NACCHO Aboriginal leadership: On Cape York leadership is a solution

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“There are signs that people are taking on greater personal responsibility and raising expectations, particularly in areas such as sending kids to school, caring for children and families and their needs, and accessing supported self-help measures to deal with problems.

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Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.

—Warren Bennis

From: Fiona Jose Chief Executive Officer
Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership

As a child I had a lot of questions. I wondered why in my home things were different to my cousin’s home and the broader community.  We all lived in the same social housing. We all had the same (limited) educational opportunities. We all knew too many who were gripped by grog and addiction. And we were all gutted by the tragedy of family members who passed too young, too often. Yet even as a child, I could see that my family was different to many others around me in some important ways.

Responsibility was always part of the picture in my home. I watched my father go to work every day, work hard and provide for our family. My mother escorted us to school every day. There were ‘no excuses’ when it came to going to school or doing homework.

I was thankful for my upbringing and I always considered myself to be privileged. It wasn’t until I attended high school that I realised my upbringing in terms of education, housing, income – had been at the lowest end compared to mainstream society. Seeing what was normal in the mainstream and contrasting the low expectations of so many Indigenous families, galvanised me to want to understand and change the situation.

My family encouraged me to have an opinion, a strong voice and to be part of the solution. These values have influenced me to be part of the next generation of Indigenous leaders. I took over the reins as CEO of Cape York Institute (CYI) in November 2012. Together with other Indigenous leaders across the Cape, I have my shoulder to the wheel to drive reforms that are transforming Indigenous lives.

Change is now occurring, and I am proud to be a part of it. The release of the independent evaluation of the Cape York Welfare Reform (CYWR) trial in March shows that at last we have an investment in Indigenous affairs that is achieving results.

After only five years, the independent evaluation shows that powerful changes are occurring in the places that matter the most — in individual hearts, in family homes, and in children’s lives. It concludes:

“There are signs that people are taking on greater personal responsibility and raising expectations, particularly in areas such as sending kids to school, caring for children and families and their needs, and accessing supported self-help measures to deal with problems.”

These changes may sound relatively mundane to those who have grown up with this kind of normality around them. But I know they are fundamental transformations; and so will anyone familiar with Aurukun, Hope Vale, Mossman Gorge or Coen before the trial.

Why has the CYWR trial succeeded where so many other efforts in the past have failed?

One of the keys to success has been that the CYWR trial has relied on Indigenous leadership as a central element.

The CYWR proposals were developed by CYI hand in hand with Indigenous people of Cape York over a number of years. The extent of community involvement in the initial design of the trial meant that the local leaders in each of the four communities were able to take ownership of the reform agenda at the outset. The Cape York Welfare Reform trial was not ‘yet another’ solution to Indigenous problems being imposed from the outside.

It is widely agreed that the Cape York Welfare Reform trial has succeeded in restoring Indigenous authority through the role of local commissioners of the Family Responsibilities Commission (FRC) and other local leaders. Standing up for change is not always easy. Local commissioners have had to have hard conversations with people, challenge them about their behaviours and encourage them to change. Especially at the outset these local leaders were often the focus of outright hostility, resentment and anger.

The independent evaluation shows the role of the local commissioners is now widely supported in the welfare reform communities. The authority of local commissioners is seen as legitimate and has been an important catalyst for change. Through the FRC’s conferencing, local commissioners have challenged people about their behaviour, and pointed them to supports to help them make changes for the better. Data presented in the report backs up these claims about the key role of the local commissioners. It also shows the successes of CYWR have been strongest when other local leaders, including the Mayors and councillors, have supported the need for change.

I am looking forward to the next chapter of the story, because Cape York Indigenous leaders have well and truly grasped the mantle of responsibility. As CYI’s CEO it is a great feeling to look around and see how many other strong Indigenous leaders stand shoulder to shoulder with me as we look with high expectations toward the future.

Learn more about the welfare reform trial or our leadership programs or find out how you can support us.