Tony Abbott backs ALP welfare management bill

Draft guidelines for ensuring income management measures are compliant with the
Racial Discrimination Act
Australian Human Rights Commission - 11 November 2009

Paul Kelly The Australian March 16, 2010

In a policy reversal by the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, the shadow cabinet decided yesterday to support the Rudd government's embrace of the principle of income management on a national basis.

This means that Labor's changes to the Howard government's Northern Territory intervention that were facing certain defeat are now likely to be passed.

The bill, sponsored by Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, departs from a century of Labor Party social welfare policy. It is under attack from many of Australia's welfare groups.

Ms Macklin's bill softens the Howard income-management system but extends the principle to indigenous and white communities across the entire Territory and creates a mechanism to extend the principle nationally.

In reversing the shadow cabinet rejection of the bill, Mr Abbott told colleagues his change of mind mainly arose because of Labor's plan to extend income management. But the bill's passage now pivots upon the partyroom today endorsing the Abbott-driven shadow cabinet reversal.

Ms Macklin's bill provides for the compulsory quarantining of 50 per cent of welfare payments for disadvantaged people in certain categories to ensure money is spent on essentials and children - not grog and drugs.

But opposition spokesman for indigenous affairs, Kevin Andrews, who was defeated in yesterday's shadow cabinet, said: "My concern, whatever the government's rhetoric, is that they don't really intend to extend the scheme nationally at all. This is the conclusion I drew from the departmental briefing that I got."

In his February 23 speech on the Macklin bill, Mr Andrews said: "It (the Coalition) will not support an extension that amounts to a watering down of income management in the indigenous communities. The Coalition is not prepared to take Mr Rudd at his word."

This was the Coalition position at the time.

Ms Macklin said income management would be "a key tool" in ALP welfare policy. A champion of the concept, she backs "the national rollout of a new scheme of income management of welfare payments in disadvantaged regions across Australia".

The minister said the policy delivered "discernible benefits, particularly to children, women, older people and families". But its application to white households would become a contentious event. The bill proposes that from July 1 this year, the new scheme will apply in urban, regional and remote areas of the Territory regardless of ethnicity.

The shadow cabinet has decided on an amendment to allow a national extension of the scheme as soon as possible. But this is not a life or death amendment.

The bill insists on an evaluation of income management over 2011-12 before its extension outside the Territory, a provision that troubles Mr Andrews.

The bill restores the Racial Discrimination Act to the Territory intervention. This means all measures should either assist indigenous people or be non-discriminatory. But the proposed law, now supposed to be RDA consistent, will face almost certain challenge on the grounds that it is still discriminatory.

The Greens and much of the welfare lobby reject the bill in its present form. But Tony Abbott has made a sensible call - if he gets his way the bill will become law and the Howard government's intervention, though changed significantly, will endure.

SEE ALSO: Call to set up a welfare camp in Canberra This site

We are in danger of walking an ugly road

Martin Flanagan (The Age) Sydney Morning Herald March 20, 2010

I am not a monarchist like Tony Abbott but I am mindful of what the British monarchy brings with it, a magnificently rich story that stretches back over centuries. I am also mindful when I am somewhere like the MCG, which is an old Wurundjeri ceremonial place, that there is a human presence in this land that is thousands of years older than me. I reckon I'd be a fool to ignore either.

One of the biggest lies of the Howard era, gleefully carried by any number of voices in the media, was that whitefellas who have relationships with blackfellas do so out of guilt. Why should I feel guilt when not one of the great Aboriginal people I've met, say Archie Roach and Pat Dodson, has expected it of me? That's one of the reasons I started wondering why these people were as they were - how could they be so large in their view?

The answer, if you asked them, invariably had to do with ''the old people'' (the ancestral spirits) and with ''the land''. It was impossible to deny that they really did believe there is a spirit in this land that incorporates those things. Furthermore, the more I opened myself to an awareness of that spirit, the deeper the feeling I had for this, the country of my birth. It would be foolish to pretend that my relationship with Aboriginal Australia has been without incident, but it has been overwhelmingly positive. And, in pursuing that relationship, I have never felt compelled to deny my own ancestral origins.

This week, Tony Abbott described the practice of Aboriginal welcome-to-country ceremonies as tokenistic. Like Abbott, I was brought up a Catholic. I found the official practices of the Catholic Church tokenistic. That's why I left. But I remain interested in Catholic thought and action and, to this end, wrote for the book on Peter Kennedy, the priest kicked out of his Brisbane parish last year by the Vatican acting on behalf of ideologues within the church.

The point, as with the monarchy, is that I don't need to partake of the Catholic Church's rituals to retain my respect for what people identifying as Catholic contribute to this society; it is part of my consciousness. But most Australians have no real consciousness of what Aboriginal culture and heritage contribute - and could further contribute - to this country.

I am not going to pretend that every welcome-to-country ceremony I've attended has been brilliantly alive to me. But that would be true of a lot of, if not nearly all, official ceremonies I attend. I also think there is an onus on non-indigenous people who acknowledge country in the course of their public utterances to do it as well as they can. Empty rituals are dangerous; they invite derision.

Personally, instead of trotting out some formula, I prefer to make my respect for the ancestral spirit of a place implicit in what I say. But there has to be some acknowledgment, or attempted acknowledgment, of the true cultural boundaries within which the history of this nation stands.

One of the best investigations of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous relations in this country is to be found in a documentary titled Liyarn Ngarn by English actor Pete Postlethwaite in company with singer Archie Roach (one of the great Aboriginal people I alluded to earlier).

Like Tony Abbott, Pete Postlethwaite spent time in a Catholic seminary. A friend of his from that time, Bill Johnson, came to Australia, married and adopted an Aboriginal boy who, at the age of 19, died in a Perth suburb after being beaten and then driven over by two white youths. The two white youths were not Australian; they were English.

From this premise, with Archie by his side, Postlethwaite set out to explore Australia and its Aboriginal perspective. What he finally concluded was that terra nullius, the idea this was a ''land of nothing'' when whites arrived, is part of the psychology of the Australian nation. He's right. It's one of our foundation myths and it will return again and again, invariably under the guise of ''common sense''. Common to whom? Not to Aboriginal people. Not to the rest of the world.

Tony Abbott's mentor, former Liberal prime minister John Howard, was described as a dog whistler, an American term for politicians who whistle up racial prejudice with apparently innocuous statements. Under the leadership of Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull, the Liberal Party appeared to make advances in this regard. It is extremely disappointing to think Tony Abbott is on the verge of taking us down this cheap, ignoble path again.

Martin Flanagan is a senior writer.
Source: The Age