PUBLISHED IN THE AUSTRALIAN MAY 26, 2012
When we discuss the merits of Noel Pearson’s work in Cape York, as Tony Koch, Chris Sarra and Marcia Langton have done in recent weeks, there is one thing we must not forget: the great innovations in indigenous policy that would not exist if it hadn’t been for Pearson’s leadership.
Do Pearson’s ideas work? Do they produce value for money? We should discuss the merits of the policies and programs, but we must remember Pearson has enormously widened the spectrum of ideas and tools at our disposal: that’s his lasting legacy.
Pearson has led the establishment of the Family Responsibilities Commission, which automatically steps in when welfare recipients breach certain conditions, such as sending their children to school. Many Cape York communities now have case management of families to increase school attendance; parents and extended families save money in Student Education Trusts for their children “from cradle to graduation”; and the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy effects systemic reform of remote primary schools, including the introduction of Direct Instruction, as I have described previously in this newspaper.
Together with other reforms, these programs constitute a plan to close the educational gap of remote indigenous students that is unprecedented in its breadth and depth. The Cape York system doesn’t give in until every child attends, becomes fully literate and numerate, and gets the education after primary school that allows them to fulfill their potential.
Another of Pearson’s ground-breaking ideas is the establishment of indigenous/corporate partnerships under an umbrella organisation called Jawun (which means “friend” in the Kuku Yalanji language of Cape York). The idea is simple: many large companies are reluctant to throw money at indigenous projects, but they will send skilled people.
In the past decade, Jawun has sent a thousand secondees from major corporations such as Westpac, KPMG and Boston Consulting Group for periods of one month to a year to assist indigenous organisations in remote and regional Australia. I was secondee number one.
For all of us secondees, it has been a life-changing experience. We have been able to bring corporate knowledge and analytical skills to remote indigenous Australia and help people and organisations build their capacity. The Jawun secondments are sought after by employees in the partner companies because they are important steps in our personal development and careers.
I have left the corporate world to represent the people of Aston in federal parliament. But my experience from Cape York during the early years of the Cape York Institute, where I was deputy director, is indispensable for me when I work to develop policy not only for indigenous people but for the wider community.
I am proud to have played a small role in the establishment of Teach for Australia, which recruits outstanding graduates and trains them to be teachers in schools where students’ needs are greatest. TFA mostly works with non-indigenous schools in the southern states, but it grew from secondees’ work with Pearson.
I believe Pearson’s secondee program is one of the most important paths to reconciliation. Instead of a closed bureaucracy reliant on government funding, we now have a thousand competent people in the private and public sectors who have had experience working with indigenous Australians.
We all have the desire that indigenous Australian children face a bright future. That desire is, for many people, accompanied by a feeling of powerlessness, but those who belong to the growing Jawun alumni have knowledge and connections so we can work towards this goal. This establishment of a massive contact zone between the very disadvantaged and the most powerful in the corporate sector, was Pearson’s brainchild.
I believe it is this insight into the magnitude of Pearson’s contributions that have compelled Peter Beattie, Marion Scrymgour, and Sarra, to publish nuanced assessments of Pearson’s work. Scrymgour and Beattie point to the common ground they have with Pearson in relation to substance abuse and education.
Sarra is more critical about Pearson’s influence, which he thinks has “stifled” worthy ideas and policies.
But it’s a fanciful suggestion that Pearson could control both sides of politics, media, and the private sector in all states and territories even if he wanted to, which I doubt. Sarra’s programs have received a lot of political and funding support, because of his dedication and advocacy.
Some people who are less successful in influencing policy than Sarra should perhaps ask themselves whether their ideas are realistic, rather than blaming the omnipresent Pearson.
When we discuss indigenous affairs we should remember that the landscape has been changed in the past 13 years by Pearson.
Before the 2001 election, Labor informed Pearson that the ALP was cautiously positive about the Cape York agenda, but the ALP didn’t dare use the words “welfare dependency” in its election platform. Today minister Jenny Macklin is calling welfare dependency by its name and working to remove it in the mainstream as well as indigenous Australia.
Where would we be without Pearson’s leadership?