In Responsibilities Begin Dreams

So many headlines and accusations. So much hand-wringing. But [Australian Aboriginal leader] Noel Pearson sums up the root problem in three words. “It’s the grog.” Addiction and passivity. And of such magnitude that Pearson fears for the future of his “mob” in the Cape. “You know, when I was growing up here, the missions weren’t bloody Club Med or anything; they weren’t without their problems, but what you had were poor families that were basically functional, but now...”

The debate surrounding self-determination, which he worries is all about “power and no responsibility,” is meaningless, he argues, unless we “do the hard yards on issues like grog and violence.”

In 1995, Pearson took then-Prime Minister Paul Keating for a visit to his home community of Hopevale in Cape York in Far North Queensland. Both were still basking in the triumphalist afterglow of the historic passage of the Native Title Act. But Keating, nearly always the self-described “big-picture man,” took one look at Hopevale and helped Pearson, the Sydney University-trained lawyer, see something else as well. “I drove Keating around the town and I remember, he looked around the place and after a while said: ‘Why is it such a mess?’ ” Pearson starts to laugh as he half attempts an imitation of Keating in responsive spur-of-the-moment overdrive. “You could see him, you know; he was turning himself straight away into the landscape architect, and he was going to drive the whole thing himself. But it put the wood on me, I can tell you. Here I was, I had a great understanding of why things were the way they were. But it was like seeing it for the first time through someone else’s eyes. Keating was saying, ‘You can’t make excuses for this.’ And he was right. It was a bit of a turning point for me. It made me realize that we have to take charge and clean up the mess.”

Pearson no longer talks about the “mess” of communities in the Cape, such as Hopevale and Lockhart River and even more remote places like Aurukun. There’s only one word he uses over and over to describe the social chaos and personal devastation that’s crippling opportunity and wasting talent.

“What we’re facing now is an epidemic. An epidemic of grog and drug addiction.” The Aboriginal governing body, ATSIC [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission], barely mentions the corrosive effects of alcoholism, one more instance of its complete lack of focus.
But Pearson has had enough. He’s tired of libertarian permissiveness and is fed up with those who talk about harm-minimization. As for community leaders, some of whom are addicts themselves, well, he’s had it with them as well.

Pearson is talking about a war. He’s got a few allies, some battle-hardened combatants who “are on message on this stuff.” They’re working toward a single goal. To get the grog out of the Cape.

This is a mighty ambition. Far North Queensland, a place of spectacular natural beauty, is also a part of the country that floats on alcohol. The 1995 encounter with Keating convinced him that a “rights agenda” based on laws and political settlements, even treaties, is all very well, but how does that help Aboriginal babies who come into the world with fetal alcohol syndrome?

If he sounds like a zealot, a crusader, even at times like an old-fashioned missionary, it’s because wherever he looks in his own backyard, he sees the collapse of social order. “The situation is so bad that the love that Aboriginal people have for their children doesn’t stop their abusive behavior, a behavior that destroys any prospect of a good future for those children.” Pearson says all this with such rawness that it cuts right through the the self-justifying debate that is now engulfing much of the Aboriginal leadership elite and the latest action plan of well-meaning bureaucrats.

So we’re now to have a campaign against violence and sexual abuse in indigenous communities? Pearson can’t believe it. Get a handle on addiction, he argues, and watch as the statistics on domestic violence, incarceration, and social retention rates improve. A turnaround in the shocking health figures? Again Pearson says, “You’ve got to cure the grog first, because people on grog don’t give a fuck about nutrition or exercise or safe sex, or anything else.”

Pearson has clearly spent a good bit of time studying addiction. What he’s come to hate is the way “the grog has infiltrated our culture. It’s made us manipulate each other. So a lot of us end up facilitating the abuse. But now we just have to stand up to abuse and say no to manipulation. It means not giving money to relatives. I tell you what, if I walk down the street here, and one of my mob asks me for money, I try and dodge ’em.”

Settled into a quiet table at the Red Ocre, he’s happy to be more expansive about some of his other attackers. In recent weeks, Democrats Sen. Aden Ridgeway has taken a bat to Pearson on the basis that his ideas can’t be any good because of the right-wing cheer squad they attract.

Where Ridgeway speaks almost exclusively about salvation through rights, Pearson’s approach is broader and much more demanding. “You know, mate, I’m as good as Aden or anyone else in fighting for rights. I could have stayed in that zone, and all my supporters would have felt comfortable with that. And I know that there are things that I’m now saying that are pretty bracing for many on the left. I say to them, ‘Listen, these are people we claim to care about.’ And the fact of it is our people are suffering because of a lack of responsibility. It’s a simple equation. It’s about rights and responsibilities.” As for contemporary ideas from the left/liberal spectrum, the sort of ideas that will make a tangible difference, Pearson jokes darkly that what you end up with is a suggestion for “an act that outlaws substance abuse for children. You could pass that tomorrow and it wouldn’t make a bit of a difference.”

Equally, Pearson has little patience for the approach that says, “ ‘Let’s take some time to understand the nature of this problem.’ Understanding doesn’t confer a solution. It doesn’t get you anywhere. All this stuff about historic causes and victimization. Well, it’s true. We have been grossly victimized. But we’re not victims. To say that people are, is to take away the last thing that they have, and that is their own power to change.”

And if this means you end up keeping company with a right-wing cheer squad as Ridgeway claims?…So be it?

Pearson stares across the table for a couple of seconds: “It’s not in our interests to get sucked into these things. But the fact is, where the left has been very good to us in terms of rights, at the other end of the spectrum we have a lot to learn from the conservatives about social uplift and economic inclusion.”

Pearson has finished his fish and pushed aside his plate. He’s keen to talk about his battle plan. Start at the top. The premier. “Beattie is terrific. He gets it. But it’s the bureaucrats. The white fellas, mate. I have a lot of problems there.” He’s talking about the health officials, the ones he says peddle a “harm reduction ideology, and I tell you it just doesn’t work up here.” Pearson says much of this ends up being a “complete farce.”

“In one community, the state bureaucrats put a bus service to transport intoxicated people from the tavern or the canteen to a safe house. The safe house of course is ‘home,’ which immediately makes it an unsafe place. But what happened was the bus ended up being used as a courtesy vehicle that transported people to the tavern. People would hail it down. So instead of walking the one kilometer to start drinking, everyone got a lift. The bus, all $40,000 of it, became a facilitator of abuse. What a farce!”

Pearson became convinced that a soft approach was useless when he realized that every social layer of the communities had been caught up in the contagion of alcohol. “When I was growing up, it was rare to see women drinking. But I started noticing a big change in the ’80s, when I came back here as a counselor. By then, around 70 percent of women were drinking.”

But slowly he is attracting allies. Some of the women from the communities are behind him. He wants a zero-tolerance attitude toward the dealers in the streets of Cairns who are pushing both marijuana and heroin onto children. As for the communities, he’s pushing them to trial prohibition.

Before he gets up to leave, he mentions that “just a few days ago I was looking through some photos from the early days. And one of the girls I spotted…ended up murdered.”

He stops, perhaps thinking of the details, and then says with tremendous conviction and affirmation, “You know there’s great talent here as well. That has to be my starting point. A completely unprejudiced view of the capacity of our people. You have to believe our people are capable of anything.”