At a forum organised by his Cape York Partnerships organisation, Noel Pearson was blindsided by a surprise policy announcement by the Queensland government.
The group is known for the $100 million Cape York Welfare Reform Trial – a program designed to reduce social harm which precedes the federal government’s cashless welfare debit card trial.
It has been in force for 10 years in five of Queensland’s Aboriginal communities - Aurukun, Coen, Hope Vale, Mossman Gorge and Doomadgee.
Welfare recipients who do not send their children to school, fail to uphold their tenancy responsibilities or break the law can be placed on the BasicsCard by a statuary authority called the Family Responsibilities Commission.
'Time to move beyond trials'
Taking to the stage in Brisbane on Monday afternoon, Deputy Premier Jackie Trad told the audience that she wanted to move Indigenous communities from “surviving, to thriving”.
She also announced that the Family Responsibilities Commission would be absorbed into a new initiative called Thriving Communities.
Ms Trad said the decision was based on reviews into government spending, child protection and youth justice.
“It’s time to move beyond trials,” she said. “This includes transitioning the FRC and welfare reform communities – Aurukun, Hopevale, Mossman Gorge, Coen and Doomadge – from the existing FRC welfare reform model to what we are calling the Thriving Communities approach.”
Mr Pearson's welfare reform trial was met with initial resistance in 2008 and has since attracted both supporters and critics. But statistics show the experiment in welfare reform has had mixed success since it began in 2008.
The program has also recently been reviewed, amid concerns by both state and federal government that it was duplicating services and not providing value for money.
Ms Trad noted that the “reform” was not about increasing spending.
“Current government investment is already significantly high,” she said. “This reform is about investing smarter.”
'We have to resist it'
After Ms Trad left, Mr Pearson took to the stage to criticise a shift in policy that he said would “wind back the clock” on 10 years of work to reduce welfare dependence.
“What I heard from the Deputy Premier here today makes me sick to the stomach,” the Cape York leader said.
“We … will have to resist it. We can’t let progress be flushed down the toilet.”
“If you get rid of the FRC, you no longer have welfare reform.”
Doreen Hart, an FRC commissioner, insisted the program has worked.
“Why look to replace it or change it?” she said. “Why not just build on it. I’m sure there’s an opportunity for a partnership to move forward together.”