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  • Peter Francis Fenwick

Empowered Communities

Noel Pearson
Noel Pearson

Noel Pearson is admired as one of Australia’s great political leaders and thinkers. Last week, he released a 165-page document Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples recommending radical changes to government policies for Indigenous Australians.

Instead of policies being determined by bureaucrats in our capital cities and delivered by a largely non-indigenous support industry, the report calls for the decision making and its execution to be devolved to empowered communities.

The idea is that is the principle of subsidiarity should apply. As Craig Ingrey of the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council explained, “The goal is to help individuals be more responsible for their families and themselves”. Of course, all this resonated with me. It is the theme of my book, The Fragility of Freedom: Why Subsidiarity Matters.

Pearson’s report is timely. Social policies for Aborigines have not delivered positive outcomes. Despite millions of dollars being spent over the past fifty years, serious disadvantage persists. Attempts to “close the gap” have failed. In many communities, children are not getting an education; health is poor; life expectancy is low; there is a lot of drug abuse and violence; employment opportunities are few or non-existent; and there is an entrenched culture of welfare dependence. Although Aborigines represent only 3% of the population, they represent over 27% of the prison population and this is rising – up from 20% a decade ago. The current expenditure of over $43,000 per head is not delivering value for the government or for the Aborigines. If we are honest, we have to admit that the system is not working and may be fundamentally flawed.

As Hayek said in a more general context:

“We are ready to accept almost any explanation of the present crisis in our civilization except one: that the present state of the world may be the result of genuine error on our part and that the pursuit of some of our most cherished ideals has apparently produced results utterly different from those we expected.”

Over the years, a support industry has emerged. Pearson is critical of this. “Our service delivery system promotes and exacerbates passivity. It doesn’t actually do any good for the people the services are directed towards”. According to him, about 70 cents in the dollar goes to administration of programs by non-indigenous staff. One can expect much criticism of Pearson from this quarter as their livelihood is threatened by his proposals.

The Empowered Communities concept is about indigenous people taking greater responsibility, and developing their own plans for change. It is led by indigenous people, for indigenous people in eight regions across Australia: North East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory; Sydney and the Central Coast of NSW; the Murray Goulburn region in Victoria; the Cape York peninsula in Queensland; the East and West Kimberley regions of Western Australia; and the NPY lands in the Central Desert region.

The Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples report proposes that indigenous led responsibility is crucial to effective and sustainable reform and that cultural norms should be re-established to combat social dysfunction. These include that: children attend school every day, are on time, and are school ready; children and those who are vulnerable are cared for and safe; capable adults participate in training or work; people abide by conditions related to their tenancy in public housing – they maintain their homes, and pay their rent; people do not commit domestic violence, alcohol and drug offenses, or petty crimes.

All of this is very consistent with my own conclusions that services are better provided by small, local, caring, voluntary organisations than by large, remote, condescending, bureaucracies, and that society is improved if individuals take responsibility for themselves and their families and behave as good citizens within their communities.


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