The
genius of the US Declaration of Independence isn’t just in its content. It’s in the sheer simplicity and elegance of the
wording. That’s what drew the readers in to the message in 1776 – and has
continued to do so.

And there
was much of that simplicity in the case for a
comprehensive indigenous economic and social development reform given by Noel
Pearson, Director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership
at a Centre for Independent Studies forum in Sydney I attended
last night. Pearson says:

Indigenous Australians have largely not
experienced the positive features of the mainstream welfare state – public
health, education, infrastructure, a helping hand during short-term unemployment,
and other aspects which have underpinned the quality of life and the
opportunities of generations of Australians.

They have only
experienced the income support that is payable to the permanently unemployed
and marginalised… Apart from depriving people of a
real income, unemployment has other more serious effects that cannot be
ameliorated, and indeed may be exacerbated, by long-term income support. These
effects include psychological harm, loss of work motivation, skill and self-confidence,
an increase in sickness, and disruption of family and social life. Indeed,
chronic unemployment of whole groups of people or geographic regions leads to
social exclusion, loss of self-reliance and self-confidence, and damage to
psychological and physical health. In addition, it is chiefly by working
that parents convey the message to their children that opportunity exists for
the taking, ensuring that attitudes of defeat are not transmitted across
generations.

Social capital has been a buzzword for at
least a decade now. We know its importance – even if all sides of politics
seems reluctant to see how it can be fostered, particularly given the existing
interests and structures of the welfare lobby and bureaucracy.

Pearson talks about the importance of
“inherently conservative” basic norms, how other Australians “don’t know how
much you rely on them.” He talks about how this is called “paternalism” – but
how it cannot be resiled from in building civil society. “If it was just a
challenge of income, we could solve the Aboriginal problem tomorrow.”

Pearson talks of the importance of “people
acting rationally in the interests of themselves and their communities.” He
talks about how there is “so much love” amongst his people on Cape York – but
mourns how the incentives to act are “so misaligned.”

He warns about “alienation and trepidation”
amongst indigenous Australians, how “the mainstream community has got to be
more generous in opening the doors” to Aboriginal people. He stresses the
importance of an “opt-in” approach, creating the circumstances where we can see
“individuals and families voting with their feet to climb the stairs” of
opportunity and advantage, “acting rationally in the interest of themselves in
their own families.”

We hold these truths to be self-evident. So
obvious – but yet, it seems, so unspeakable in polite, political correct
company.

A paper by Pearson is available here,
while an edited version of his speech appears in today’s Australian.

Peter Fray

A lot can happen in 3 months.

3 months is a long time in 2020. Join us to make sense of it all.

Get you first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12. Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

12 weeks for $12