In the two centuries following Australia’s colonisation, the First People were at the receiving end of shameful cruelty and brutality.

Many were herded into missions, often under the guise of it being ‘for their protection’.

In the 1970s, Australia embraced a ‘rights agenda’ coming off the successful 1967 Referendum. The national mood was for righting the wrongs and an acknowledgement of the past ill-treatment.

Despite the following thirty years of goodwill, broad political bi-partnership, rights driven policies and increases in funding, deep disadvantage remained the norm across Indigenous Australia. Indeed, in many ways the lot of First Australians deteriorated. Many Indigenous people started to look back at the ‘mission days’ with fondness.

On Cape York, despair ran deep as we approached the new century. From 1990, the old people of Cape York gathered at a series of summits, determined to stem the tide of misery and build a better future for their children and grand-children.

For them, the spiralling dysfunction in their communities stood as a cruel testament to the failure of the rights agenda.

They could now see that the good intentions had robbed them of the very thing they needed – the right to take responsibility. At the final summit, they presented the Premier of Queensland, Peter Bettie, with a Kaban – a formal communique. In it they stated:

‘Increasingly we have come to understand that welfarism, however well intentioned, has stripped us of our honour and dignity and taken our future from us. “


Noel Pearson developed The Cape York Agenda in 2005, six years after he wrote the ground-breaking reform paper “Our Rights, Our Responsibilities”

The Cape York Agenda was a radical blueprint for the transformation of Indigenous communities through acceptance of personal and community responsibility. Pearson drew on the philosophies of Nobel Laureate author Amartya Sen’s concepts of freedom of choice, and was inspired by his work with Elders and their aspirations for change.

The ultimate goal of The Cape York Agenda is to ensure that Cape York people have the capabilities to choose a life they have reason to value. We believe that if individuals and communities take responsibility for their lives, opportunities open up and self-reliance flourishes.


At the heart of the Agenda is the belief that passive welfare destroys incentive, self-reliance and self-respect. It robs the individual of the right to take responsibility for his or her own life. On the passive welfare pedestal of skewed incentives, there’s no reason to work, build capability or strive for a better future. Social norms in welfare-dependent communities disintegrate, discouraging work and education. Welfare becomes a permanent state.

Click to read and download the Cape York Agenda.