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What Cape York communities can do to help themselves

By Noel Pearson - posted Friday, 15 June 2001

We have a hard road ahead of us and we have set ourselves a difficult challenge: to see if we can change the future for our currently dysfunctional society in Cape York Peninsula. To see if we can change direction so that our people can rise up in the world, a world where our current position is at the lowest and most miserable bottom end.

The first part of the journey down this difficult road, was to get our thinking straight. Across the full range of policy thinking about our people’s affairs, there are ruling nostrums that are fatally flawed. Some of the misconceptions are subtle – but profoundly decisive. I will quickly reiterate some examples of this wrong thinking:

  • it is true that our people are frequently victimised – but to see ourselves as victims weakens us, it makes our people resign themselves to continued victimisation (while the fewer apparently capable people defend them as victims).
  • racism is a terrible burden and impediment that our people are forced to endure – but we must not make it our disability, otherwise it debilitates us and succeeds in its purpose of destroying our resolve to survive and prosper as a people.
  • the welfare safety net exists as a universal entitlement of all citizens – but we don’t have a right to languish at the dependent bottom end of society, we instead have a right to a fair place in the real economy (ie. a greater right).
  • everything we do must be "culturally appropriate" – but in practice "culturally appropriate" usually means substandard in terms of quality, expectation, performance and achievement.
  • it is true that the ultimate explanation of our parlous condition is our history, our dispossession and consequent trauma – but these explanations frequently do not confer ready solutions, other than to reiterate the responsibility of Australian society to assist our people to rise out of our problems and to take our rightful place in our country. Rather, there are more immediate explanations of our problems – passive welfare dependency, grog and drug addiction – which require, and are amenable to, practical resolution in the present.

Confronting our poor thinking will be an ongoing process. The leadership that is developing and the new thinking that is being shared and generated among community members and community leaders, is critical. This leadership must be encouraged and re-developed at the family level because that leadership did exist in earlier times – it is just that it has broken down as our problems have overwhelmed us.

Where does our new thinking come from? Fundamentally, we looked to what our older people were saying. Those people who had lived in the real economy of traditional society or the old rural economy before the coming of passive welfare. They spoke with alarm about the breakdown of responsibility and respect in our society, and in despair about the increasing velocity of the epidemics of grog and then drug addiction that have taken hold.

A fundamental belief underlying what we are trying to do in Cape York is that we will not prevail over our social problems until and unless we confront our economic passivity. No amount of resources and government and non-government service delivery will solve our social problems as long as our people are economically passive.

This means work. Vigorous lives are underwritten by vigorous engagement in life through some form of work – production, creativity, self-reliance and personal responsibility. For a people to remain in a perpetual state of non-work is to consign such people to a self-perpetuating state of social dysfunction. This is no radically new insight. It is a universal human truth.

But how are we going to turn our analysis into practical changes?

Cape York Partnerships

Cape York Partnerships is an undertaking founded on the belief that we need to move towards a more entrepreneurial approach to our social needs. This means we need to leave behind the failed social-service delivery methods of the past – with its focus on needs and problems and on bureaucratic service delivery and management of passive (and hopeless) people – to an opportunity-oriented approach. It is an enterprise in which we are seeking community, government and business partnerships.


We think there is a great potential for innovation outside the corporate world. Indeed, we think there are great tasks lying ahead of us that can only be tackled by a new kind of entrepreneur – one that cuts across the traditional boundaries between the public, private and voluntary sectors of our society.

The social entrepreneur is somebody who manages to mobilise the under-utilised common resources in order to achieve lasting change. But the main assets the social entrepreneur are creating and working with are relationships. Unexpected relationships between members of the local communities, staff of government structures, at all levels, business people, politicians, anybody who has an interest in social development where it was thought not to be possible.

There are people who want to take on this role, and there are people in the communities who will be inspired by them. These things are beginning to happen in many countries, where the public sector faces the same challenges as in our country.

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This is an edited version of the Hollingworth lecture, given on 30 November 2000.

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About the Author

Noel Pearson is director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership in Cairns.

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