This story comes from an event in a coastal town in my state. I tell it because a number of times I’ve been asked to say more about the concept Unintended Consequences.

One of the themes I try to convey in the work I do and about which I write, is the necessity to take nothing for granted when working with Aboriginal people. Their ways of knowing and doing are different from ours and we should always pay heed to their ideas. Here is a whitefella idea that caused an unintended consequence which I have labelled “Not what was intended”. It’s a very but powerful simple illustration.

I was asked to work in a town where I was told, “all the Aboriginal kids are off the rails and are going berserk. Can you find a way to work with the parents and families and try to get some order into things”.

My initial foray into the town was to sit and chat with two Aboriginal people I knew well. I told them the information I’d been given and they both laughed.

“Government never get it right,” one of them chortled. “Nah, Dave, it’s not all the kids off the rails. There are about 40 kids, from four families who are creating crap. Half go before the local JP after each weekend and get a slap on the wrist and then get rewarded.”

I must have looked confused because the other fella intervened.

“Think about it like this, Dave. There are about 120 black kids in this town aged between ten and 18. About 30 are good kids, another40 are creating havoc and the rest are in the middle, wavering between good and creating havoc.”

“So the idea I was given about working with the parents of the havoc kids is a good idea?” I asked

They both laughed again. “It might help a bit, if you can get them dry out, listen and take responsibility for their kids, so we wish you good luck!”

“Well, if it’s not that, then where do I start?”

The older of the two men, Gavin, waved a placating hand. “See what this story does for you, Dave. An idea the school and one of the JPs had was to get these kids on “The Leeuwin”, that big sailing ship that sail out of Perth and takes kids out on the ocean for several days.”

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked, feeling confusion crowding. It sounded like an excellent idea to encourage team work, obey orders, and so on. I was about to respond with Gavin continued.

“What’s wrong goes like this, mate. We’ve got 30 kids who, because they are good, aren’t noticed in this town. There’s another 50 kids, who, while their behaviour is variable, they don’t get noticed either unless their behaviour is poor. But the 30 kids who are behaving like total turds are getting big rewards like trips to Perth and adventures on “The Leeuwin”. What the two of us have noticed over the last year or so is that there are fewer kids on the middle group and a larger number in  the havoc group. So what do you think you should do, Dave?”