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Community rescue programs have failed Aurukun

By Gary Johns - posted Monday, 13 June 2016

Harebrained ideas are thick on the ground in Aboriginal Australia. The idea that the people of ­Aurukun could own and develop a bauxite mine is one such idea.

White people do not own mining companies. People, with enormous experience and education, join companies that have been operating for decades. They learn the ropes and, with great skill, attempt to generate returns to shareholders. Skin colour has nothing to do with it.

Aborigines, with insufficient experience, education and skills, will never be able to compete with such companies. If a government were foolish enough to mandate Aboriginal ownership, outsiders would manage the company and moneys would be held in trust for Aboriginal “elders” to disburse to their families. This model has grown up under land rights and the Indigenous Land Corporation. It has been ruinous and debilitating.


Bauxite may have been a curse to the Wik people, as Noel Pearson suggests, but if it were not bauxite, then something else would have disturbed the early life of the people of Aurukun and surrounds. Grog may also have been a curse, but if people have to be shielded from the realities of the modern world, they are in fact being locked out.

Since 2008, the dominant focus of policy in Aurukun, and much of Cape York, has been to reimpose missionary disciplines in Aboriginal communities. Two trials have been running in parallel: Alcohol Management Reforms, which covers 19 discrete Aboriginal communities in Queensland, and the Pearson inspired Family Responsibilities Commission, which covers four of the 19 communities. Two are ­Aurukun and Pearson’s home town Hope Vale.

The commission can recommend withholding welfare from recipients who come to the notice of authorities. Various forms of “notices” — children failing to attend school; court appearances; children subject to safety notices; and parents subject to tenancy notices — trigger a compulsory meeting with the commission.

In 2008, the number of notices in Aurukun (population 1200) started at about 440 notices per quarter. Last year, after eight years, notices are tracking at about 420. In Hope Vale (population 800), the number of notices started at about 220 notices per quarter. After eight years, notices are tracking at about 290. Success eludes the commission.

Tracking some measures under Alcohol Management Reforms — offences against the person; breaches of alcohol restrictions; substantiated notifications of harm; and student ­attendance — provides a similar picture.

Last year, offences against the person in Aurukun were 100 per 1000 persons. In Hope Vale, it was 33. From 2000 to 2015, the rates showed improvements, but the Queensland rate last year was six.


Last year, the annual rate of charges resulting from breaches of alcohol restrictions in Aurukun was 48 per thousand and in Hope Vale it was 81. These laws apply only to discrete Aboriginal communities in Queensland.

Last year, the annual rate of children who were the subject of a substantiated notification of harm in Aurukun was 46 per thousand and in Hope Vale it was 75. The Queensland rate was five.

Between 2007 and 2015, student attendance in Aurukun did not change. Last year, in Aurukun 25 per cent of students attended more than 90 per cent of school days. In Hope Vale, 36 per cent of students attended more than 90 per cent of school days. The Queensland rate was 71 per cent.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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