Putting do-gooder politics ahead of helping people
Anthropologist Peter Sutton has a long association with indigenous people.
In his new book The Politics of Suffering, he makes an observation that deserves quoting at length:
The first consideration must be to focus on those conditions that are conducive to the emotional and physical wellbeing of the unborn, infants, children, adolescents, the elderly, and adult women and men. It is remarkable how many people living in the comfort, affluence and healthy surroundings of Australia’s suburbia have, in the debates over indigenous policy and especially the Intervention, covertly promoted the view that respect of cultural differences and racially defined political autonomy takes precedence over a child’s basic human right to have love, wellbeing and safety. It is as if political feelings and political values are more important than one’s emotional feelings and moral values as fellows of those other human beings in the ghettos.
I believe that considerations of care should be put before considerations of strict justice, as a matter of principle. There are times when one of these might have to yield to the other. In general, I am inclined to give priority to care, and to tough out the storm of complaints about flawed justice. Others take a different view. In the case of a conflict between care and appeasement there should be no argument: appeasement of vested interest groups goes.
This is born of an insight into the failures of decades of public policy and a rejection of the failed philosophy that prevailed for so long.
To return to Sutton: “Do-goodism can take many forms. One is saccharine sympathy, but another is self-redemptive legal and political crusading on behalf of marginal citizens that proceeds on the assumption that emotional wounds will be healed by laws and documents and covenants signed in Geneva.”
These words came to mind as I reflected on Labor’s insistence that the Racial Discrimination Act apply to income management in the Northern Territory. According to this belief, specific measures for indigenous communities are inappropriate.
Moreover, it is lawyers and courts who will decide the application of discrimination measures rather than the people through their Parliamentary representatives.
The measures contained in the Northern Territory response aim to rebuild social and economic structures and give meaningful content to Indigenous rights and freedoms. Many indigenous people continue to face significant social and economic barriers to the enjoyment of their rights to health, development, education, property and security.
Instead of protecting these rights, Labor’s response would return many vulnerable indigenous people to the exploitation by others, the inadequate protection of social workers, and a maze of legal contests.
As Sutton wrote: “Caring measures, based on the vital human right of freedom from abuse, the right to adequate nutrition and medical treatment, the right to economic and spatial mobility, rather than documentary measures based on increasingly stratospheric rights and international covenants, lie at the effective end of realistic processes of improvement.”
Sutton would not agree with everything the previous Government did in this area, but his critique demands attention.
Labor’s approach to income management is flawed. Certain welfare recipients will be excluded from income management, such as those on Age Pension, Disability Support Pension, Widow Allowance and Veterans’ Service Pension. According to the Closing the Gap report, there were 8,526 people on the Age Pension, Disability Support Pension, Carer Payment or other payment in June 2009. This represented 42% of welfare recipients in the communities who will be excluded from income management.
In addition, many of the other people on income support will also be excluded from income management.
Vulnerability in many instances will be determined by social workers and child protection workers. The experience of the States and Territories suggest that this is a very inadequate system, with such workers being overly cautious because of legal ramifications. A report by the Northern Territory Department of Health and Community Services “raised serious practice issues relating to risk management, case management decisions and inter-agency collaboration.” Moreover, it retreats from the clear evidence of widespread vulnerability of women and children.
The ability of social workers to adequately service the NT is questionable; and the case-by-case approach will be more costly and less efficient than a universal approach.
The Coalition is not necessarily opposed to an extension of income management, but it will not support a watering down of income management in the indigenous communities.
Nor can we trust the government’s rhetoric about a national roll-out. The watered-down extension is limited to the Territory. It is only after an evaluation in the next Parliamentary term that an extension might be considered, and then by Ministerial decree to limited areas.
Income management has been successful. In Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory, the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs stated: “Income management is a central measure in the Northern Territory Emergency Response. It ensures that Commonwealth Income Support and Family Assistance Payments are used for the benefit of children and to increase the financial security of people raising children.”
The Final Stores Post Licensing Monitoring Report found that the overall impact of income management has been positive for the communities. The report found:
- Customer shopping habits had changed significantly in most stores, with 68.2 % of store operators reporting an increase in the amount of healthy food purchases. This included items such as fruit and vegetables, as well as dairy foods and meat;
- Community residents, particularly women, telling store operators that they now have more control over their money, with greater capacity to manage humbug; and
- Store operators reporting that feedback is generally positive especially from women, once people understood how it works.
Most money was allocated to food (65.4 %), community housing rent (8.4 %). Clothing the footwear (5.9 %) and store cards (5.3 %). School nutrition accounted for 2.9 %.
This success is placed at risk by Labor’s ideological fixation on a legal crusade rather than practical outcomes for the most vulnerable indigenous Australians.
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