"There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one's native land." - Euripides 431 B.C.

A zealot's fight to lift people up

Weekend Australian- Saturday, August 25, 2012
Author: Caroline Overington

Noel Pearson is unapologetic about his model of reform, paternalistic or not

THERE are plenty of Aboriginal women and children in Cape York but it's no country for old men, and Noel Pearson is now 47. That would not be considered old anywhere else in the Western world, but Pearson is from lands north of Cairns, where men succumb in miserable numbers while still in their 40s to suicide, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Given that Pearson is a pragmatist, he sees no special reason why he should escape these maladies, so it was with stoicism that he greeted the news earlier this year that he had lymphoma.

``It was unexpected,'' he says during an interview over a glass of water, a packet of Panadol and a twisted sugar packet in the foyer of a Brisbane hotel. ``But the main thing was to get treatment.'' Lymphoma is a curable cancer of the blood and Pearson says he is grateful to be ``in remission, with the prognosis pretty good''. He moved to the Sunshine Coast for chemotherapy, with his wife, Tracey Kluck, and their three children: Charlie, now seven, five-year-old Mijili, and six-month-old baby Ivy (named for Pearson's mother).

He lost some hair and that which remains has faded to silver. Shy about something as personal as a disease of the blood that wreaked havoc upon his body, he would have preferred not to be giving an interview but, just as time waits for no man, the brutal politics of Aboriginal Australia cuts no slack for cancer. Pearson is an hour late to the table, but it's easy to see why: he's moving more slowly these days. He's wearing the uniform of the bushman come to Brisbane -- jeans, boots, and a well-cut blazer -- and, when he takes his seat, he coughs.

He begins by saying that he is aware of controversy over some of his indigenous welfare programs, but he never claimed to speak for all Aboriginal people. It's an uncontroversial thing to say, but it's the way that Pearson says it -- lyrically, melodically, in honeyed cadence -- that provides the first reminder that, even when getting up from his knees, Pearson is as compelling a speaker as any this nation has produced. ``In all communities, you've got the north pole and the south pole; the blue and the red; the yin and the yang; the black cockatoo and the white cockatoo,'' he says, ``and nobody purports to be the leader of them all. And in communities where there is tension, you need leaders to bring the two sides together.''

That Pearson would become a leader in the field of indigenous policy development has been apparent since he was a small boy, sleeping five to a bed with his brothers in the Cape town of Hope Vale. He was raised in a home with just one book -- the good one -- at a time when there was still dignity in poverty, and at that historical crossroads between the end of the mission protection for Aboriginal people and the start of what would become known as ``self-determination''. To illustrate that point, Pearson says he remembers ``the first home my father built -- timber and fibrolite, with wood we cut ourselves'' -- and he also remembers the year, 1971, ``when the first social housing came to Hope Vale and Aboriginal people discovered that it was no longer necessary to work''.

Pearson was sent to St Peter's Lutheran College boarding school in Brisbane from the age of 12, and from there studied history at the University of Sydney. His name appears in some of the old newspaper clippings from the 1980s, fighting battles for land rights.

Photographs from that time show a handsome young firebrand with sad eyes. He has them still. He would come home from university to find his home town awash with grog. Violence and truancy had become the norm. He went back to Sydney University for his law degree and started the Cape York Land Council from a flat in Sydney's Balmain. The first clues to Pearson's thinking on the damage that welfare dependency had done to his people can be found in essays written in the 1990s (and, more recently, in columns for this newspaper.) In 2000, he delivered the Ben Chifley Memorial Lecture in which he conceded that ``the nature and extent of our problems are horrendous'' before adding: ``Welfare dependency has taken a decisive toll.''

By 2007, Pearson had gathered his thoughts into a policy document called ``From Hand Out to Hand Up'' and, in 2008, he secured funding from both the federal and Queensland state government for a daring new program called the Cape York Welfare Reform Trial, which encourages Aboriginal families in four communities -- Coen, Mossman Gorge, Aurukun and Hope Vale -- to meet certain standards of behaviour. They have to stay out of trouble with the law and they must send their children to school or else they'll get rousted by elders and, if that doesn't work, they'll have their welfare cheques managed for them.

Also part of the trial is a new way of teaching: Direct Instruction, which is energetic rote learning until the age of 12, when children are encouraged to leave their communities and go to boarding school. In introducing the bill to parliament, then Queensland premier Anna Bligh said: ``This is a groundbreaking trial, unique in the world. It will be a significant departure from the policies that have been tried in the past.''

A complete review of the program's results is due in October, but Pearson says early signs are encouraging, and a report by the federal Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (or FaHCSIA, which is the main funding body) confirms it. It credits the trial with having ``an important, sustained impact on school attendance'' including a 24.7 per cent improvement in Aurukun, ``which is by far the fastest increase for the 17 indigenous communities for which the Queensland government keeps data''. By contrast, in nine of those schools, attendance fell; in Doomadgee it fell by 10 per cent over the same period. Similar findings persuaded the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments to extend funding by $16.1 million last year, and by $11.8m this year.

Enthusiasm on the part of the new Liberal National Party government in Queensland is somewhat more muted. That would seem to be a reflection of concerns raised by other Aboriginal leaders, including the former Queenslander of the Year (now chief executive of the Smarter Stronger Institute) Chris Sarra; and community leaders in Hope Vale, including Pearson's first cousin, Greg McLean, who is the town's mayor; the chief executive of the Hope Vale Aboriginal Shire Council, Lee Robertson; and traditional owners in the Cape, including the fiery Murrandoo Yanner.

Those concerns fall into four key areas. The first is money. According to a statement from FaHCSIA, organisations founded by Pearson, such as the Cape York Partnerships, have received $74m for the Cape York Welfare Reform Trial. That is a drop in the ocean compared with the $1.2 billion being spent on the Northern Territory intervention but it is a great deal of money, nonetheless.

Second, there's debate about how much credit Pearson's team should be allowed to take for gains made on the ground. Sarra says: ``In my view, some of the heavy lifting, particularly in regards to school attendance in Aurukun, was done by (former principal, now Queensland education bureaucrat) Ian Mackie and his wife (Liz, who is likewise a former principal of the school).''

Sarra is a former principal of another Aboriginal school, Cherbourg, near Gympie, where, he says, he got attendance up from 62 per cent to 94 per cent, ``and we didn't do that by threatening people. We built a school that kids wanted to come to . . . we had conversations with kids about being proud to be Aboriginal, about being smart enough to mix it with every other kid in Australia''.

Third are complaints over what might be called ideology. Yanner, who describes himself as a ``Cape bushman'' says: ``I'll tell you what I think of Pearson and his mob. Pick up a newspaper from the 1950s or the 1960s, and it's word for word, white people saying the same thing as he's saying now. He's a paternalist. The reason our people take drugs, bash each other, is dispossession and the racism inherent in white society. We don't need the Great White Man to come in and manage things for us.''

The fourth area of complaint concerns Pearson's manner. To be sure, he has a silver tongue but he also swears a lot, particularly at bureaucrats. The Australian's Tony Koch peeled the lid off that particular secret earlier this year, in an article in which he revealed that Pearson likes to call people ``f . . king, white racist c . . ts.''

Yanner says Pearson ``has always been a bully, because he's got sycophants around him . . . talk to any of them for 10 minutes and they worship him; none of them thinks for themselves. That's why he can't stand in the same room as me. He can't do all the bully and bluster because he knows I'll throw him out the window.''

The valley of dissent appears to be deepest in Pearson's home town, where Robertson says:

``The first few times I heard him (Noel) speak I lapped it up, but he's hated now. He's still got a house here but people don't agree with what he's doing.''

I ask Pearson if it's correct that he's not welcome in his home town. ``Of the four (communities undertaking the trial) it's Hope Vale that's proven the most difficult and, without doubt, it's because it's my community.''

As to whether that's because he's bullied people into seeing things his way, he says: ``I'm not going to excuse myself. My view is, if there's no conflict, no strife, if nobody's disruptive, where there's no movement at the station, we will never achieve any result.''

As to the allegation that he's a paternalist, Pearson says: ``I've wrestled with this, and I'm unapologetic. Every successful society depends on a degree of paternalism. What I'm trying to grapple with here is, how do we solve poverty? How do you activate that fire in the belly that's necessary to lift people from their circumstances?''

Pearson says his chief frustration is ``having the same argument over and again'' as to what works. ``The sense I'm getting from the LNP (Liberal National Party in Queensland) is, we're the new guys in town, and we've got the power. We don't subscribe to anything the other mob subscribed to. And because I'm old enough to have seen a dozen ministers for Aboriginal affairs, I've had the argument with all of them.''

He pauses to cough again, then says: ``The biggest item is convincing them we don't need a government-led solution. You'd think the Liberals would be more accepting of the limitations of what government can do, but no. They're as bad as Labor in terms of their belief in government. The fact is, it's jealous regard for yourself and your own children . . . that's what produces uplift. It's madness to think government can lift people up. They provide the resources but the business of climbing, it's an individual thing.''

Pearson will continue to fight for his model -- no rights without responsibilities; a hand-up, not a handout. ``It was my father told me, you've got to serve God and serve your fellow man,'' he says.

``He never said, you've got to look after yourself as well, although that's a mistake that I won't make with my own children. But while we still have women being airlifted to Cairns base hospital with broken jaws, who are we to say, I am not my brother's keeper?''