On August 27, education minister Julia Gillard tabled legislation enabling welfare recipients' payments to be denied for up to three months if their children were regularly absent from school.
"The key thing for us is to make the education revolution real for all kids, including those kids where school attendance is a real problem", Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told the August 25 Daily Telegraph. "Obviously there can't be an education revolution for kids if they're not at school, and we are determined to make sure across Australia that they are attending schools properly."
The proposed scheme will be trialled in eight areas: six Northern Territory communities, the Perth suburb of Cannington and one more metropolitan area that is as yet undecided.
Under the legislation, proving that children are regularly attending school would be a condition for receiving all Centrelink-based payments except the Family Tax Benefit. Instances in which children were absent from school without good reason would result in a 13-week suspension of welfare payments, with reinstated payments and back-pay conditional on "parents [meeting] their responsibilities relating to enrolment and attendance within 13 weeks", the August 26 Age reported.
Following the election of the federal Labor government and its subsequent apology to the Stolen Generations, many hoped for a thorough break from the conservative years of John Howard. The proposed change to welfare is just one more example of Rudd continuing Howard's conservative policies, but with more progressive rhetoric.
Rudd has kept the policies of "mutual obligation" for welfare recipients, which penalise people for their inability to find work. Now, people will be penalised for their inability to keep their children at school.
The areas trialling the new scheme have large Aboriginal populations and the policy can be clearly linked to the way in which Aboriginal welfare recipients in NT communities have had their welfare payments controlled by the federal government as part of a compulsory "quarantining" system.
In both the NT welfare quarantining and the proposed new truancy laws, the Rudd government is more concerned with meting out punitive measures and increasing control than addressing underlying causes of poor nutrition or low school attendance.
Under-resourcing of remote schools is a key factor contributing to low attendance. If every child in the NT were to attend school, there would not be enough teachers, desks or other resources to accommodate them.
The announcement has been met with opposition from welfare groups. The New South Wales Association of Children's Welfare Agencies chief executive, Andrew McCallum, told ABC Online on August 27: "If we're really serious about making sure that marginalised and disadvantaged people get into the education system, we have to look at incentives ... we make sure that education is something that has some point to it and that people can see it's actually something that's beneficial."
Teaching groups have also criticised the policy. James McAlpine, deputy president of the Australian Secondary Principals Association, believes that "the policy could lead to children going hungry or turning to crime if their parents' welfare payments were stopped", according to the Age article.
According to the August 27 Age, the Greens have pledged to block the legislation in the Senate. "I'll be looking to see if there's a clause in that bill that says if parliamentarians' kids play hookey, have their wages stopped until they get the child settled and back into school", Senator Bob Brown said.
Aboriginal academic Larissa Berhendt, in an August 25 Age article, discussed the main causes of truancy in Aboriginal communities, and suggested key programs that have been successful in overcoming it. These include providing free school meals, allowing more use of native languages in schools and a greater emphasis on rewarding students who commit to regular school attendance.
None have been slated for a national scheme, despite their proven success, and some — in particular, the teaching of and in local languages — have been outright opposed by the Rudd government.
Unless the Rudd government abandons its racist, regressive policies, it should be understood by Aboriginal rights activists as the Howard government was — an obstacle, not at ally, to real Aboriginal empowerment and equality.