Aboriginal people succeeding through ability, opportunity and reward for effort
Wunan Blog News & Updates from the field
Sep 18 2012

Ian Trust was interviewed by the Australian last week in Sydney on Living Change and Wunan.  This interview was subsequently followed by a visit to Halls Creek by the writer to ‘see for themselves’ and further enhance the message of the article they were writing.  The article was published in the Weekend Australian on Saturday 15 September.

“WESTERN Australia’s East Kimberley is poised to become the first region outside of Cape York to institute a radical program of Aboriginal-led welfare reform, as community leaders push a social responsibility agenda that ‘‘rewards those who are willing to help themselves’’.

MARIE NIRME Halls Creek’s Angie Bedford with grandchildren, from left, Luke Bedford Jnr, 4, Emyliarn Bedford-McGinty, 5, Douglas Dolby Jnr, 3, and Charlotte Bedford, 8

The West Australian government will be asked to support legislation that would give statutory power to community panels modelled on the Cape York Families Responsibilities Commission. Selected community members would have the power to recommend compulsory welfare quarantining for parents who refuse to send their children to school or fail to engage with social support services.

But the policy— dubbed Living Change and devised by the Kimberley-based Wunan Foundation in collaboration with Noel Pearson and the Cape York Institute — would primarily be reward-based, offering priority access to better housing, boarding school places, and fly-in fly-out mining jobs to those who send their children to school and comply with community-agreed social norms.

The town of Halls Creek, one of the nation’s most disadvantaged communities, would become a trial site under the plan, which policy documents state ‘‘ challenges prevailing notions about getting something for nothing’’.

Halls Creek grandmother-of-eight Angie Bedford said the policy was a good idea. ‘‘It’s giving kids opportunity,’’ she said. ‘‘These families have a lot of opportunities out there for them, but they can’t embrace them unless they get better education.

‘‘People need to be responsible for their children’s welfare. Parents these days don’t seem to care sometimes. They’re busy doing their own thing, and the alcohol and the gambling, it’s very heavy in our town. There’s no one guiding the children anymore.’’

One of the architects of the scheme, Wunan’s chairman Ian Trust, told The Weekend Australian that while government services had been poured in to Halls Creek in recent years, a sense of personal and social responsibility was critically lacking in many Aboriginal families both in that town and through the East Kimberley.

‘‘You can sum it up in one simple word and that is attitude,’’ Mr Trust said. ‘‘ I have come to the conclusion that the big thing that is lacking is responsibility.

‘‘In functional families someone gets out of bed in the morning, puts the kettle on and says ‘let’s get going’. We have to learn to fend for ourselves, we have to have responsibility.’’

Community surveys carried out throughout this year by the Wunan Foundation have found overwhelming support among indigenous people for the importance of re-establishing personal responsibility. The carrot-and stick approach of Cape York style community panels with the power to sanction welfare was more contentious, with the survey of 134 respondents turning up 57 per cent support for the plan.

Alcohol restrictions that were brought in to Halls Creek in 2009 have radically slashed crime rates, emergency department admissions and incidents of domestic violence. But one of several local women who pushed strongly for the alcohol reforms, retired Aboriginal teacher Doreen Green, does not back the plan.

‘‘I disagree with it because it’s an assimilationist approach,’’ Ms Green said. ‘‘We’re going back to the old welfare syndrome days. We’ve got to leave that behind.’’

Community discussions centred on agreed social norms, and have focused on five areas: school attendance; the proper care of children, old people and other vulnerable members of the community; adults who are fit and able being engaged in work, study or training; families maintaining their houses; and abiding by the law, including not abusing alcohol and drugs.

The Living Change policy would be geared toward helping people to meet and maintain such responsibilities, through job creation, access to private rental homes and transitional housing, boarding school places for children and referrals to counselling, drug and alcohol services, or money management programs where required.

Partnerships with mining companies who would have access to a potential fly-in, fly out workforce of indigenous people are being planned.

‘‘We believe very strongly that people respond to incentives,’’ Living Change manager Paul Isaachsen said. ‘‘I think there has been a view that the welfare system can sometimes blunt those incentives.’’”

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