Cape York welfare reform trials extended… but opposition concerns continue

BY AMY MCQUIRESEPTEMBER 13, 2011

 Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

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

QUEENSLAND: The federal and Queensland governments earlier this month announced they will extend a radical welfare reform scheme in four Cape York communities. But a state opposition MP has raised concerns taxpayers aren’t getting bang for their buck, writes AMY MCQUIRE*.

NOEL Pearson’s welfare reform trials in four Cape York communities have been extended by a year amid concerns over cost blowouts and mixed outcomes.

The trials, which had been due to finish at the end of this year, will continue until December next year.

They have been in place since 2008 in Aurukun, Coen, Mossman Gorge and Hope Vale, Pearson’s home community, at a cost to taxpayers of $48 million.

Federal Indigenous affairs minister, Jenny Macklin, and Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships minister, Curtis Pitt announced the extension.

Their announcement coincided with the tabling of CYWR’s latest quarterly report in the Queensland Parliament. The decision, and the report’s tabling, prompted heated questions in the Queensland Parliament about the project’s worth.

Opposition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spokesperson, Dr Bruce Flegg told the Parliament results from the trial did not justify the joint government expense. The debate also shone a light on some of the practices of the Families and Responsibilities Commission, the independent Statutory Authority set up to run the trials.

The FRC says it provides an “official” structure within the community where “norms around appropriate and inappropriate behaviour can be negotiated and communicated”.

Its jurisdiction applies to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who are welfare recipients or CDEP participants or who reside (or resided at relevant times) in trial communities.

The Families Responsibilities Commission Act places an obligation on relevant government agencies to submit notifications to the FRC about school attendance, tenancy breaches, child safety issues and convictions in Magistrates Courts.

The FRC received a total of more than 9,000 notifications to December 2010 from within the four communities which have an estimated combined population of 2,460 people.

FRC-appointed Commissioners can compel residents to attend a “conference” to discuss notifications. The conferences are governed by strict rules.

FRC documents show:
• Their content is privileged and cannot be used in a court as evidence. Rules of evidence do not apply.
• They are not audio recorded.
• No legal representation is allowed “unless it is considered appropriate in the interests of justice”. A client may have “support persons” attend with them.
• If English is not the client’s first language, arrangements must be made to ensure they can understand and actively participate.
• If an individual fails to appear the conference is rescheduled.
• Decisions of conference must be unanimous if possible, otherwise by majority.
• The documents claim the conferences, which are chaired by a local commissioner, are “informal” with all attendees “sitting around a table”.

Matters raised in the agency notifications are discussed along with any other matters affecting the individual and their family.

Most conferences result in clients entering into an agreement to attend support services such as Wellbeing Centres, Parenting and School Attendance case management programmes or Family Income Management.

The trials focus on moving people from “passive welfare dependence to engagement in the real economy”.

It seeks to rebuild “positive social norms,” restore “local Indigenous authority,” move individuals and families from “welfare housing to home ownership,’ and to “normalize government responsibility and involvement,”

Minister Pitt welcomed a reported decrease in notifications, including child safety and school attendance notifications, as a “pleasing result,” following the release of the latest report from the FRC.

“It demonstrates that fewer students have unexplained absences from school,” he added.

However, the report is silent on current school attendance rates across the four communities.

These rates have been used, in the past, as a key indicator for the success of the trials in ensuring children go to school.

The debate in the Queensland Parliament revealed the community of Aurukun, with an estimated resident population of 1,209 people, was subject to a period of “continuous conferencing,” because of a drop in school attendance rates.

An FRC quarterly report in 2009 found school attendance had almost doubled in the community from 37 percent to 63 percent.

However, the latest report claims school attendance data is not available because the current school term has been longer than usual, while an earlier report showed school attendance rates decreased by 11.9 percent from term three in 2010 (54.1 percent) compared to the same term in 2009.

In answer to questions in a Queensland Parliamentary Estimates Committee, deputy commissioner Rod Curtin said 399 conferences were held in Aurukun in that time.

This included an additional 207 conferences.

“When the commissioner went up and undertook that continuous period of conferencing, he did so because statistically the figures had dropped,” Dr Curtin said.

“They were at around 64 percent in term two, and by term three they had dropped back to somewhere in the mid-fifties.

“After that period of continuous conferencing, by the end of term four, those figures had returned to…. 64 percent.”

The deputy commissioner claimed that the figures had returned to 73.7 percent.

But when looking at the figures across the past three years, it shows that there has been marginal increase in school attendance overall.

The original boost in Aurukun school attendance rates in 2009 has been disputed in the past by Queensland Aboriginal educator Chris Sarra.

Dr Sarra’s Stronger Smarter Institute had been involved in Aurukun just before the trials began.

He said at the time it was not clear whether the improved results were due to welfare reform, or by the injection of “quality leadership and quality teaching”.

The Opposition spokesman, Dr Flegg, told Tracker the number of notifications three years into the program raised concern over the results from the trials.

He described the number of referrals as “extraordinary” and 1,300 school truancy issues in a single year as “breath-taking.”

“That’s more than one referral per child,” he said.

“When you have 8,000 court referrals for liquor-related incidents, for disturbing the peace, for assault… it doesn’t bode well. It’s not suggesting that over the three years of this program significant headway has been made in my view…. They had 399 conferences in Aurukun in 8 weeks, that for a community of only 1,200 men and women and children.

“There wouldn’t even be 400 families in that community. It suggests that there are serious issues with this approach.

“Whether there are benefits that could be refined and taken forward would be something that an assessment of the whole process would show.

“But to have 399 conferences in an eight week period suggests there are deeper fundamental issues at play here, and that after almost three years of this approach we are still getting these extraordinary numbers, you’ve got to ask some pretty hard questions.”

“These sort of programs need to be subject to scrutiny. There are no blank cheques.”

Dr Flegg told Tracker the FRC needed to demonstrate they are getting results.

“All of us are committed to closing the gap and making a better life for Indigenous people by improving their education, and their work opportunities, housing and health,” he added.

“But that does not mean we should be putting money into programs without subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny.”

Dr Flegg’s questions in the Parliament provoked a quick and defensive response from Noel Pearson.

He claimed it was “disgraceful” that Dr Flegg had only referred to Aurukun and claimed the trials had increased school attendance and lowered violence in the communities.

However, Coen, had one of the highest school attendance rates in the state before the FRC began.

The figures in the FRC’s own quarterly reports show little increase in school attendance at Coen, as well as Mossman Gorge, despite its presence in these communities.

School attendance rates were also high in Hope Vale before the FRC began.

FRC Registrar, Ms Tamara Sovenyhazi, spoke to Tracker shortly before the trials were extended.

She said the FRC did not “shy away” from the fact the trials were expensive and the bid to bring about generational change “comes at a price”.

“We’ve only been in operation for three years now and it’s difficult to expect significant changes in that short period of time,” she added.

“In addition to that, we don’t consider whether we’ve been successful or not. We are being evaluated independently.

“The results of that evaluation will deem whether we are successful or not.”

She said early signs were encouraging. Statistics on violence were coming down and school attendance rates were up. Aurukun had gone from having one of the worst school attendance rates amongst discrete communities in Queensland to “one of the better ones”.

Dr Sarra told Tracker the Cape York trials needed to be kept under scrutiny.

“I think Bruce Flegg has shown a tremendous amount of courage to raise some questions. Other political leaders have lacked the courage to do so,” Dr Sarra said.

“I think this has been part of the problem for decades. Politicians are prepared to throw money at what they think might be solutions, and be content that they can say yes, we’re doing something about it… but I don’t know if they seriously have the courage to come and get value for money.

“Aboriginal Australians, and all Australians, deserve much better than that.”

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