Slash-burn Newman finds fresh funds for Pearson trials


 Originally published in Tracker magazine.

The Cape York Institute’s Noel Pearson (AAP IMAGE/DEAN LEWINS)

QUEENSLAND: The Newman government has renewed funding for a controversial and expensive trial in Cape York, designed to cut down on truancy and welfare dependency, despite ongoing concerns about its outcomes.

The Noel Pearson-lead Families and Responsibilities Commission (FRC) has been allocated $5.7 million in state funds over the next year, adding to the $11.8 million given by the Gillard government earlier this year.

The trials have been in operation in four Cape York communities since 2008. The communities are Aurukun, Mossman, Coen and Pearson’s home community of Hope Vale. The trials are aimed at boosting school attendance and cutting welfare dependency through a mix of voluntary and compulsory income management (commissioners can refer people to income management after recieving notices from agencies like child protection and tenancy authorities and the Magistrate Court).

It is estimated that by the end of the year, the trials would have received about $100 million in federal and state funds, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

The Newman government originally held out on approving $1.6 million in funding this year, citing concerns of financial accountability.

Last year, the LNP’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spokesperson Dr Bruce Flegg told an estimates hearing that there should be no “blank cheques”, telling Parliament the trial’s results did not justify its expense.

Dr Flegg said the school attendance outcomes from the trial’s most successful community – Aurukun – were murky because of the amount of “conferences” staged there. Commissioners can compel clients to attend “conferences” in order to discuss notifications made by government agencies about school attendance, tenancy breaches, child safety issues and convictions in the Magistrate Court.

“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,” Dr Flegg told Tracker last year.

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

This year, after holding out on approving funding, the LNP announced an extension of the trial. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships minister Glen Elmes told Tracker he knew about Dr Flegg’s comments, and the area was still an area of concern.

But he says he has come to an agreement with Pearson over the make-up of an advisory panel into the trials.

“We’re a new government so it wasn’t so much a situation where we were withholding funding,” Mr Elmes told Tracker. “We wanted to see slight changes in terms of methodology that was put in place. I think a good example of that is to change the structure of the board so it becomes an advisory board.

“They look at things that need to happen within communities and make recommendations.”

Mr Elmes says the size of the board has been expanded to include a representative from each community.

But Mr Pearson will, on behalf of the Cape York Institute, provide nominees, Mr Elmes said. Despite this, Mr Elmes says the make up of the board is largely unchanged and says its “business as usual”.

Mr Pearson was recently the subject of two profiles in The Australian newspaper and the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine.

Whilst The Australian profile raised some concerns about the outcomes of the FRC trials, the Sydney Morning Herald piece concentrated on Pearson’s ability to sway governments, and his ability to attract floods of money form state and federal coffers.

Much of was made of his bullying tactics with previous state government ministers and journalists.

Mr Pearson’s influence also crosses borders – he was named a special advisor to the NSW government’s ministerial taskforce on Aboriginal affairs.

Mr Elmes says he has had a couple of meetings with Mr Pearson, as well as phone conversations and expects an “excellent” working relationship.

While he didn’t have a comment on the recent media reports around Mr Pearson, “Noel would be doing himself and his organisations and communities that he represents a disservice if he didn’t go out and negotiate with all sorts of people, be they conservative or Labor governments”.

Mr Elmes said he was aware it was an expensive trial. But he says he is satisfied that communities support the FRC following government consultations.

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