Will Caucus allow unproven, dangerous changes to income management?

According to the government's logic, if some non-Indigenous people are subjected to income management then it is no longer racial discrimination.

Related Pages
Call to set up a welfare camp in Canberra - Protest against the 'Basics Card'.
Former top judge slams NT action The Age 30th April 2010

Eva Cox Crikey Blogs March 31, 2010

Take your pick:

On the one side is Alastair Nicholson, nearly all major welfare agencies, including sole parent groups, other women's groups, Indigenous Doctors, Academic researchers, a report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, some statistics and one small longitudinal research project who all oppose continuing and extending compulsory income management in the NT and potentially throughout Australia. The basis for the objections range across defending human rights to the practical problems of any such program, but all agree that there is no serious evidence that income management works.

On the other side is Jenny Macklin, presumably her Cabinet colleagues and other Caucus members whom she has briefed, the NPY women's group from Central Australia, another group from there worried about those with brain damage, a scattering of statements, mostly opinions, but no data, on the merits of IM and reported but unproven statements of benefits by shops.

I have no doubt that the Minister feels strongly that she is doing the right thing by the women and children in the NT, who are having difficulties at the local level, and nobody is opposing the rights of such groups to have in place an easily accessible form of income management tailored to local needs. I am sure that when she and her colleagues ask some of the women they meet whether they have seen benefits from IM, they will obligingly agree they have, and may well have done.

However, the personalised claims made by the Minister, that she knows IM is good because of what she has been told cannot be given the same gravitas as the volume of actual evidence that has been collected in approved professional ways that do not support the net benefits.

Alastair Nicholson expressed his serious doubts about the benefits of IM and the way the Government was reinstating the Racial Discrimination Act in a Monday night speech and reiterated some points on Tuesday's RN Breakfast session. He has been involved in an in depth analysis of the only published records of the consultations that Macklin claims supported the extension of the program to non Indigenous people. In the publicly available material there was rejection of any compulsory program, even through this option was not in the discussion paper, in any of the five recorded sessions. Claims therefore of majority support from the unpublished data are not credible.

It is significant that no organisation or expert has supported the claims of evidence of the benefits of the program. The limited research data from the Menzies Health research Institute and Australian Indigenous Doctors Association (AIDA) show no net benefits. This last report stressed that any positive effects of better use of Government income would be outweighed by the psychological damage done by negative experiences and personal discomfort. No attempt was made in any of the official data collections to measure whether there were ongoing negative effects from the processes involved eg the often expressed feelings of shame and embarrassment of having to line up in certain aisle and having to get approval for certain types of spending eg travel expenses.

Jenny Macklin had the right of response to Nicholson's criticisms and accusations on today's RN Breakfast. Listening carefully to her responses, it is obvious, as mentioned above that she does believe she is doing the right thing, but appears impervious to any evidence that counters her beliefs. She sees her stand as not ideological but improving the lives of women and children. The basis for this are "I have spoken to many men and women, they say there are real benefits for them" and later "I have to look at the majority who say it's important to them".

As there is no such data, this view must be based on those people she, and maybe her colleagues, talk to. As a long time researcher, I am both aware of selective memory and the tendencies of the less powerful to agree with the more powerful in conversation. The question is whether this should be the basis on which to make major policy changes that will deeply affect sole parents, the unemployed and young people on benefits.

The ideological shift is major. Noel Pearson agrees with her policies, because he has for a long time supported the conservative viewpoint, shared by Abbott, about shifting welfare polices from financial control over one's very limited income to conditionality on how it is spent. There is no evidence that this punitive approach works anywhere and, in fact, the evidence from many sources is it may make things worse as people are infantilised and become less responsible for their own well being.

Therefore many community groups are asking the ALP Caucus, to stop this legislation from going through.

Audio  Go to Audio 'Welfare quarantining' -
Breakfast with Fran Kelly
ABC Radio National
Guest: Alastair Nicholson: Former Chief Justice of the Family Court
Reporter: Gail Boserio

Welfare quarantining

The federal government's proposed legislation to expand compulsory income management across the Northern Territory is expected to come before the Senate when parliament resumes in May. This would see the controversial measure of income quarantining extended to all Australians on welfare, including white families.

Welfare quarantining means replacing 50% of welfare payments made to all residents living in one of the 'prescribed' Aboriginal communities with cards that can only be spent on food and clothing, and only at major retailers such as Coles. Welfare quarantining was first introduced as part of the Intervention under the Howard government, to combat child abuse. But welfare organisations continue to argue there is little evidence to show it has brought effective change.

From the start, one of the main criticisms of the Intervention was over the repealing of the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory, and since winning the federal election the Rudd government promised to reinstate this Act. However, this latest legislation will continue to discriminate against Indigenous Australians.

Former top judge slams NT action

Yuko Narushima theage.com.au March 30, 2010

Former Chief Justice, the Hon Alistair Nicholson
Robert Hannaford Portrait
Source: roberthannaford.com.au

A former chief justice of the Family Court, Alastair Nicholson, QC, says Kevin Rudd is failing indigenous Australians by continuing the Northern Territory intervention and paying lip service to equality.

In an explosive speech titled ''The Failure of the Rudd Government's Aboriginal Policy'', Professor Nicholson said the Prime Minister had avoided the ''searing moral challenge'' of forced assimilation, and he asked why Mr Rudd ''continued to roll over like a puppy'' in support of the intervention.

The government intervention into remote NT communities began in the lead-up to the 2007 election. The then prime minister John Howard and indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough suspended racial discrimination laws to ban alcohol and pornography in Aboriginal communities and confine a portion of welfare spending to essentials such as food and clothing.

On taking power, Labor committed to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act but tied its reinstatement to the extension of income quarantining in disadvantaged communities across the country.

''That bill is a sham which, in the guise of reintroducing the Racial Discrimination Act to those communities, in fact perpetuates its repeal,'' Professor Nicholson said yesterday.

The consultations with Aboriginal people used by government to show support for its plan were similarly dubious, he said. ''Henceforth, recipients of welfare payments will be beholden to the decisions of public servants as to where and how they spend their money,'' he said.

''Such blanket measures are sloppy, cheap and unfair solutions that reflect lazy politics.''

Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has previously said women in particular supported income management.

The extended welfare plan, now supported by the opposition, would pave the way for significant reforms that would force people to take personal responsibility for themselves and their children, Ms Macklin has said.

Professor Nicholson was sceptical of the government's intentions.

The laws gave unprecedented power to the minister and the department secretary, and did little to relieve indigenous people from racial discrimination, he said.

Not only would the wider scheme target indigenous people, it had ''the additional and frightening potential to extend well beyond them'', he said.

''This is disgraceful legislation which perpetuates paternalism and racial discrimination inherent in the intervention,'' he said.

''I am reluctantly drawn to the conclusion that this government, like its predecessor, is not serious about Aboriginal reconciliation despite its lip service to the contrary.''

Changes to welfare quarantining will capture long-term welfare recipients and disengaged youth between 15 and 25 who have unsatisfactory school attendance or who voluntarily submit to the scheme.

The measures will be introduced in the NT in July and extended to other parts of Australia after a review in 2011.

Welfare attack to spread nationally

Peter Robson The Australian 21 March 2010

On March 15, opposition leader Tony Abbott said the shadow cabinet would support the federal ALP government's extension of "income management" to more welfare recipients in the Northern Territory - not just those living in targeted Aboriginal communities.

From there, it will be extended to welfare recipients everywhere in Australia.

Income management was first introduced in the NT by the Coalition government of former prime minister John Howard in August 2007 as part of the federal government intervention into Aboriginal communities. The policy converted 50% of welfare payments into a Basics Card, which could only be spent on food, clothing, rent, or medical supplies - and only in the stores that have the facilities to use them.

Because this measure was specific to "prescribed" Aboriginal communities, the Howard government had to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) to introduce it.

The laws were supposedly introduced to counteract reportedly high levels of child abuse and neglect in remote Aboriginal communities. They were kept in place by the new ALP government of Kevin Rudd.

The ALP, however, promised to reinstate the RDA. To maintain income management and reinstate the RDA, the Rudd government will, with Abbott's support, extend income management to any community deemed "disadvantaged" by minister for community services and Aboriginal affairs Jenny Macklin.

According to the government's logic, if some non-Indigenous people are subjected to income management then it is no longer racial discrimination.

Pensioners will have more capacity to opt out of the system. But young people, single parents and older workers below retirement age will all be forced onto the system if they live in the "wrong" area.

People will be able to apply to Centrelink to get off the system, but will have to "prove" themselves to a bureaucrat first. For parents on support payments, this will mean proving that they are "good parents" even if there is no evidence that they were ever bad parents.

Those with higher levels of education will no doubt find this easier.

In its submission to the Senate inquiry into the new policy, the Society of St Vincent de Paul said: "Income management is returning social policy in Australia to the Depression-era Sustenance Allowance, commonly referred to as the 'susso'. The present legislation seeks to turn back the clock to provide the modern equivalent to a food ticket."

Of the 80 welfare organisations that made submissions to the inquiry, only two were in favour. Government reports have noted bad outcomes from income management over the last two years, including the 2008 Yu report and the 2009 productivity report.

The reports said that since income management began domestic violence reports in the targeted communities have increased 61%, substance abuse by 77%, school enrolments have remained unchanged, child malnutrition is higher and the total number of confirmed cases of child abuse rose from 66 in 2006-07 to 227 in 2008-09.

But Macklin claims that the intervention is working. "If you look how it has worked, it has helped families put more food on the table", she said, reported the March 17 Australian.

"What I want to do is link income support and school attendance, study and work. These links are not in place now. We know school attendance is a real problem. We need to get these links together to fight passive welfare."

Macklin has used a "consultation process" her government undertook in late 2009 to justify the extension of income management.

Macklin told ABC Radio National on March 17 that her department had interviewed thousands of Aboriginal people affected by the policy, who said they supported it.

But her department hasn't released many of the original transcripts of the consultations. The department has also been criticised for the way in which the consultations were carried out. Some academics have argued the one-on-one interviews used intimidated people into giving the "right" answers.

A different picture is given by the book This is What We Said, which was released after the consultations. It used the few transcripts released by Macklin's department along with original interviews to establish what Indigenous people actually said in the consultations. The picture that emerged was that Aboriginal people hated the policy.

A report from the Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association, released on March 12, confirmed that income management had produced worse health outcomes for Aboriginal people. The association said it needed to end as a compulsory measure.

"It is simply not possible to fight oppression with oppression", said report chair Tamara Mackean. "When we do this our children suffer and we are lesser for it."

Claire Martin, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Services, told Radio National on March 17 that a three-year longitudinal study by the Menzies School of Health Research had shown no improvement in the purchasing of fresh food under the intervention.

The indignity of the Basics Card becomes worse when "work for the dole" schemes are included. Under this system, people are essentially made to work for rations.

Barb Shaw, an Aboriginal leader of the Intervention Rollback Action Group in Alice Springs, said on March 17: "Would these politicians work for the Basics Card? That's what Aboriginal shire workers are being forced to do now and they will still be quarantined under these laws.

"The $350 million planned to continue income management is a criminal waste of money. They just want to keep control over our people to try and force assimilation.

"We badly need jobs and services for our communities, but have lost everything under the intervention."