Peter Costello is ready to embrace radical welfare reform in indigenous
communities, including taking payments away from parents who squander
money intended for their children on gambling and alcohol.
Indigenous leader Noel Pearson raised the issue with the Treasurer
during a three-hour meeting yesterday, later pressing the need for
profound change to ensure that welfare recipients were obliged to be
"We need a much more effective way of re-allocating responsibility for
that income away from deadbeats to people who are actually taking the
responsibility," Mr Pearson said.
"In too many circumstances, it is the grandmothers who are taking that
responsibility, but they're paying for this out of their pension."
He said the support of the Treasury was crucial to achieving change
because the reforms required fundamental changes to rules on welfare
Mr Costello will discuss the ideas in detail today with leaders in two
remote Cape York communities, Coen and Aurukun.
He said last night that Mr Pearson's proposal was worth backing,
provided it had support. "If a community wants it, if a community supports
it, if a community believes that it is going to be helpful, you've got to
be open-minded to it," he told The Age. "It sounds pretty tough, doesn't
it? But we've got to learn from our mistakes here and one of the mistakes
of the past has been that welfare can be misused and you've got to think
up ways of stopping that being misused."
Mr Costello said Mr Pearson was a "very original thinker and an
original voice" who had been leading the debate on indigenous policy in
the past two years.
Mr Pearson stressed that the proposal was not to reduce the assistance
flowing to poor communities.
"It's not about losing the money. It gets re-allocated to a responsible
adult. So if the parent or guardian is receiving money on behalf of kids
and they're blowing it, not feeding the kids, not providing clothes for
the kids, they're drinking it or gambling it, then the proposal is we want
an intervention there," he said.
"We want to take the money off that guardian and place it with a
grandmother or another responsible member of the family to have charge
"What it is about is we're not going to tolerate a continuation of a
situation where parents receive money on behalf of kids and use it at the
pokies or use it down at the tavern."
Mr Pearson will also show Mr Costello how partnerships with companies
and philanthropic organisations can boost capacity and economic
independence in remote communities.
He said companies including Westpac, the Boston Consulting Group and
the Body Shop had provided Cape York communities with top-line people who
had helped on a wide range of fronts. He believed the model could be
transplanted across the country with other clusters of companies.
Mr Costello responded to the meeting by saying he was "very focused" on
the challenge of narrowing the 20-year gap between the life expectancy of
indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. "I'm here because I want to
learn more and I'll freely say to you, I'm not an expert, but I want to
engage. This is an issue that is on my mind and I think it's on the minds
of a lot of Australians, frankly."
He said he did not believe there had been a shortage of money devoted
to indigenous programs over the past decade.
"I think what the problem is, is that probably we've been devoting
money to many things that don't work rather than devoting money to the
things that do work."