Aborigines back welfare overhaul

By Michael Gordon

July 25, 2005

Communities on Cape York are ready for radical changes, says indigenous leader Noel Pearson.

Indigenous communities cannot wait until the rest of Australia is ready to embrace profound welfare reform, according to influential Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson.

Yesterday he dismissed concerns that punitive measures such as diverting family payments from irresponsible parents to other family members could be tested in remote communities.

Elders in Cape York communities have backed Mr Pearson's appeal to Treasurer Peter Costello to introduce a more radical assault on passive welfare.

Mr Costello is sympathetic to the call after spending three days examining indigenous issues at the communities of Coen, Aurukun and Napranum in far north Queensland.

Mr Pearson, director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, was with Mr Costello. He said the Treasurer had seen the scale of the problems but also the reasons for optimism.

The most radical idea canvassed is to divert welfare from parents who spend payments intended to support their children on alcohol and gambling. The money would go to responsible family members, particularly grandmothers.

The idea faces serious logistical and even moral hurdles, but Mr Costello believes it may be part of the solution to dysfunction in remote communities, with elders or justice groups deciding if a payment should be diverted. A precondition would be strong community support.

One option would be to restrict the move to payments intended to support children.

Critics argue it would be a form of racism if applied only to indigenous communities, but Mr Pearson told The Age: "I don't want to wait for reform in my communities until the rest of the country is ready to move on welfare reform."

Although a concerted effort by teachers had boosted school attendance at Aurukun by 10 per cent, it still needed to be increased by a further 30 to 40 per cent. "You won't move the really hard cases until some real consequences (of bad behaviour) kick in," Mr Pearson said.

He was encouraged by Mr Costello's response and buoyed by communities' determination to tackle passive welfare and embrace projects to build economic capacity, including eco-tourism ventures.

Among the ventures Mr Costello examined near Weipa was Lynette Adidi's bus service for Aborigines from nearby Napranum community. A hostile attitude by some taxi drivers and exorbitant charges of $33 for the short trip between the town and the community were the catalyst for the business. She charges $6.

Mr Costello, who returned to Melbourne on Saturday, was told that the number of alcohol-related deaths on the cape was 21 times the Queensland average. He said the trip had demonstrated that some long-standing programs had not worked, while some new approaches were achieving results.

"It would be smarter if we took programs that are working and put our resources into them," Mr Costello said.