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Family Matters No. 54 - September 1999

Positive and negative welfare and Australia's indigenous communities

Noel Pearson


Focusing on the indigenous community of Cape York Peninsula, the author states that their economic and social situation is parlous, and the statistics so outrageous that they are routinely greeted with numb acceptance. The problems are so overwhelming that even the Aboriginal society comes to accept its own state of dysfunction. He describes policy failure and the entrenchment of welfare, and argues that the key problem with welfare is that it inherently does not demand reciprocity. The provision, without reciprocity, of income support to able bodied people of working age can be seen as 'negative' welfare, inducing passivity and dependence. The author argues that we need to develop policies and make the decisions about changing the way in which things are done in our communities, and the way in which economic resources are distributed throughout our society. Leaders in disadvantaged locations like Cape York must develop a conscious and long-term strategy for their home regions and communities, and work with the state in reforming welfare resources into sources of personal empowerment. They must understand the central importance of education and the encouragement of enterprise, achievement and success amongst their people.

The provision, without reciprocity, of income support to able bodied people of working age can be seen as 'negative' welfare, inducing passivity and dependence.

Community leaders must develop a conscious and long-term strategy for their home regions, and work with the state in reforming welfare resources. They must understand the central importance of education and the encouragement of enterprise, achievement and success amongst their people.

My first concern lies with the situation and prospects of the marginal and dispossessed in this country. Like my elders and colleagues in Cape York, I am worried for my mob. My mob's situation is not good and our future not bright. I am anxious about the rising inequality that threatens the future of my people, as I am about the growing numbers who are joining my people in the formation of an Australian underclass.

The people and the location I worry about is the indigenous community of Cape York Peninsula - the former missions and fringe communities north of Cairns. Our economic and social situation is parlous, and the statistics so outrageous that they are routinely greeted with numb acceptance.

Yet imagine if the average life expectancy of the town of Gatton was only 50 years and sliding. Imagine if the population of Cairns was in prison to the same proportion as the people of Hopevale or Arrakun or Lockhart River. Imagine if over 38 per cent of the 15 to 40 year olds in the town of Atherton had a sexually transmitted disease. Imagine if kidney or liver failures or heart disease were proportionally the same for Gympie as it is for Cape York. Would we be as numb and complacent about the statistics as we are when faced with the reality of the social disaster of aboriginal society on Cape York Peninsula? No. There would be nothing less than a state of emergency, with government initiatives that had prevailed and failed being fundamentally questioned and radically revisited.

That the social situation of Cape York has displayed these steadily worsening statistics for more than two decades makes even more horrific our failure to have developed any initiative that is even vaguely urgent that discloses some understanding that there is a social crisis. The problems are so overwhelming that even the aboriginal society comes to accept its own state of dysfunction.

The entrenchment of welfare

The creation of the welfare state is one of the great civilising achievements of our democracy. It gave expression to our social responsibility towards others in society - the aged, the vulnerable and those temporarily disengaged from work in the real economy. It gave expression to our democratic commitment that government belonged to all of us. It was the one thing in which we all had a shareholding. And it was legitimately charged with the responsibility of redistributing resources in society so that opportunity could be enjoyed by all.

This commitment was politically bipartisan and it produced the largely egalitarian society Australians so fondly recall - egalitarian, that is, putting aside the indigenes. The welfare state was developed in an industrial economy when work was abundant, and it goes without saying that structural unemployment has challenged one of the central assumptions of the welfare system that was devised in the old economy. Rather than being a temporary condition, where the state guaranteed income maintenance for people moving between jobs, unemployment became a permanent condition for increasing numbers of Australian breadwinners and their families. Today we routinely see third and fourth generations dependent upon income assistance through the social security system. These people are trapped in the welfare safety net. Welfare dependency for these people is not a temporary halfway house. It has become a permanent address.

Our people in Cape York first took our place in the welfare safety net around 1970. The coming of equal wages in the pastoral industry in the late 1960s particularly contributed to the removal of aboriginal people from the miserable bottom end of the real economy and into welfare. Families moved from the cattle stations where they received rations for work, or at the most unequal pay, to settlements and to the fringes of country towns where the primary source of income was the social security system.

In retrospect, the removal of aboriginal people from the pastoral industry was a monumental policy failure. The dilemma facing policy makers at the time the equal wages case was being debated was this: on the one hand, aboriginal stock workers were being discriminated against in relation to their wages and conditions and this could not continue; but on the other hand, it was clear to everyone that the institution of equal wages would result in the wholesale removal of aboriginal people from cattle station work to social security on the settlements. The latter path was chosen.

Of course, with hindsight this choice has had tragic consequences. First, the cultural impact of the removal of aboriginal families from their traditional lands in pastoral properties was obviously massive and today inestimable. Second, the removal of aboriginal workers from work on the stations to no work on the settlements also had momentous social results (the main subject of this paper). Third, we would not have had the difficulties in relation to the Wik case and the issue of coexistence of native title on pastoral leases had aboriginal groups remained on these properties.

Was there a third option available to the policy makers? My own regret is that the resources that were made available by the federal government, through the social security system when people were removed to the settlements, were not instead used to subsidise wages for continued work in the cattle industry. Rather than the government committing to the provision of resources through the social welfare system on the settlements, those same resources could have been applied to the improvement of aboriginal wages and living conditions on the stations. I believe the social results would have been much better.

'Real' economies versus the economy of welfare

There are lessons to be learned from this policy experience. Let us discuss the effect of the removal of aboriginal people from discrimination in the outside real economy to the internal economy of the settlements that increasingly constituted social security payments.

For those who take seriously our social responsibilities and who passionately understand and support the important achievement of the welfare state, the aboriginal experience of welfare in Cape York raises troubling issues. It has become patently obvious that the passivity and disempowerment of our welfare condition is, together with racism and the legacy of our colonial dispossession, the fundamental causes of dysfunction in our society.

The problem with the welfare economy is that it is not a real economy. It is a completely artificial means of living. Our traditional economy was and is a real economy. Central to the traditional economy was the imperative for able bodied people to work. If you did not hunt and gather, you starved. Life in a traditional economy was extremely hard and involved struggle and work. The bottom line - namely, nature - came bearing down on people, demanding work. This is the same with all kinds of subsistence economies.

The white fella market economy is also a real economy. Central to the market economy is the imperative for able bodied people to work. If you do not work you starve. The bottom line - namely, the market - comes bearing down on people, demanding work.

Common to the real economy of traditional society and the real economy of the market is the demand for economic and social reciprocity. This reciprocity is expressed through work, initiative, struggle, enterprise, contribution, effort. The key problem with welfare is that it inherently does not demand reciprocity. I call it a gammon economy. The fact is that the absence of reciprocity from welfare income support to able bodied people makes the resource counter-productive. It is counter-productive for individuals and it is corrosive of society.

The gammon economy of welfare has had tragic social consequences for people on Cape York. Steadily but surely over the past 30 years it has torn our society apart. It has made proud and decent people helpless. It has corrupted a truly wondrous social system, based on reciprocity and care, into social dysfunction. In its daily battles against our traditional values, our culture and our kinship relationships, it routinely overpowers love. It was and is our failure to distinguish between welfare and the real economy that has seen us pursue, advocate, design and deliver policies which have more usually exacerbated problems or placed bandaids over weeping sores because they were conceived within that paradigm.

Negative welfare versus positive resources

At this point we need to distinguish between positive and negative welfare. I am attacking negative welfare - the provision, without reciprocity, of income support to able bodied people of working age. It is this that is poisonous and socially corruptive. It is my view that to understand the social dysfunction of aboriginal society in Cape York is to understand that its primary cause is negative welfare. I believe that the provision of income support to able bodied working aged adults without reciprocity is the source of our social problems and the starting place for any solutions.

In identifying negative welfare programs as a source of social problems, we must immediately recognise that these programs represent extremely valuable and important resources. These resources have the potential to be extremely beneficial and will be critical to the process of social recovery that we are seeking. But in order for these resources to be beneficial rather than destructive, we must insert the principle of reciprocity into the resources. If we do this, we will leech out the destructive element in the welfare resource. We will transform negative welfare into positive welfare. By instituting reciprocity into the resource, we will transform programs that currently induce passivity and dependency into programs that enliven and empower people and which demand responsibility from individuals.

I will soon turn to the central question of how the state needs to work with the Cape York community to transform negative welfare into positive welfare. But first, let me share with you three observations about negative welfare.

First, negative welfare involves an economic relationship and an economic transaction between the state and the able bodied individual. The state gives resources to the individual much as a gift, as a matter of entitlement under the current rules of our welfare state. The economic transaction and relationship is gammon. It does not involve reciprocity.

Second, negative welfare is also a method of government. It is a method that proceeds from the nature of the economic relationship - that is, the method involves a powerful party (the state) having resources and power, delivering resources and services to powerless people. The relationship sets up a situation of activity, responsibility, power, decision making and initiative on the part of the superior party, and passivity, reliance and dependency on the part of the inferior party. The negative welfare method of government permeates our current system of government insofar as it deals with social policies. Whenever the state deals with individuals and communities, too often it does so on the premise that the state will be able to save and serve people on the ground. The state is reluctant to transfer responsibility to people on the ground. Because the state holds the resources, it is the powerful party, and whilst the state desires to solve social problems, its inherent methods are frequently the source of the problem.

Third, negative welfare is a mentality, a mind set. It is a mentality that accepts that welfare resources to able bodied people should not involve reciprocity. It should be provided as a matter of social right. It is a mentality that accepts that the capable, responsible and powerful state should serve programs to incapable, irresponsible and powerless people on the ground. This mentality is not only held by those dependent upon negative welfare but also it is held by the state.

I believe that recognition of these aspects of negative welfare is key to conceiving its reform. It is obvious that the process of transforming negative welfare into a positive resource involves a transformation in the role of the state from a disabler to an enabler.

Then there is the problem of what I call the hydra of government - the fact that the state does not provide holistic strategies to addressing social problems and needs. I believe that the traditional bureaucratic methods for overcoming the problems caused and the opportunities lost as a result of uncoordinated government departments and programs - namely, establishing interdepartmental committees and working groups, talking about intergovernmental and interagency approaches, developing bilateral and trilateral agreements, and so on - have not worked and will not work.

In my view it is these two problems with our current system of government that we must reform: we must ensure that government does not continue to deliver negative welfare and operate in the modes and mentalities of negative welfare; and we must ensure that government programs on the ground become holistic.

New government and community partnerships

We need a more fundamental change to the way we approach government input into the management of places. In Cape York we need to establish a new interface between the outside structures of government, the Queensland Government, the Commonwealth Government, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and the Cape York community.

It is at this interface that we need to meet our two basic policy challenges - turning negative welfare into positive, and making all inputs into the region holistic. The interface needs to become the meeting place between the state and the Cape York community and its leaders, and all government programs and inputs into Cape York need to be negotiated through this interface. The state would negotiate with aboriginal community representatives at this interface about the design of programs and the development of cooperative agreements on how the programs will be delivered on the ground.

It is at this interface that the 15 health programs and the 200 education programs and the dozen economic development programs that various agencies are presently administering in a disparate, conflicting, overlapping way, are brought together into a better coordinated and holistic effort.

The joining together of the resources of the various governmental silos can only happen at an appropriate locational management level. It can only happen through a partnership with the community, through its agencies and its representatives. As I conceive it, the interface would be legislatively charged with the responsibility and duty to make government inputs into Cape York holistic and, furthermore, to transform negative welfare into a positive resource.

When we talk about leeching out the poison from welfare and de welfarising our approach to the development of our communities, it means that we have to decide honestly and carefully where the negative welfare mentality is. This means that we, the aboriginal people of Cape York, have to think hard about the way in which resources are provided to our communities, and then within our communities, and work out: whether it is being provided for nothing in return from individuals and is therefore inherently damaging of them and our society; whether it is promoting independence or dependency; whether it is promoting responsibility or irresponsibility; and whether it is doing any good or bad and whether it can do better.

We then need to develop the policies and make the decisions about changing the way in which things are done in our communities, and the way in which economic resources are distributed throughout our society. Then we need to negotiate with the state how we can, in a new partnership, ensure that all of our welfare provision into Cape York is in the form of positive resources that enable our people rather than disabling them.

The challenge of reciprocity

As I have explained, there are valuable resources that are currently embedded in negative welfare programs. These programs can be transformed by instituting reciprocity. It is my view that reciprocity needs to be demanded and implemented at the community level, for it is the community that is best placed to define the reciprocity that its able bodied community members should be bound to.

Given the opportunity, the community can devise imaginative and enterprising ideas that give expression to the reciprocity principle. It is the community and its leaders who need to develop strategies for the development of their community. It is the community that needs to develop ideas that address the educational, health and recreational needs of their people, so that individuals are empowered and engaged in the solution of their own problems and that of their families and communities.

When we think about reciprocity at its most simple level, the community needs to ensure that if there is an income support program that has been provided for a specific purpose, say for the wellbeing of children, then it should be the children that benefit from these resources. Ensuring that welfare resources are used for the purposes for which they are provided is the least reciprocity that needs to be implemented. And there will be endless ideas if we approach the challenge of turning negative welfare into positive resource, if we approach it with imagination and a preparedness to innovate.

For example, we need to engage aboriginal parents in the education system. At the present time, it is as if the schools in the communities are colonial outposts of the state, and the same with the health clinics and the hospitals. There is very little relationship and engagement on the part of the community with these service structures. The education of children is left almost entirely to the state and the terrible outcomes speak for themselves. Parental and wider family involvement in the education system in the communities is an area that is ripe for new ideas and new approaches. Making the school a focal point for the community, through the involvement of community members and the development of adult education programs, would underscore the primary importance of education for the future of the community. It would boost children and attach value to education, both for children and their parents.

Similarly in relation to health services, it is now patently clear that the resolution of our health problems will not be achieved through a passive system of state delivery. What is required is an active engagement on the part of the community in overcoming our health problems.

What this all means is that the state must see itself as a partner, and junior one at that, rather than as the sole service provider, particularly when it comes to social policy. The objectives of the state, to resolve social problems, will not be achieved without effective community engagement. If it is to enable communities and individuals, it must understand that not all good policy ideas come from the state, but that good policy ideas and initiatives can be generated within the community.

Unleashing the creativity and initiative of the community involves some structural change. That is why the establishment of a governmental interface is important. The state must come to the interface with resources and the preparedness to devolve responsibility, to amend its programs, to overhaul its priorities, to make efficient decisions, and to be amenable the community taking the role of senior partner in devising and implementing strategies. The aboriginal community must come to the interface with the preparedness to take responsibility, to put negative welfare behind us, and to be involved in the solution of our own problems. The state's role will be one of ultimate but minimal regulation and the provider of the resources. It will continue to be involved in the delivery of services and its expertise and resources will be accessible to the people of Cape York, but its role will be negotiated with the community.

Of course, we must recognise that the problems with the methodology of negative welfare (capable people attempting to serve and to save passive and supposedly incapable people) is not just present in the relationship of the state structure to individuals, but it can be present in the relationship of community structures and individuals, and indeed within the family structure.

So the regional interface will need to devolve responsibility to the communities of the peninsula, and the community structures in turn will need to devolve responsibility to families and to individuals. Rather than entrenching hierarchical bureaucracies of governance, we need instead to encourage and facilitate freedom of initiative at the ground level - indeed, not only encourage freedom of initiative, but our system of governance should mandate this through the institution of a complete economic and social reciprocity.

Taking responsibility

I believe that in Cape York Peninsula we can overcome our problems. I have never before believed this. Knowing the scale of the problems on the ground and its steady deterioration, I too came to accept the statistics numbly. And make no mistake, our challenge is huge. How do we lift the life expectation of a society by at least 20 years?

We will not be able to meet the challenge unless the state is prepared to transform its relationship with our community from being disabling to enabling. This means our community will need to take responsibility. Premier Peter Beattie has committed the Queensland State to partnering us in a new relationship and in the development of a new method of governance for indigenous Cape York. The Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Senator John Herron, has similarly committed himself to partnering us in this quest to develop a new relationship with the state in right of the Commonwealth. The private sector will need to be the third party in this enterprise.

The critical ingredient will be the provision of resources by the state. When we say that negative welfare is destructive, we mean that it needs to be changed, not that the resources should be denied or diminished. In fact, the process of social and economic recovery will require significant increases in access to resources by indigenous communities.

By inserting real economy principles into the resources that flow into our community, we will not only arrest and eventually reverse the social disintegration that it is presently causing. We will develop the necessary initiative, capability, responsibility and esteem that will orient individuals to re-engage in the real economy. And this must be the objective of our strategies - to use the resources provided by the state to develop our people, through the promotion of education, through tackling grog, through positive engagement in our own health and of those around us, through the development of an economic base, so that we can eventually take our fair share of the country.

In the future in Cape York there is no reason why our people cannot live within and move successfully between two real economies and societies. We can maintain our traditional society and economy, and we can engage in the outside market economy and society. Our children can move with great facility between the two, provided that we ensure that the resources that the state provides us, and indeed the resources we generate ourselves and which we distribute within our own communities, is no longer in the form of negative welfare.

Leaders in disadvantaged locations like Cape York have to develop a conscious and long-term strategy for their home regions and communities. They must be involved in the front line of working with the state in reforming welfare resources that come to their people into sources of personal empowerment. They must understand the central importance of education and the encouragement of enterprise, achievement and success amongst our people. They must understand the fact that our social responsibility is not just individual, it is collective.

If the state is prepared to adopt an enabling approach to its role, and the community leaders of the Cape York are prepared to take responsibility, I believe that we can recover our society from our egregious social and economic predicament and eventually take our fair share and our fair place in the country.

Noel Pearson is currently an adviser to the Cape York Land Council, of which he was Executive Director from its inception until July 1996. He was subsequently elected as Chairman, a position from which he resigned at the end of 1997. Noel participated as a member of the indigenous negotiating team during the drafting of the Native Title Act in 1993 following the High Court's Mabo decision, and is recognised as a high profile advocate for Aboriginal people. He is a history and law graduate of the University of Sydney.

This article is an edited version of Noel Pearson's address to the Brisbane Institute on 26 July 1999 - one of the inaugural papers of the Brisbane Institute's series of seminars and conferences on the theme of The Enabling State. The full version is available on the Brisbane Institute's Web site: