Welfare attack to spread nationally

March 21, 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."

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