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Queensland: indigenous leaders welcome Prime Minister's involvement in social issues in Cape York.

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7.30 Report


Wednesday 30 July 2003

Queensland: indigenous leaders welcome Prime Minister's involvement in social issues in Cape York


KERRY O'BRIEN: Five years after nominatin g Indigenous issues as a priority in his 1998 election victory speech, the PM is to make a rare visit to witness first-hand Aboriginal living conditions in the outback. 


Mr Howard will go to Cape York Peninsula next week, where Indigenous people have an alcohol-related death rate more than 20 times higher than the rest of Australia. 


The visit is at the invitation of the Cape York Land Council and follows lobbying from Cape York lawyer and land rights activist Noel Pearson, who, until the recent past, has been one of John Howard's strongest critics. 


It also follows a successful summit with Indigenous leaders in Canberra on the issue. 


This report from Peter McCutcheon. 


PETER McCUTCHEON: Cape York Indigenous communities have become trapped in a destructive cycle of alcohol-related violence and crime. 


The lives of the 7,000 Indigenous Australians living on the Cape are likely to be ravaged by poverty, tragedy and poor health. 


NOEL PEARSON, CAPE YORK PARTNERSHIPS: Social standards have collapsed, because you need social standards to stop people from entering into substance abuse behaviour. 


PETER McCUTCHEON: Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson made a name for himself fighting for land rights in the 1990s, but has spent the past few years focusing on local social issues, particularly alcoholism and violence. 


NOEL PEARSON: Our strategy in the Cape, in relation to substance abuse, is to rebuild intolerance of substance abuse, rebuild intolerance. 


PETER McCUTCHEON: At a breakfast function to open a Cape York art exhibition in Brisbane this week, Noel Pearson continued with the tough rhetoric against reliance on welfare handouts that has made him, in the eyes of some, a controversial figure. 


NOEL PEARSON: Why I'm so anxious about our current predicament is that I've seen this -- these communities that were materially poor slide into circumstances of social dysfunction and tragedy. 


PETER McCUTCHEON: Noel Pearson and Cape York Land Council executive director Richie Ah Mat have played a key role in recent weeks in organising the PM's first ever trip to the Cape. 


Despite obvious differences with John Howard over land rights and reconciliation, the Cape York leaders believe they CAN find common ground. 


RICHIE AH MAT, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CAPE YORK LAND COUNCIL: The divide -- the division between the left and the right, alright -- we're trying to rise above that. 


NOEL PEARSON: I think philosophically, um, philosophically, Howard understands substance abuse. 


You might, you know -- critics might say he doesn't understand anything else, but in relation to substance abuse, he knows that this is a behavioural issue. 


PETER McCUTCHEON (TO NOEL PEARSON): But all of this begs the question -- how difficult is it to tackle these practical issues such as addiction and violence without tackling the broader issues such as reconciliation and land rights? 


NOEL PEARSON: I think, you know, we've got to pursue all those agendas. 


We've never resiled on land rights. 


In fact, I work -- my other job is to continue to fight for the land rights and Native title of our people in the Cape. 


But it's the urgency of tackling the social situation that's at the front of the mind of the leadership in Cape York, because what avails if we got our land back and our people have fallen apart? 


PETER McCUTCHEON: John Howard last week signalled a renewed interest in Indigenous affairs by holding a summit on Aboriginal domestic violence. 


JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: If communities want to ban alcohol, good luck to them, if that is what they think will work in their communities. 


There has got to be a certain amount of boldness in trying things that work. 


PETER McCUTCHEON: The PM is to visit Aurukun on the western side of the peninsula, the first Cape York community to introduce tough alcohol controls since new Queensland laws were introduced 10 months ago in the wake of a Cape York justice study by Tony Fitzgerald. 


The banning of alcohol in all parts of the community, except the hotel, according to its proponents, has already had a positive effect. 


RICHIE AH MAT: Domestic violence is at the lowest level it's ever been for the last 20 years. 


The alcohol consumption in that community is at the lowest level that it's been for the last 20 years. 


People are living in a much more peaceful surrounding in Aurukun. 


PETER BEATTIE, QUEENSLAND PREMIER: What we're seeing is a reduction in violence. 


We're seeing less people being assaulted. 


We're seeing a general improvement in the health and well-being of the communities. 


PETER McCUTCHEON: However, the get tough on alcohol approach through tougher laws and taking hotel licences away from the control of community councils, has not been universally accepted. 


Some Indigenous leaders accuse the Beattie Government of being patronising, discriminatory and failing to consult communities. 


INDIGENOUS FEMALE LEADER: There's no commonsense to that report. 


And I'm very angry about it. 


INDIGENOUS MALE LEADER: It doesn't matter how paternalistic this Government get, how paternalistic the Premier gets, you will by no means solve our problem. 


PETER BEATTIE: This is a fiercely argued and debated point in the Cape. 


And there is not one mind here and you can go to the Cape and you'll find critics of mine and the Government just like that (clicks fingers) because there are people who don't want to go through the management of alcohol. 


NOEL PEARSON: Sometimes when it comes to restoring standards you can't get consensus around that. 


You actually need authority and you need leadership, and the elders and the women, I think, and the sober people on these justice groups are showing the requisite leadership. 


PETER McCUTCHEON: A Cape York leadership institute, to be built on the outskirts of Cairns, is expected to be announced by the PM next week. 


But these Cape York leaders say the visit is part of a longer-term strategy. 


NOEL PEARSON: There's an urgent agenda that we've set ourselves here in the Cape. 


It’s a difficult one because, um, welfare is all that we have in many cases, you know. 


So to climb out of that situation of passivity and dependency is a long-term challenge, but we've got to start somewhere. 


RICHIE AH MAT: And the PM, if he's willing to listen, well, at the end of the day, him being up in Cape York willing to listen to the elders and the young people can deliver something -- we don't know, but we're hopeful.