Telling whites what they want to hear

... By and large, you won't get much argument from Aboriginal leaders about the central themes of Noel Pearson's thesis. But where Pearson and most of the rest of the Aboriginal leadership part company is on how black Australia got there, who is responsible and, most importantly, how we fix it.

Chris Graham ABC The Drum 5th September 2010

Noel Pearson
Noel Pearson

For a student of history, Noel Pearson seems to devote an awful lot of time to forgetting the past.

In a landmark speech in 2000, in which Pearson signalled his transition from land rights activist to conservative power broker, he unloaded on the evils of passive welfare, blaming hard-won human rights for ruining black lives:

"The irony of our newly won citizenship in 1967 was that after we became citizens with equal rights and the theoretical right to equal pay, we lost the meagre foothold that we had in the real economy and we became almost comprehensively dependent upon passive welfare for our livelihood. So in one sense we gained citizenship and in another sense we lost it at the same time. Because we find thirty years later that life in the safety net for three decades and two generations has produced a social disaster."

The speech was somewhat unimaginatively entitled 'The Light on the Hill' and was delivered as the Ben Chifley Memorial Lecture, a homage to one of Australia's great social reformers.

He delivered a characteristically verbose final line:

"Those of us who wish for social progress must realise that there are important insights in the materialist interpretation of our history and our culture, which the labour movement unfortunately left behind in favour of the confusions that have preoccupied and diverted those academics, bureaucrats and parliamentarians who became the intellectual trustees of the Welfare State and the interests of working people and their families - a responsibility which they grievously failed to fulfil."

Translation: governments stuffed up by giving the blacks too much welfare money with no strings attached.

At the time, it was a new theory for Pearson. Now, of course, it's well worn - the thinking that he's most famous for.

Broadly, Noel Pearson believes that the provision of a fortnightly pay packet with no expectation of anything in return is killing Aboriginal people. The free ride inevitably leads Aboriginal people, including mothers and fathers, to drugs and alcohol. Social norms in Aboriginal communities are subverted. Aboriginal people are locked out of the 'real economy' and into a cycle of dysfunction, abuse and early death. Grog and ganja become the problem, rather than just the symptoms of the bigger problems of dispossession and unemployment.

By and large, you won't get much argument from Aboriginal leaders about the central themes of this thesis. But where Pearson and most of the rest of the Aboriginal leadership part company is on how black Australia got there, who is responsible and, most importantly, how we fix it.

Pearson doesn't - as he says himself - like the solutions put forward by 'progressives'. What he does like are precisely the same policies governments were advancing in the early 1900s: government control and intervention in black lives - the same policies his childhood Lutheran masters pursued.

And he's using the same justification to push for it - the need to save the children.

The most consistent criticism you will hear of Pearson from Aboriginal people, however, is that he speaks for other people's country. He has an unfortunate habit of endorsing one-size-fits-all solutions for Aboriginal people in other parts of the nation if the political winds suit, although he doesn't necessarily believe that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

When the federal Opposition floated the idea in 2008 of extending the Northern Territory intervention - a policy that Pearson backed - into Queensland, Pearson was apoplectic. He told media that it would ruin the reforms already underway in Cape York. Those reforms, interestingly, were far less punitive than the ones Pearson was backing under the intervention.

In July 2007, a month after Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough sent in the army to remote Northern Territory communities, ABC's Four Corners reported on a program that Brough was planning to unveil in Hopevale with Pearson. The trial, which involved committing to sending your children to school, was voluntary, with people rewarded for good behaviour by access to new housing.

By contrast, Aboriginal people living under the Northern Territory intervention had their land summarily seized, regardless of their behaviour.

Pearson was the first and most important black leader to lend his name to the Northern Territory intervention. It will haunt him for many years to come, because any time a government proposes to spend a billion dollars - and that's what the intervention has cost so far - the public expects results.

Yet the Northern Territory intervention - modelled, say Pearson and Brough, on the Cape York reforms - has been an unmitigated disaster. A progress report released late last year by the Rudd government revealed that school attendance had actually dropped since the intervention was launched. But violence had increased, as had suicides. A $670 million housing program that had expended almost $150 million had provided no new housing. And there was no evidence of widespread sexual abuse of Aboriginal children, the very reason for the intervention in the first place.

Unfortunately, things aren't much better in Cape York. Last year, the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University released a groundbreaking study entitled 'Ranking regions: Revisiting an index of relative Indigenous socioeconomic outcomes'. Author Dr Nicholas Biddle ranked Aboriginal populations around the nation according to their relative disadvantage, based on employment, housing and educational data from the 2001 and 2006 censuses.

Biddle was able to paint a picture of how communities fared over the ensuing five years. Under Pearson's leadership, the community of Hopevale went backwards, from a ranking of 378 in 2001, to 426 in 2006. That's despite millions of dollars in additional funding pouring into Cape York, thanks in no small part to the powerful advocacy of Pearson.

Whatever you think of Pearson's politics, it almost certainly doesn't match what Pearson thinks of Pearson's politics.

Since his transformation in 2000, Pearson has been asserting that he's not a conservative. Again, from his 'The Light on the Hill' speech: "Much of my thinking will seem to many to indicate that I have merely become conservative. But I propose the reform of welfare, not its abolition." And he was still running the line seven years later. Writing in The Australian in July 2007, Pearson says: 'My aim has been, as Dennis Glover wrote in The Australian yesterday, to "set higher standards for the Left" by critically examining the outcomes of ostensibly leftist policies.'

Pearson seems to be suggesting that he is above politics, that he transcends it. He seems to be saying, 'I'm not right-wing. I just happen to support the Northern Territory intervention. And I agree with compulsory income management. And I want to mine Cape York.'

It's obviously pretty silly stuff, but Pearson gets away with it because his politics and his process suits the missionary zeal of governments and media. Most of all, Pearson tells white Australia what they want to hear: we don't want to know that Aboriginal people are living short lives of misery and abject poverty, and that we're responsible for it. We want to hear that we're doing our best to save the unsaveables, and that the demise of Aboriginal people is really their own fault.

It plays out well on 'Struggle Street', and Pearson's political stocks soar. But, of course, he doesn't get away with it in the parts of our nation that are really struggling - Aboriginal communities.

And therein lies his biggest problem.

While I don't doubt for one second Pearson's love of his people or his genuine desire to save them from oblivion, I have major reservations about his ability. The problem for Pearson is surprisingly simple: he couldn't lead his way out of a wet paper bag.

Pearson has spent more than a decade trying to achieve the same thing by bludgeoning and lecturing, bullying and bulldozing. Too much stick, not enough carrot, one might say. His public pronouncements that lay the blame at the feet of Aboriginal people, his lauding of a prime minister who used race as a wedge, his support for atrocious human rights abuses like the Northern Territory intervention have all combined to leave Pearson out in the dark in Indigenous affairs.

He is, by quite some margin, the most loathed man in black affairs. It's a fact Pearson himself acknowledged in a recent interview, describing the perception of him among black Australians as 'the antichrist'.

I think he's being generous.

Born black but raised Lutheran, Pearson will never lead Cape York out of the darkness of welfare dependency until he learns to accept personal responsibility for his own 'grievous failing': a complete lack of authenticity in the eyes of his people.

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This is an edited extract of an essay first published in Overland. You can read the full article here.

Chris Graham is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, and the media and marketing director at the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.