Address to the Social Entrepreneurs 

Network Conference

Carlton Crest Hotel, Melbourne

4 March, 2002

Noel Pearson - Executive Director, Cape York Partnerships

1.  Introduction

Social entrepreneurship amongst marginalised people in Australia is a work in early progress.  In Cape York Peninsula, we are still making things up as we go along.   We are trying to learn from other people’s experiences, and we are developing our own experiences and stories of social enterprise.  We are inspired by the work of social entrepreneurs in other parts of the country and across the world – Reverend Andrew Mawson’s work in East London and his advice to those of us concerned about depressed and problem-ridden communities and the work of the Community Action Network is invaluable.  The establishment of this Antipodean Social Enterprise Network is hopefully going to mean that social enterprise will displace social welfare work as the principal method which we use to confront social problems.

It is now clear to many of us in Cape York that traditional social welfare work has ended up only dealing with emergency relief and in lubricating the wheels of the formal welfare and justice systems that are now like sausage machines – they just help in the processing of members of marginal communities through the criminal justice system or the emergency relief systems.  This social work and the social programs of government do not provide solutions that are truly radical, in the sense that they do not help to get people out of the social and economic traps and cycles in which they are caught.   Whatever needs to be done to improve the opportunity structures of society (and much needs to be done) it is in the area of preparing people with the necessary social stability and personal outlooks which can enable them to take up opportunities and to exploit their native talents and passions – that social enterprise has the most to offer.  The thing that social enterprise does with people who have been written off is that it engages them in real economic life and it is this material engagement that underpins a change in social outlook and preparedness.  Professor Robert Manne has alleged that my fundamental argument about passive welfare in Cape York is that no society can exist without an economic purpose – and he is dead right.  Whether it was the subsistence economy of hunter-gatherers or work in the modern market economy – it is a fair opportunity to engage in one’s own material existence that underpins skill, pride, purpose, a sense of achievement and fulfilment, dignity and hope.  This is well-known, yet the Welfare State forgot this when it confronted people who became more and more dependent upon it for their subsistence.  Social entrepreneurs understand the centrality of economic engagement in individual and social wellbeing.

Let me refer to two social enterprise projects that we are growing in Cape York. 

Firstly, the Boys from the Bush project was developed by a one-time youth justice case worker from the Queensland Department of Families, Milton James.  Milton developed a methodology for working with indigenous youth offenders who are subject to a court order to participate in the Boys from the Bush program.  But the Boys from the Bush is not a program in the welfare sense, it is a social enterprise.  It centres around the development and operation of an real enterprise, in which the youth participate in all aspects of harvesting, production and marketing of niche melaleuca oils.  Counselling of youth who, without this opportunity would likely continue their careers of increasing interaction with the juvenile and eventually adult criminal justice systems, takes place in the context of real (hard) work, business planning and operation (production, selling) and personal income earning.  These simple ingredients of work, enterprise operation and income earning are, in my observation, the key to success and they add true meaning to the personal and group counselling which accompanies the enterprise.  Personal and group counselling independent of the enterprise, in my judgment, would not produce the change in outlook which the Boys from the Bush is producing amongst these young people.  Milton James is in fact a classic example of that rare species: a civic entrepreneur, someone from the public service who has adopted an entrepreneurial approach to tackling a large and important social problem.

Secondly, the communities of Aurukun, Coen and Mossman Gorge are now implementing, with the support of the Commonwealth Government and Westpac, systems of Family and Personal Income Management.  Our aim is to assist families and individuals to get their domestic and personal circumstances in order. It is an obvious fact that the meagre resources of these low-income families are dysfunctionally connected to a vortex of substance abuse and exploitation (gambling, payday lenders, exorbitant credit, shopkeepers and taxi drivers holding key cards et cetera) – which evaporate the resources of these communities like water hitting hot pavement.  Families need to get their domestic circumstances in order and the management of income is a crucial need – well-recognised by the people themselves, not the least the women of the communities.  To break the systemic dysfunctions that currently make our meagre welfare resources useless (and indeed destructive – because a large proportion is directed to feeding the gambling and substance abuse epidemics), Family Income Management will provide those money management facilities and services that are available to people in the wider Australian community, as well as facilities that address the unique circumstances of Aboriginal families that have low incomes.  But our Family Income Management enterprise will also have to confront the structural problems of current welfare income delivery – so that the aspiration of families to manage their income and to make improvements to their domestic lives, can be properly realised.

I want to outline what we are doing with our Cape York enterprise, where we have come from and where we are at.  I want to set out some of the strategic thinking behind our attempt to confront the social and economic marginalisation of a discrete region of traditional Aboriginal communities, numbering around 10,000 plus people, and scattered over an area the size of Victoria.

Before I do this, I want to make two points about the social recovery of communities such as ours:

  • Firstly, social entrepreneurship should not be confined to discrete social enterprises that achieve discrete success that makes us hopeful and excited, but which does not form part of a wider social transformation.  If there is one thing I take keenly from Andrew Mawson it is the scope of his ambition for the people of his community in East London.  This ambition is founded on a fundamental belief in the capacity and potential of ordinary people – which social entrepreneurship can help to unleash.  Social transformation in communities will occur where there is an array of social enterprises that engage people in all areas of economic and social activity.

There is a danger that we allow social entrepreneurship to follow the path of previous philanthropy and charity, in aiming to provide solutions to discrete problems and opportunities – without looking at the big picture confronting particular locations: regions, towns and villages.  True many of the models for social enterprises have been developed by previous and existing philanthropic and charitable work that have long understood that traditional social welfare work is not working.  We can learn from and develop further these models.  But my point is that we must, at the same time, direct social entrepreneurship at the bigger picture facing depressed communities.  In other words we must confront the larger structural impediments to “community development”: that is we must work to reform the way in which the Welfare State interacts with marginal peoples, and we must work to reconfigure the ways in which it makes public investment into marginal communities – so that the Welfare State becomes the enabling investor in social uplift, and not a prime culprit in the promotion of passivity, which it has unfortunately degenerated into.

  • Secondly, the opportunity-seizing focus of social entrepreneurship (rather than just “addressing needs”) is the correct methodology, but we must understand that Our Oour stratOoSSSSSS, and I refer to substance abuse  primarily.  The substance abuse epidemics that afflict communities such as my own will not be overcome through the development of opportunities.  As I will explain later in my talk, substance abuse must be confronted as a problem in its own right – opportunity development and access will not curb the abuse.  We must understand the social processes that operate to spread abusive behaviour, and how – once an epidemic is in full swing within a community – the development of opportunities aimed at diverting people away from abuse will not work without a social confrontation of the abuse.

Let me now take you through our thinking in Cape York.

2.         Our two key problems of the most strategic importance

Our two key problems of the most strategic importance in Cape York are:

  •  Passive welfare dependency, and

  • Substance Abuse epidemics

It is these two problems that we must tackle, vigorously, directly and urgently.  I have described these problems in other speeches and publications so I will not repeat them here (see the Charles Perkins Memorial Oration and other publications at

3.         Our strategic response: social entrepreneurship and partnerships aimed at enabling community development

Our response to the need to tackle these key problems is to develop social entrepreneurship and partnerships to enable “community development”.  Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, first responded to our agenda in the middle of 1999 and in May 2000 he launched Cape York Partnerships as official policy of his government.  He has sought bipartisan political support for the policy and hosted a conference in Weipa inviting business and philanthropic leaders to contribute to partnerships in the Cape. 

The development of partnerships with the business and philanthropic sectors has since been driven by indigenous leaders and organisations from Cape York.  Indigenous Enterprise Partnerships is now established as a partnerships interface with the business and philanthropic sectors.  Indigenous Enterprise Partnerships came about after a couple of years of discussion between Cape York leaders and The Body Shop Australia – and we now have very active engagement from the private sector, particularly from here in Melbourne.

Our experience is that the private sector quickly grasps “social enterprise” and “partnerships” and government does not.  Instead the Queensland Government bureaucracy interprets “partnerships” as a continuation of existing government programs and service delivery with an emphasis on “whole of government” “coordination”.  There is no grappling with the passivity which unilateral Welfare State “service delivery” has caused in indigenous affairs in the past.   Whilst government agencies are urged to think about “new methods of service delivery”, they don’t realise that service delivery to passive clients is part of our passive welfare problem.  So we have a situation wherever every gallah in every pet shop is calling what they do “partnerships” without fundamentally changing the Welfare State’s relationship to Aboriginal people.

There is little comprehension of, and indeed a mule-headed resistance to social entrepreneurship.   The work of civic entrepreneurs within the government’s own ranks – people such as Milton James from the Boys from the Bush – is not recognised for the critical benefits such a social enterprise is yielding and will continue to yield in an area of social problems which was otherwise hopeless and depressing.  I mean for God’s sake, more than a third of juveniles in detention in Queensland are indigenous!  And yet, this failure or indeed, inability to recognise value, is hallmark of a welfare bureaucracy that does not know how to help marginal peoples get out of their predicaments.

We are used to thinking of people with entrepreneurial skills working exclusively in the private sector, where the ability to sense new demands and re-configure resources to meet these new demands can bring great rewards to the imaginative entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship requires risk-taking and risk capital, both seen as impossible in the public sector.

But is it necessarily so, that all visionary opportunists have been drawn to big business?  I think there is a great potential for innovation outside the corporate world.  Indeed, I think there are great tasks lying ahead of us, that can only be tackled by a new kind of entrepreneur, which cuts across the traditional boundaries between the public, private and voluntary sectors of our society.

The potential for innovation in the public sector is constrained by the traditional organisation of public service.  Public service is compartmentalised; each department deals with a special problem.  Public organisations have statutory responsibilities.  This is understandable, because we created them to deliver a certain amount of certain services in a totally predictable way.  Since public service is financed with public money, there is a great emphasis on financial accountability which makes it impossible to take a risk that can lead to enormous success, because a failure with public money will be regarded as waste or fraud.

In the last decades, there have been two major changes relevant for our discussion about a vision for the public sector.  To begin with, the output of the private sector economy has become more intangible – services, information, know-how.  This is more similar to the traditional output of the public sector, and it should therefore be easier to see that the immaterial nature of what we expect from the public sector doesn’t exclude entrepreneurial vision.  But at the same time, the public sector has been made more efficient (when not outright privatised) with business-like management methods: down-sizing, performance measurement and so on.  Therefore we now tend to think that the public sector has reached it limits, that it is working at optimal efficiency for minimal cost, and that we can’t get anything further out of the public sector.

But this is only true if we define the expected output of the public sector in the traditional terms, in discrete units like patients treated, hospital beds occupied, students taught, unemployed fed, criminals convicted and so on.  Instead we need to totally redefine the expected outcome: we want holistic and lasting solutions to complex social problems.  The performance measurement should be: to what extent does the public sector create the outcomes that society wants?  And this question should be asked on the very large scale.

When you look at things in this light, you see that the resources of the public sector are paradoxically under-utilised rather than cut back to a minimum.  In our society we do not starve, we work for the dole, our children are taught at school, our diseases are treated, the police arrest us.  That is, a certain number of units of traditional public services are produced.  But in terms of the outcomes we should expect on a large scale, not much is achieved.  We do not eat well, we don’t learn to work in the market economy, we don’t become less ignorant, we don’t become healthy and free from violence and grog and drugs.  As the public resources are used now, total collapse is just avoided, but nobody expects anything positive ever to emerge from our direction.  The common sector is just a life-sustaining drip feed, and we hover in limbo indefinitely.

The social entrepreneur is somebody who manages to mobilise the under-utilised common resources in order to achieve lasting change.  But the main assets the social entrepreneur are creating and working with are relationships.  Unexpected relationships between members of the local communities, staff of government structures, at all levels, business people, politicians, anybody who has an interest in social development where it was thought not to be possible.

There are people who want to take on this role, and there are people in the communities who will be inspired by them.  These things are beginning to happen in many countries, where the public sector faces the same challenges as in our country.  The rationalised public sector we have now could just as well be replaced by private enterprises that sell their products to the state or directly to the citizens. 

We must ask ourselves: what is it that only the common sector can achieve, if it is revitalised and liberated?  The answer is: facilitating the large-scale return to active participation in economic and social life by those communities and those people that have been written off by both business and government, and also by the majority of the citizens.

The social entrepreneurs will mobilise and concentrate public resources that are split between different specialised departments.  They will form alliances, a network of support from business and philanthropic organisations.

But it is also not only a question of formal structure.  It is a question of new thinking among people in power, and among us – the written off.

We need resource people working in the communities who encourage, excite, inspire, come up with new ideas, coax new ideas out of people, think in new ways, get people motivated, assist – but not people who serve our people and do things for them that they should be doing themselves.  We need social entrepreneurs not public servants!  How do we find them?  How do we encourage a new approach, a new mentality on the part of people who are supposed to be facilitating change on the ground level?

As we have said, it is not just a matter of changing formal structures – it is a matter of new thinking.  People working in ‘community development’ at the ground level must be infused with this new thinking.  After all, they are the people who must spark the new entrepreneurialism in the way we approach our problems and opportunities.  They are the people who are going to implement the new entrepreneurial methodology.

The main quality of such social entrepreneurs will be their belief in the capacity of our people.  There must be absolutely no hesitation on this.  They have to know our potential as a people such that they will never presume that our future lies in other people – least of all the social entrepreneur – “saving” or “serving” us.  They will harbour not a skerrick of racist presumption about our people such that their expectations of our people will be less than the expectations they might have for themselves or their own kin.  They will be alive to double standards and eschew them when the standards that are sought to be applied to our people are just excuses.  This is not to say that they will not be aware of and sensitive to genuine cultural differences – but they will be equally aware that ‘cultural differences’ is more often than not used to justify poor performance and substandard expectations.

To avoid creating relationships of dependency and passivity, the social entrepreneur will have strong thinking to guide his or her role.  They will face situations where they will be under pressure to do things in the ‘traditional’ way – through ‘service delivery’, rather than maximum self-service.  Many social and ideological pressures will be brought to bear, but the social entrepreneur will resist returning to the old ‘saviour/servant’ model of leadership.

4.         Some points about community development

There are a number of lessons that we should consider from earlier approaches to “community development”.   Andrew Mawson’s lecture tour to Australia two years ago was particularly enlightening for us – confirming from his practical experiences our own suspicions about traditional thinking about community development (Brisbane Institute, 11 April 2000).  I also found a discussion paper by Coral Gilbert, developed for the Northwest Mental Health Services in the Kimberley, very insightful (December, 1999).  These are some of the points that guide our thinking about social enterprise and partnerships in the Cape:

  • The relationship between community development and structural change

It is critically important to understand the distinction between structural change and what is commonly called ‘community development’.

Discussions about policies for social and economic development of our communities are necessarily proceeding  from a regional perspective in Cape York.  We are asking ourselves: what can we do from the regional perspective in relation to our social and economic situation?

Our answer to this question must be: we cannot, from a regional perspective, plan and implement the community development actions necessary to achieve change on the ground.  It is families and individuals on the ground who must generate the actions necessary to achieve change. 

No matter how rational our “programs” might seem to those of us working in government departments and community organisations – no matter how much sense they make to us (if only the people out on the ground would do what we told them to do) – it should now be obvious to us that this approach does not work.

Rather it is the people who are “working under the hot sun” with all of the limitations, problems, opportunities, excitement, apathy, skills, lack of skills, assets and deficiencies – who are going to get action happening.  It is the people at the ground level who are going to develop and implement the ideas that will produce change.  They will also listen to and borrow ideas from other people and places – but they will actually engage other individuals and families in thinking about and actioning these ideas.  Without this engagement then all great plans will be useless.

So it is true that change must occur at the “root of the grass”, as some old friends in Cape York used to say.

In this paper we will term action and change at the grassroots as “community development”.  But let us be careful not to automatically assume that all of the ideas and assumptions usually associated with “community development” apply to the concept of community development that we are talking about here. 

How might our concept of community development differ from the traditional and popularly understood meaning?  I think as follows:

  • It is not a simple matter of “bottom-up” change (the same as it is not a matter of “top-down” change).  It is more complex than that.  As we shall soon argue, change will require structural reform, and bottom-up change thinking is too naïve

  • When we talk of “community” we are not talking about a uniformly equal group of communitarians completely devoted to the common good embodied in some official communal structure.  This romantic leftist notion of community has underwritten the predominant approach to Aboriginal affairs policy over the past three decades and it is not in accord with our social reality.  It has in fact produced a structural apathy that has crushed and weakened the initiative of families and individuals

  •  We are now talking about a new entrepreneurialism in the way we approach things.  We want to take some of the better methods of economic entrepreneurship and apply them to our social and civic domains – within a framework of private and public regulation and accountability.  We are not aiming to just provide “services” and address “needs” and “problems” – we are instead aiming to seize opportunities and take advantage of chances

  • We are not just simply seeking to develop “the community” as a whole – though the community exists at a certain level of identification.  Rather we are seeking out and investing in the spark, initiative and passion of individuals who are members of families and communities and who ultimately comprise the community

  • Opportunities and assets, not just needs and problems

Coral Gilbert’s paper should open our eyes to what she calls the “dead end” of needs driven approaches to community development.  As she points out, there is a huge governmental and academic industry built around the needs based approach.  Aboriginal society is mapped according to its deficiencies rather than its assets and opportunities.

Gilbert’s discussion paper resonated with our sense of the failures of the “service delivery” mindset in Aboriginal affairs policy.  Governments and academics study and measure needs and they then design “services” to “address” the needs.  These needs are supposed to be addressed through “delivery” by bureaucrats.  That we have indeed reached the dead end of social services delivery when we attempt to promote life itself through a program called a Life Promotion Program, is not necessarily clear to us.

It also resonated with our view that one of the great problems with the anti-poverty agenda of the Australian Welfare State’s interaction with Aboriginal society, and with the thinking that underpinned Aboriginal community development over the past three decades – was that all that they could see were our (material) needs.  They conflated our material poverty with social poverty.  They then embarked on a comprehensive program to “address” our material “needs” whilst crushing our social strengths and capacities and creating and compounding a sense of spiritual poverty.  That this is still the prevailing policy in Aboriginal affairs is clear.

The point is that our task is two-fold: to resolve problems and to seize opportunities.  Indeed, we should reverse the order to emphasise that, in relation to many of our aspirations, we in fact can resolve problems by seizing opportunities.  Often (but not all the time) the resolution of problems can be a by-product of taking up positive opportunities.

When we understand that we must identify and seize opportunities – we then understand that we are looking to positive things, not just our problems.  We also understand that to seize opportunities, we have to be entrepreneurial.  Entrepreneurs are not blocked by problems, they do not resign themselves to failure.  They do not just dream of what they could do, “if only”…they have a dream, but meanwhile they make do with what they have.  They create opportunity out of the assets that are at their disposal.  They go with and martial the strengths.  They seek answers, not just problems.  They in fact work out how impediments can become opportunities.

In order to develop such an entrepreneurial outlook, we must understand that the needs-based approach to our social and economic predicament is ultimately premised upon a conscious or unconscious lack of belief in our capacity and potential as a people.

  • People before structures - networks, not just structures

Andrew Mawson’s fundamental advice is that the way forward lies with people, not structures.  He said:

My experience of people in the East End of London is that we all have passions of one kind or another.  Some of them might be a bit dodgy, but actually we have got them and you have actually got to start where people’s passions are.

We began to back people, not structures.

The same point applies to the importance of creating flat networks of individuals and organisations, rather than hierarchical structures.

  • People, not just Four our OurOuO programs – the topdown fallacy

Related to Andrew Mawson’s advice about ‘people, not structures’ is the idea that we must think more in terms of ‘people, not programs’.  This follows on from our understanding about the limits of social ‘service delivery’.  Yes, transport, water supply, local government services and technical medical services – these are all legitimate areas for service delivery.  But the Welfare State has overwhelmed families by intruding into social life and taking responsibility for things that should be the domain of families.  The Welfare State, in its (correct) concern to transfer resources from government to the community – has done this through unfortunate methods that have created dependency and passivity.  The need to transfer resources is unquestionable, but the methods of transfer must be reconsidered.

In re-thinking the methods of the Welfare State’s interaction with families and individuals, we have to think in terms of people, not programs.  We have to break out of the entrenched mentality that we need to devise more programs to overcome problems, and we must instead focus on people.  Good people working on the ground will work out the actions and the plans to achieve the necessary changes.

  • The bottom up fallacy – and the mantra about consultation

This is what Andrew Mawson says :

            We had Germaine Greer with us for a few days. I said: “What do you make of it?  What is going on here, Germaine?”. She said, “Andrew, what is going on here is not top down and it is not bottom up either”.  This bottom up idea thinks that people who are poor know what they want and know what their choices are – nonsense.  You don’t know what the choices are when you have only tasted three bottles of wine from the supermarket.  You don’t realise there are another 27 bottles.  I am letting them taste the whole of the 27 and then ask them what they want, and what you find is East Enders are not stupid.  They know.  “This is not top down”, says Germaine. “This is not bottom up either. This is inside out.”

            It seems to me that a lot of the liberal ideas of the 1970s were a nice idea in theory but actually they moved so far from reality that we got into real difficulty.  It is about people before structures.

Related to the mantra about “bottom up” change is the “consultation” mantra.  Again this is what Andrew Mawson said about consultation:

            But how do you involve people? Governments, of course, get all into this thing, let’s consult everyone.  Clever little trick that.  There is a seaside resort near the East End of London where all East Enders go called Walton-on-the-Neys.  It is a nice little seaside resort.  Nothing like your seaside by the way.  You have got serious seaside here, but it is an attempt in England.  They all used to go there.

I remember sitting down in the early days with a youth worker and she is saying to the East End kids, “What do you want to do?”  And they said, “Well miss, we want to go to Walton-on-the-Neys, horse riding and ice skating”.  So I went with them.  We all went and did this, and then we sat down again and she said “What do you want to do?” They said “Well we want to go to Walton-on-the-Neys, horse-riding and ice skating”  I am saying, “Jean, Jean, you are a graduate.  You have actually travelled all over the world.  You have been to Australia.  You are really fortunate.  You have had lots of choices.  Why don’t you suggest you will take these kids off to the Sinai Desert in six months?”  “Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t do that.  And anyway this is asking the people what they want”.  I said, “This is a load of nonsense.  These kids have never known what the choices are”.

It is really interesting that we actually have taken these kids now off to the Sinai Desert.  We have actually taken 600 kids from all over Britain across the Sinai Desert and it is really interesting.  When you sit down and talk to those kids and say, “What do you want”, Darren, a local East Ender never mentions Walton-on-the-Neys.  He’s just gone to America.  He has been on TFI Friday, a major television program, etcetera, etcetera.  His aspirations are up here, not down here.

It is the departments of government that most chant the mantra of consultation.  Under the passive welfare paradigm, where the State’s bureaucracy takes all of the initiative and responsibility and seeks to “deliver services” to hopeless and passive “clients” on the ground through “programs” – consultation is the one right of the people on the ground.  People on the ground do not have the right to take responsibility, they only have “the right to be consulted”.  They do not have the right to negotiate – they have a right to be consulted.  So we have countless consultative committees and advisory committees and reference committees in Aboriginal affairs, and legions of bureaucrats lining up to consult with us about things that they want to do to help us.

5.     Four strategies for moving beyond passive welfare in Cape York

There are four broad strategies that must underpin our enterprise in Cape York if we are to move beyond passive welfare.

  1. We need good resource people: social entrepreneurs, not social welfare bureaucrats

  2. We need to devolve responsibility and resources to families and individuals

  3. We need a constant focus on real economy development

  4. We need to reform governance structures (and our relationship with the Welfare State)

6.    Our strategic response to substance abuse

It is plain to anyone who knows our communities in Cape York that substance abuse a problem that must be confronted or else all of our efforts in social enterprise and partnerships will go nowhere.  The fact is that all of our other social and economic problems are either:

  • directly caused by our substance abuse problems, or

  • if they were pre-existing, are exacerbated by our substance abuse problems, or

  • solutions to these problems are frustrated and prevented by our substance abuse problems

We therefore first applied ourselves to gaining an understanding the of substance abuse problems amongst our people.  The analysis we have made of the problems, which will not be repeated here (see the Charles Perkins Memorial Oration proceeds from the insights of the late Professor Nils Bejerot and the late Hope Vale leader, Mervyn Gibson.  The analysis contains the following elements:

1.   The symptom theory is wrong – addiction is a condition in its own right

2.   Addiction is a learned behaviour – which has the function of making us socially and politically powerless

3.   Five factors involved in substance abuse

a.  Availability of addictive substance

b.   Money

c.   Time

d.   Example of abuse in the immediate environment

e.   Permissive social standard and ideology in relation to the substance abuse

4.     Substance abuse is a psychosocial epidemic in our communities – it is a learned behaviour

5.     Almost all of our other social problems are derivative of our substance abuse problems

It actually took forceful advocacy in the early stages to get the Queensland Government bureaucracy, particularly its health department, to acknowledge the central importance of substance abuse to the health of Cape York people.  Grog was just treated as one of a number of underlying causes of poor health.

The appointment of Justice Tony Fitzgerald to undertake the Cape York Justice Study demonstrated the commitment of Premier Beattie to confronting the root causes of the violence and poor health in Cape York communities.  The Fitzgerald Report’s greatest achievement is the focus which it gave to the need for the people of Cape York and government to confront the grog problem.

The impetus and focus was correct, even if the analysis and proposed remedies followed traditional thinking about substance abuse strategies.  The traditional thinking about substance abuse strategies cover four areas of action:

1.   Control supply/availability

2.    Prevention

3.    Harm Reduction

4.    Treatment and Rehabilitation

In my view this traditional thinking is flawed and useless, and it does not respond to substance abuse as socially contagious epidemics.

We have therefore developed a strategic response based on the epidemic analysis of substance abuse, which cover six areas of action:

1.  (Re)building a social, cultural (and if appropriate, religious) and therefore legal intolerance of abuse

2.  Control supply/availability

3.  Managing money

4.  Managing time

5.  Treatment and Rehabilitation – including mandatory treatment

6.  Improving the living and community environment

The greatest opportunity which the Fitzgerald Justice Study has provided us is in relation to the need for the State Government to work with us to control supply/availability.

People have criticised the "zero tolerance" element in my policies but they haven’t discussed the totality of what I said about substance abuse in my Charles Perkins Memorial Oration.  Following Nils Bejerot's understanding of substance abuse as psychosocially contagious epidemics, I contended that substance abuse is not a symptom of Aboriginal trauma and dispossession in the sense that it is directly caused by our past and ongoing suffering.  Trauma and exclusion originally made (some of) us susceptible to adopting abusive behaviours.  Trying addictive substances is perhaps a symptom of "underlying issues" but an established addiction is a condition in it's own right, not a symptom, and it does not go away when we try to address the "underlying issues" in our communities.  Instead of a symptom, addiction is an artificially induced drive at the heart of the will of the addict, and the addicts are the full time counsels of the defence for their substance abuse. They will monopolise and consume the human and material resources that are applied to reduce "Indigenous disadvantage" to facilitate leading their abusive lives. When we fail to treat the "pioneering" addicts with mandatory, drug free rehabilitation, the epidemics gain momentum because abusive behaviour gradually becomes a less severe breach of social norms and the less disturbed community  members easily gets sucked into the vortex of abuse.  And it is difficult to  divert them away from substance abuse when it starts to become the new social norm.

It is mainly during the first part of his or her career that an addict spreads the abusive behaviour, not when he or she has become a social invalid. With policies based on harm minimisation strategies such as voluntary rehabilitation of advanced addicts we might at best reduce the prevalence (the number of active abusers) marginally, or more likely we will transfer addicts to a “controlled” drug use with less strain on them and society. But we will not reduce the incidence (the number of new cases in a certain period of time) because we have no efficient methods for influencing the behaviour of the addicts that are spreading the abuse, and the people just about to be recruited (these people perceive no harm to be minimised).  And if we are unable to reduce the incidence we will not curb the epidemics.

Some critics of my policies ask whether I want to encourage "special restrictions" and "discrimination", but I do not think we can rely on government-imposed prohibition and "policing" by the state.  I want to work with people taking our own responsibility. We will need to organise ourselves in each community and make it clear not only to the addicts but above all to the people on the verge of beginning a life of abuse, that no illicit substances and no abuse of alcohol or inhalants such as petrol will be tolerated. This it more important than trying to persuade the addicts to quit by offering them more resources (they will choose our material and human support AND the substance abuse) and trying to divert non-addicts away from drugs.  Diversion is of course always necessary and some people are very successful at it but without the support of severe restrictions it is an uphill battle in our communities).

In our communities in Cape York Peninsula, the strategic problem facing us now is that many of us have outlooks and behaviours totally shaped by passive welfare and substance abuse which leads to ruthlessness, violence and social disintegration.  This circumstance will destroy (find better word) our efforts to alleviate "Aboriginal disadvantage" in the areas of education, health housing et cetera. I recognise that hard-working Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians have achieved good results in Indigenous infant mortality and many other areas, but I maintain that the numerous small steps and partial victories we have seen will not lead to a closing of the gap between Indigenous people and mainstream Australia without a frontal assault on our two big problems.