Noel Pearson: New Approaches to Indigenous Policy: The role of Rights and Responsibilities

Noel Pearson: New Approaches to Indigenous Policy: The role of Rights and Responsibilities


Let me first acknowledge the Aboriginal Australian people of the greater Cairns region – the Idinji, the Irukanji and the Djabugay. I’d also like to welcome once again Senator Chris Evans [and the Honourable Peter Garrett] to the Cape York Peninsula.

There has been a recent surge of political and media interest in Indigenous issues, with attention focussed on the social and economic dysfunction that mars many Indigenous communities.

Too often a sense of hopelessness or apathy means that initial public and political attention quickly wanes. If instead, it could be translated into considered debate and action, addressing not just the symptoms but the fundamental causes of dysfunction and disadvantage, such attention could provide the basis for a far more constructive approach to Indigenous policy.

We here today are discussing new approaches to Indigenous policy, and I believe that any such approach must have the freedom of Indigenous Australians as its end-goal. But the question remains – how best to achieve this? I believe that the only feasible way forward is to recognise the critical role of both rights and responsibilities.
Before discussing rights and responsibilities in more detail, though, I would like to acknowledge the ALP’s recognition of the effects of welfare, violence and grog on Indigenous communities. For too long such issues have been underplayed by those on the progressive side of politics and as Senator Evans recently noted, there is a need to honestly assess the political record on such matters and to engage with these problems at multiple levels.

He went on to say, ‘neither side of politics has a monopoly on compassion. We can, and we should, have a passionate and vigorous debate about the way we achieve change. But we will be better able to do so if we work from a position which acknowledges the common aspirations we share.’

Today, I would like to lay out what we believe these common aspirations are, and our view of the common principles that could underpin new approaches to Indigenous policy.

Cape York Reform Agenda

I have noted that the freedom of Indigenous Australians is our end-goal. But what is freedom? We think about freedom in the terms of Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, who points out that freedom is constrained by the range of choices available to people. That range of choices, in turn, depends on our capabilities; that is, the personal and social resources that we can bring to bear on improving our lives.

Capabilities are currently in poor condition in Cape York, due in large part to the consequences of dependence and passivity bred by welfare and centralised service delivery. Income support may be necessary temporarily, but it is fraught with danger. I have never seen income support contribute to intergenerational accumulation of capabilities. Rather, intergenerational dependency and exclusion has been the outcome.

We have argued that the only effective sustainable way to develop capabilities is through a comprehensive social and economic development agenda for the Cape. We believe this has three components:

  1. i)  restoring social order
  2. ii)  building of capabilities
  3. iii)  getting incentives right.

These three components form a metaphorical staircase. Let me expand on each step in turn:

First: a strong foundation of social and cultural norms
The foundation for the stairs of social uplift must be the re-establishment of the basic rules that society expects of its members.

Mainstream Australia has social order. This has a visible component, for example, law enforcement, neighbourhood watch groups etc. But it also has an invisible component – social norms that act upon and influence individual behaviour.

These ensure that in mainstream Australia, bad behaviour has consequences. In contrast, Cape York is operating at a social order deficit, largely due to a breakdown of social and cultural norms.

Second: a generous investment in capabilities supports

On the foundation of social and cultural norms, we need to build the capabilities of Cape York people so that they are in a position to exercise meaningful choices.

To combat the lack of capabilities in Indigenous communities, policy has traditionally targeted the most obvious source of incapability, namely the lack of income. Yet as Sen has pointed out, poverty needs to be understood as more than a lack of income. It is more fundamentally a lack of opportunity to exercise meaningful life choices.

Accordingly, an approach that relies primarily on redressing only lack of income will never be successful while other constraints on opportunities remain unchanged. Moreover, passivity – a negative capability – undermines other positive capabilities.

The solution to this issue is clearly not to cut support for capabilities, but to redesign support in a way that does not reinforce passivity. The Cape York Agenda will require more external expenditure on capabilities – not less – but we need to pilot innovative methods of service delivery in education and health that devolve real responsibility to the proper locus of responsibility: be it the individual, the family or the community.

Third: a reformed set of incentive steps

The third component is to make sure that effective incentives are in place. For this to happen, the capability investments need to be priced so that people choose to ascend the staircase. If these incentives are rational, people will make choices that build their lives.

The current structure of income support payments in Cape York has set up a poverty trap where perverse incentives actually encourage people towards welfare, and away from real employment. Welfare payments should instead be structured to support and encourage earning or learning. Where they do not, other obligations must be attached to payments so that they benefit the community.


Rights and responsibilities are integral to achieving all three components of the staircase: rebuilding social and cultural norms, building capabilities and developing incentives so that our people can exercise real choice. In the second half of this speech I would like to expand on the relationship between rights and responsibilities and how this is influenced by structures of power.

Rights, Responsibilities and Power

Rights and responsibilities are both important for the Cape York Agenda. There has been much attention paid to my emphasis on responsibility and less to my unstinting advocacy of Indigenous rights. In fact I have always advocated a balanced attention to both rights and responsibilities.

Let me emphasise again that there are a whole range of rights to which Indigenous people are entitled. The right to historical truth must be acknowledged. The right to retain a link with ancestral lands must be guaranteed by agreements and legislation, and by the enduring good will of the non-Indigenous majority. The right to maintain a modern, literate, prosperous version of our culture must be recognised and be a national priority.

Securing rights

I have always emphasised that we need to think about rights in a sophisticated way; less about their theoretical recognition and rhetorical declaration than theirrealisation and enjoyment in practice.

Some rights are amenable to enjoyment simply through the formal operation of law: such as the right to be free from discrimination by acts of governments. For example, the enactment of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, (Cth) by the Whitlam Government secured tangible and substantive protections for Indigenous people against discriminatory treatment by hostile governments.

But there is a vastly wider set of rights which cannot be secured through legislation. For example, the right to economic, social and cultural development of indigenous people cannot be realised by the recognition and declaration of standards alone. Simply saying that we have the right to the same opportunities as other Australians will not make it so. There’s a lot of hard work involved as well.

Similarly, the rights of our children can only be achieved in practice if they can sleep peacefully with a full stomach at night. This means that some people have to take responsibility for producing the conditions for them to enjoy their rights in reality rather than just in theory.

Rights mean nothing without responsibility. And these responsibilities do not just fall upon governments, though they must play a crucial role. The primary responsibility falls upon individuals, families and communities – without which the rights of the child cannot be realised. Responsibilities and rights therefore are inextricably bound together.

The right to take responsibility lies at the core of the Cape York reform agenda. But in addressing this, we must confront another important issue: that of power. Rights and responsibilities are secured through power.

If we’re serious about fundamental causes, then we have to be serious about structural obstacles to Indigenous responsibility: the inability of Indigenous people to make the institutions of governmental power work for the benefit of our people. Power relations between and within government and Indigenous communities are the core issues here.

Labor’s policies

Before I conclude my speech by outlining our ideas about how this lack of structural power might be remedied, I would like to comment on the Labor Party’s current Indigenous policies with special regard to the issues of rights, responsibilities and governmental power.

Chris Evans, Bob McMullan and Peter Garrett have made great efforts to renew Labor’s policies. Labor remains committed to the rights agenda and self- determination.

Labor recommends that all parties unite around a national project of establishing firm benchmarks for Indigenous socio-economic development. Bob McMullan has also called for the establishment of a credible Indigenous representative body to hold governments and their agencies accountable for their performance.

I discern a tendency in Labor’s thinking to interpret benchmarking to mean “keeping government agencies accountable for the outcomes of their service delivery”. I believe that this interpretation of benchmarking is too narrow. I think that this notion ignores the role that government has played in the Indigenous social disaster in the first place.

One of the biggest problems faced by Indigenous communities is that our lives are dominated by our dependency on and relationship with government. In the past five years, Cape York Peninsula people have entered into partnerships with corporate and philanthropic organisations. These partnerships have given us freedom to take action without being dependent on government authorisation and for government funding approval.

Government is at its best when it realises its limitations. Governments are ideally junior partners who should limit themselves to playing a supporting role.

I believe that politicians and bureaucrats need assistance from Indigenous, private and philanthropic partners with reform innovation. In Cape York Peninsula our regional organisations have been researching and developing social and economic policy innovations and we are now trialing several such innovations.

Our long-term goal is that successful reform innovations become mainstream programs administered by governments and Indigenous organisations.

I agree with the Labor Party about the need for benchmarking. But those who review governments’ performance in Indigenous affairs should encourage government agencies to confine themself to strategic support such as enabling legislation, and then allow others to take responsibility. The reviewers of government performance should not demand that government agencies attempt to solve the problems by means of increased bureaucratic service delivery.

Chris Evans said that “Indigenous Affairs in Australia…is so much on the periphery. It is regarded as politically unimportant – something to be managed”.

Of course there is no electoral imperative to resolve the crisis. The only incentive is moral obligation. But mainstream society has been impervious to this incentive for decades. I doubt that the added incentive of a representative body regularly pointing out that goals are not being met is a powerful enough incentive.

Levelling the Playing Field

My overall assessment of the policies presented by Chris Evans, Peter Garrett and Bob McMullan is positive. I’m thinking in particular about Labor’s continuing commitment to Indigenous rights and Evans’ and McMullan’s support for central aspects of Cape York’s analysis of the causes of dysfunction.

However, I do not think that Labor’s policies address the core issue which I identified earlier, namely the inability of Indigenous people to make the institutions of governmental power work for the benefit of our people.

There are three ways to think about how this lack of structural power might be remedied.

Firstly, one could increase representation and participation of indigenous people in the institutions of power. This is a typical response. But I would argue that although increased representation should be pursued, it alone cannot fix the structural power deficit. Sheer numbers mean that affirmative action undertaken by an inevitably small minority of political representatives will not fix the nub problem.

A second approach is to establish separate institutions of governance for the indigenous community. This is also a typical response, and the creation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission (ATSIC) and other national regional and local institutions have been supported by both federal and state governments. But again, while such institutions are important, they have not confronted and resolved the

nub question of the structural power asymmetry between government and Indigenous people. Accountability is still likely to run in only one direction, with governments establishing constraints and delegating ‘space’ to indigenous institutions for their affairs, with no sense of mutual accountability.

A third – and I would argue more appropriate – approach is to focus on the interfacebetween indigenous people and governments. Addressing structural obstacles means addressing the way indigenous institutions and communities relate to the real sources of power in Australia – that is, governments. There is a need for an institutional interface which “levels the playing field” between indigenous peoples and governments, so that there is mutual accountability between the two – indeed true “shared responsibility”.

Such an institution would need to be driven by a clear set of principles which are informed by the right of Indigenous people to take responsibility. It would have to engender both:

  • accountability – as a “body with teeth” that could hold departments and ministers legally accountable for the rebuilding of Indigenous responsibility and the honouring of Indigenous rights, and
  • incentives – as a body that could provide reward payments or impose sanctions to influence the behaviour of relevant institutions.An institution conceived along these lines would provide the leadership and policy focus, benchmarking and monitoring and deliver greater parity and mutual accountability between Indigenous people and government by binding governments not just by policy commitments, but by law.

    Thank you.


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