If you missed Cape York Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson’s piece in The Weekend Australian on a return visit to his hometown of Hope Vale in Queensland, it’s definitely worth a read.

Entitled ‘Vale hope in outback hellhole’, readers were taken on an emotional ride that described the shocking levels of violence and abuse rife in the small Aboriginal community Pearson calls “a hellhole where whirring fans and air-conditioners in the concrete block houses drown out the noise, including the screams.”

Anyone with any experience in Indigenous Affairs will know conditions in Pearson’s hometown are replicated all over the country.

That’s the bouquet. Now here’s the bucket. Reading the article, I couldn’t escape the feeling that Pearson’s politics and his pay cheques got in the way.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and his minister for Indigenous Affairs, Warren Pitt came in for a serve — rightly so. Beattie is to Aboriginal people what Ratsack is to mice.

But the same 2,000-word piece contained not a syllable of criticism of Prime Minister John Howard or his Indigenous affairs cohort, Mal Brough. Maybe it got subbed out? Or maybe Pearson’s gig as a well-paid and regular consultant to the Howard government helped shape his words.

Either way, on this occasion Noel was either unwilling or unable to paint the whole picture, so here’s some filler for the gaps.

Overcrowding of public housing is a massive problem in Hope Vale, just as it is in virtually every remote Aboriginal community (and many non-remote communities) around the nation. So does the federal government announce measures to tackle a shortfall that was estimated in 1999 at $2.3 billion but today is undoubtedly much larger?

No. Instead, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough has spent his time in the job banging on about how communally-owned Aboriginal land is really communism in disguise, thus there’ an urgent need for legislation to enable jobless blackfellas to buy their own plot of dirt.

Noel Pearson, ironically enough, would be one of the very few Aboriginal people from the Cape York region who could ever actually afford to.

The federal government ignores the bleeding obvious (increased expenditure on housing) and adopts the ridiculous (land tenure reform) because the provision of public housing is very expensive. Legislation which erodes the communal rights of Aboriginal landowners and diverts media attention, by comparison, costs nothing. And it might make a handy wedge at the next election.

The creation of jobs and an economy is also very costly. The renaming and rebadging of a welfare-to-work program — as the government did last week — is not.

The government adopts this approach not just because it’s cheap, but because it knows the media will let it get away with it. Which brings me to the other gaping, yawning chasm in Pearson’s article – violence.

Pearson spent considerable column centimetres detailing the violence that is rife in Hope Vale. Tell us something we don’t know, Noel. Something like the revelations from the Senate Estimates process just last week, which showed the man who signs Noel’s cheques — Mal Brough — has not spent one red cent of the $120 million he announced (with great fanfare) early last year to increase policing in remote communities.

It’s one thing to report violence, albeit passionately and from an informed perspective. It’s another thing altogether to ignore the cause. And the reality is federal and state governments do bugger-all to help Indigenous people because not only will pouring money into Aboriginal programs and infrastructure not help win you an election.

In fact, it will actually help lose you one.

Peter Fray

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