Indigenous leader claims he warned government about violence in remote community

, - May 16, 2016

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Cape York Indigenous leader Noel Pearson says he warned the Queensland Government two months ago about violence at the remote community of Aurukun.

Twenty-five teachers and staff have been evacuated from the community in the states far north after a group of youths attacked the school principal.

It’s been alleged one of the teenagers was wielding an axe.

I spoke to Noel Pearson in our Sydney studio a short time ago.

Noel Pearson you’ve obviously been concerned about the situation at Aurukun for some time, you’ve written to the Queensland Government in March. What do you want the Government to do?

NOEL PEARSON: Well the first thing is to assure the safety and security of the teachers who serve at (inaudible) state school. This team of teachers is highly dedicated, highly committed and they’re doing wonderful things with the children of Aurukun and it’s just unacceptable that their safety should in any way be compromised. That is why I took the decision to recommend to the Queensland Department of Education that they be removed from the community until the security situation is reviewed, and we can assure those dedicated teachers and their safety is guaranteed by those of us who benefit from them working there.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: It’s been reported that there are up to 100 kids not going to school, either not going to school or not working. That’s a lot of kids, why is that the case?

NOEL PEARSON: This is a legacy; you’ll find this in every remote community that there is a hidden generation of post-school leavers. These are kids who have not succeeded in secondary school, they’ve left primary school, they’re roaming the streets at night. In Aurukun there’s a very large population of them. It’s a legacy of failed schools in the past, schools that haven’t equipped children to succeed in the next stage of their education. But it’s also a legacy of the grog and drug chaos there.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: So that’s the thing, that’s driving it as well, drugs? Is it?

NOEL PEARSON: Oh absolutely. You know, Michael it’s important to understand that David Marr exposed the situation in Aurukun in 1990. And the grog chaos that had been unleashed when the former national party government imposed a canteen on that community in 1985, the late Russ Hens was responsible for this.

The grog started flowing in rivers and the young David Marr did this classic Four Corners program called “Six Pack Politics” and it told the story of the first five years of that canteen. And the young people that we’re dealing with today are really the second generation; they’re the children of the damaged children.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: There’s an alcohol ban in Aurukun now though, isn’t there?

NOEL PEARSON: Yes but the ban is not very rigorously enforced. There’s a lot of sly grog. There’s known grog dealers that seem to deal with impunity. There’s been mixed messages in relation to the alcohol restrictions because Premier Anna Bligh at the time was very strong on it and then we had the election of Campbell Newman’s government .And Newman came in saying that it should be the right of men to sit on the porch after work and have a cold beer.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: What about the police? There does seem to be some concern they’re not approaching this in the right way. Is that a concern you share?

NOEL PEARSON: Absolutely. I think the policing of Indigenous communities in Queensland is not successful. There are examples in Redfern, in other places of the country where police have worked hard with the communities to get policing right and I don’t think we’re getting it right in Indigenous communities in Queensland.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: One of the concerns is that, from some of the elders I understand it is, that local officers are standing by while people gather at fights and sort of encouraging this fight club atmosphere. Is that something that you’ve heard of and is that something you worry about?

NOEL PEARSON: Oh that’s what I’m hearing as well. You know this idea that maybe one way of settling disputes is to allow fair fights to happen. You know, there’s a very old idea this one. That somehow the police should sanction fair fights between these young people and so on. It is not the right message to send –

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Is it happening, is that what’s happening?

NOEL PEARSON: I’ve heard it from reliable sources that they have witnessed police doing that and there have been complaints from elders about this that I’ve seen in writing to the Police Minister. And so, I mean I don’t doubt that misguided attempts to try and diffuse fights by allowing fair fights and so on to happen has been going on and you know it is absolutely sending the wrong message.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: So do you think it’s safe for the teachers to go back to Aurukun yet?

NOEL PEARSON: I’m awaiting advice from the department about the review that’s been conducted into the accommodation. The accommodation for the teachers is just appalling. The school infrastructure is just dilapidated, it doesn’t honour the great work the teachers do and the students do. And you know, at a minimum we should be guaranteeing to these heroic teachers who go out into remote communities in very difficult circumstances, we should at least be making sure that their accommodation is up to standard and it’s safe.

And I cannot say, I mean I’ve been in their houses, I’ve been in their apartments and you know it’s a rotten, rotten accommodation they are provided. And there’s real desperate urgency in renewing the infrastructure for teacher accommodation and for the school in that community.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Are you confident that the Federal Government at the moment that now we’re in an election campaign that this issue is getting enough attention?

NOEL PEARSON: No, I don’t think so. Where the policies that are needed to empower Indigenous communities and to get out of the, you know, this is a long story this one. The violence that we’ve seen and the threats to the teachers that we’ve seen is not an isolated incident.

This has been going on for years. It’s been a community in crisis. The weight of mental health, the burden of mental health problems in Aurukun as in other communities is very large. We are talking about several hundred people in that category and because they’re the people who have endured the trauma that has gone on in that community since the grog taps opened up in 1985.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Just finally Noel Pearson you did have strong working relationship with Tony Abbott, how do you feel the two current leaders measure up on Indigenous affairs?

NOEL PEARSON: They’re way behind. I mean, Tony was at the forefront of advocating a real serious focus on Indigenous affairs. And I don’t think the Prime Minister and the Opposition leader are anywhere near the kind of attention and focus that he had.

I’ve had conversations with both of them, I think they’re well-meaning and so on but I don’t think that the necessary sharp focus is there in a situation where as I say, the communities like Aurukun really need a focused government of commitment.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Noel Pearson thanks very much for coming in.

NOEL PEARSON: Thank you Michael.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Cape York Indigenous leader Noel Pearson and AM has sought a response from the Queensland Police to those claims.