Is welfare dependency 'welfare poison'? An assessment of Noel Pearson's proposals for Aboriginal welfare reform

Author/editor: Martin, D
Year published: 2001
Issue no.: 213


Aboriginal lawyer, activist and social commentator Noel Pearson has recently argued that the current mode of delivery of welfare services to Aboriginal people is deeply antithetical to their interests and wellbeing. Central to his scheme for policy change and improved welfare outcomes are two core propositions. The first is that the 'passive welfare' policies instituted in Aboriginal communities over the past three decades, with no demands for reciprocity and responsibility on the part of welfare recipients, have promoted detrimental relations of passivity and dependence which are now deeply embedded within Aboriginal societies.

Pearson's second key proposition is that addressing the dysfunctional consequences of the welfare system for Aboriginal people will require structural change. In particular, new institutions for Aboriginal governance, both formal and informal, will need to be developed. It is through reform of the existing institutional arrangements between government and Aboriginal communities, and through these formal and informal Aboriginal institutions, Pearson argues, that the principles of reciprocity and individual responsibility necessary to leach the 'poison' from welfare resources can be instituted and implemented.

Pearson's arguments should be seen as a welcome and politically innovative contribution to a policy debate of fundamental importance. The status quo in welfare policy, at least for remote Aboriginal Australia, is not sustainable. However, on the basis of ethnographic evidence from Cape York and other north Queensland Aboriginal communities—the region on which Pearson's policy proposals are centred—this Discussion Paper suggests that certain of Pearson's underlying assumptions need careful re-examination and further development, and that the evidence poses certain difficulties for the practical implementation of his proposals.

In particular, the ethnography from Cape York and elsewhere suggests that certain widespread Aboriginal values and practices may be inimical to the kinds of social and attitudinal changes which Pearson is advocating and, further, that these values and practices have not simply arisen as the consequence of the experience of colonialism or the introduction of welfare. This then raises the question of the sources of the moral suasion and authority necessary to demand and implement social change in Aboriginal societies. Pearson proposes that these lie variously within 'families' and other local groups and 'communities'. This view is challenged here, with the argument that such contemporary groupings do not have the requisite moral and political authority over individuals. If this is the case, it creates a dilemma for Pearson's scheme, for if social and attitudinal changes are necessary, whence can they be driven?

The answer may lie in the new forms of Indigenous governance and leadership which Pearson proposes. However, these would involve significant changes within the Indigenous polity, which may be beyond the capacity of Indigenous groups themselves to institute. Facilitation and support from external sources, including government, may be required. However, the involvement of government in social change would carry its own risks, since despite rhetorical support for Indigenous self-determination, government is inherently incapable of moving beyond its own dominating rationale.

ISBN: 0 7315 2648 1

ISSN:1036 1774

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