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A Catholic Social Teaching perspective on the Intervention

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Frank Brennan |  21 November 2011

Text from the 4th Annual Gerald Ward Lecture 'How do we design a dignified welfare safety net without becoming a Nanny State? — Lessons from Catholic Social Teaching', presented by Fr Frank Brennan SJ at the National Library of Australia, 18 November 2011.

Gerald Ward was an English Catholic priest who arrived in Australia aged 44 after being recruited to work in the Melbourne mission by the pioneer priest Fr Patrick Geoghegan in 1850. Fr Ward knew of the workings of the St Vincent de Paul Society and initiated its establishment in Australia after witnessing the plight of the poor and homeless following the discovery of gold in Victoria. He knew that welfare was not the final answer for the plight of these dislocated ones. Had he been alive today, he undoubtedly would have applauded government initiatives for inclusion of the poor and unemployed in the labour market, but he would have espoused more than full employment for the sake of productivity. His starting point would have been the inherent human dignity of the person who happened to be poor, unemployed or excluded. And the key to that upholding of human dignity was the establishment of a relationship. Fr Ward became the first president of the St Vincent de Paul Conference at the Church of St Francis in downtown Melbourne. In an 1855 submission to the government of the day, Fr Ward stated that the new conference aimed at 'the relief of the destitute, in a manner as much as possible permanently beneficial and the visitation of poor families.' There could be no relief without visitation, and it was by visitation that relationships were established. When he died in 1858, one newspaper noted that 'he was one in whom many a widow and orphan had found a good friend.' His enduring legacy is founded in such friendship. I think Fr Ward would have approved the three principles recently enunciated by the nation's Social Inclusion Board in its research on 'Breaking Cycles of Disadvantage'. The Board identifies three key principles for addressing cycles of disadvantage:

1. the way you treat people matters
2. continuity of support is essential
3. a focus on addressing structural barriers must be maintained.

Tonight I want to insist that there is no substitute for relationships and respect for human dignity when designing welfare measures for the assistance of the poor and the excluded of our society, especially indigenous Australians in remote communities. The historic Apology by our national parliament provided the basis for that ongoing building of the relationship. But it ended last Monday with ministerial calls for the racially targeted docking of welfare payments for parents whose children are not regularly attending school on remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Legislation is to be introduced to the House of Representatives next week. Presumably this will require the placement of truancy officers, rather than additional teachers, in remote Aboriginal communities. Special measures for Indigenous Australians should be imposed only on those individuals or communities which seek them, and with provision for individuals to opt out if they do not wish to avail themselves the special community measures being imposed.

Just four weeks ago, I motored into Rockhampton in Central Queensland with only twenty minutes to spare. At 7.30pm, there was to be a paraliturgy in St Joseph's Cathedral celebrating the life of Michael Hayes who had been a priest for 61 years. So I headed straight for the Hungry Jacks drive-through, picked up my burger, and found a bench in the park opposite the cathedral. I was approached by four young Aboriginal people. They had come in from the Woorabinda community, and were just hanging out in the park. We talked. I told them I had come for a funeral. They immediately expressed sympathy. I said, 'You might have known him, Fr Mick Hayes?' 'He, that tall grey one? He knew me when I was a little fella.' Another said, 'He knew my family when I was just a little baby.' This is the stuff of long term relationships between Aborigines and the rest of us. There is no substitute for it.

In the church a few minutes later, Fr Grove Johnson recalled that back in the 1960's Bishop Frank Rush asked Mick Hayes to reconcile the Aborigines and those of us who were descendants of migrants. He said to those of us in the congregation who were not Aboriginal, 'It was as if we owned the place and they were the strangers.' He said to the Aboriginal members of the congregation: 'It is so good to see so many of you the Aboriginal people here tonight to honour him.' Then came the tribute from Carol Willie, a respected Aboriginal elder. 'Fr Mick gave our parents back their respect and their hope in their land where it had all been taken from them. He gave it to them and then they were able to give it to us. And just look at us now! He told our parents they were as good as anyone. He told us that we were worthy. He believed in us. We had lots of meetings and decided that better houses, better jobs and better education were the key. We laughed at our parents and said it would never happen. Now we have houses, jobs and education. Fr Mick organised the dances and the basketball, telling us we were just like anyone else. He would come to our homes and we were ashamed but he did not care about the state of the house. He just looked at us and asked, 'What are you doing? What are your plans?' We came to church and he told us that this is God's house and we belong. Come down the front here! You are worthy. We were all shaking in our boots, nervous, a big shame job. But he prepared us for all the ministries - distributing the cup and the Eucharist, and reading. He was so proud of all we did.'

Carol Willie later wrote that Mick Hayes 'was an inspiration to us the Aboriginal and Islander people. He was one who took us at our own level and empowered us to be the people God wanted us to be.'

Twenty-five years ago this month, Pope John Paul II came to Alice Springs and met with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders from all around Australia. The day before the Pope's arrival in Alice Springs on 29 November 1986, the local Alice Springs community was excited and proud to be hosting the Pope for his most Australian of meetings. The Murdoch stable of Northern Territory newspapers was laying the groundwork for a great celebration. The Centralian Advocate proclaimed, 'Welcome!', and noted that the Pope's visit to the Centre 'is expected to hit world headlines'. The local journalists took pride in the fact that foreign journalists expected 'the Alice Springs celebration to be the highlight of the Pope's Australian tour.' The Centralian Advocate's editorial noted, 'The Pope is a man of peace, so let us show him (and the world through the eyes of the media) that we also are people of peace. It is not a day for demonstrations for land rights or against Pine Gap.' On the day of the Pope's arrival in the Territory, the Darwin based Northern Territory News carried an editorial which was reflective and respectful of the church's contribution to life in the Territory. It reviewed the contribution of the early missionaries and then turned attention to the contemporary situation:

Then the new missionaries took over. God was replaced by the State, the Bible by the Land Rights Act, brotherhood by separation and division, free will by dependence.

This Pope's time in Darwin and Alice Springs will be regrettably brief. But the message he brings is timeless, a message that is not confined just to adherents. He brings warmth, a human cry for the simplicity of a touch or the warmth of a smile in this complicated and politicised country.

When the Pope spoke, it was not as the Murdoch press expected. Pope John Paul II was very upfront about land rights. He proclaimed:

Let it not be said that the fair and equitable recognition of Aboriginal rights to land is discrimination. To call for the acknowledgment of the land rights of people who have never surrendered those rights is not discrimination. Certainly, what has been done cannot be undone. But what can now be done to remedy the deeds of yesterday must not be put off till tomorrow.

The pride, excitement and reflectiveness of the local Murdoch media evaporated overnight with the Sunday Territorian brandishing the headline: 'Pope's Shock Land Rights Call'. The editorial carried the headline, 'Pope Falls into Land Rights Trap'. It claimed:

Pope John Paul II entered Australian politics yesterday with a thump that will reverberate across the nation.

For many people his demand for immediate national land rights — one of the most sensitive issues confronting Australians — will have destroyed in one day the enormous good will generated by a warm and intelligent Pope, a man of the people who came to unite and has ended creating further division and racial tension.

Unwittingly and regrettably, His Holiness has fallen into the trap.

He has compromised the Church which cannot avoid being treated just like any other political institution. Australia does not need liberation theology.

Aboriginal leaders praised the speech. Wenten Rubuntja said the Pope had 'filled a vacuum at a national political level'. Pat Dodson said, 'The main point about it is that the Pope, an international figure, and spiritual leader, has focused clearly on the fundamental injustices.' The Executive Director of the NT Chamber of Mines said it was 'unfortunate the Pope commented on such a sensitive and highly emotional issue.' Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen reassured everyone that the Pope was not speaking about Queensland because his State was 'leading Australia on the land rights issue'.7

It was six years later in 1992 when for the first time in the history of the federation, the High Court of Australia had to determine whether the common law of Australia recognised Aboriginal native title. Six of the seven High Court judges held that the assertion of sovereignty by the British crown did not necessarily extinguish all native title rights to land, and that native tile rights could still exist on those lands which had not been alienated by the crown to another person and which had not been dedicated by the crown to some public purpose. In the past, these native title rights could be, and were, readily extinguished by action of the crown. But after 1975, state governments would need to show that they were not acting contrary to the Commonwealth's Racial Discrimination Act. So, if Aborigines had maintained their connection with the land from European settlement until 1975, the law would now protect their surviving rights in the same way that the rights of an ordinary freeholder were protected.

This decision then required a legislative response from the Commonwealth Parliament. Prime Minister Paul Keating steered the Native Title Act through Parliament. The Parliament also legislated for an Indigenous Land Fund which received payments from Consolidated Revenue for a decade and which is now a self-perpetuating fund for the purchase of lands on the open market. The intention was that those indigenous Australians fortunate to retain their connection with their traditional lands would now have their title protected, and those who were the descendants of the dispossessed would be able to access the fund for lands given in partial compensation for past losses.

Soon after the Howard government's election in 1996 with a commitment to wind back the Native Title Act, the High Court, by a narrow majority of 4-3, ruled in the Wik Case that native title could co-exist on some pastoral leases. The Howard government legislated an extensive amendment to the Native Title Act in 1998. Senator Brian Harradine held the balance of power in the Senate and he set out to avoid the prospect of a race based, double dissolution election, while at the same time insisting that the Howard legislation comply with minimum standards of fairness and non-discrimination.

In his recent Lowitja O'Donoghue Lecture Paul Keating said:

Many people here will be familiar with the sorry tale which became part and parcel of the Native Title (Amendment) Act 1998. That amendment arose from the Coalition government's so-called Ten Point Plan, a plan facilitated in the Senate with the support of Senator Brian Harradine under the advice of the Jesuit priest, Frank Brennan.

As an aside, let me say, and as a Catholic, let me say, wherever you witness the zealotry of professional Catholics in respect of indigenous issues, invariably you find indigenous interests subordinated to their personal notions of justice and equity: because unlike the rest of us, they enjoy some kind of divine guidance.

And so it was with the Wik amendments.

I sought to correct Keating's misperception with a respectful but forthright rebuttal in the letters section of the Sydney Morning Herald in which I stated:

Paul Keating's credentials are gold standard when it comes to legislating for native title. With Labor and the Greens poised to control the Senate, it is timely that he call for a revision of the 1998 native title amendments passed by the Howard government with the former senator Brian Harradine's support.

Back then, Harradine negotiated significant improvements to the lamentable Howard package. The key plank of the improved package was drafted by lawyers for the National Indigenous Working Group. Though the Catholic Keating warns against 'the zealotry of professional Catholics in respect of indigenous issues', I commended Harradine for his wily improvement on the Howard proposals because, third time around, he managed to deliver in spades on the compromise previously accepted behind closed doors by key indigenous leaders and their advisers.

At the time, Noel Pearson said: 'It looks, on the face of it, in this penalty shoot-out situation, Brian Harradine's won four-nil. Full credit to Senator Harradine for having promised us that he was going to hold the line. He's surely held the line. He's held out on a stubborn position.' Admittedly, things later went pear-shaped. I will happily commend Labor and the Greens should they follow the Keating legacy and challenge it, improving the package even further. I don't claim any divine guidance for this, only a commitment to good policy, transparent process and sound principles, regardless of who is in power, and regardless of who controls the Senate. It's called politics.

Labor has now been back in power for four years and now with the Greens controls the Senate. Despite Keating's urgings, there has been no move to improve the Native Title Act for the benefit of native title holders. Meanwhile Keating has published his book of essays Afterwords. I looked in vain for the footnote of correction or apology. That was no surprise. The surprise came at the book launch. Keating attacked his own party for surrendering its green credentials to Bob Brown who then he described as an 'environmental Jesuit'. He said, 'Bob just needs the old political karate chop.' Given that I am the only Jesuit mentioned in his book, I daresay he thinks I need the same treatment, but I am still prepared to put in my two bob's worth about indigenous welfare policy, risking the occasional political karate chop from Canberra politicians.

As for the role of the other 'professional Catholic' on Wik, it took some years for Harradine's critics to concede that he had improved Howard's land rights package more than was originally hoped for. Seven years after the Wik debate , when Harradine was retiring from the Senate, Andrew Bartlett, Deputy Leader of the Democrats, made this acknowledgment of Harradine's acumen on Wik:

The agreement he reached on the Wik legislation was one of the few cases I would point to where John Howard was bested in negotiations. Whilst the legislative merits of the Wik agreement were less than ideal, the sort of race election, focused on Indigenous people, that our country would have faced in 1998 if that agreement had not been reached would have been far worse even than the one we endured in 2001.

These were complex political issues and I still have a strong self–interest in agitating a particular view of it all. But without resolving all the outstanding questions, one needs to ask: Would it have been good enough in 1998 for one in my position simply to critique the Howard legislation without working to create the space for Harradine to effect a compromised outcome which was more beneficial to Aborigines, and at the same time avoiding the prospect of a race based election? Having critiqued the Howard legislation, I could have withdrawn from the political fray arguing that the world of political controversy is no place for a writer and commentator (who is not a stakeholder or politician) especially when the controversy is marked by a sharp contest between political parties after all stakeholders have put their case to the public. And now I ask, what is my role as a Canberra based priest when I hear about new measures proposed by government for docking welfare payments for school non-attendance by Aboriginal kids in remote Northern Territory communities?

Having attested the moral claim of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to their land rights, John Paul II went on to say in 1986:

The establishment of a new society for Aboriginal people cannot go forward without just and mutually recognised agreements with regard to these human problems, even though their causes lie in the past. The greatest value to be achieved by such agreements, which must be implemented without causing new injustices, is respect for the dignity and growth of the human person. And you, the Aboriginal people of this country and its cities, must show that you are actively working for your own dignity of life.

In 1989, the Hawke government had instituted ATSIC (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission), a bold new initiative aimed at giving Aboriginal Australians a well resourced national voice and a self-determining organisation for negotiating with government and for making key decisions about the allocation of resources for Aboriginal communities. ATSIC was run by a board of commissioners most of whom were elected from regional councils which in turn were elected by Aboriginal and Islander voters. In 2004, ATSIC was abolished and the Howard government decided to appoint a National Indigenous Council which provided advice to government on indigenous policy issues. Now we have the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples which has insisted:

Future initiatives will require developing new ways of engaging with affected communities. To reset the relationship and genuinely build partnership and trust requires not only effective communication and consultation but also the active participation and consent of Aboriginal people.

I read the National Congress as being on the same page as the Social Inclusion Board, insisting on trust, partnerships, active participation and informed consent.

A year after he visited Alice Springs, Pope John Paul II issued his great social encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis in which he said:

The first positive note is the full awareness among large numbers of men and women of their own dignity and of that of every human being. This awareness is expressed, for example, in the more lively concern that human rights should be respected, and in the more vigorous rejection of their violation. One sign of this is the number of recently established private associations, some worldwide in membership, almost all of them devoted to monitoring with great care and commendable objectivity what is happening internationally in this sensitive field.

At this level one must acknowledge the influence exercised by the Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated some forty years ago by the United Nations Organization. Its very existence and gradual acceptance by the international community are signs of a growing awareness. The same is to be said, still in the field of human rights, of other juridical instruments issued by the United Nations Organization or other international organisations.

The awareness under discussion applies not only to individuals but also to nations and peoples, which, as entities having a specific cultural identity, are particularly sensitive to the preservation, free exercise and promotion of their precious heritage.

On Monday, Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs in a 21st Century Labor Government led by a Prime Minister from the left of the party announced a new raft of welfare measures for Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. To her credit, Minister Macklin has long conceded that the Howard government's Federal Intervention was implemented in a ham-fisted, culturally insensitive and racially discriminatory manner. But on Monday she said: 'School attendance in these new sites is particularly poor, and it is clear that our efforts in these townships must be strengthened to ensure children are getting a decent education and go to school every day.' She was joined by the Education Minister Peter Garrett who said:

Seminars will be held in each community before the start of the new model to explain to parents their responsibilities, and ensure they understand that their income support entitlements may be affected if their children are not going to school.

If children fall below the set benchmark of attendance, the school will discuss with the family ways to improve the child's attendance and an attendance plan will be agreed. Support to help families play their part in fulfilling the attendance plan will be provided by additional social workers and attendance officers from the Northern Territory Government's Education Department.

When interviewed by Fran Kelly on ABC Breakfast that morning, Minister Macklin said:

We've certainly seen some improvements but we know we've got a lot further to go. We know that it's critical to do many things. One is to make sure that we implement the things that parents and children say aren't working for them. So it may be that we have to address bullying at school, it may be making sure that a child is helped to get up in the morning and walk to school. What we want to do is work closely with parents, work closely with the Northern Territory Government, to make sure that children do get to school every day. This is the message that Aboriginal people are saying to me they want to see implemented, and they said to me, you make sure, you the Minister, make sure that you use every power you have to make sure that our children get a decent education.

Where is the evidence based approach which shows that this could possibly work? Have there been trials with demonstrable results? Would such an approach be attempted by the Commonwealth government for any other group in society? In Cape York, Noel Pearson and the Cape York Institute convinced the Queensland Government to set up a Family Responsibilities Commission three years ago targeted at covering just four Aboriginal communities. In its 2009-10 Annual report, the Family Responsibilities Commissioner noted: 'The Local Commissioners have been pivotal in gaining the trust and understanding of community members in regard to school attendance obligations and the rights of families to live peacefully and in safety.' As yet there are no flash results to report from the Queensland project. But at least it is based on the right principles. Instead of going down the path of appointing local commissioners, it would seem that the Commonwealth is more interested in the cost efficient and more controlled use of government officials to impose outcomes by means of the 'stick approach', reducing welfare payments of non-compliant parents. If the Queensland model is judged by the Commonwealth to be too expensive, giving insufficient return by way of measurable outcomes for the investment in the local community, there will be no reason to expect better outcomes from an approach which gives less emphasis to trust, understanding and involvement of the local community.

There is no evidence that the truancy officers who will have to visit remote communities regularly will be able to achieve anything more than the dedicated teachers living permanently in these communities. We will need to have Commonwealth public servants entering houses on remote communities to help children get up in the morning. We will have public servants walking children to school in circumstances where parents are not motivated to assist. This is the nanny state on steroids. And pray tell, who will be responsible for feeding the children whose parents have had their welfare payments suspended? Presumably the truancy officers will have to double up as providers for hungry children.

I can't imagine Gough Whitlam ever authorizing this sort of approach to Aboriginal Affairs. I can't imagine the greats of the past like Nugget Coombs, Bill Stanner or Barrie Dexter recommending this sort of approach. I am not questioning the dedication and commitments of ministers like Macklin and Garrett. But I do suspect this is the last ditch attempt by the secular state to address entrenched problems which are strongly related to cultural difference and conflict, and spiritual and existential alienation, which have long been judged irrelevant or non-existent by government officials who are well meaning in insisting that Aborigines in remote communities only want what the rest of us have and enjoy. It is now unimaginable that a Commonwealth Government official would repeat what was said by Dr H C Coombs, the Chair of the Commonwealth's Council for Aboriginal Affairs, in his 1976 Murdoch Lecture when he concluded:

I do not think it is to say too much if I remark that these years of work among Aboriginal Australians and in seeking to influence politics and attitudes towards them have led me to question whether we, the dominant white society may not lack the spiritual qualities to resolve the problem quickly. Until the arrogance, the prejudice, the fear which still largely determine our attitude towards Aborigines gives way to humility, generosity and human warmth there can be little grounds for hope of a quick resolution. If there be a taste of ashes on the lips of white Australian civilization, it is because while we have mastered a continent and subordinated a proud people, we have remained in spirit aliens and strangers to it and them.

The great anthropologist Professor WEH Stanner who also served on that Commonwealth Council had cause to reflect on the establishment of the Catholic mission at Port Keats in the Northern Territory in 1935. He said:

Aboriginal policy, as we think of it now, did not exist. There were protective laws and regulations, of good standard, but there was no spine in their application, and a fair amount of humbug. They were also highly discriminatory. Neglect, indifference and exploitation were widespread and were tolerated. There was no real heart, or will or imagination in what Government did. It was simply empty of purpose. For reasons which would make a study in themselves, it left very largely to the Christian missions almost all effective contact of a humanitarian kind in the outer bush. The missions were the only centres where Aborigines could expect solicitude. There were of course many kindly and well disposed European persons but, as far as my experience went — and I saw a lot of outback and bush Australia — the Missions were the only proof the Aborigines had that European society was not indifferent, selfish and ugly, through and through. When things in and around Port Keats began to go publicly bad, Government characteristically turned to Bishop Gsell, and asked him to establish a mission station there, just as it had done with the Methodists in 1935 in the case of Eastern Arnhem Land after the Caledon Bay troubles in 1933.

He went on to say:

I have not been back since 1962, by which time the new administrative philosophy of Assimilation was being pushed by Government, I thought in a rather hectoring way and, I would have thought, with a slightly anti-mission overtone. Since then of course, as we know, that philosophy has mutated into one of Self-Determination....I will say only that in my opinion, for what it is worth, it may well be in the long-term interest of the Mission and its Aboriginal charges to lean, like the bamboo, with the winds of change. I myself would like to see the Mission free from the pressure and real burden of all the secular concomitants of the new policy.

Solicitude, heart, will and imagination — countering the indifference, selfishness and ugliness of the prevailing secularist, materialistic culture. Of course we cannot expect Commonwealth public servants employed as itinerant truancy officers to be the bearers of these social goods countering these social evils. We must seek for solutions which are workable but also principled. Unless schools and teachers build relationships of trust with Aboriginal families, the educational outcomes will remain poor. I hear the government cry, 'We have first to get the kids to school!' But if this is achieved only by use of the stick of conditional welfare payments, the battle will be lost at the outset.

Last Friday, we buried my Jesuit colleague Fr John Eddy SJ. At the funeral I told the story about how I recently discovered in Professor WEH Stanner's papers a request to Manning Clark for an historian's take on the terra nullius argument in preparation for the 1971 Gove land rights case. Clark sent back a paper by the young Eddy who had recently arrived at the ANU. Arriving home, I showed my archival find to John. He was quite unsurprised, read it cursorily, and said there was no need to change a word of it in light of Mabo and Wik. He was right. He had written:

The Select Committee of 1837 demanded that the welfare of the aborigines be recognised as a vital responsibility and trust: 'Their claims, whether as sovereigns or proprietors of the soil, have been utterly disregarded. The land has been taken from them without the assertion of any other title than that of superior force, and by the commissions under which the Australian colonies are governed. Her Majesty's sovereignty over the whole of New Holland is asserted without reserve.' This process is irreversible, but the duty of government to make reparations remained.

Successive attempts in the 19th and 20th centuries to provide essential reparations in all parts of Australia — by means of economic, educational, protection, reservation and land schemes — have had a well-known and for the most part calamitous history. An opportunity would seem now to offer itself to the Australian Commonwealth Government to redress that historical balance effectively.

Forty years on, our government has been reduced to docking welfare payments for parents whose children are not attending school in remote Aboriginal communities. John Eddy's Oxford doctorate was published by Clarendon in 1969 under the title Britain and the Australian Colonies 1818-1831: The Technique of Government. He rightly described the historical basis for Mabo and Wik. Three decades before the High Court spoke, he wrote, 'The central authorities never deviated from their determination that the natives be conciliated and that relations with aborigines be always governed by 'amity and kindness'. But official benevolence and goodwill proved sadly deficient as time brought more drastic collisions between settlers, convicts, sealers, soldiers and the fierce, gentle, mysterious, fugitive, ever present people of the Australian bush.'

In his bicentenary essay, 'Recognition, Reconciliation and History' John Eddy wrote, 'The cynic might judge that most people find coping with present events and necessary practical decisions for the immediate future sufficient burden. It is hard enough to grasp essential daily details, and summon up enough courage to survive. An interest in the past may be a fine hobby, but contributes little that is useful or helpful. This is to ignore the role of memory and reflection in human life. Truth may be difficult to ascertain, and unpleasant to face once discovered, but without it there can be no firm foundation, and in St John's searing words, 'the truth will make you free'.'

As our Parliament prepares to do good yet again for the benefit of Aboriginal communities in remote Northern Australia, we who draw strength and inspiration from our Church tradition should insist that respect for inherent human dignity and trusting relationships be central if we are to make a place of real belonging for those 'fierce, gentle, mysterious, fugitive, ever present people of the Australian bush'. As Pope John Paul II put it in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis:

When individuals and communities do not see a rigorous respect for the moral, cultural and spiritual requirements, based on the dignity of the person and on the proper identity of each community, beginning with the family and religious societies, then all the rest - availability of goods, abundance of technical resources applied to daily life, a certain level of material well-being - will prove unsatisfying and in the end contemptible.

Whatever affects the dignity of individuals and peoples, such as authentic development, cannot be reduced to a 'technical' problem. If reduced in this way, development would be emptied of its true content, and this would be an act of betrayal of the individuals and peoples whom development is meant to serve.

These are not fashionable sentiments in this town. But they are our tradition, and they find resonance in everything presently being said to government about Aboriginal welfare reform by both the Social Inclusion Board and the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples. While applauding Minister Macklin's commitment to improving school attendance and educational achievement in remote communities, I would urge her to leave the conditional welfare payment stick behind this time, and to take on the harder and more expensive challenges elucidated in the Stronger Futures Report on Consultations released last month, namely the provision of mentors and parenting education, greater indigenous involvement in school teaching and curriculum, greater involvement by parents and elders in school activities, the provision of more local or regional high schools, the need for 'vocational education, careers advice in schools, and education that was linked to jobs' and 'the need for school to be an interesting and positive experience for children living in remote communities'. If these things are not provided, what purpose is served by docking the welfare payments of parents lacking the motivation to send their child to a school which seems irrelevant and useless probably because it is? The Commonwealth should embrace one of the benefits of a federal system and await clearer outcomes from the Queensland experiment with the Family Responsibilities Commission before making Aboriginal parental welfare payments conditional on child school attendance. Let's not be treated to another Federal Labor charade that the targeted docking of Aboriginal welfare payments is to be classed as a special measure under the Racial Discrimination Act for the benefit of those who will not receive full payment. I commend Julia Gillard and Jenny Macklin for giving priority to Aboriginal demands for education, employment and alcohol management. But I think we should listen to those like Carol Willie who look back on those like Fr Mick Hayes who created relationships of trust recognising the inherent human dignity of the first Australians. With trust, a commitment to relationships built on respect for inherent human dignity and cultural difference, we can strengthen the welfare safety net for the neediest First Australians without constructing a nanny state bound to fail with Commonwealth truancy officers wandering remote communities wondering about their purpose in being there at all.


Frank BrennanText from the 4th Annual Gerald
Ward Lecture 'How do we design a dignified welfare safety net without becoming a Nanny State? — Lessons from Catholic Social Teaching', presented by Fr Frank Brennan SJ at the National Library of Australia, 18 November 2011. 


 


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Dear Fr Brennan, I am a catholic school teacher in a very remote Aboriginal Community in Mulan in the Eastern Kimberley. I read your article with interest. My husband and I have been here for 2 years and have had the great privilege of teaching, building relationships, learning so much from the people here. Along with a two other dedicated staff we have done our utmost to improve school attendance.

Please do not assume that schools in remote communities are most likely irrelevant and useless. We are searching for answers too - there are serious health, hygiene, substance abuse, neglect issues here and if we can make school a good place to be we have to believe we have given the children something that is good and may inspire them to go on and be the best they can be. I would like to invite you to visit us if at all possible. Kind Regards,
Karen Coyle

Mrs Karen Coyle 03 December 2011

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