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Aboriginal leadership and welfare reform: you’re not the first, Nöel

By Megan Davis - posted Thursday, 8 September 2005

Policy ideas will and always should be contested. Yet in recent times Indigenous policy in Australia seems to be Noel Pearson’s way or the highway for the Australian media.

This is why it was refreshing to read Lowitja O’Donoghue’s comments in The Age (July 30, 2005). O’Donoghue talked about Pearson’s ideas for Cape York communities and expressed concern at how those ideas are misconstrued as needing to be applied to all Indigenous communities, regardless of whether or not the Indigenous community is, as Pearson always implies, as unsuccessful as Cape York, and whether or not there is evidence that current trials in Cape York actually work.

As O’Donoghue argues, “Let him do it in Cape York and show us that it works”. O’Donoghue also made reference to Pearson’s behaviour during the black caucus at the Reconciliation Australia workshop held in Canberra on May 30-31, 2005. O’Donoghue said “people were stunned” during the black caucus as Pearson “chided them over the stolen generation, saying if he wanted to he could have brought along his mother to cry”. And, “he told younger Aboriginal leaders they were all in too much of a hurry”.


It was an unfortunate baptism of fire for Aboriginal leadership but interesting to witness first-hand the methods of those who can’t tolerate difference of opinion. It is true, as O’Donoghue claimed, that no one stood up to Pearson except her, but it is also true that many younger people were stunned by the aggression and zeal of the tirade railing against alternative views - though not an entirely unfamiliar tone in Howard’s Australia. It was quite clear that any differing opinions were going to be shot down and ridiculed as not being pragmatic and hard-headed enough. It was clear that this was not an environment for robust debate.

That is why the O’Donoghue and Pearson’s exchange in The Age was so instructive for many Indigenous people. It was a much-needed exchange between two Aboriginal leaders with national profiles, particularly at a time when the media gives credence to only one opinion and one set of ideas.

Of course, The Age editorial seemed to view the exchange differently. An editorial (August 8, 2005) titled, “Time to reconcile differing views,” argued that Indigenous Australians are not being “helped by in-fighting between their most respected leaders”. Why is it that blackfellas have to reconcile their views if there is a fundamental, ideological difference of opinion? We should be able to partake in a  robust discussion of policy and ideas.

Does that privilege in the contemporary climate extend only to media pin-up boy Barnaby Joyce? And if there is a difference of opinion, why is the woman described as the aggressor?

Penelope Debelle in “Clash of cultures” (The Age, July 30, 2005) described O’Donoghue as “increasingly grumpy”. What Indigenous person isn’t increasingly grumpy in the current climate? And why is it that a feisty woman leader is viewed as angry and grumpy? Is it because she doesn’t agree with Pearson? No one would dare describe Pearson in such a way (what female journalist would be tempted after the 1999 incident on ABC Radio when he tipped a glass of water over a female journalist’s head).

Nevertheless Pearson’s response was very measured and diplomatic and represented an important dialogue. He highlighted the commonality of their positions about which The Age editorial was clearly chuffed, hailing it an agreement between leaders: “Let us hope that this is a signal for a new era of co-operation. The welfare of their people may depend on it.” Of course, it lets a lot of people off the hook if the welfare of Indigenous peoples depends so heavily on a lack of debate.


Pearson is advocating certain policies in the context of Cape York and, as widely reported, he is also a consultant to the Federal Government on welfare policy. None of the ideas are particularly novel except they are applied to Aboriginal communities.

Costello’s recent trip to the Cape highlighted the way in which the media constructs internal “Chinese walls” for Pearson in that he can be either discretely a community leader or he can discretely be a consultant to the government on welfare policy.

Of course, Pearson is always a community leader but the words he preaches must also be taken with the stamp of the current Federal Government. The headlines, “Treasurer praises Pearson plan” and “Costello embraces Pearson’s radical reforms,” seem meaningless. Pearson’s a paid consultant - of course the treasurer is embracing it. Only Christian Kerr of Crikey! was truly on the ball. He astutely wrote of Costello’s trip:

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About the Author

Megan Davis is the Director of the Indigenous Law Centre and Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UNSW.

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All articles by Megan Davis

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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