NOEL Pearson’s Cape York welfare reform trial has been a dealt a blow with the Queensland government refusing federal demands to extend state funding beyond the end of the year.
Queensland Indigenous Affairs Minister Glen Elmes told The Australian the Newman government could no longer justify its expenditure on the program.
The trial in four Cape York communities has cost the state and federal governments more than $100 million.
Mr Pearson, director of the Cape York Institute, yesterday accused Queensland Indigenous Affairs Minister Glen Elmes of being a “cowboy” following the state’s declaration on Tuesday that it could no longer justify its expenditure on the program.
ABORIGINAL leader Noel Pearson has called for a federal takeover of indigenous affairs if the Queensland government fails to fund his radical Cape York Welfare Reform trial, amid evidence the program has cut crime rates, improved infrastructure and services and helped school attendance levels.
An independent evaluation report into the trial, obtained by The Australian, says individuals and families are beginning to gain respite from daily living problems and people feel that life is “on the way up”.
It finds that, since the trial began in July 2008, the Cape York communities of Aurukun, Coen, Hopevale and Mossman Gorge in far north Queensland have experienced improved school attendance, care and protection of children, and community safety.
It says people in the four communities 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”.
After only three years of the trial, the report says there has been a “level of progress that has rarely been evident in previous reform programs in Queensland’s remote indigenous communities”.
The Cape York welfare trial, which has received about $100 million from the federal and Queensland governments, includes funding for economic development projects, but is centred on the Family Responsibility Commission. The FRC is able to withhold welfare payments from parents in circumstances such as failure to send their children to school.
“I see this as a real crossroads,” Mr Pearson said.
“Given the reversal (on alcohol bans in communities) that has taken place in the Northern Territory on the reform agenda and given the reversal that is now taking place in Queensland, it raises a real question about whether states and territories should at all be involved in indigenous policy.”
Mr Pearson said Queensland had now taken its regressive policy direction further by backing out of welfare reform that was transforming Aboriginal people’s lives.
“The crisis in indigenous communities that (federal Indigenous Affairs Minister) Jenny Macklin understands, but that the Queensland government doesn’t understand, has two nose-on-the-face features – alcohol and welfare dependency.
“And on those two issues we now have the Queensland government’s decision to reverse alcohol control and now to stop welfare reform. The position the Queensland government has adopted is one of really begging the question: If you’re not going to invest in indigenous affairs and indigenous reform, then why are you in indigenous affairs at all?
“There has been no focus by the Queensland government on indigenous reform. They have just allowed Glen Elmes to kind of make things up on the run. This cowboy has just basically come in to the scene and off-the-cuff decided that this program was going to stop. He does not himself have a credible alternative and he ignores the very explicit positive report that is contained in the evaluation.”
Mr Pearson accused Mr Elmes of making the decision without the advice of his department, which had been discussing future models of the trial.
Mr Elmes yesterday continued to defend the Newman government’s decision, saying it was “far too expensive an exercise for just four communities”.
“It has had mixed results and in places like Cherbourg and Mornington Island, they are getting kids to school in other ways that don’t cost as much.”
Between 2008 and 2011, the trial drew about $48m in commonwealth funding, with a further $40m coming from the Queensland government. The state’s contribution this year is $5.65m and Mr Elmes said on Tuesday it would not be renewed next year. The commonwealth is providing $11.8m this year and remains “committed to continuing funding for the trial”.
The evaluation report – commissioned by all parties to the trial, including the two governments – concludes that in Aurukun and Mossman Gorge, there were “statistically significant improvements” in school attendance, reflected in falls in students’ unexplained absences from school.
Coen and Hope Vale have historically had higher rates of school attendance. This did not change during the trial at Coen, while Hope Vale recorded a very small increase in unexplained absences in 2011. There has been a significant increase in school attendance in Aurukun, where it has risen from 46.1 per cent in the first term of 2008 to 70.9 per cent in the first term of 2012.
The trial communities’ attendance rate was 4 percentage points lower than the attendance rate in comparable indigenous communities in 2008, but by 2011, it was six percentage points higher.
By tracking individual students’ attendance across years, analysis reveals that Year 2 students in the trial communities went from three percentage points below the attendance rates of their peers in comparable indigenous communities in 2008 to nine percentage points higher in 2011. “The change in Aurukun is greater than in any other indigenous community in Queensland, and there are indications that it is related to the actions of the FRC,” the report says. “It is also clear that the improvements in Aurukun are not part of a general trend in indigenous communities in Queensland.”
The evaluation also found a large sustained fall in serious assaults resulting in injury in Aurukun in mid-2008, which reflects the impact of the closure of the Aurukun Tavern.
The report concludes the “improvements across the trial communities did reverse a trend of rising offence rates prior to the trial, which was not the case in comparison communities”.
Another positive indicator is that the hospitalisation rate for assault has been lower in the communities than it was before the trial, although “it is not possible to definitively link this to the trial as a similar trend is evident in other indigenous communities in Queensland”.
The FRC has been shown to have played a crucial role in increasing parental responsibility and restoring social norms in communities. But the evaluation also highlights challenges with assisting harder-to-reach groups in the communities, including young people who are no longer engaged in education.
The report shows that local indigenous authority is stronger as a result of the work of the FRC and this has been a key factor
in bringing about positive behavioural change.
As part of the evaluation, a Social Change Survey was undertaken among indigenous people in all trial communities. It found the FRC was respected and valued by the majority of community members and was seen as a driving force for change.
Importantly, two-thirds of respondents felt that people should go to the FRC if they did not take their children to school and that the community would be a better place to live if everyone followed up on their talks with the FRC.
When asked about changes in social and safety issues, 52 per cent of respondents felt that more people were trying to be better parents; 24 per cent felt more people were trying to give up grog, smoking or gambling; and 33 per cent felt there was less fighting between families.
Ms Macklin told The Australian the independent evaluation proved the trial was making a difference to Aboriginal lives.
“We know progress is being made and that there is still more to be done, particularly in the areas of increasing employment and home ownership opportunities,” she said.