When medicine doesn't work, double the dose

Linking welfare with school attendance - ABC 7.30 Report 14th November 2011 Linking welfare with school attendance ABC 7.30 Report 14th November 2011
Jenny Macklin - Adapted from Bill Leak Cartoon
Jenny Macklin

(Image Photoshopped)

Jack Waterford Canberra Times 13th November 2011

Iit is with no pleasure whatever, if a certain sense of I-told-you-so, that I record that yet another of Auntie Jenny Macklin's tough-love policies towards Aboriginal Australians is failing. Around Australia, the proportion of Aborigines attending school in 2010 is lower than it was in 2007. This is so even in the intervention communities in the Northern Territory.

We can be thankful that Macklin is unlikely to be deterred by such hiccoughs - or any other indications of the ineffectiveness of her ideology, prejudices and policies in action. If the medicine doesn't work, it is time to double the dose.

The current plan on which she is working involves starving the children's families in an effort to force them to go to school. This is achieved by suspending social security.

A government which once declared itself attached to evidence-based policy has read ample research that this has never worked in overseas countries, but Macklin either knows better, as usual, or is pandering to a disapproving white community. Cutting welfare benefits to enforce school attendance only reinforces the disadvantages of the families, and the children within them, made the objects of the coercion. If you want truants to be sicker, poorer, and more malnourished, as well as the worst-educated in the community, tying welfare benefits to school attendance is just the thing.

Luckily there are options in the Macklin-Gillard armoury:

The Malaysia Solution: the primary problem of indigenous affairs is the personal failures by Aborigines to be what Macklin wants. Under Macklin this has become a moral failure as well. One response might be to get a new set of objects of her attention. Perhaps we could export all our Aborigines to Malaysia, taking back a more compliant, and certainly more grateful set of the strangers in their land.

More public servants: Since intervention began, the number of white public servants in remote communities has doubled. This is obviously not enough. More has the added benefit of creating employment in the Toyota industry, and allows hundreds of otherwise unemployable culturally-trained engagement specialists to write memos as they redact business plans and devise governance arrangements. If trickle-down economics is to work, Aborigines must get wet.

More stick, fewer carrots: We've already banned truants from swimming pools and ovals. Now we need a ''school or meeting'' policy. This is very cruel, but might substitute for the floggings others have recommended. Those wagging school must be made to attend the non-stop meetings at which public servants ''engage'' with communities about what they have in mind. Once government consulted - and gave the pretence of listening. Now it engages - it just tells people what to do. Positive feedback, if any, is diarised and published in glossy annual reports published in Canberra.

'Tough love' bid to cut truancy

Michael Gordon (The Age) Sydney Morning Herald November 14th, 2011

Parents of Northern Territory children who miss 10 days of school in a term without adequate excuses face having their welfare payments suspended under legislation to be introduced in Federal Parliament next week.

The "tough love" welfare reforms will be introduced in more than 20 communities and townships, including Alice Springs, when the emergency intervention imposed by former prime minister John Howard expires next year.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin will today also announce legislation to toughen alcohol controls in the Northern Territory and a plan to boost indigenous employment.

Although the threat to welfare payments has been criticised by the nation's peak indigenous body, the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, Ms Macklin is confident that her legislation strikes the right balance.

Parents of children who have not been enrolled in school or whose children are not attending classes will be invited to attend a conference with representatives from the school, the Northern Territory Education Department and Centrelink.

A plan will then be devised to address the problem, which could involve the provision of a clean uniform at the school, advice on managing the family budget or help with transporting the child to school.

Parents who fail to meet their part of the agreed plan will have their income support payments suspended until they comply.

"We have listened to what Aboriginal people have told us about education - how they want children to attend school regularly and they believe parents have a responsibility to help make this happen," Ms Macklin said yesterday.

Sources said the communities had been chosen because their school enrolment and attendance rates were particularly poor.

Federal Schools Minister Peter Garrett said seminars would first be held in each community to explain to parents their responsibilities "and to ensure they understand that their income support entitlements may be affected if their children are not going to school".

The National Congress warned last month against any "one-size-fits-all" approach to address profound levels of disadvantage.

"Our principle is that there shouldn't be a blanket approach to communities and that they need to be engaged on what will work," congress co-chairwoman Jody Broun told The Age.

Aboriginal body warns on welfare

Michael Gordon The Age October 28th, 2011

Ligislation linking welfare payments to school attendance and enrolments in the Northern Territory could face opposition from the nation's peak indigenous body, the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples.

In its first major policy statement, the congress yesterday warned against any "one-size-fits-all" approach to income management or alcohol restrictions in order to address profound levels of disadvantage.

Congress co-chair Jody Broun said she would be concerned if the Gillard government embraced only the ideas that were raised during recent consultations that suited its policy direction.

"A real problem would be saying we want to promote personal responsibility, but then doing things that deny and contradict that principle," Ms Broun told The Age.

"Our principle is that there shouldn't be a blanket approach to communities and that they need to be engaged on what will work.

"Where you are going to have an impact on people's welfare payments, there has got to be a process of engaging parents and mentoring parents so that it's a last resort."

Ms Broun said the keys to improving school attendance included having good teachers, engaging parents more, making sure children had an interesting and positive experience and a pathway to a job.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has embraced this philosophy and yesterday repeated her pledge to continue to work with Aboriginal communities in preparing the legislation, which would be available in draft form for comment.

Ms Macklin recently told The Age the issue of school attendance and parental responsibility had been "huge" during more than 100 meetings in remote communities, town camps, regional and major centres on what would follow when the emergency intervention imposed by former Prime Minister John Howard expires next year.

The consultations also produced emphatic, but uneven, backing for alcohol controls to be retained after the intervention expires next August, and for new strategies to equip Aboriginal people to fill jobs in their communities.

Ms Broun said she was "a bit concerned that what's being touted as a solution … is grabbing on to bits out of the consultations, rather than looking at it more holistically".

"What was clear from the report [on the consultations] is that there were lots of different views and lots of positive and creative ideas at community level as well," she said.

A paper released by the congress said the way the intervention was devised and imposed had disempowered individuals and communities and perpetuated negative stereotypes.

"We commend the [Gillard] government for its commitment to review what has and has not worked," it said.

Jenny Macklin
(Image Photoshopped)

The media release the minister should’ve written on the NT Intervention

Eva Cox Crikey 19th October 2011

The following is a draft alternative media release for Jenny Macklin (and what she should have said as a response to the current consultation rather than harping on about truancy and grog!).

I want to again say sorry! Despite our 2008 apology, this government made more policy mistakes and added to the pain of indigenous people. The intervention we inherited had already failed to engage the local communities and unfortunately we have continued down this path. The latest consultations showed that we still have not really listened to the local communities as local groups told us clearly that we needed to change the way we do policy and programs, i.e. bottom up, culturally appropriate programs.

So rather than announce more punitive Canberra-devised programs to be put in place, we are going to start by shifting decision making power to a real partnership with local Aboriginal communities. We will sit with people for days, not hours and try to unwind the bad stuff from the good. This time we will not arrive with a paper already written on what we intend to do, but really start by asking what people want to change. This is what you told us and we have heard it this time.

Next time we won’t ask the bureaucrats, local and Canberra-based to run things because we know that makes it harder for you to say what you think. We will allow you to manage the processes and pick the facilitators. We will listen when you say that schools have to engage culturally and socially with parents and children, so they want to be there.

So we need to fund extra resources to make the serious changes that will satisfy local people and their school. Then we understand that attendance will rise.

We understand that we need to work collaboratively and build trust and goodwill rather than start by forcing attendance by cutting payments.

It’s time for the federal government to seriously reassess how we do indigenous policy. We have been told by the head of the Productivity Commission and the Australian Institute of Heath and Welfare that programs work if they are bottom up, culturally appropriate, long term and engage local people. We have not yet adopted this model and it’s time we did. We still make decisions quickly in Canberra, put words in the mouths of those we consult and decide what we think is good for them.

This is why much of the intervention has failed. We have spent a lot of money on staffing and personnel. Income management costs us $80 per week in administration and we now think this money could be better spent in local communities supporting those with need for support on payments. Some new data and some earlier studies show that income management is seen as a negative and shaming by a high proportion of those who are compulsorily covered by it. So we will not expand it.

There have also been studies showing it has not improved the food purchasing of families and other indicators that, rather than improving self-control and management, it may be making recipients even more dependent on others. We will therefore abolish compulsory income management and stop pressuring on people to stay on it. Autonomy comes from giving people choices about the assistance they need. Of course, seriously incompetent individuals and families who need case management will still be eligible. However, we will no longer assume incompetence just because people are on a certain payment or maybe find it difficult paying bills on a very low income.

It is now more than four years since the intervention started and nearly four years since my government took it over. Our record is not good. There are no improvements in many indicators such as school attendance, despite extra teachers, hospital admissions, health indicators, child abuse notifications, suicides or other such hard data indicators. There are some improvements in service numbers but we are not sure whether these are being effective. We have to acknowledge that our latest report gives not outcome figures, just records the many extra bureaucrats and service providers we brought in.

Abolishing CDEP, as employment, has undermined many local services and enterprises. The consultations also exposed anger that many new local jobs were filled by outsiders. The shires have reduced local employment and control, and limiting resources on outstations has caused serious distress. As many residents of these often have better health status than those in larger townships, we are restoring CDEP funding and prepared to look at how we make these communities more viable.

This time we will take into account all the stuff that people told us. Despite the limits of the process and short time frame, it was obvious that people want us to stop making centralised punitive decisions and work with them. We respect what people tell us in its entirety, and this time the government will not cherry pick the comments that agree with what we wanted to do before we started the process.

Again, my apologies for what we have done by failing to listen to indigenous communities and our own advisory bodies. This time we have heard you and we are genuinely resetting the relationship.

Jenny Macklin

(I wish.)