NT Intervention: Guilty by geography
With Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin in the Northern Territory last week consulting on “what’s next?” for the Northern Territory Emergency Response, it’s timely to throw the concept of ‘exit strategies’ into the mix. In particular, how do people exit the Government’s income management program and take control of their finances?
It’s a very real dilemma for governments at all levels. Teetotalers and drunks, spenders and savers, good and bad parents - it makes no difference. If you’re an Aboriginal person receiving welfare payments in the NT, you live under the Emergency Response and half your welfare must be spent on the priority goods like food, clothes, rent and health care.
You can’t use the money for alcohol, tobacco, pornography or gambling – well at least not the quarantined half anyway…
To be honest, I agree with the concept to a certain extent. For dead beat Aboriginal parents who spend all their welfare on booze, smokes, porn and punting rather then feeding and clothing their kids they should have their welfare money quarantined. I also think the same about dead beat white parents.
This is where the concept derails. The overwhelming majority of Indigenous Australians who have their income managed are good people who look after their family. They love and care for their kids, respect themselves and their culture. And they are as fiscally responsible as their fellow Australians receiving their entire welfare payment to spend as they wish – because they live outside the NT.
The government will argue it is impossible to tell the difference between the dead beats and the good people in remote Indigenous communities. That’s how they justify the use of a broad sword rather than a scalpel to impose income management. It’s a one-in-all-in policy where everyone is ‘guilty by geography’.
However, with over 20,000 people now having their welfare quarantined in the NT it’s kind of a moot point these days. The income management horse has well and truly bolted. The big question is what is the Federal Government’s exit strategy? Not for the dead beats, but rather the innocent bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The challenge must keep Macklin and her Department awake at night (you’d hope). How does the Government provide a pathway for people who can, and want to, take control of their own finances and ultimately their own destiny?
Cape York’s alternative income management approach appears to offer some insights. Firstly, there is no blanket application of income management by the Government. Rather a Family Responsibilities Commission (FRC) made up of Aboriginal community members will hold residents accountable for not looking after themselves or their kids.
Like everywhere else in Australia (except the NT) you’re innocent until proven guilty.
The FRC has the power to direct all or part of a person’s income support payments to be managed by Centrelink to pay for the priority needs of their family.
The FRC will advise Centrelink how much of a person’s payments will be income managed. It is likely to be 60 or 75 per cent of regular fortnightly payments and all of any advances and lump sum payments.
While I’m sure it has some wrinkles which still need to be ironed out, on the surface it appears a much fairer system.
However, in the NT I simply can’t say the same. It was a half-baked policy when introduced by Coalition and it remains so under Labor’s stewardship.
By punishing both the good and bad, the Government provides no incentive to be good. By not involving the community in setting the standard or holding its residents accountable it becomes another big brother standard and a perceived unfair punishment.
But here’s the really scary thing. In the long run the Government runs the risk of creating a generation who expects it – the Government - to set aside money to literally buy their toilet paper.
It’s a little hard to see how people can move forward under such circumstances or how “social norms” can be truly established. I’m sure the ‘big wigs’ in Canberra know this, but you never know…
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