Blog - Sweat equity
Posted on Friday, 21 October 2011
I spent a few days this week in Cape York, something I’ve tried to do every year since going into opposition and becoming shadow minister for indigenous affairs. As a government minister, I’d been to dozens of remote communities but never stayed much more than 12 hours in any one of them.
With the help of Noel Pearson and his Cape York Partnerships, in 2008, I spent three weeks in Coen as a teacher’s aide at the local school. In 2009, I spent 10 days in Aurukun as a helper with the truancy team. My planned week in July in Hopevale had to be postponed because of Carbon Sunday but I’ve just returned from working with the Bush Owner Builder programme at a place called Billy Boil about 80 kilometres from Cooktown.
Almost every Aborigine in remote Australia lives in public housing, often in very poor condition. The Pearson scheme provides a loan of up to $25,000 to indigenous families that wish to build their own homes on traditional land. The repayments are manageable, even for people whose income is mostly from social security.
As well as repaying the loan within three years, the family is expected to contribute “sweat equity” by working as labourers to produce the house from bush materials milled on site.
In this case, the Gibson family of Hopevale are building their own home: a spacious, stylish, timber structure that would do credit to the coastal hamlets of NSW, under the mentorship of a former Victorian forester, Maurie Killeen. Thanks to Maurie’s tutelage and that of Troy Gibson, a local diesel mechanic who hopes to become a mentor for other Aboriginal owner builders, I was lucky enough to use a Lucas Mill ( an Australian designed and manufactured portable mill) to turn local hardwood and softwood into structural timber and weather boards for the house. My daughter Frances assisted other members of the Gibson clan fastening verandah pickets. Family matriarch, Doreen, organised the campsite while cousins Robbie and Frankie provided the after-hours entertainment (some of which featured on Channel 10 news).
It was an honour to be part of the project and to see the improvements in Hopevale since my last visit ten years ago. My colleague Alan Tudge, a former deputy CEO of the Cape York Institute, who accompanied me on the trip, has articulated an important insight: the focus for economic development has to be individual rather than geographic. Fostering an entrepreneurial mindset in people can work while subsidising particular developments in specific places is almost certain to fail.
This insight is at the heart of the wider Pearson project: to inculcate a preparedness to take risks and to travel to make the most of economic opportunities. There are people in Hopevale, for instance, who have been mine managers and works supervisors rather than just passive welfare recipients and Pearson hopes that this can become the norm for the next generation of Aboriginal youngsters.
Pearson’s vision is a modern version of Menzies’ “Forgotten People” plea for “lifters not leaners” and will form an important element of the Coalition’s policy.
21 October 2011