New hope for indigenous Australians
6th December 2004

THE response of Prime Minister John Howard yesterday to the offer of a new approach to indigenous Australians, as outlined by Noel Pearson and Patrick Dodson, was one of optimism and caution.

Optimism, because much of what Mr Pearson and Mr Dodson propose accords neatly with the policies of the Howard Government; caution because the difficulties which the two indigenous leaders face with the new approach within the wider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities should not be underestimated. That said, however, it does seem possible that we are seeing the beginning of a new era in indigenous affairs, one which with a great deal of hard work will see the end of the welfare mentality and the pre-eminence of mutual obligation. Most importantly, for a leader like Mr Dodson to acknowledge mutual obligation has a resonance within Aboriginal culture and that he can work with John Howard is a huge step forward.

Mr Pearson, whose stature as a leader grows daily, has been propounding the mutual obligation approach for more than half a decade. He has achieved practical results within his own community on Cape York, results that attest to the virtues and advantages of this approach over the rights agendas of the 1970s and 1980s. Mr Pearson detests what he calls "sit down money", welfare for welfare's sake, which has turned out to be corrosive and destructive. As an individual, he personifies the benefits of self-discipline, hard work and abstinence from the substances so often abused in indigenous communities. That he has managed to forge a partnership with Mr Dodson is testament to his vision and his negotiating skills.

The conversion of Patrick Dodson is no less important.

He and his brother Mick Dodson have pursued the rights agenda, perhaps best illustrated by the High Court's decision in the Mabo and Wik cases. This has been an important agenda but in terms of delivering practical outcomes it, like the ill-fated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, has been a substantial failure. The best demonstration of the huge differences in the two approaches can be seen by comparing and contrasting the achievements within Mr Pearson's Hope Vale community and the abject and unutterably sad failure that is Palm Island to the south.

With agreement between these two impressive indigenous leaders, the Howard Government now has an opportunity unmatched in recent history. Little doubt exists as to the Howard Government's authority, or its mandate. The responsible minister, Amanda Vanstone, is much more sympathetic than might appear on the surface. In both immigration and indigenous affairs, Mrs Vanstone has been a quiet reformer. She is likely to jump at the chances being offered by this new approach. John Howard, whose relationships with indigenous Australians have been troubled think the refusal to say sorry and his hectoring performance at a reconciliation conference also has an opportunity.

With probably less than a full term remaining as prime minister, he should devote himself to indigenous issues. To make a beneficial difference would cap what has been, on any account, an outstanding period as prime minister.