First published in The Australian, 5 December 2018
When the Labor Party does good work, sensible Liberals give credit where it’s due.
Back in 2008, working closely with Cape York leader Noel Pearson, the then minister for indigenous affairs, Jenny Macklin, and then Queensland premier Anna Bligh set up the Family Responsibilities Commission.
Thereafter, there was always bipartisan support for the work local Aboriginal elders did as part of the FRC to tackle family dysfunction, to stop sly-grogging and to encourage children to go to school.
Until now. Only it’s not the Coalition government in Canberra that’s pulling the rug out from under the FRC; it’s the Labor government in Queensland, which apparently thinks that restricting some of people’s welfare payments to the necessities of life is a “punishment agenda” rather than an attempt by local elders to bring decent values to their communities.
The FRC wasn’t dreamed up by some white official wanting to keep Aboriginal people down. It was originally worked out by Pearson and other senior indigenous leaders who wanted to lift Aboriginal people up and out of the stew of misused welfare money. They could see how money meant for food, clothes, housing and transport was being spent on grog and gambling — to everyone’s long-term detriment — so they worked out a fair and reasonable way of stopping it.
First, no one would lose any of their welfare money. People who were misusing it would be placed on the original version of the Basics Card, which meant that most of it could only be spent on the essentials at the local store, or was automatically deducted by Centrelink to pay bills.
Second, decisions about putting people on the Basics Card would not be made by outsiders. At each community, the FRC would comprise respected local elders who knew the circumstances of individuals and families and would impose welfare quarantining only as a last resort, after people had repeatedly failed to do the right thing by their family or community.
A retired Queensland magistrate, David Glasgow, was part of the commission, but only to facilitate discussion and ensure that everyone got a fair hearing.
Third, the FRC operated only in communities where the local leadership had requested it. It was never imposed by outsiders; it had been requested by most residents in the five communities where it has operated: Aurukun, Hope Vale, Coen and Mossman Gorge for 10 years; and Doomadgee for the past five.
In 2008, when the FRC was just beginning, I spent three weeks in Coen as a teacher’s aide. In 2009, I spent 10 days in Aurukun as a truancy assistant. In 2011, I spent four days in Hope Vale on an owner-builder project. In 2012, I spent another five days in Aurukun helping to renovate the school library.
Earlier, between 2001 and 2003, I had made several extensive trips around these areas when I was the federal minister with whole-of-government responsibility for Cape York.
So I am more familiar than most with these places and have a good sense of their progress and regress. Hence my concern, a fortnight back, on a visit to Aurukun as part of my envoy role, to hear community leaders’ outrage at what was then just the rumour of the Queensland government’s plan to abolish the FRC.
They were worried that without the authority that the FRC confers, no one could be placed on the Basics Card and the river of grog would return, with all the violence and dysfunction it brings.
Abolishing the FRC (set up under Queensland, rather than federal, law) isn’t just the removal of a program; it’s the removal of an ethos of responsibility.
The whole point of the FRC was to empower locals to make key decisions affecting their communities. That’s why it’s so much more significant than a decision merely to stop paying the $2 million a year that’s Queensland’s half-share of the FRC’s funding (with the federal government paying the rest). It’s ending the one significant indigenous-led attempt anywhere in Australia to get on top of the welfare culture that Pearson has often described as the “poison” killing his people.
As Pearson has said, the FRC process could be improved. There could be better mental health services and better drug and alcohol services to help the people who are misusing their taxpayer-funded support payments; and there could be better co-ordination between state and federal government agencies, and between government and non-government agencies all trying to achieve much the same thing among much the same people.
But the Queensland government is not proposing to improve the FRC or replace it, but to abolish it, without anything other than vague talk of something, perhaps, down the track. Certainly, the elders of Aurukun felt that they had been completely abandoned.
Last week, Deputy Premier Jackie Trad was blaming the FRC’s demise on lack of federal funding, even though the federal Indigenous Affairs Minister had written to her promising that the money was there for the next three years.
It’s hard not to see this as an ideological putsch by the most left-wing government Queensland has had. In the absence of an alternative to the FRC, only one conclusion is possible: it seems to me that Trad would rather see communities suffer than compromise her belief in welfare as an unconditional right. It seems as far as she’s concerned, money from taxpayers can be spent on booze, drugs and gambling, the children can go hungry and the rent can be unpaid at the expense of people’s path to self-destruction — despite their own elders telling them there is a better way.