“Empowered communities” sign up to Pearson’s principles

By Amy McQuire, September 2 2013, Tracker Magazine.

NATIONAL: Elements of Noel Pearson’s Cape York Welfare Reform trials could be placed in certain communities around the country under the “Empowered Communities” initiative, which has been backed by both major parties.

Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson helped establish the Cape York Land Council.
Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson helped establish the Cape York Land Council.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott last week said he would match Labor’s promise to allocate $5 million to the proposal – which was developed by eight organisations involved in Jawun Indigenous Corporate Partnerships, for which Mr Pearson is a patron.

The $5 million will go towards further developing plans to take to government.

In order to become an “Empowered community”, organisations involved signed up to a set of principles and social norms that are closely aligned to Mr Pearson’s work on Cape York.

The group includes Mr Pearson, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, APY / NPY Womens’ Council Patron Marcia Langton, Wunan Foundation chair Ian Trust, Tribal Warrior Association CEO Shane Phillips, Kaiela Institute Chair Paul Briggs Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO Sean Gordon, Cape York Institute CEO Fiona Jose and KRED Enterprises CEO Wayne Bergman.

A media release by Empowered Communities said that “regions would have to opt-in and abide by principles of responsibility including:
“that social norms must be re-established to combat dysfunction; programs and policies should seek to change behaviours and re-establish norms; supports and sanctions can be used to change behaviours – e.g. counseling, income management.”

In the statement of principles signed off by Mr Abbott, communities agreed that “Indigenous-led responsibility is at the heart of our principles on Indigenous reform. It is non-negotiable and assumed in all the principles…”

These principles are reminiscent of Mr Pearson’s work on Cape York. The welfare reform trials have bipartisan support and from 2008 have attracted $100 million in state and federal funds. Earlier this year, federal Labor committed an additional $24.5 million on top of that amount.

The trials focus on four Cape York communities and aim to move people off passive welfare and engage them in the “real” economy. It includes a form of voluntary and non-voluntary income management and is heavily focused on improving school attendance in these communities through reinstituting “social norms”.

But there have been concerns about whether the trials are working and whether they present value to money. The Newman government announced it would discontinue the trials earlier this year but bowed to pressure from Mr Pearson and the federal government.

Mr Pearson last week said Empowered Communities would be about empowering local Indigenous leaders to deliver solutions.

“We can no longer rely on solutions that arise because sometimes we’re able to exercise political leverage to do some good – there are too many issues that require solutions. The Indigenous people in organisations on the ground need government to work with us and for us as a matter of course.”

“We need to empower local Indigenous leaders to create and drive these solutions, through a structural solution that empowers communities to deal with their issues as equals with government.”

But it seems those “empowered communities” are organisations who sign up to priniciples that have previously been advocated by Mr Pearson.

Mr Abbott used his speech at the launch of Empowered Communities to recommend Mr Pearson as potentially “a prophet of our time”, and commended his work in developing the Families and Responsibilities Commission (FRC), a key plank of the CYWRT.

“I think it’s great that this Jawun process is now looking at how the lessons of Cape York and elsewhere might usefully be applied to governance more generally in the remote parts of our country,” Mr Abbott said.

Darkingjung Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO Sean Gordon told Tracker last week that it was up to each community to decide how they interpret the principles in their own communities.

He said none of the regions were supporting measures like compulsory income management, but that if it occurred on the central coast it would be a “last resort”. And he rejected the principles were simply those advocated by Mr Pearson or Marcia Langton and said many other programs initiated by organisations involved were already based on those principles.

Mr Gordon said it was an opportunity for Darkinjung to advocate for resources to be applied back to NSW, particularly to the Central Coast, where there is great need.

“Up until Monday, when we attracted $2.7 million*, we haven’t attracted any funding from federal government. There has to be a shift around addressing issues of government responsibility to provide good quality services…

“… We have to look at how the federal government should be shifting resources back here. The Central Coast is the fastest growing Aboriginal population in the country. We have the highest rates of overcrowding (housing) in the state, 18 percent unemployment. There are a lot of issues not being dealt with and we need to find a leverage point. Right now that leverage is being part of the eight empowered communities.”

He says that other communities have the opportunity to be “empowered” through signing up to the principles.

“They have to agree that there needs to be a new governance structure in place at a community level, supported leadership and there is a place for community to move forward. It’s about shifting responsibility. At the moment, the government has all the responsibility and the resources – we’re expected to jump through the hoops. You have to shift power back to communities to make decisions.”

Reconciliation Australia co-chairs Tom Calma and Melinda Cilento released a statement welcoming the Empowered Communities as an “opportunity to improve public administration and the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policies and programs based on what works.”

But they warned against discounting the work of other communities.

“While the initiative represents an exciting way forward for the eight founding communities and possibly others down the track, its development must not be seen to exclude or discount approaches adopted by other communities and leaders applying the same or similar principles. Those approaches will also require ongoing financial support and backing from both governments and the corporate sector.”

Mr Gordon told Tracker the initiative was unique because it was the “first time eight communities from right across the country – remote, rural and urban – have come together to sign to an agreed set of principles.”

He said none were aligned to any body or sector.

“We need to start driving change. We can’t continue to sit back and act like victims. We need to take a stand and see whether we can create or effect change,” he said.

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