Saturday, October 14, 2006

noel pearson

I heard Noel Pearson (Australian aboriginal leader) speak a few years ago and was very impressed by both the insights of his presentation and his powerful oratory

Pearson is the Director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. You can find his articles here. What follows is a brief summary of one of these articles, his Charles Perkins Memorial Oration, On the human right to misery, mass incarceration and early death (October 2001). Read the whole thing.

Pearson identifies the main problems of the aboriginal people as substance abuse and dependency on passive welfare.

This says a lot and risks a lot. These are problems that need to be solved by aboriginal people so he is immediately rejecting victim mentality. It is far better to deal with your own problems than to complain about how enormous they are in such a way as to abandon hope of a positive change for the better

He doesn't reject or dismiss the importance other problems (racism, dispossession and trauma) but he does distinguish clearly betweeen the current main problems and the longer term historical legacy, putting these latter problems in a secondary position for now.
"When abusive behaviour is deeply entrenched in our communities it is not the material destitution , the social ills and historical legacy that fuel the abuse epidemics. It is the epidemics that perpetuate themselves."
This analysis gives hope and real guidance because it means aboriginal and white people can get on with tackling real and urgent issues rather than becoming passive (paralysed by the complexity) and possibly guilty about a huge morass of unresolved issues. Pearson rejects "symptom theory thinking", that the main reason for substance abuse is the despair, hopelessness, social dislocation of aboriginal communities and other "underlying causes". He identifies such thinking as a real problem, causing paralysis.

He states frankly that the situation is worse now than ever before, with respect to life expectancy, illiteracy, the abuse and neglect of children, the numbers of aboriginal people in prison and juvenile institutions, alcohol abuse, petrol sniffing, violence against old people for money and grog.
... many of the traditions we purport to follow are too often merely self-deceptions (that we care for each other, that we respect our Elders, that we value our culture and traditons) ... The intrinsic force in the grog and drug epidemic is now stronger than the force of our traditional social norms and values
It takes courage to say these things about your own community but Pearson speaks the hard truths

As well as identifying the main problems, Pearson analyses those problems, traces their history and outlines plausible solutions

Substance abuse / addictions are problems in their own right. The five factors that are needed for an outbreak of substance abuse are present in aboriginal communities: (i) the substance being available (ii) spare time (iii) money (iv) the example of others in the immediate environment and (v) a permissive social ideology

He rejects progressivist solutions of "harm minimisation" and calls for zero tolerance and enforced treatment as the necessary steps to break out of endemic substance abuse:
The absolute intolerance of illicit drugs, absolute enforcement of social order, and mandatory treatment is the core of the strategy
He identifies it as a political struggle rather than a health or moral problem. Because, "The social function of substance abuse epidemics is to make people unable to organise themselves, politically and socially"

Pearson's historical analysis of why things are now worse in aboriginal communities is very insightful. He speaks of the
"irony of our newly one citizenship in 1967 was that after we became citizens with equal rights and the theoretical right to equal pay, we lost the meagre foothold that we had in the real economy and we became almost comprehensively dependent on passive welfare for our livelihood"
Pearson describes both the Australian Labour Party and the Coalition as being "half right" and not capable of making the changes required to turn around the social disaster of the Australian aborginal people:
... the Australian Labour Party will be strong and correct in their policies in favour of the rights of Aboriginal people - particularly land rights and native title - and they will be weak and wrong in relation to the breakdown of responsibility in Aboriginal society occasioned by passive welfare dependency, substance abuse and our resulting criminal justice predicaments. The Coalition will better understand the problem of responsibility but will be antipathetic and wrong in relation to the rights of Aboriginal people: they advocate further diminution of the native title property rights of Aboriginal Australians

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