grandparents."

Mr Costello was given an assessment of the extent of substance abuse and passive welfare in remote communities, as well as a demonstration of how some approaches were making a big difference.

The family income management plan in Coen had reduced alcohol consumption and crime, while parents had also agreed to allocate $20 of their wel-fare payments each fortnight to fund their children's education.

"I've been here 11 years and I've seen so many programs come and go, but this one is working," said resource worker Megan Irving.

But there was also evidence that drug abuse and gambling remained serious problems and petrol sniffing had seriously damaged some children.

Last night Mr Costello tasted local culture when he went fishing with indigenous leader Noel Pearson and they caught their dinner - a haul of "grunters" and mangrove jacks that were cooked on a barbecue.