Howard/Rudd welfare 'quarantine' condemned


On November 18, PM John Howard announced that the federal government would consider extending the welfare quarantine currently in place for all Aboriginals on welfare in the NT to all welfare recipients convicted of drug offences. "It's not right that people should have control of taxpayer money when they have been convicted of such offences", he told ABC News. "This will mean that they will not be able to spend the money on those sorts of drugs, or indeed, for that matter, on alcohol and tobacco."

The scheme would replace a percentage of recipient's welfare payment with a debit card that could only be used for food, rent and other utilities — and could not be spent on illicit drugs, cigarettes, alcohol or gambling. Opposition leader Kevin Rudd has announced that, if elected, a Labor government would consider the system, but "in a more targeted manner". "We would ... quarantine welfare payments so that children under those circumstances are going to be properly housed, properly fed and properly looked after", Rudd told ABC Radio on November 19. "On the question of broader quarantining of welfare payments, we believe that the smart thing to do there is to take the advice of a combination of the police and the relevant health authorities as to what is best in individual circumstances."

While the new policy was only announced in the lead-up to the federal election, Mal Brough, Howard's minister for families, community services and Indigenous affairs, made a similar announcement in November 2006 to the Australian Council of Social Service, flagging the idea of welfare quarantines for drug offenders before it was made policy for Aboriginal communities in the NT. In tones that were very similar to those used to justify the NT quarantine system, Brough spoke of the need to "protect" the children of drug offenders.

Brough said: "Some of our children are not receiving the nutrition, secure housing, clothing and education that we would all consider a child's basic right. The reality is, these children are often in families where drug and alcohol abuse is occurring or where gambling addictions have stripped the family of the cash required to support their children. Welfare is not for drugs, alcohol or gambling ... Is this reducing the dignity of parents on welfare or demonising those with addictions? No. Nonetheless, while the dignity of parents is important, it is worth noting there is very little dignity in addiction ..."

Civil liberties and welfare groups have attacked the proposal. On November 26, 2006, Michael Raper, president of the National Welfare Rights explained that Brough's "short-term, paternalistic and impractical proposal is not the solution. We need increased investment in anti-addiction programs to overcome up to 12 month waiting periods and an opt-in income management scheme to get a long-term, sustainable solution."

Louise Grant, the president of the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League, a national organisation representing people who use or have used illicit drugs, has condemned Howard's proposed quarantine program, saying that such a system "will not stop people using illicit drugs, it will simply mean that people will be forced to take even more risks than they currently do to obtain money for their drug use".

The Australian Medical Association also condemned Howard's approach. The November 18 Sydney Morning Herald quoted AMA president Dr Rosanna Capolingua explaining that "Punitive measures for drug addicts are not really the answer ... People who have a drug addiction actually need help, support and assistance as they are actually unwell."