Why Hope Vale is failing to engender much hope

NOEL Pearson is the outstanding Aboriginal leader of the modern era. He has fought, and verbally eviscerated, every government since Bob Hawke’s in Canberra and Peter Beattie’s in Queensland, and each time has come away with a bag of money for his territory, Cape York, and his town, Hope Vale.

His is the outstanding intellect among Aboriginal leaders. Not for him the indulgence of easy excuses for bad behaviour provided in stories of white invasion and black resistance by historian Henry Reynolds, or of racial segregation by filmmaker John Pilger.

Can this pair be any more destructive, any more misleading in their conception of the causes of the current plight of Aborigines?

Pearson has discarded such falsity, and come down to present causes. Bad Aboriginal ways, a culture underpinned by what an Aboriginal colleague describes as “bogan with a touch of new-age mysticism”, and bad white incentives, such as sit-down money and free houses, which have destroyed many Aborigines. Pearson increasingly discards the choir of angels chanting the hymn “the great destruction of a once-proud people”. He has played that card, but gone beyond.

And yet, sometimes, even the great man cannot save his own. Five years after the introduction of Pearson’s project to normalise his own people, Hope Vale has not fared well. Residents of Hope Vale (along with Aurukun, Coen and Mossman Gorge) have been subject to the missionary zeal of a travelling magistrate, a phalanx of rules such as income management (relabelled Mpower), and programs to normalise tenancy and school attendance.

Funding to change behaviour in situ – the desire to save the community and the person – has been generous and long-running. Indeed, funds for Cape York Welfare Reform, which is but one part of government intervention in Hope Vale, runs to four pages of line by line items, and almost $200 million.

The best thing about the CYWR trial and the grog control programs that preceded it, is that governments keep good statistics.

The results from the Annual Highlights Report for Queensland’s Discrete Indigenous Communities July 2010-June 2011, the latest available, written by Kelvin Anderson, the government champion for Hope Vale Director-General Department of Community Safety, are not promising.

There was no statistical evidence of a trend in the admission rate of Hope Vale residents to all hospital facilities for assault-related conditions over the nine years 2002-10. The rate of admission is 35 per 1000; the rate of admission for Queensland is 1 per 1000.

Over the years from 2003-04 to 2010-11, there was no statistical evidence of a trend in the rate of reported serious offences against the person. In 2010-11, the rate of offences against the person in Hope Vale was 43 per 1000; for Queensland it was 7 per 1000.

In 2010-11, the annual rate of Hope Vale children who were the subject of a substantiated notification of harm was 111 per 1000 persons.

This was significantly higher than the rate reported in 2009-10 of 26 per 1000 persons. The rate for Queensland was less than 5 per 1000. The annual rate of Hope Vale children admitted to child protection orders was 54 per 1000 persons in 2010-11, similar to the rate reported for 2009-10 of 49 per 1000 persons.

The rate of attendance at Hope Vale school measured in term 1 2008 and in term 4 2010 was 81 per cent; the Queensland state school average is 90 per cent.

The results from the Family Responsibilities Commission quarterly July-December 2013 report compared with the July-December 2008 report are similarly not promising. There were 76 Magistrates Court notices, down from 106; 190 School Attendance-Enrolment notices, up from 98; 31 Child Safety and Welfare notices down from 55; and six Housing Tenancy notices, up from one Housing Tenancy notice.

About 900 Aboriginal people live in Hope Vale (Aurukun 1100, Coen 300, Mossman Gorge 100). This is no big experiment.

A decade ago, secretary of the Treasury Ken Henry, along with almost every commonwealth head of a department in the Howard government, was a champion of an Aboriginal community. The recently announced Empowered Communities project, co-chaired by Pearson, with its champions and department secretaries is familiar territory. Pearson’s trial is being considered for replication around the country without clear results that it works in his backyard.

The government should wait and watch Pearson’s trial to see whether something actually changes, and have a plan B.

Plan B is boarding school. The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation is on the right track. Until now it has been cherrypicking the best, brightest and most integrated students and sending them to expensive schools.

They have indicated, however, that they are now gearing up to search out children in remote communities. This is good, and can be done more cheaply at regional schools.