Conservative Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has used recent school attendance figures to trumpet the success of the punitive Family Responsibilities Commission (FRC).
The FRC, designed by Pearson’s Cape York Institute, began operating in four Cape York Aboriginal communities in 2008. It has the power to quarantine welfare payments in response to problems such as child school attendance.
The figures are from the Quarterly Report on Key Indicators in Queensland’s Discrete Indigenous Communities. They show that in Aurukun and Mossman Gorge—two of the communities targeted by the FRC—school attendance rates for the second term of 2009 have risen from the previous year, from 37 per cent to 63 per cent and 60.9 per cent to 81.6 per cent respectively.
Pearson claims these “stunning” results prove the FRC’s success and has been joined by Opposition spokesperson Tony Abbott and The Australian newspaper in calls for expansion of the program.
But statistics from the report say nothing about the success or otherwise of the FRC. Aurukun had a similar attendance rate of 62.4 per cent back in 2006.
Aboriginal educator Chris Sarra argues that recent improvements in Aurukun have come from a renewed focus on student and community engagement by local teachers and that “the school leadership is filthy that the FRC has taken credit for their efforts”.
Coen and Hopevale, the other two FRC communities, actually show a slight decrease in attendance rates.
There have been improvements in communities where the FRC is not operating. In Mapoon for example, school attendance has risen from 72.3 per cent to 84.9 per cent and on Mornington Island from 44.8 per cent to 63.7 per cent.
The FRC has an astonishing budget of $48 million to conduct their welfare trial. This works out at more than $80,000 per student in the four targeted communities. The only real beneficiaries have been highly paid bureaucrats, squandering the money in offices far removed from the communities they control.
Sarra has pointed out that during his time as principal in the Cherbourg community, an increase in school attendance from 63 per cent to 94 per cent was achieved with 0.8 per cent of this budget.
The new paternalism
While there is no evidence the massively funded FRC is achieving positive social outcomes, it has succeeded in shifting Indigenous policy debate to the right.
The FRC is consistently held up as a model for Aboriginal communities around Australia, even by those like the NT Intervention review board who have been critical of the blanket welfare quarantine imposed by the Intervention.
The FRC was created through 2007 amendments to the Social Security Act that also enabled the Intervention. These laws suspended the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Jenny Macklin initially committed to reinstating the Racial Discrimination Act in October this year; now she says it will be “before the end of the year.”
But regardless of what Mackling does with the RDA, she is wedded to compulsory quarantining.
In the NT she has said people living in “prescribed areas” may be able to apply to Centrelink to “opt out” of Income Management—with Centrelink staff deciding whether someone is “responsible” enough to be paid cash.
FRC powers will also remain coercive and draconian. People referred to the FRC have no right to legal representation, or to appeal the merits of any decision. Referral can take place for as little as falling two weeks behind in rent.
The FRC has been championed as a “community based” program, because local elders sit on the commission alongside retired magistrates.
But this is nothing new. Welfare board tribunals in Queensland in the 1960s which quarantined wages and restricted movement also involved local residents. This did not make the restrictions any less racist or hated.
Phillip Martin quit his job with the Cape York Institute after witnessing the steamrolling of community views during the design of the FRC. Martin says there was a refusal to acknowledge the key source of disadvantage in Aurukun—continuing oppression and government neglect:
“Infrastructure essential to the functioning of every community in Australia is simply absent in Aurukun… There is chronic over-crowding in community housing, where often more than 20 family members live in one broken down house… There is no permanent doctor and no dentist. Services that do exist—the school, the health clinic and police—are chronically under-staffed and resourced. If there was this much infrastructure missing in Sydney, there would be public insurrection.”
The “blame the victim” approach to social problems spearheaded by the Intervention is spreading. Last month, the suburb of Logan in Brisbane was included in a list of Queensland communities that will trial policy that cuts off Centrelink payments for 13 weeks if families have ongoing problems with school attendance.
Pearson’s FRC is an expensive exercise in punishment and division that offers nothing to struggling communities. It is every bit as racist as the Intervention.
By Paddy Gibson