Noel Pearson has criticised successive federal governments for failing to implement meaningful welfare reform, and the left for “inculcating a sense of victimhood” in those dependent on welfare.
Delivering the Keith Murdoch Oration in Melbourne on Thursday, Pearson accused both sides of politics in Australia of “vying for the promiscuous affections of swinging voters” rather than pursuing social change.
“I put these views forward from the unfortunate conclusion that there is little that is promising in what has been done and is being done under the banner of welfare reform in our country,” he said.
Instead, he said, successive changes had “probably worsened” the system by shifting to several non-government service providers, which he said “created and entrenched industries whose sole rationale is the existence of social problems”.
“These vampire industries have completely colonised Indigenous Australia and constitute the Australian welfare state’s main response to poverty and the problems that arose from welfare dependency … there’s no incentive for players to resolve the social problems that is their market,” he said.
His own solution to welfare reform – the empowered communities structure and direct instruction model of the Cape York Academy – has recently come under significant criticism for its school in the troubled community of Aurukun.
In July, Pearson described the sidelining of his direct instruction model at Aurukun as “absolutely bureaucratic and political bastardry that seeks to dispossess children like this from their future” and criticised Indigenous Australians for their “selective outrage”, which honed in on issues such as the abuse of Indigenous children at the Northern Territory’s Don Dale detention centre.
His lengthy address on Thursday traced the ideological origin of the radical centre, a political approach he has advocated since his 1999 Quarterly Essay “Radical Hope”.
It’s an approach that has led to Pearson being venerated by the right and criticised by the left, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, for a focus on personal responsibility over structural inequality and on recent social changes, such as the influx of illicit drugs, as a greater cause of current rates of disadvantage than the intergenerational trauma of colonisation and dispossession.
Addressing that criticism, Pearson said it was never his intention to undermine the impact of structural disadvantage, only to argue that increasing a sense of personal responsibility was a surer path to addressing that disadvantage.
“We can’t just sit back and hope structural reform will somehow happen and absolve us of the necessity of agency,” he said. “This is the passive leftist daydreaming of social justice.”
It’s a familiar drumbeat for the Indigenous leader, who called on Indigenous people in August to take responsibility for high rates of incarceration.
However, on Thursday, he said Australia’s appallingly high rates of Indigenous incarceration were proof structural discrimination did exist.
Indigenous Australians are 14.8 times more likely to be in jail than non-Indigenous Australians; for juvenile offenders the rate is higher still.
“If there is not a structural, indeed, constitutional basis for 3% of any society filling 27% of its jails then we would have to subscribe to a theory of innate criminality on the part of those peoples,” Pearson said.
“The most notorious figures concerning the plight of Indigenous people in this country make plain, this is not a problem of criminology or socio-economic development. This is a power of disempowerment, derived from that people’s status in the nation.”
On racism, he said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples “have experienced and continue to experience appalling racism in Australian society,” but that racism should not be allowed to “inculcate a sense of victimhood”.
“I mean not in any way to diminish its soul-crushing effects on individuals and communities. I only mean to say that we should never nurture a sense of victimhood – otherwise we let the racists win,” he said.