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  • Peter Francis Fenwick

Closing the Gap after the Referendum

Tony Abbott & Noel Pearson, Cape York, 2013

Noel Pearson is admired as one of Australia’s great political leaders and thinkers. In 2015, he produced a 178-page report Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples recommending radical changes to government policies for Indigenous Australians.

Tony Abbott & Noel Pearson, Cape York, 2013

Instead of policies being determined by bureaucrats in our capital cities and delivered by a largely non-indigenous support industry, the report called for the decision making and its execution to be devolved to empowered communities. As Craig Ingrey of the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council explained at the time, “The goal is to help individuals be more responsible for their families and themselves.”

Being an advocate for subsidiarity, Noel Pearson’s work appealed to me. See my blog Empowered Communities (30 March 2015).

Noel Pearson is still around, and retains some influence, but he has been sidelined in the current debates by younger activists.

His ideas have morphed into the Uluru Statement from the Heart. His message has been diminished and distorted; responsibility has been replaced by grievance and entitlement.

Speaking at The Australian’s first Great Voice Debate on 5th September, he returned to his theme about Aboriginal people taking responsibility for their own lives. “Unless we take responsibility”, he said, “there’ll be no turnaround in closing the gap”.

In an essay in The Australian, (7 Sep.), Tony Abbott reviewed Pearson’s speech and explained what has changed in eight years and where the voice has gone astray.

The voice would have “power without responsibility, the power to make endless demands without ever having to take responsibility for anything. Indeed, every failure and disappointment would be someone else’s fault; in the first instance the government’s for failing to spend enough to meet the voice’s demands, but ultimately the Australian people’s for the original sin of British settlement.”

Abbott shares Jacinta Nampijinpa Price’s concern that the voice would entrench welfare dependency.

“In times past, Pearson’s public advocacy has been of great service to our country. In denouncing welfare dependency as the ‘poison that’s killing our people’, he was telling a profound truth transcending race.”

Abbott wants to balance the ledger. He asks that the benefits of Western civilization be recognised too.

“It’s no disrespect to the First Australians, or their achievements in surviving so long in what was then a very challenging environment, to say that they too have been beneficiaries of British settlement. ‘The world’s oldest continuing culture’ now has the advantages of equality before the law, respect for women and other minorities, and previously unimaginable technical advance.”

Today, Australians are safer, wealthier and live longer than ever before. In the last hundred years, homicide rates have fallen from 2.6 to 1.0 per 100,000 per annum, GDP per capita has risen from $21 to $136 per day, and life expectancy has risen from 61.0 to 83.4 years. Meanwhile the population has increased from 5.4 to 26 million. Most Aboriginal Australians have benefitted from this. However there is a significant proportion of indigenous citizens whose lifestyles have never improved to this level.

If, as seems likely, Australians reject the voice referendum, then the problem of indigenous disadvantage still needs to be addressed.

As Anthony Albanese said, “Every Australian wants to know that an Aboriginal or Torres Strait islander baby born today will enjoy an equal right to grow up healthy and safe, to get a great education, find a good job, to live a long and happy life.”

Decades of welfare spending and the delivery of services by a rent-seeking aboriginal industry have not worked; in fact they have made the problem worse.

It will be opportune to recognise that it is not possible for citizens to share the benefits of a 21st century society without participating in it.

Most Australians with Aboriginal ancestry are already doing so. That includes leaders active in the voice campaign such as Marcia Langton, Megan Davis, Thomas Mayo, Linda Burney, Lidia Thorpe, Stan Grant, Warren Mundine and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price.

On one major point Abbott and Pearson agree: it is no good giving power without responsibility; that is no way to close the gap.

The solution will be to eschew welfare dependency and devise ways in which to empower disadvantaged indigenous citizens to make the transition and to be responsible for their families and themselves. Just as Noel Pearson envisaged eight years ago.


This essay was published in edition No. 3151 of News Weekly, October 14, 2023


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