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Beware of Pearson's Trojan Horse

By Aden Ridgeway - posted Friday, 15 June 2001

Some of us are tiring of this new nauseating and incessant tune that Aborigines ought to get over "victimhood", and that rights alone will no longer do. The popular mantra for reconciliation has become Noel Pearson’s practical approach of creating an Aboriginal middle class.

Sorry people, the answer doesn’t come this easy – and beware of Pearson’s Trojan Horse for fixing dysfunctional Aboriginal communities.

The first way of judging a new idea is by its cheer squad. I would feel no comfort if mine comprised the likes of columnist Piers Akerman, Senator John Herron and Garry Johns, to name a few. Not one notable Indigenous leader has come out in favour of Pearson’s practical new stance, and his call for an abandonment of a rights agenda.


Like all Indigenous leaders, I share Noel’s frustration about the restoration of our communities, and the need to move our people from the fringes by providing options that go far beyond charity and welfare.

But to start, any new moral proposition must be more than just fine words tapping into the new dominant paradigm of "mutual obligation", "responsibility" and "reciprocity". First and foremost, it must guarantee moral outcomes and start with the right positive attitude.

This is where Pearson’s Cape York Blueprint is flawed.

First, Pearson asserts that welfare removed responsibility from communities and that Aboriginal people are to blame for their present day circumstances. I have never met an Aboriginal person, if given the chance, who would not want a job, rather than be permanently destined for our Nation’s jails.

Secondly, Pearson’s new catch-cry is not new at all. It is an attempt to extend "Australia’s Third Way" into Aboriginal communities to deliver on the increasing evidence of social stress, by replacing welfare dependency (or victimhood) with economic opportunity without relying upon rights.

It is flawed for many reasons, but mostly because the emphasis of such an experiment relies upon the ongoing creation of wealth. Either this wealth comes in the form of welfare or from more government "handouts". "Pearsons’s Third Way" needs to take account of what is happening in broader Australian society. New liberalism, as adopted by this government and the ALP, is about balancing the competing needs of economic rationalism, global free markets, and less government spending but targeted spending on social needs.


Most people know there is a growing underclass in this nation that is fighting for its fair share of the pie. When it comes to votes, what makes Pearson think that all governments will be generous in their spending to Aboriginal communities when usually other groups decide the outcome of any election?

I find it extraordinary that while we want change within Aboriginal communities, there is a growing impatience to accept the lowest common denominator to settle the terms on which reconciliation is achieved. Of course we want to see the restoration and recovery of communities, but re-arranging the economy of communities will not necessarily resolve social problems unless Australians are prepared to reconcile our cultural and social pre-requisites with the imperatives of wealth creation.

This means that rights must be on the agenda. Reconciliation, if nothing else, has highlighted an existing tension between Australians being prepared to countenance legal equality, but not necessarily countenancing a rights agenda, condemning it as a failure where it has not worked.

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This article was first published in The Australian on June 12, 2001.

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About the Author

Senator Aden Ridgeway is the Australian Democrats' Spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs and a Senator for New South Wales.

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