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The hill we have to climb: Speech to launch The Enabling State, edited by Mark Latham and Peter Botsman, at Berkelouw Bookshop, Leichhardt, 16 May 2001

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The hill we have to climb 


Noel Pearson, Speech to Launch The Enabling State, edited by Mark Latham and Peter Botsman, published by Pluto Press, at Berkelouw Bookshop, Leichhardt, 16 May 2001.


Thanks a lot to Maxine and to Pluto Press and to Mark and Pete r for the privilege of launching the Enabling State here this evening. 


I am more nervous than usual because I am in front of a dauntingly progressive crowd. (Laughter) And I have been running something of a campaign to get on the Liberal Party ticket some think. So I am bit nervous here with people from the left. 


The debate about indigenous policy is coming to this conclusion or state of affairs where the choice apparently is between assimilation or social justice and I would assume that most of us here tonight would harbour a notion that we are on the social justice side. 


I have been struggling with social justice because its difficult to put some substantive meaning and some substantive reality to it for people who live in difficult regions like my own in Cape York Peninsula. I've been struggling with it because social justice and a fair place for the indigenous people of Cape York in Australian society will require more than what laws and political achievements can deliver. 


Social justice will require substantial economic improvement in the position of our people. My experience and my observation is that things just don't happen as a matter of legal and political right. We could have the best laws. We could pursue the most vigorous political programs to support a fair place and a fair entitlement for people but this does not seem to deliver economic participation for people.  


So I have been urging, at least with my mob, the importance of taking responsibility, taking responsibility for the struggle for our rights and that's a right that we've not sought in the past. But there is an additional right and that is the right to a fair place in the economy and this is what government and laws don't seem to be able to deliver. 


A fair place in the economy seems to be something that you have to take.  


It's a hill we have to climb.  


You know after many years of civil rights guarantees in the United States for blacks the great majority of them still languish in the ghettos and that surely is the same story we have here in Australia. If you're focused on the fight for constitutional and political guarantees of our place in society we're going to be left down the track still not participating substantively in the social and economic rights of the country.  


I think that the debate that's gone on and the cultural rules that are persisting in relation to indigenous policy needs to recognise the simple point that our people will choose modernization quite legitimately. We're having a discussion about the dilemmas and choices we have because we live in the most difficult regions. Even if we weren't indigenous people with the disadvantages we face, we live in a very difficult region where economic opportunities are so few and far between, we have incredibly unskilled and uneducated people, we have incredibly poor standards of health so our challenge is to participate in Australian society in a fair way is a huge challenge and our moves to take that challenge are so limited. 


I think we're going to choose and make our own choices about modernising our culture and our society and we've got to make those choices in Cape York in ways that retain our identity and our traditions and those things we hold dear to us our kin and our country.  But I see these as not insuperable contradictions. I see this as challenges - real challenges that are going to cause some difficult moments for us. But nevertheless we make those decisions about engaging in the wider Australian community and taking our place in the economy by our own choice. And we won't return to the old policy of assimilation. 


Our vision of what's possible for remote Aboriginal people who wish to retain their culture and traditions. Our vision is based on some ideas we are discussing in Cape York about what the future might be for people living in such difficult but privileged circumstances as well in some ways. We've got to engage in new orbits, career orbits and education orbits, opportunity orbits and experience orbits. They're already saying that, a clutch of Cape York people enjoy huge privileges because of their mobility based upon education. Economic opportunities, we must face the facts, do not lie in our region. 


But we're going to have to learn to engage with Cairns, and with Sydney, and with London and with Perth and with New York. And we'll be engaged with all of the necessary facility and flair and creativity that our young people will make in the future, given the opportunity to do so. So we're not going to vote with our feet, to abandon our ways and supposedly outback ghettos. These outback ghettos are our homes that people desperately don't want to sever their ties with.  


I'm going back to Cape York and I'm saying the possibilities for our young Cape York people are endless. My father died with ten bucks in his pocket in our little fibro house but thanks to Gough Whitlam's education system all of the privileges of the world opened up to me. If our people on Cape York are going to succeed in our vision for securing a better place where young people live according to their own choice and according to their own talents, between their world and the global world we're going to need a sustained commitment to the educational guarantees that came upon us in the 1970s.  


I think there is also the need to understand that with a sharpening of education in our culture and traditions, and a sharpening of our education in the global world, our young people are in a position of enormous privilege. On the frontiers of those sharp edges we will have a creativity and we will have an opportunity that are mostly denied to people who don't have the privilege of the backgrounds that Cape York people have. We have to make some severe cultural adjustments if we're going to realise this vision because our culture has been significantly affected by the inactivity of passive welfare. 


Our culture has been significantly affected by the outlandish growth of a drug and grog problem amongst our people and the manipulation and cultural infection that results from our inability to come to terms with the explosion of grog and drugs within our communities. I think that if we succeed in our agenda to firstly move on the drug and grog people amongst our people I think there will be enormous opportunities and you know I don't hold any prejudice, I don't hold any limitation in the hope and vision and possibilities of young Cape York people in the future. 


But in the wider culture I detect a sort of latent fatalism about the position of our people, and this latent fatalism infects the ideological debates and the response of the progressive people as well as the conservatives in relation to our predicament. There's this resignation to the little compatibility of the traditional culture and the requirements of the global culture in which we are inexorably and inevitably and inescapably entrenched. 


I think that our agenda, what we've got to do, is transform passive welfare and this is our biggest challenge and the inter-relationship between grog and drugs and passive welfare is profound. But you see we are on the horns of a very difficult dilemma because government, in the sense that it is the provider of all of this passive welfare, is so bad for us but it is all that we have. So we have to transform the role of government in our lives and in our communities. We have to turn the government from the deliverer of passive welfare to the enabler, to the deliverer of opportunities and endeavours that enable our people to live beyond this permanent state of dependency that we have for so long reconciled ourselves to and the social disaster that we witness on Cape York is a consequence, if we placed Leichhardt in a permanent state of welfare dependency, 98% of the population for thirty years, then you would have similar kinds of results that we have on Cape York Peninsula.


Our struggle is to turn the mode of government into a new mode of facilitating and supporting family and individual initiative because service delivery in itself is a form of passive welfare, where government takes the initiative and government takes the responsibility and we're all supposed to sit back under the mango trees and receive this service. That we have reached the dead end of this kind of policy should be now clearly evident given that the Queensland Health Department runs a program called "A Life Promotion Program", the next program after that will be a "Breathing Promotion Program". (laughter) 


But the challenge to transform the role of government in the lives of aboriginal people is no small challenge. There are huge ideological barriers and barriers of vested interest to reforming the role of government. We need to transform the real valuable resources and role of government into something that helps our people. We need a retreat of the initiative of government but not the resources and we need a transformation of resources that currently preoccupy the role of government in Aboriginal people. 


I think that Peter Botsman's role at the Brisbane Institute in the short term he was able to survive in the North (laughter) was very valuable because it triggered a debate about the need to transform the role of government in that State and he has been very helpful to our enterprise in Cape York. I think that I have been very pleased and honoured to work with Mark Latham in promoting a new role for government in the lives and disadvantaged and marginalised people. It takes a huge courage and it takes huge intellectual energy to press the kind of agenda that Mark and Peter have been advocating and its been my honour to have participated peripherally in that business. 


So let me say that here this evening that if we really want progressive change, and if we want social progress then you're going to have to face up to the limitations of our previous thinking and the sheer incorrectness of some of the nostrums we held to be correct in the past. We're going to have to challenge those ideologies that we've grown comfortably with and that appeased us and made us feel good and we're going to have to get rig of our liberal prejudices because they don't seem to work out in terms of solutions for people on the margins and people who are disadvantaged.  


The grog and drug problem in the indigenous community is as much a problem in the wider Australian community as it is in our community. Out inability to intellectually and socially come to terms with the crass problem that it represents for us is as much a difficulty for white fellas and their thinking as it is for alcoholics who cannot decide for themselves.  


So I urge those who favour social progress to understand that the situation for indigenous people on Cape York has not improved. Huge opportunities have been wasted. Lots of young people who could have overcome the predicaments that we suffer have fallen by the wayside and I hope that the ideas in the "Enabling State" provide some signposts for what government needs to do, what the community needs to do in order to move towards genuine social progress. 


Thank you.