Nigel Scullion

Nigel Scullion

Courtesy of The National Indigenous Times

Noel Pearson said the Forrest report struck at the “roots of the passive-welfare predicament of Indigenous Australians”. He said the Forrest reforms did not displace the welfare safety-net system but rather built “a new opportunity staircase as an alternative pathway for individuals and families to climb out of disadvantage and into the advantages enjoyed by their fellow Australians”.

This coming from an individual who, through his Cape York Welfare Reform Programme, has received more government funding from both Federal and State agencies than any other individual in the history of Aboriginal programmes.

Remember this is only one of the many programmes Noel receives government funding for … programmes that appear to have very little qualitative evidence of social change.

Only last week Nigel Scullion had confirmed in The Australian he and Pearson had a heated argument at the Garma Festival in the Northern Territory.

Scullion rejects the account published on the New Matilda website that Pearson told him to “get the f*** out of our campsite” but there is little doubt the exchange occurred over Scullion suggesting there should be greater transparency and outcomes for the funding Pearson receives.

Pearson has a long history of such behaviour dating back to 1999 when he poured a cup of water over ABC journalist, Sharon Malloy over a question he didn’t like in an interview. It all started when Noel Pearson became upset at a question he was asked on air about his plans to change the welfare dependency amongst Cape York blackfellas.

Ms Malloy asked him to comment about a report in the Cairns local paper that morning. Mr Pearson vehemently stated the article was wrong before walking out.

“That’s a ridiculous question. You knew the answer to that question before you asked it, obviously. The funding arrangements will continue until community people work out what ideas they want to put across to the government,” Noel Pearson said.

Less than two minutes after storming out, Noel returned back to the interview only to pour a cup of water over the interviewer Sharon Malloy’s head.

With all the stories on Aboriginal men threatening woman with violence and here was Noel Pearson, one of the most prominent Aboriginal men in the country, abusing a female journalist in such a way. Remember this all happened in the ABC’s Cairns office, which has its own journalists and yet the story did not break until two days later from another source before any ABC radio news bulletin made mention of it.

The then-Queensland Liberal Party Leader, Dr David Watson cried foul over the time it took to report what he said was a legitimate story.

“I find it unbelievable that it occurred two days ago. I mean if this had occurred to anybody else in political life, that would have been headline news straight away,” David Watson said.

The reason for such protection? Perhaps Pearson fits the philanthropic plus business models firmly in place within this government. It is a patronising agenda that enables our people rather than obtaining any real self-esteem or independence.

The Forrest report makes the same mistakes that John Howard, followed by Jenny Macklin, made in Indigenous policy. They assume the problems are endemic to Indigenous communities.

The rationale is stricter control over what is seen as “deviant” behaviours that created disadvantage. These non-compliant or anti-social behaviours are blamed for continuing disadvantage and the answer is much needed punitive “tough-love” responses.

The problem is punitive paternalism has a long history of failure in this country going back to the initial Frontier Wars and even white history with Ned Kelly and the Eureka Stockade seen as significant moments in our history and Culture.

The whole thing is mean-spirited and far removed from any sense of Aboriginality I grew up with as a child where we were always told to look after the most disadvantaged.

The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott said the government needs to discourage non-optimum decision-making by using financial penalties to force good personal health care, ordered and clean daily life and education attendance. This is a very 19th Century model that reflects the colonial state.

By attacking the poor and those on welfare attention is taken off programmes that work and an emphasis is placed instead upon reports written by senior business figures with limited policy expertise like Andrew Forrest and Tony Shepherd’s recent Commission of Audit, with no supporting evidence.

People like Noel Pearson become crucial then in covering the lack of understanding and appropriate evidence as they are seen as experts in their field.

The reward? Pearson manages programmes such as the Cape York Welfare Reform programme jointly funded by the Australian and Queensland Governments with the funding package for the initial four-year period being $88 million, with supplementary funding of $44.94 million.

That’s $133 million funding to service four communities ranging in population from around 100 in Mossman Gorge to around 1,500 in Aurukun. The other two communities are Coen (338 people) and Hope Vale (around 1,071 people). In all the entire population to benefit from the Pearson programme is a staggeringly mere 2961 people.

Here is your white elephant in the room. Remember the story of the “Emperor’s New Clothes”?  Well, the Emperor appears to be Noel Pearson. No one individual has been more critical of Indigenous funding than Noel Pearson and yet it seems his organisations receive more funding than any other Indigenous organisation in the country.

The former government department FaHCSIA, then responsible for Indigenous Affairs, published an evaluation of Noel Pearson’s Cape York Welfare Reform programme, the Cape York Welfare Reform Evaluation report, 2012.

Let’s have a look at the evaluation summary within Evaluation Report (2012).

The Administrative Data provided by the programme states the following:

* Conducting any evaluation for small communities is a challenge, as data from sample surveys are rarely available at this level, and where they are available they are often not reportable because of privacy issues.

* It is also not possible to accurately measure some outcomes in small communities due to small numbers, especially when the incidence of the particular outcome is low; for example, life expectancy.

* Further, some data are not reliable indicators of underlying trends, even at the national level. For example, child protection data do not provide a good guide to the underlying level of child abuse and neglect, as indicated below.

* Nevertheless, it is important to highlight some of the key limitations of the data that were used. All administrative datasets are limited in various ways, in particular by the fact that the small numbers of people in the four communities (and in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities generally) make it difficult to assess changes over time. Other limitations are described below.

* All administrative data are counts of activity of agencies. This means that they generally count service events such as hospital admissions or arrests, rather than actual outcomes such as injuries or crimes. If crime is not reported it will not be entered into the data, and if it is reported and not recorded it will similarly not become part of the data.

* This means that most administrative data are proxies for outcome measurements rather than measurements of actual outcomes. This is more of a problem for some kinds of data than others. For example, school attendance is a very close proxy for the outcome. As long as school attendance is recorded accurately, it directly measures the days students attend and do not attend school.

* On the other end of the continuum, child safety notifications are known to be poor proxies for child abuse. They depend much more on people suspecting abuse of children and reporting that abuse, and the abuse being substantiated.

* Throughout the report it is continually stated that reliability and completeness are problems that are not overcome within the data.

* All administrative data are reliant on people completing forms or databases and, even with very strict definitions, there are always differences in how individuals submit data.

* For example, if a police officer in one community prefers to ignore people who are drunk in the streets unless they are violent or disruptive but in another community a police officer charges all those people, the resulting analysis will show high levels of alcohol-related crime in the first community but not the second, even if the actual incidence is very similar.

* The third major problem with administrative data is that changes in policies or procedures can look like changes in the incidence of a problem where there has been no change. In some cases, this is easy to measure and understand; for example, if a decision is made to record tenancy breaches only after four months of arrears rather than three months, this will result in a sudden fall in apparent rent breaches.

* As long as it is known that the threshold changed, and as long as the change was universal, this need not cause a problem. However, if agencies decide informally that referrals should be noted only if the client turns up for a session, whereas in the past a phone call would have been counted as a referral, this could look like a drop in provision of services, which does not actually reflect a change in outcomes.

* For those reasons administrative data should always be considered with caution and, in particular, individual changes for specific communities from one year to another relating to a specific data item should not be considered a sign of real change.

* The four trial communities (and comparison communities where reported on) are very different from each other and therefore aggregate data often hides significant variations in the patterns of change in the four communities (and in the comparison communities).

* Another contextual factor that must be taken into account is that the boundaries of the trial are not always clear. Many other significant initiatives have been undertaken in the four welfare reform communities over the past four years, some of which are defined as ‘related enabling projects’ in the 2008 Project Board Agreement, such as the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy (CYAAA) and Wellbeing Centres. Others are closely linked to welfare reform but not a part of the trial as such (e.g. alcohol management plans) and yet others apply more generally to Indigenous communities, such as Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) reform, housing construction and refurbishment. This makes it difficult to disaggregate the specific effects of welfare reform from other policies and programmes in these four communities.

* There is a clear absence of benchmarking data.

* One of the key methods used to assess changes in the four welfare reform communities is to compare changes in outcomes with those in other Indigenous communities in Queensland.

* Comparing outcomes in other communities should always be treated with caution, as other communities are also subject to changes, including through policy initiatives and measures.

The evaluation report also goes on and on listing gaps within the research data and also states that data is rarely available. Most importantly it questions data on the underlying level of child abuse and neglect, ascertaining the true level of child abuse and neglect is extremely challenging and this data is not available for Australia as a whole, let alone small, discrete communities.

Now as we all know and understand, child abuse is one of the key issues that allow such programmes to run independently within our communities separate to the rest of Australia – so this as with other aspects of the data collection show real problems in developing any sense of accountability or change within the communities serviced by Noel Pearson’s welfare reforms.

Could you imagine the  “real” change that would occur in Aboriginal poverty and in closing the education and health gap if other Aboriginal leaders received as much financial support?

Malcolm X once said the most dangerous man on the planet was an educated Black man – I always assumed this was meant in relation to resistance but Malcolm may have just as well been talking about entitlement and assimilation?

There is no doubt former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, both African-Americans, laid the platform for a right-wing agenda and the establishment of the US’s first Black President in Barack Obama.

The view welfare should only be spent on certain things comes from the belief welfare is essentially a waste to the economy and mostly wasted by those who receive it.

It is a view much propagated within the United States and, sadly, adopted by many in conservative media and politics here. It is the driver behind “work for the dole” schemes, which also have little evidence to support it achieves any of the stated aims. The critics of welfare will continue to criticise people on welfare and suggest welfare needs to be cut while Noel, it appears, will continue to be seen as our saviour, accessing funding as he wishes while pointing his finger at others.

This step backwards fails to accept that recognising contributions of Indigenous peoples in consultation with their communities is necessary to repair the damages of long term cultural oppression, which strips away communal strengths and well-being leading to issues of anxiety, trauma and a lack of self esteem which creates dependency and substance abuse.

The United Nations have long recognised the long term failures of programmes to “assimilate” First Nations People across the globe and yet we have seen returns to paternalism in the Northern Territory Intervention and other welfare changes within Australia led by people such as Noel Pearson.

When all else fails, why don’t we just look at the evidence.


Dr Woolombi Waters is a Kamilaroi language speaker and writer and is a lecturer at Griffith University. He writes a weekly column for the National Indigenous Times. E-mail: