The Queensland Government must step up and genuinely empower cultural leadership in the Aurukun community so entrenched passive welfare, which has fed chronic addiction-fuelled mental health problems across generations, can be eradicated.
Fiona Jose, Cape York Partnership (CYP) General Manager-Cape Operations called for a team government effort to create real welfare-to-work solutions for the community that has suffered 50 years of chronic unemployment.
The call follows months of community tension in Aurukun, and Cape York Partnership’s frustration that government has ignored its repeated alerts since 2013 to the fragmenting of the community.
“Everyone from the Premier down must recommit to the strategy that brings in jobs. The focus must be on attacking passive welfare and providing welfare-to-work solutions”, said Ms Jose.
“The only big project that offers this and the next generation of the community strong employment hope is the development of the bauxite deposits near Aurukun.
“The native title holders fear that the 40-year history of multi-nationals warehousing their rich bauxite deposit to deny competitors will continue, at the expense of the Aurukun people. Aurukun people must not be abandoned any longer – they must be supported to develop a mine for themselves and simply cannot wait any longer for jobs.”
Another problem is the local government structure, which Ms Jose said does not and has never worked in Aurukun as it smothers cultural authority and leadership structures. “It is the right time for the Queensland Government to address the need for leadership structures that benefit, not alienate, the community,” she said.
“Child neglect, homicides, suicides, violence and abuse were virtually unknown before 1985 when, against the objections of elders, Local Government minister Russ Hinze forced a grog canteen to open to raise revenue for the Shire.
“A return to cultural leadership that has the authority to govern is needed immediately. The town must be run by its cultural leaders, who have solutions.”
Ms Jose called on State Ministers to recognise the impact of grog on the community; disturbing reports suggest 30 per cent of the adult population is prescribed anti-psychotic medication due to the effects of grog.
“Results over the last twelve months from our ‘orbiting and disengaged youth’ program reveal the distressing extent of the social, emotional and mental health problems people in Aurukun are confronted with. It is off the scale,” she said.
“The drinking, the gambling and fighting become imprinted on the brains and bodies of our children. We know the mental health profile of the kids in the school, and we know how they are going to end up if we don’t tackle the impact early.
“These children are inheriting the mental health issues of their parents. Unless there is drastic change, they will suffer a lifetime of major problems, including serious conduct disorders.”
CYP has presented the Government with strong solutions and strategies aimed at breaking the cycle of the ‘disengaged youth’ problem in Aurukun. The response to date has been weak, or no response at all.
“While there is great tragedy and heartbreak in Aurukun, there is strong culture and natural leadership, especially amongst the women. They must be provided the opportunity and strong assistance to develop these traits, which will lead to solutions for their community,” Ms Jose said.
Leading Indigenous education specialist and Djarragun College Principal, Don Anderson, was Aurukun School Principal in the 1990s. He became Executive Principal overseeing Aurukun School with Education Queensland and continued to lead the school when it transitioned to Noel Pearson’s Cape York Academy model.
Mr Anderson said the children attending school were doing very well despite the conditions around them.
“The school is respected in the community as a ‘safe haven’ that protects kids from the troubles down the street,” he said.
“The parents are grateful for the teachers. They respect them; they know education is the key for a better life for their children, so they want teachers to feel safe, settled and secure for long term residency in Aurukun.
“In our six years running the school, the learning has been astonishing. Thirty years ago, attendance was a struggle. It is still a struggle, but there is learning happening now that has not been seen before”