BEHIND ENEMY LINES: Slowing down Noel Time


Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson’s Cape York welfare reform trials have been extended another year. (AAP IMAGE)

NATIONAL: Despite media trumpeting it as a “success”, are Noel Pearson’s welfare reform trials actually working, asks AMY McQUIRE*.

“This is Noel country. Noel Pearson of course.”

That was the start of a curious Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece this month, penned by Katharine Murphy, who had been covering Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s tracks up in Cape York. She probably needn’t have bothered with the second sentence. Pearson is one of the few Aboriginal leaders with first name recognition in mainstream Australia.

It is also the case in Indigenous Australia, although his name evokes an entirely different reaction. This assumption though, that Pearson’s influence on his country even extends to “Noel time” – as in everything runs on Noel Pearson’s schedule – is a dangerous one that has seeped into the media and political discourse surrounding Indigenous Affairs.

I’m sure there are many traditional owners on the Cape who would shudder at the thought of being lumped into “Noel country” and ruled by “Noel time”.

But nevertheless, that influence spreads, and the frustrated sighs of Aboriginal communities who do not subscribe to his doctrine are drowned out by the reverence shown by politicians and media.

This adoration emerges in the support shown for the Pearson’s Cape York Welfare Reform Trials, which have soaked up $48 million in federal funding, and just been extended for another year, while under-reported questions about its effectiveness linger.

This month, we had Opposition families and communities spokesperson Kevin Andrews touring the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia’s north.

The APY Lands were the subject of a media frenzy last month over claims of “starvation” in many remote communities. It was sparked by the Red Cross sending in food parcels to the community of Fregon.

Of course, the media narrative was widely different from the reality. Food security remains a real problem, but not one that deserves the unhealthy doses of sensationalism dished out by major media outlets.

Nevertheless, it was seized upon by politicians as ammunition against the decade-old stranglehold Labor has held in South Australia. Kevin Andrews is the latest, who this month said if the Opposition won government, it would put an income management trial in place.

Although he said he would first look at the NT intervention model of compulsory income management “because it’s working in the communities over the border”, he also noted that the Cape York welfare reforms could be a more appropriate model.

The NT intervention was launched with the approval of few Aboriginal leaders – one of which was Pearson, who of course, is not from the NT.

The NT intervention’s form of income management is also based on his welfare reform trials. It didn’t stop there.

This month, Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin also announced the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory report, made up of consultations undertaken in a six-week period with communities under the controversial intervention. In releasing the report, she also announced plans to tie school attendance to welfare payments, similar to the Cape York welfare trials.

Questioned in Hope Vale earlier this month on whether a Cape York-style truancy program would work in the NT, Opposition leader Tony Abbott sang the praises of Pearson’s trials.

“Look, income management is very important and here in Cape York income management has been an important part of getting the kids to school,” he said.

But of course, where is the evidence that the Cape York Welfare Trials have helped boost school attendance rates?

The Cape York Welfare Reform (CYWR) trials were set up with the aim to move Aboriginal people from “passive welfare dependence to engagement in the real economy”.

It does this by establishing the Families and Responsibilities Commission (FRC), which undertakes a series of “Conferences” in four trial Cape York communities – Mossman, Coen, Aurukun and Hope Vale, Pearson’s home community.

The FRC receives “notifications” from relevant government agencies about school attendance, tenancy breaches, child safety issues and convictions in the Magistrates Court.

People are then compelled to attend a “conference” to discuss the notification, where the FRC then decides what to do, whether it’s help with financial planning, offering voluntary income management or forcing compulsory income management.

The FRC has received more than 9,000 notifications over the four trial communities since it was founded, for a combined population of only about 2,460. That in itself suggests that the success of the program is far from clear-cut.

Earlier this year, the FRC in particular was the subject of heated questions in a Queensland government estimates hearing.

It particularly centered on the community of Aurukun, which had been the subject of a glowing Four Corners story at the start of the year.

At one point, the report shadowed two FRC workers as they drove around the community, looking for children who hadn’t been at school.

In one scene that stood out to me, the FRC worker sternly questioned a middle-aged man about where his children were. Behind him is a perfectly manicured lawn and a freshly painted house with a 4-wheel drive parked in the garage.

Not exactly a dysfunctional picture of Aboriginal community life and certainly not someone who deserves to be on the end of such paternalistic questioning from an out-of-towner. Imagine if that had happened in any other Australian community?

The FRC has claimed success for doubling school attendance rates in Aurukun from 37 percent to 63 percent in 2009. But again, the data is not consistent.

When looking across the figures over three years, there have been little increases in school attendance in the community, where rates have gone up and down, and there are doubts that the original boost was because of welfare reforms or the injection of “quality leadership and quality teaching”.

That was a claim made by Indigenous education expert Chris Sarra, and backed by Aboriginal leaders across the nation.

Aurukun had been the site of a round of continuous community conferencing late last year with 399 conferences held in a period of eight weeks.

Aurukun only has 1,200 people. The fact that there were so many conferences, and still so many notifications being received (the Queensland Estimates heard that it was 1,300 school truancy notifications in the space of a year), doesn’t exactly provide proof to the claim that the welfare trials are boosting school attendance rates.

In fact, it points to the opposite, that potentially the FRC is having trouble getting people to sign up to welfare reform measures, while school truancy remains such a problem that notifications continue to abound.

Looking across the board, the other three communities have also had only marginal increases in school attendance rates. Coen already had one of the highest school attendance rates in the state, and the population is so small that even slight variations cannot be attributed to the scheme’s wider success.

In Hope Vale, Pearson’s community, there has also been little movement in school attendance figures. In 2008, the figure stood at 80.6 percent.

In 2010, the latest data from the FRC shows that it was back at 80.6 percent despite going up and down over those two years.

In Mossman Gorge there has been some success. In 2008, school attendance was at 60.9 percent and in 2010 it was 77.7 percent. But Mossman Gorge is an even smaller population than Coen.

So whether the welfare reforms are actually having an impact on truancy remains to be seen. Of course, that’s not stopping Labor and Liberal both spruiking its success, with little evidence.

But if they truly want to extend the trials from Cape York to other parts of the country, without proven results and value for money, then they need to step out of “Noel’s country” and into the real world.

*Amy McQuire is a Darumbul journalist and editor of Tracker.

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