Australian politics, society & culture

Great Expectations

Inside Noel Pearson's social experiment

© Brian Cassey
© Brian Cassey

Catherine Ford

Long read8900 words
 
Cover: November 2012
November 2012
How Jean Sibelius ran out of notes
Mark McKenna
They Had It Coming
Judith Brett
Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’
Luke Davies
Matt Walker’s ‘In Echoes of Dawn’
Richard Guilliatt
Bushfire bunkers
Michaela McGuire
Francis Xavier's hand
Michael Lucy
WWF’s Yolanda Kakabadse
Jo Lennan
The Worker's Party
Malcolm Knox
Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz
Helen Garner
Horse racing’s inegalitarian streak
Don Watson

David Glasgow, a tall, portly man in his late 60s, has one of the most challenging jobs in the country as the head of the Family Responsibilities Commission. Established in 2008 at the urgent behest of Noel Pearson, the commission forms a key part of the Aboriginal activist’s ambitious welfare reform trial on Cape York Peninsula. Funded to the tune of $14 million over its initial four years, the commission is charged with intervening in the moral freefall occurring in certain remote indigenous communities, a freefall that decades of well-intended and well-funded social policy failed to arrest and, in Pearson’s view, accelerated.

On a hot Monday morning in September, Glasgow lands with his team in Coen, one of the four trial towns on the Cape. Dressed in the Family Responsibilities Commission’s uniform, a reconstructed safari suit of chinos and a short-sleeved shirt with ‘FRC’ stitched in happy colours on its pocket, Glasgow makes a point of thanking the pilot and conducts himself – as he does throughout the seven days I follow him – with stubborn good cheer. It’s unlikely he’d have lasted four years in the job without it.

Alighting from the same charter flight is commissioner Garry Lloyd Port, of the Lama Lama and Kuku Yalanji clans, a young father raised in Coen but now living in Cairns, along with a case manager, a caseworker and the co-ordinator from the Cairns head office: three steely blondes with sunglasses on, iPhones pinging.

The team travels in two four-wheel drives along Coen’s streets of unshaded, mostly government housing. Indigenous families on their front porches watch the cars pass. The convoy turns by the pub, where a large initial ‘S’ has been amateurishly welded to the front of the rooftop sign reading “Exchange Hotel”.

At a suburban-looking weatherboard house called the Community Justice Centre, the team unloads, dragging briefcases and suitcases of client files across orange sand.

A notice on the message board out front warns succinctly that “There is sniffing in Coen”. Next door is the Wellbeing Centre, a counselling hub established as part of the welfare reform trial, and opposite that the school, which sports the weather-resistant motivational banner seen on all four campuses of the community schools that make up Pearson’s Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy: “Get Ready. Work Hard. Be Good.”

To pause inside this triangle of institutions, at 9 am under an already powerful sun, is to feel something of the ideological squeeze that Pearson’s social reforms are trying to bring to these towns.

Pearson’s stated objective, ergo Glasgow’s, is to restore “socially responsible standards of behaviour” in communities. Key to this is investing lost authority in local indigenous elders, and the commission comprises 19 of them – coming more or less proportionately from the four towns that requested to participate in the trial: Coen, Aurukun, Hope Vale and Mossman Gorge. They work alongside Glasgow and units of Cairns- and locally based caseworkers and support staff.

“The FRC was introduced as a short, sharp shock tactic,” Glasgow tells me in the Justice Centre’s corridor. The thinking behind it, he says, was to help bring those people willing to confront what was going wrong in their towns back from the brink, and thus provide their children with some semblance of normality. In Glasgow’s words, the project has been “an outstanding, exceptional success, but it wasn’t meant to be ongoing”. He adds, with considerable understatement, “This kind of change is hard work.”

One of the triggers for a new approach by government was a highly publicised rape case in Aurukun, a community that has long confounded government efforts to improve social norms. In 2007, a Cairns magistrate judged that a group of nine “naughty” indigenous boys and men, aged between 13 and 25, should be given only suspended sentences for the multiple statutory rape of a ten-year-old local girl. Writing about the case, Marcia Langton, the Aboriginal academic and activist, stated that “it would be a fair bet that each of the adults who pleaded guilty to raping this child was receiving a government social security or Community Development Employment Program payment. It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that dysfunctional Aboriginal behaviour is financially supported by ... government funding.” Further reports of horrific child sexual abuse followed, in Aurukun as well as in other remote indigenous communities.

Aurukun’s social collapse had been described seven years earlier by the anthropologist Peter Sutton in his seminal essay, ‘The Politics of Suffering’. “Aurukun had gone from a once livable and vibrant community ... to a disaster zone. Levels of violent conflict, rape, child and elder assault and neglect had rocketed upwards since the introduction of a regular alcohol supply in 1985,”  Sutton wrote subsequently in a book of the same name, having found himself attending one funeral after another of friends who had died violent deaths. Claiming Aurukun had acquired the nickname ‘Beirut’ in some circles, he described its cemetery as reminiscent of “the Australian war graves at Villers-Bretonneux in France ... Painted crosses, many of them fresh, stretch away seemingly for hundreds of metres.”

By 2000, Sutton, Pearson and Langton, who together helped create the Cape York Land Council in 1990, had come to realise land rights alone were not enough to lift indigenous people out of poverty, at least not while they were mired in welfare dependency. That year Pearson published a manifesto, Our Right to Take Responsibility, which laid bare the nexus between passive welfare dependency and extreme dysfunction. Many indigenous communities had become ghettos in which parents were incapable of providing for their children, and in the years that followed Pearson developed ideas on how best to halt this degeneration. In order to restore social norms, the delivery of housing, education, health and income all required radical reform: it remained up to governments to improve service delivery, but it was up to parents not to squander it. In order to help to re-establish responsible parenting, Pearson devised the Family Responsibilities Commission, and in 2008 the federal and Queensland governments sanctioned his proposed trial. Four years later, these hearings, observed here with clients’ permission, reveal just how tremendously difficult and complex a social-engineering project the commission has been charged with.

*

Coen’s quorum of commissioners sits down on one side of a long wooden table, in the small, hot conference room at the rear of the Justice Centre. There are three: Peter Pedro Peter, a Lama Lama man who has impressive white Bob Katter–style hair and moist, watchful eyes; Garry Port, just in from Cairns; and May Mary Kepple, a tiny woman with her hair pulled back tightly, her bare feet not quite touching the floor. “Do not think,” Glasgow says to me, “that because she is quiet she is not a force to be reckoned with. I would not like to be in trouble with commissioner Kepple.”

Without announcement, the door opens and a handsome, sombre man in his early 20s, wearing boots and a high-vis work jacket, sits down at the table to face the elders.

Glasgow thanks him for coming, and begins to discuss the Magistrates’ Court charges that have brought him before the commission. (Clients are referred through four channels – school notifications on child absenteeism, child safety agencies’ referrals, Magistrates’ Court notices and Department of Housing tenancy breaches.) In this case, police had apprehended him on the highway. He was drunk, carrying a knife and driving while his licence was suspended. When Port asks him where he got the knife, the young man says, with a sheepish smile, that he picked it up in a service station, but was just carrying it around in his back pocket.

“So you didn’t have it out?” Glasgow asks him. “You weren’t waving it around?”

“No,” the man says. “Just in my jeans pocket.”

Port pauses to deliberate, then says evenly, “Try to reduce your drinking. You don’t have to stop drinking, just” – he flattens his hand and indicates pushing something down – “not so much. And don’t carry a knife. If you’re drunk and you get angry, you’re going to use it.”

The man appears to be listening. He’s given a warning, thanked for attending and dismissed; he leaves without a word or a backwards glance.

Glasgow tells me later it’s not uncommon for people to be unaware they are driving without a licence, because the fines sent out may not reach them either in time, if they’re ‘out country’, or at all, if they have no fixed address. Another problem, he says, is that Queensland requires learner drivers to get 100 hours of supervised driving before they can get their P plates. “Where is a person out here going to drive for a hundred hours?” Glasgow asks, somewhat counter-intuitively in a region where the roads stretch for many hundreds of kilometres, even if there’s not a single roundabout or parallel park to come by.

Before the hearings, and sometimes during them, Glasgow defers to local commissioners for their summaries of the character and general reputation of those due to appear. The commissioners will say things like “He’s a respectful boy”, “It’s unusual for her to be like this”, “She’s often drunk” or “Those kids are never at school”. This picture of clients, their histories, behaviour and complex familial and social relationships influences the decisions and recommendations made. The commission attempts to act prudently, tailoring referrals for counselling to the people who come before it.

Glasgow was appointed to lead the commission directly after retiring from his career as a Queensland solicitor, magistrate and coroner. The commission, he explains, is based on the Magistrates’ Court because “that is the model I know”. But in this role he is also facilitator, mentor, guide and prompter. It’s clear in Coen, for instance, that Port, the youngest commissioner, is still learning how to speak up, question and maintain authority, without recklessly raising a client’s ire or his or her defences. The conferences are a masterclass in how to discipline without histrionics, how to exercise power gently.

After a small pause, the next client appears. She is a wiry, prematurely hardened young woman, and she’s scowling. She’s asked, first of all, to explain her kids’ patchy attendance at school, a report of which is before the commissioners in the form of a spreadsheet.

All schools in the four trial towns submit painstakingly accumulated statistics to the commission; increased school attendance is one of the trial’s most stringently administered aims. “I simply don’t care about their excuses and stories,” says Glasgow. “I only care about their kids getting an education.”

This client is telling the commissioners that she often goes to the beach, several hours’ drive away by dirt road, but then finds it hard to get back in time for school. The people she left her kids with last time were “no good”, she says, and “took to drinking” while she was gone. She offers this information casually, as if complaining about irritatingly unreliable friends.

Glasgow bores through her insouciance. “So, what will you do with your kids the next time you want to go to the beach?” She doesn’t reply immediately, confounded by his interrogation. Is going to the beach frowned on, or not? Is she supposed to take her kids, too? Should she find better babysitters? Insist they stay sober in her absence?

Commissioner Kepple warns her off leaving her children with her elderly relative again. He has moved into the old people’s demountables on the edge of town, she says sternly, and is too old to care for young children now.

The other commissioners scrutinise the woman in stony silence. Glasgow interrupts her breezy self-justifications by reading out the report of a caseworker. It states that she attended the woman’s house and found no food in it.

That, the mother explains, is because her husband had gone out country, taking their money and leaving them without anything to eat. (A caseworker later sets me straight: at the very least the woman still had access to her benefits.)

“Well, that can’t go on,” Glasgow says calmly, bluntly. “You can’t have a house with no food in it when you have kids. They need to eat properly.”

The commissioners issue her a warning, which will be recorded on her file and, as such, possibly used in the future to discipline her further. They also refer her to Mpower, a service that shows people how to budget and save, and they leave her on the books of the caseworker.

The day continues, with seven more clients appearing on notices of school absenteeism. Two more are referred to budgeting classes and another two, both women, on probation and parole, sent to ‘Ending Family Violence’ programs. (One of them had come into the Justice Centre with friends to throw rocks at the receptionist.) There is also a good-news story of a woman’s income management – the quarantining of 60–75% of welfare benefits onto a ‘BasicsCard’ to be spent only on food and other essential groceries at specified shops – being revoked.

After a lunch of salad wraps served on a plastic tray, and some restful chat and laughter between the commissioners, the team packs up and says its goodbyes. In the midafternoon glare and heat, we fly north-west to Aurukun, a community of five clans that hugs the coast at the mouth of three fat rivers pushing out to the Gulf.

*

Aurukun’s Community Justice Centre, a nondescript, sparsely furnished, air-conditioned building, whose walls are adorned with educational posters – “No Way! It’s Not Our Way” (domestic abuse); “Smoking Dope is Not Our Culture”; “Be Proud of Who You Are – Your Life is Precious”; “Clean Kids are Deadly Kids!” – backs on to the town’s school.

When the Family Responsibilities Commission first moved in here, the co-ordinator tells me, she would look out at the school from her desk and be able to count the number of kids attending on her fingers. “One of the saddest sights I’ve ever seen,” she says.

The local commissioners this week are Edgar Kerindun, a tall, unflappable man of the Sara clan; his diminutive and softly spoken partner, Doris Poonkamelya, of the Putch clan; Ada Panawya Woolla, a woman who, Glasgow tells me, would have made a fine magistrate, had the opportunity been there, and had she wanted it; and Dorothy Pootchemunka, a powerfully outspoken woman of the Winchinam and Aplech clans. They will sit for three solidly scheduled days.

One young woman, who has been ‘conferenced’ by the commission 28 times since August 2008, fails to show. She belongs to one of roughly 40 severely dysfunctional families in the town, Glasgow tells me, whom the commission chases around and around to little effect. Together these comprise about a quarter of Aurukun’s population. Present at the conference to discuss the woman’s case are two child-safety officers – women in their late 20s, one with piercings – and the school truancy officer.

D is a young Aurukun woman in serious trouble. A chronic drinker, she has left three children to fend for themselves. The eldest, a boy of 11, has attached himself to another safer, more functional household; her second child, Little Dap, aged somewhere between six and eight, has tried to follow his brother, but the adoptive household can’t handle any more children. Little Dap hangs about town, unsupervised and filthy, presently with a broken arm in a cast that’s split and ragged and no longer doing its job. The youngest child also wanders where he pleases. D is being ‘income managed’ at the maximum rate available to the FRC, and I hear someone mutter in the conference room that “she’ll be income managed for the rest of her life”.

Commissioner Woolla, whose husband was recently elected Aurukun’s mayor, forthrightly shares her thoughts.

“I see D drunk all over town, every week,” she says, shaking her head. “And I wonder where Little Dap is. He’s never with her.”

The school truancy officer, a young, urbane white graduate, equipped with a list of hardcore absentees from the school, says he too has “lost count of the times I’ve seen D out of it”.

Days later, in the FRC’s Cairns office, I read a dossier on D, roughly 120 typed A4 pages, which account for just over seven months of caseworkers’ schoolday visits to her house. It makes for bleak reading.

 

Mother tells me that Little Dap is stubborn. She can’t get him to school.

Mother tells me to: “Fuck off, you white motherfucker!”

Little Dap is ill with scabies. I encourage mother to take him to the clinic.

All were drunk and fighting at house. It wasn’t safe.

Found kids playing in front yard. Mother asleep. It is 10.30 am.

Mother says she is doing her best, but Little Dap runs wild and is influenced by older boys.

Mother said she really needs Little Dap’s father to help out. Encouraged her to find and speak with him, otherwise Little Dap will grow up without an education.

Encouraged mother to get Little Dap to school, if just for the breakfast, so then he won’t be hungry.

Mother yells at me, “Fuck off. I am pissed.”

 

I ask Glasgow how, knowing these things about Little Dap and his brothers, he and his well-funded commission can have allowed such abuse to continue? Why meticulously document the neglect, if not to act on it?

“Because there are thresholds of abuse,” he answers steadily. “In Little Dap and his brothers’ case, it isn’t deemed severe enough to warrant intervention, or their removal.”

Indeed, in the Aurukun meeting with the commissioners, the truancy officer and the two child-welfare workers, there is some good news. D’s oldest boy, now residing with a relative of one of the sitting commissioners, has gone from zero school attendance under his mother’s neglect to 100%. He is said to be “deeply into school now” and “well behaved, attentive, intelligent”. “I’m amazed at his progress,” the young officer says.

Glasgow touches the arm of commissioner Woolla on hearing this. He congratulates her on the goodness of her relative, who is helping the boy find his feet again.

But then, unexpectedly, later that same morning the relative herself is called before the commission to answer questions regarding a recent $1500 fine for transporting sly grog into Aurukun, a notionally dry community since the local pub closed its doors in 2008.

Commissioner Woolla hauls herself up from the authoritative side of the table and walks heavily around it to sit beside her relative, now on the receiving end of her colleagues’ scrutiny. There’s a palpable recalibration of the power dynamic in the room and I struggle to absorb the significance of the role switch the commissioner has just been asked to perform. She remains downcast at her relative’s elbow.

The client is a “together” young woman, the commission hears, who had always worked and was cheerful until the loss of her unborn baby last month, mid term. Her sorrow is obvious. She holds herself tightly across the chest and refuses to make eye contact with either Woolla or the commissioners across the table.

The fine, it turns out, is for a deed committed by her partner. She took the rap because he’s on parole.

“Why did you do it?” Glasgow asks, as he asks nearly every question during this week’s sittings, with an almost preternatural calm. “Why take on a huge fine and a police record? It’s put you in a difficult position, and you’ve shamed your relatives.”

Her mouth bends with emotion; she scrunches her eyes and begins to sob, holding down the sound. “You’re helping someone at the expense of your own future,” Glasgow persists softly.

There’s a pin-drop silence in the room. The woman swallows her tears, steals a glance at her relative and, articulating hoarsely, slowly, emphasises each word. “I am sorry for what I’ve done.”

Glasgow continues. “I know this is a very difficult time for you, with the loss of your baby. It’s very tough, but you have to be careful. You also have family who are in significant positions in the community now. You have to think of this, you have to think about your life and your future, as well as their positions. And you are doing such great things with D’s boy.”

The woman nods, but she appears excruciated by her grief and shame, the public display of it; likewise, the confrontation, the intimacy of it, is deeply uncomfortable to witness.

“Well, if I ever need my debts paid off,” Glasgow concludes quietly, “I’ll come see you, I reckon.”

Gathering herself and brightening a little, the woman asks if she can be income-managed, because she’s “sick of being put on by D for cigarette money”. There is no mention of the fact that she is being “put on” to raise not only D’s eldest son, but her middle boy, too. It’s D’s cigarette cadging, rather, that she resents.

Glasgow casts a glance in my direction. Income management is the FRC’s most serious, and contested, disciplinary tactic. With its overtones of a punitive, heavy-handed paternalism, it feels, in a modern age, like a regressive step. Many clients (mainly men, who seem to be the ones most humiliated by it) during this week’s conferences make it abundantly clear how much they resent being told to improve themselves, or having their welfare benefits restricted.

On a number of occasions, the commissioners, checking their schedules for familiar names, brace themselves to face the wrath of certain clients. I’m advised in the cases of two clients not to sit on their side of the room, so I’m out of range of potential violence. Glasgow has narrowly escaped being stabbed with scissors, had a unopened can of Coke smashed so hard on his desk that it “exploded, like a bomb going off”, and been savagely verbally abused. Yet he shrugs it off. “We’re disturbing their equilibrium, in some cases taking their money off them. It’s not surprising they’re angry.” But he is unrepentant, echoing Noel Pearson’s declarations on the catastrophe of the passive welfare state: that it “creates perverse incentives that tell 16-year-olds that it is better to go on the dole than to finish school, or tell parents they will receive money irrespective of their child’s wellbeing and educational participation”.

Glasgow, in fact, wishes the FRC had greater powers for the worst cases it sees. He’d suspend benefits completely for certain clients, if only “the Minister, in her wisdom”, thought it appropriate.

“I had a guy come in here, infuriated with the commission. He wanted Jenny Macklin’s phone number,” Glasgow chuckles. “I said I’d be more than happy to give it to him.”

Glasgow now asks commissioner Woolla’s young relative if she wishes to be noted as voluntarily opting for the card, or as being placed on it. She doesn’t hesitate. She wants it known that the FRC has placed her on a BasicsCard – even though they haven’t deemed it necessary in her case – because she will use this as a defence against the ‘demand share’ requests that traditionally would oblige her to hand over considerable amounts of money.

I’m told this is a common request, particularly from women before the commission. Dorothy Pootchemunka, a mother of ten and grandmother of 15, assures me that income management is now accepted in the community as a legitimate defence against demand sharing, where previously it might have been perceived as a rejection of kinship rights. “Women want it and are asking for it,” she says.

At the same time, Peter Sutton, whose recent work exposes the effects of welfare dependency that the FRC’s income management is trying to avoid, has concerns about the method. In an email sent during my week in Aurukun, he writes: “One point about the power of withholding income that the media coverage so far hasn’t understood is that it’s not just about restrictions on spending power. It’s also very much about restricting one’s social capital. One can no longer respond ‘properly’ to requests for money from kin when one has less money. This can affect relationships negatively.”

When I put Sutton’s concerns to Glasgow, he puts his hands over his eyelids and massages them, as if suddenly tired. “Well, in the past, those traditions served indigenous people well, but we’re not talking about half a kangaroo and some water anymore. We’re talking, mostly, about significant amounts of money and alcohol.”

“Now that I’m the age I am,” he continues, “the years are incredibly precious to me. So, when I think about the life expectancy of indigenous people, people whose lives have been lived so hard that they’re one alcoholic binge away from death ...” His voice trails off.

“Many of the guys [we see] are real villains, who’ve served repeated sentences. We refer them to the Wellbeing Centre here, but it needs to hold these men to account.” In the interim, he would rather income-manage and wear the condemnation. “I don’t want to spend the next year going around in circles with the same group of recalcitrants. I want to be given greater powers – the possibility to suspend payments until certain conditions are met – so we can really have an effect.”

The next client to appear is M, the woman who in a previous confrontation detonated the full Coca-Cola can. M appears this day with arms tightly folded, a severe frown on her brow and headphones plugged into one ear for the duration of her conference.

Her matters before the commission are a liquor offence and a child-safety notification. M’s partner is in prison. She is accused of punching her daughter in the face with enough force to open a cut under the girl’s left eye, which had then swollen shut.

As tends to be the case in Aurukun, Glasgow takes a back seat in the proceedings. The female commissioners, led by Woolla, speak with startling directness to M in Wik-Mungkan – the town’s fierce-sounding lingua franca. They emphasise their messages with finger-pointing and the drumming of a pen on the table. There’s a smattering of English thrown in – “child protection” is repeated throughout, like a threatening incantation – and M responds to the women’s questioning by gesturing to her own eye, indicating where her fist opened up her daughter’s face.

M, explaining herself to her elders, uses gestures to describe her parental modus operandi: a big back-swing of an arm demonstrates how she walloped the child; the blurred windmill roll of her hands shows how the child’s body responded to it – a “somersault”, she stresses in English.

Once Woolla is done chastising her and has committed M to income management until October 2013, Glasgow, who understands some Wik, adds his two cents. “I heard you say that you had the right to discipline your daughter, but these days you can’t do that with your fists. Things have changed. Children have rights, M, in the way they might not have had when you were growing up.”

M stares blankly at the table, then offers up another defence in Wik. Glasgow interrupts tersely. “You have rights to discipline your children, but not with your fists.” As M leaves, he packs up her dossier with cathartic brusqueness – snapping it back into a filing system kept in a zippered suitcase in the corner of the room – and looks around, clenching his jaw. “She didn’t want to hear the news on that.”

After a few more cases, the commissioners break for lunch. As it’s brought in – polystyrene boxes of rice, sliced cucumber and meat – a caseworker runs in from another room to say that a woman is walking purposefully past the Justice Centre gripping a very large kitchen knife. The police are called and within minutes they drive past in pursuit. The commissioners all stand at the windows and peer at the action, but after a minute come back to their lunch boxes.

As they eat, Poonkamelya and Pootchemunka answer questions about their childhoods under the iron mission rule of Bill MacKenzie. They were taken from their families at an early age, seeing them only infrequently after being placed in the mission dormitory. There were separate dormitories for boys and girls and they did their lessons by drawing in the sand with sticks. They say they weren’t scared of MacKenzie, even if he was brutal. His way meant they learnt things, they tell me, including what discipline meant. Their marriages, they recount without rancour, but without fondness either, were arranged by MacKenzie. Neither is still married to her first husband.

There is talk about lunch, and food generally. Emu and wallaby, says Poonkamelya, should never be eaten by pregnant women. “You’ll lose your baby if you do,” Pootchemunka confirms.

“Is that for real?” asks the Cairns-based case manager, her fork suspended midair. “Or is that poori poori [black magic]?”

During a later break in the conferences, one of Poonkamelya’s sons offers to sell me one of his heavy milkwood crocodile sculptures. Wearing a Beatles T-shirt in need of washing, he pedals home on his bike to get the croc, returning with the roughly hewn, cudgel-shaped object locked under his arm like a sharp-fanged loaf of bread.

“What did you think of him?” Glasgow asks me, when he hears whom I’d bought my carving from. He seemed pleasant enough, I say. Glasgow tells me he once came to a conference “off his meds” and threatened to kill him. “He flipped up his shirt to reveal a large knife up his back,” he says, adding that another of Poonkamelya’s sons is in prison, for murder. “He slit his wife’s throat with a knife, although he has always seemed genuinely remorseful about that.”

*

Dereck Walpo, Aurukun’s mayor since June, joins the commissioners – including Ada Woolla, his wife – for lunch. For him, the big issues in the town are “sly grog: big money, big problem”, as well as his people being able to “wake up and want to get on with the day, have work, have aims”.

When I’d asked Glasgow about the subject of paid employment – were there real job alternatives to ‘sit-down money’ in the trial towns? – he’d said there was “plenty of work around – labouring, farm work – for those prepared to do it.”

But inside a massive tome of research on how the welfare reform trial is travelling, I find conflicting reports. On the one hand, the research suggests that “more people are involved in traineeships ... and paid employment than before the commencement of welfare reform”. On the other, of the people who were not working, 37% “felt they did not have the skills or confidence to look for a job”. People were also “frustrated that they had undertaken a lot of training ... but they still can’t seem to get a job”. Some in the town perceived that “welfare reform had just created jobs for outsiders”.

The mayor, a religious man, tells me, apropos of the issues facing his office, that every day he asks the Lord for strength and forgiveness. He says, with only a flicker of an ironic smile, “I think of myself as the Moses of my people.”

“My aim,” he says, narrowing his gaze, “is to put an end finally to outside influence. And I want to be here for 12 years, not just four [the standard term].” Then he rolls his eyes and says, “The training we’re put through here! I said to somebody recently, ‘When the next cyclone rolls into town and brings our walls down, brother, it won’t be because of the winds that they’ll fall, it’ll be because of all of the bloody framed certificates hanging on them.’”

There’s animated talk about another client’s failure to appear that day. He’s been arrested overnight, the co-ordinator says, for drink-driving on the road between Weipa and Aurukun. “He was driving a manual car,” she says, “and he’s only got one leg! The police were so impressed, they put him back in the car so they could see how he did it.”

“How did he lose his leg?” someone asks.

“Shot it off with a .22,” Dorothy Pootchemunka says matter-of-factly. “Long time ago. To get sympathy when his first girlfriend left him.”

*

Before the afternoon sessions begin, the co-ordinator heads out in a car to remind people of their obligations to attend the FRC, and to see if Little Dap can be found.

She drives this way and that down Aurukun’s wide, dusty streets. At the end of a road lined with derelict houses and rubbish-strewn yards, a large group of adults are playing a card game for money in the shade of a beach almond tree, with a dozen children orbiting them on pushbikes and on foot. Gambling circles like this are most common on Fridays, when pension payments arrive, but often persist for days.

Recently, the co-ordinator tells me, a large fight broke out in this infamous street. Such fighting tends to be along clan lines. As a white woman known to them all, she was allowed to serve clients their FRC notices at the height of the tensions, and drive out again.

After five minutes’ search, she spies Little Dap riding along a road on a tiny bike. Recognising the FRC’s huge white four-wheel drive, he picks up speed and flees, pedalling madly. She accelerates after him; he skids around a corner, leaps off his bike and runs behind a building. “That is Little Dap,” she says. He no longer has a cast on his arm and only a pair of grubby shorts on his rail-thin frame. He peeks out from behind the building, then quickly draws back again. It is well after one o’clock. “Little Dap has never gone to school,” says the co-ordinator.

With lunch packed away, the afternoon’s clients come in. Notable among them is S, a young, painfully thin yet heavily pregnant woman whose dimmed gaze suggests she’s not quite reachable. She’s accompanied by a case manager, who helps to elaborate on the detailed court documents before the commissioners.

S, the commission is told, is a victim of extremely serious assaults by her partner who, as a consequence, is now on remand. S is to be referred to a parenting program, and counselling services for alcohol abuse and budgeting. She is facing a difficult birth, requiring specialist care.

The domestic assaults on S have included spitting, threats of murder, punches to the face that rendered her jaw unworkable because of swelling, a machete blow to the back of the head that caused a 7-centimetre laceration, and boiling tea thrown into her face. All while she was pregnant.

The mood in the conference room sharpens. The commissioners and the co-ordinator deal with S delicately and efficiently, as if to spare her further pain. Glasgow says to her that with the father of her child facing considerable jail time she will be freed of his violence. She nods without emotion. She confirms to the commissioners that the relationship is over, but there is no discussion of what it might mean to be a woman carrying a child whose father has tried to kill her. Nor is it clear that such a woman would make use of the psychologists the commissioners refer her to.

Glasgow later articulates, more generally, the uncertainty surrounding S’s case, when he says that while he’s confident of the FRC’s successes – school attendance and marks, for instance, show signs of improvement in all four towns – his “only disappointment is the service delivery to the people”. He hopes that “there might be a concerted, uncompromising push in the Wellbeing Centre’s work to insist on change. And that assaulting women is no longer going to wash.”

*

Aurukun’s school principal is Patrick Mallett. With a clump of keys jangling from a neck strap over his belly and his brow beaded with sweat, he looks like a harassed janitor, and has his work cut out for him as a crucial part of Pearson’s Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy.

Pre-2010, the school’s dysfunction was “absolutely unbelievable”, he says. Only one child out of the 200 enrolled was fully literate, and the attendance rates were well under 40%. “Now they’re in the mid 60s,” he tells me. The school was ruled by “boys armed with star pickets and knives”. One of his students sustained a fractured skull, another crushed vertebrae, both as a result of bashings. In one particularly terrible week, three students were airlifted to hospital.

Since then, the literacy rate – the school has adopted the American “Direct Instruction” method – has improved dramatically. In the space of two years, 61 students are now at or above grade-level literacy and 82 students – up from zero – have attained grade-level numeracy. Mallett says he can confidently show me around the school, “knowing you will see polite, well-behaved, respectful children engaged in learning”.

Indeed, I see pleasant, functioning classes, with one exception: a prep class, where a child is scrambling around doing his utmost to sabotage the teacher’s lesson plan. After five minutes of anarchic playing up, and fair warning by the teacher of repercussions, the boy leaps to his feet, grabs a pair of scissors from a table and runs at another child with them, only to be immediately disarmed and marched out of the class by a teacher’s aide.

Outside another early grade classroom, a young father unexpectedly interrupts the lesson. He is wheeling a brand-new yellow pushbike – exactly like the one Little Dap evaded the FRC co-ordinator on – to the door of his son’s classroom. He explains to the teacher he wishes to reward his son with a gift for not running away from school.

The teacher, dumbfounded, allows a small boy to appear at the door. The boy’s eyes glisten with delight at what might well rather seem to him like a beautiful, tempting and high-speed truancy enabler. The teacher pulls him back into her class. The father takes the bike and proudly wheels it back home.

Approaching an older class, Mallett pauses outside its door and says under his breath, “There’s a child in this class who recently came upon his father, hanged.” With his hand on the doorhandle, he says, “What happens outside the school gates here is a tragedy, but we can’t control that.”

Inside, a young and cheerful redhead from Brisbane into her second teaching term in Aurukun is taking a literacy class. In a spontaneous aside as she passes by the back of the class, she says to me, “I love it here.” She’s taking eight girls and one boy through their paces, and the kids read aloud confidently.

The classes aren’t uniformly of one age – children are tested and placed according to ability – and in this class, one girl is so much older and larger than her peers that she has to sit side-on to her tiny desk, unable to fit her legs beneath it.

Short biographical pieces written by the class are pinned to the walls. “I want to be a worker for Rio Tinto, because I like money,” states one child. Six students have written that they want to be police officers when they grow up – five “to keep Aurukun safe”, one because it “might be fun”.

Across the road from the school, in Aurukun’s only supermarket, the manager, a slovenly white man, explains the use of the BasicsCard in store. There are only three things a person can’t purchase on it, he says: “Alcohol, power cards [Aurukun residents pre-pay for electricity] and porn. Not that we sell porn here anyway.”

The card is “the same colour as a Bendigo Bank card, so nobody can tell the difference,” he says. “So there’s no stigma with using it.”

Curious about what’s for sale in Aurukun to amuse the likes of Little Dap, were his parents in a state to think of such things, I head down the aisles. There’s a real-looking Kalashnikov gun, a “World Force Urban Warfare Game” and something called a “Police Surmount Set” – a neat package of plastic handcuffs, high-powered toy rifle with crosshairs, police badge, walkie-talkie and what appears to be a taser, all for just $7.99. At the other end, there’s a kids’ pool table for $499.95. I look high and low for a book, of any quality or genre, but this proves futile.

*

Back at the Justice Centre, which faces the back of the shop, there’s a break in the long afternoon’s schedule. Commissioner Pootchemunka has retrieved a rake from a back room, and heads outside. She draws the leaves – large and tan, like withered baseball mitts – that have fallen from the towering almond trees surrounding the building into mounds. She works methodically, without hurrying, and having established a Zen garden–like arrangement of half-a-dozen or so piles in the yard, she sets them all ablaze, enveloping the centre in a pall of white, woody-smelling smoke. Peering out at the scene, David Glasgow seems pleased, and announces excitedly, “Commissioner’s setting fire to the place!”

Minutes later, however, Pootchemunka comes roaring into the centre with three little boys in tow – timid, wide-eyed twins in identical orange T-shirts, and their slightly older brother, aged nine or ten.

She settles them roughly in the seats kept for clients, then brings in commissioners Kerindun and Poonkamelya to face them. They speak furiously at the boys in Wik, gesticulating with wagging fingers. It transpires the three boys are in Pootchemunka’s care, because their mother is a “hopeless drunk” in Weipa. Every day they’re taken to school only to turn up regularly about town.

They’ve been caught out today, and brought in to face the censure of the elders in a mock trial – to give them a fright and coerce them into behaving. English phrases burst through the elders’ rapid-fire language: She’s your grandmother! You should respect her! Three meals a day! Reading and writing!

Seeing one boy giggle at the elderly ladies’ anger, Pootchemunka scowls and moves quickly around the table to twist the boy’s ears. She plucks at the hair of another, making him yelp.

Later, the co-ordinator wonders aloud if that was how Pootchemunka was herself disciplined as a girl. “That ear-twisting stuff,” she asks, “did they do that to you in the mission?”

At the end of the session, the commissioners disperse back into the community, and the Cairns-based staff prepare to head for their secure accommodation. Approached by a local woman, a caseworker asks if anyone wants to buy some artwork “that’s got galah feathers on it”. As the co-ordinator locks the centre’s doors and activates the alarm, the remains of Pootchemunka’s fires are still smouldering in the yard.

*

Five days later, the commission is sitting in Hope Vale, Noel Pearson’s hometown, on the Cape’s east coast, just north of Cooktown. The quorum of commissioners on this occasion is reduced to two: Victor Gibson, of the Binthi and Bulcan clans, and David Glasgow. The stream of clients over two days is a trickle, interrupted by no-shows.

Glasgow explains Hope Vale has been vociferous in its resistance to the commission. “A very political town,” he mutters. The first clients, a middle-aged couple who have ‘grown up’ three children not their own, are perhaps representative. They consider the matter they’ve been called up for to be none of the commission’s business. One of their informally adopted children has recently, at 14 years old, been fitted with a subcutaneous contraceptive in her arm. It happened without their knowledge, by consent of the biological mother, who otherwise has little to do with the child. Because the girl is underage and sexually active, the hospital, under mandatory-reporting orders, has filed a child safety report, bringing the adoptive parents before the commission.

The father barely restrains his rage at what he sees as “departmental interference”. The two commissioners attempt to placate him, but pressing and valid matters have been raised that neither can satisfactorily answer.

On the long drive back from Hope Vale, Glasgow tells me that, after so much hard work has been invested in the welfare reform trial, he’d “like to think someone would ask me what I think and now know. Any continuation of the FRC should, obviously, be on performance-based accountability. Who are we to say that this has been the right way? This is going to take time. Four years is a start, but I’d like to see kids who are in the early years now when they’re nearly through. I’m interested in seeing long-term improvements.”

Relations between the commission and its architect, Noel Pearson, haven’t always been smooth. Glasgow is particularly concerned that there be a well-managed “exit strategy” to help sustain the work of the courageous local commissioners, who remain in their communities when those who fly in and fly out have left. As it stands, the trial’s funding will run out at the end of next year.

“You have to realise,” Glasgow remarks, to the windscreen and the road ahead, “things were very bad when we started, so although there’s so much still to be done, we’ve very definitely got a start.”

In 2008, Noel Pearson spelt out his reform vision at the National Press Club: “Indigenous Australians ... need to be as educated as you, live as long as you, have the same access to real jobs as you.” With this destination in mind, the road that Glasgow and the Family Responsibilities Commission are on seems terribly long. All they can do right now is drive as fast as they’re permitted, in what must sincerely be hoped is the right direction.