Government slammed over bill to expand welfare quarantining

ProBono Australia November 23, 2011

The Federal Government has introduced legislation to extend 'welfare quarantining' - a system introduced under the Howard Government's highly controversial Northern Territory intervention - but peak welfare Not for Profits want the legislation withdrawn.

Some 26 Aboriginal peak bodies, community welfare and public health groups are calling on the Government to withdraw the income-management legislation and opt for a new direction in policies affecting Australian Aborigines based on cooperation, not 'intervention'.

The groups say the Government's own evaluation of the NT Intervention shows that welfare quarantining doesn't work and has created a feeling of dis-empowerment and loss of community control among aboriginal communinties.

The Stronger Futures Bill, introduced into Parliament by Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, would see parents forced to attend family conferences and welfare payments suspended if children are regularly absent from school. It would also link alcohol-related criminal offences with income management.

Introducing the Bill into Federal Parliament, Jenny Macklin said the Bill aimed to build a future for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory "where people live in good houses, and in safe communities. Where parents go to work, and children go to school each day."

The groups opposing the move - including the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), the Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory, the Public Health Association of Australia and the Arab Council of Australia - say they support new investment in jobs for Indigenous Territorians, but are concerned about the proposed extension of a program that withdraws social security payments from parents whose children don't attend school regularly.

ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie says some aspects of the Government's announcement - including strategies to generate local jobs - are encouraging.

However, Goldie says "the proposed expansion of the SEAM (The Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure) program that withdraws income support payments from parents whose children aren't attending school suggests that a punitive, top-down approach to social problems is still being pursued".

A joint statement from the groups says the strong message from recent consultations with Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory "is that people want reliable services, schools and jobs in their own communities, not that they think simplistic 'get tough' policies are the answer."

The groups point to the government's own evaluation of the Intervention, the "Northern Territory Emergency Response Evaluation Report 2011 (pdf)", which was released this month. The conclusion of the review include the statement:

"The compulsory nature of income management and its blanket imposition (in combination with other changes, such as local government reform, shire amalgamations and losses of local councils; changes to CDEP; the loss of the permit system; and changes in land tenure) are likely to have contributed to people's feeling of a loss of freedom, empowerment and community control."

The groups say they share the widely held concerns that too many children are missing out on a good education due to attendance - but policies should be based on what communities and government know actually works on the ground.

The SEAM trials in the NT and Queensland are yet to be evaluated, but the groups say "there is no evidence they have been effective yet the scheme is costing over $200,000 per school per year to administer."

The groups also point to one of the key findings of the Australian Council for Educational Research's evaluation of education outcomes under the NTER - which are included in the Government's own evaluation report - which concluded:

"There has been no observable improvement in school attendance between 2006, before the NTER was introduced, and 2010, the last full year for which data are available."

"It is deeply disappointing to see the Federal Government aligning itself with policies such as compulsory income management and SEAM," said John Falzon, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia.

"You don't build people and communities up by attacking their dignity and their right to self-determination"

The groups want the Government to engage with communities and their community organisations and peak bodies on whether they want to replace policies such as SEAM and income management that were imposed on them compulsorily, with voluntary or 'opt in' income support arrangements and support services tailored to the needs of each community.

View Jenny Macklin's speech in parliament here.
View the Government's 'Northern Territory Emergency Response - Evaluation Report 2011' here [PDF].
The organisations calling on the Government for 'Cooperation, not Intervention' include:

ACOSS - Australian Council of Social Service
APO NT - Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory
An alliance comprising the Central Land Council (CLC), Northern Land Council (NLC), Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the NT (AMSANT), North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) and Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS).
NTCOSS - Northern Territory Council of Social Service
Tangentyere Council
The Fred Hollows Foundation
AEU NT - Australian Education Union Northern Territory
NT COGSO - Northern Territory Council of Government School Organisations
PHAA - Public Health Association of Australia
St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia
UnitingCare Australia
Catholic Social Services Australia
National Welfare Rights Network
Professor Jon Altman, The Australian National University
Larissa Behrendt, Jumbunna IHL Research Unit
Michele Harris OAM, Concerned Australians
ANTaR - Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation
COSS Network - Councils of Social Service in Victoria (VCOSS) South Australia (SACOSS), Western Australia (WACOSS), NSW (NCOSS), ACT (ACTCOSS) and Tasmania (TasCOSS).
The Aboriginal Medical Service Cooperative Limited, Redfern
Arab Council Australia
Western Sydney Community Forum
TRI Community Exchange
Granville Multicultural Community Centre

Federal Government betrays NT communities with second Intervention

Media Release Stop the Intervention 16 November 2011

The Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS) says that the Federal Government has betrayed NT Aboriginal communities, following Monday's announcement of more punitive policies and an extension of the Intervention.

STICS spokesperson Paddy Gibson was in contact with community representatives throughout the recent "Stronger Futures" consultation period and has closely studied transcripts from the consultations across the NT.

Mr Gibson says that community views on dealing with education and alcohol problems have been ignored in favour of further discriminatory measures, and the government has broken clear promises to return to communities for further consultation before introducing legislation.

Mr Gibson says that social conditions have deteriorated since 2007 and are set to become even worse if the government continues with the Intervention.

"Minister Macklin has been talking about Aboriginal parents 'taking responsibility'. So where is her responsibility for three years of failed policy? School attendance rates have not improved since the Intervention and there are now less Aboriginal staff working in NT schools."

"Welfare payments have already been linked to school attendance through this period, with both the Income Management scheme and the School Enrolment and Attendance Measure (SEAM) trials operating in six NT communities."

"NT Aboriginal communities have been betrayed by the government. Participants were told that there would be a new, collaborative approach and that community views would form the basis of future policy. In none of the many consultation meetings I have studied, were the proposals announced on Monday even raised with communities for discussion".

"Clear commitments were given that the consultations were just the start of the policy development process, and that further meetings would take place before any decisions were made. These commitments came from FaHCSIA officials and government representatives including Warren Snowdon MP".

"Aboriginal people consistently made the point that increases in school attendance would only come with increased Aboriginal control over the education process and proper resourcing. They demanded reinstatement of bilingual education, Aboriginal design of curriculum and employment of local staff and resources to support families getting their children to school."

"Seven of the twelve communities that will be subjected to these truancy ‘trials' used to run successful bilingual education programs. In the case of Lajamanu, attendance rates have been cut in half by the NT Government's decision to axe bilingual learning."

"In the consultations Aboriginal people demanded improved housing, social services and employment to create an environment where children had the capacity to actually attend school and a future to look forward to."

"Rates of attempted suicide and self harm have doubled since the Intervention. Indigenous incarceration is up 40 per cent and child-removal up 30 per cent. People are moving away from smaller communities and outstations as employment opportunities and services are cut back, fuelling a growing crisis in the urban centres".

"Tragically, these crises are set to get worse through the second Intervention."

For comment contact:
Paddy Gibson 0415800586

'Intervention mark II' a new whitewash

Issue 905 Green Left Weekly November 26, 2011

The federal government, through its "Stronger Futures" bill and associated legislation, seeks to lock in "intervention mark II" - for 10 years.

Far from being the end of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (as the NT intervention legislation, due to expire in June next year, is officially known), the government plans to force paternalistic, controlling and assimilationist policies on to NT Aboriginal people for a decade - twice as long as the original intervention introduced by the Howard Coalition government in 2007.

Again and again the Labor government is whitewashing Aboriginal voices, riding roughshod over communities and ignoring evidence.

The new bill targets communities already traumatised and angered by the intervention. To add insult to injury, when Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin announced the new Stronger Futures legislation on November 21, she said the policy was informed by her government's "consultation" with Aboriginal people. "At the heart of this work will be the views of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory," she said.

Between June and August, the federal government held "consultations" with communities across the NT, supposedly to hear people's ideas for "stronger futures in the NT": ideas to shape policy that would replace the intervention next year.

These consultations were widely condemned by independent observers who studied transcripts of some of the meetings. The agendas were tightly controlled by government facilitators. None of the government's current proposals were outlined in the consultations.

According to many people who were there and others who have studied independent transcripts of the meetings, the government's report of the consultations is a complete misrepresentation. For example, as part of discussions about education and school attendance, many people demanded the return of bilingual education into the school system. The government report merely mentions in passing there were "mixed views on bilingual education".

All the Stronger Futures bill has to offer Aboriginal school children and their families is a punitive scheme that will see parents cut off welfare if their kids miss too many school days.

It's time to ask why Aboriginal students feel discouraged about going to school. It's time to listen to communities' demands for bilingual, culturally appropriate education that invites more participation by elders and parents.

A key demand during the consultation period was for real jobs for Aboriginal people, in their communities, with real pay.

Even Macklin acknowledged this: "A very clear message ... was that Aboriginal people wanted to work in regular jobs in their communities, with proper wages and conditions."

Despite this, all the government has come up with in terms of job creation is 50 new ranger positions throughout the entire NT. This is pathetic. It won't even cover all the current job seekers in one average-sized community, let alone the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) participants who stand to become unemployed next year if the government plan to dismantle CDEP goes ahead.

There are many other details in the Stronger Futures bill that can and should be scrutinised and criticised. For example, alcohol and "sexually explicit material" will remain banned in communities, "star chamber" powers will continue for the Australian Crime Commission, and employees of selected government agencies will be able to refer people onto income management.

This policy should be seen in the context of a broader government direction started under the Coalition and continued under Labor. The focus is on assimilation, ending Aboriginal community control, attacking linguistic and cultural diversity and centralising funding and services in "hub towns" at the expense of smaller communities and homelands.

It keeps with the Council of Australian government's "Closing the Gap" initiative. Many of the strategy documents released under the Closing the Gap umbrella read like a manual for turning Aboriginal people into lower-class white Australians: there is no recognition, let alone valuing, of Aboriginal language, culture, history or land rights. The focus is on "economic participation" (but only in the "hub towns"), home ownership, punitive welfare reform and "personal responsibility", and mainstream, education in English.

The NT intervention led to a worsening in many social indicators among NT Aboriginal communities, such as imprisonment rates and self-harm. Yet the Labor government, ignoring the evidence, wants to continue and strengthen the same approach until at least 2022.

The federal government's Stronger Futures bill must be overturned. The government must recognise the pain and trauma Aboriginal people live with from the legacy of more than 200 years of racism and dispossession. This bill shows that racism and the drive to dispossess Aboriginal people continues to inform government policy.

There can be no reconciliation without justice, and there can be no justice without giving power and respect back to Aboriginal communities and homelands, empowering and resourcing them to make decisions and control their own affairs.

From GLW issue 905

Members of the Melbourne Anti-Intervention Collective were joined by unionists, indigenous activists and other supporters in a picket of the Melbourne office of the Federal Governemnt department responsible for administering the so-called Basics Card, part of the machinery of the Northern Territory Intervention now entering its third year. This footage is of the picket and subsequent march; there wer also several speakers at the event, and extracts will be posted here in due course ...

Membourne Anti Intervention Collective (MAIC)
MAIC Facebook
National Union of Workers