The Guardian 3 August, 2005

Welfare cuts a rights abuse

Comments in The Australian newspaper (18/07/05) by Noel Pearson, Education Minister Brendan Nelson and Ian Mackie of the Queensland Teachers Union on Indigenous education and welfare reform in Queensland abuse too many human rights conventions to be of any viable use for progressive policy development.

Noel Pearson needs to carefully think about our people’s basic human rights before he calls for radical changes to policies that link welfare payments to behaviour modification.

I understand Noel’s quest to raise school attendance rates in the Cape York communities. This is an outcome that many of our Elders and community representatives would support.

However, if the proposed policy is a violation of both Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 26 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is time to realise that the overall implications of such a position have not been considered.

This type of policy would create an outrage if it was implemented in the mainstream community, so why would it be deemed acceptable for our people?

While we all want to raise the educational standards in remote communities, using a punitive approach instead of proving resources to allow parents to be the type of caregivers they aspire to be does nobody any good.

If we invest in the parents, we invest in their ability to help their children and in that leads to a win-win situation for our communities.

Indigenous Australia will not be able to break out of the vicious cycle of welfare dependency and poverty until the interrelated nature of our cultural and familial problems created by their historical experiences is addressed. It should be noted that many Indigenous families in remote communities do meet their parental responsibilities admirably in the oppressive environments.

Many indigenous Australians do not have access to jobs, adequate housing and culturally appropriate health services, so their health and well-being is on par with the world’s poorest nations.

The Australian Medical Asso­ciation has already highlighted the desperate need to improve health funding in our communities, so how can depriving families of the scant funds available going to be able to achieve improvements?

Noel’s proposed policy will drive Indigenous families further into despair. This is hardly an environment conducive to the rearing and educating of children.

It is therefore critical that governments work towards enhancing the parental and familial resources in the community as well as adequately addressing all of the issues that currently have an impact on the Indigenous participation in education system.

How is it that communities of Mapoon and Cherbourg are able to lower truancy rates without punitive welfare policies linked to school attendance? Perhaps policy advisers and educationalists should look at these communities for solutions before advocating solutions that ignore fundamental human rights.

In the same newspaper article Mr Mackie advocates Indigenous parents speak English as opposed to Indigenous languages to their children in the home environment.

Mr Mackie, who usually demonstrates cultural sensitivity, seems to have forgotten himself as this would be in direct violation of article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

I share the concern of educationalists who work in our communities and who are confronted by low attendance and achievement rates of Indigenous students but this is not a licence to violate the fundamental human rights of our people.

Surely in such an enlightened society we can devise a more progressive form of educational delivery that does not need to deny children of any culture the right to speak their own language in their own homes.

If language is a barrier to Indigenous children’s participation in schools, then it is time to rethink the type of curriculum developed which for all intents and purposes underpins a culturally inclusive accommodating learning environment for all students.

Equally concerning is the quote in the same article by the Minister for Education and Training, Brendan Nelson, saying that Indigenous communities needed to pool all or some of their welfare payments to prevent misuse of welfare monies.

Dr Nelson’s proposed policy is nothing new, but the danger is how policies like these are implemented, monitored and controlled. If control over family budgets is imposed rather than consented to, then welfare becomes as patronising as the old system of food coupons from the mission days.

It has been widely documented that human beings often exhibit dysfunctional behaviour due to a lack of control of their environment. How will Dr Nelson expect Indigenous people to improve their behaviour and take responsibility when at the same time advocates for strict controls over finances?

How can anyone advocate a punishment model for our families when systematic and structural impediments such as racism, oppression and poverty go unrecognised?

Boni Robertson Associate Professor, Griffith University, Qld Koori Mail

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