Late on Tuesday in Canberra, while the eyes of the nation were focused on a climate split in the Coalition party room, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, quietly briefed a few selected journalists on controversial plans to roll out welfare quarantining nationwide.
Both the timing and manner of the release were highly suspicious — with the announcement being embargoed to minimise any coverage of negative reaction to the announcement from lawyers, human rights advocates and the Greens.
Although the plan announced by Macklin involves expanding mandatory welfare quarantining to the whole of Australia, it appears likely the Government’s application of these national laws will be limited to a "trial" in the Northern Territory until after the next election.
If the legislation is passed, the Minister will be able to make any area in Australia a "declared income management area". The new measures will then apply to quarantine 50 per cent of the welfare payment of income recipients in three broad categories.
One of those categories is "disengaged youth", which means all those on Youth Allowance, Newstart, special benefits and parenting payments who are between 15 and 25-years-old and have been receiving payments for 13 out of 26 weeks, will be quarantined. Another category is "long-term recipients", which includes all Youth Allowance, Newstart, special benefits and both parenting payments who are over 25 but not yet of pension age and have received payment for 52 weeks out of the last 104 weeks. As well as these people, "vulnerable welfare recipients" — ie anyone on an income support payment — can be individually declared "vulnerable" or "at risk" under guidelines drawn up by the Minister.
Clearly this is an attempt by the Government to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) in the Northern Territory, while still maintaining the Howard-Brough Intervention measures.
The Government claims they have community support for income quarantining as a result of the consultation process recently carried out by FaHCSIA in prescribed communities in the Northern Territory.
However, it is now clear that this approach was not as open, transparent or fair as the Government would have us believe. The recently released independent report, Will they be heard?, found that there has been a failure to consult properly, and that claims of alleged support for the proposed measures are far from credible.
The transcripts from community meetings in this report seriously undermine attempts by the Minister to use these consultations to claim genuine "informed consent", as they clearly show they were not undertaken in good faith. Participants were merely asked to choose between a narrow range of options already formulated by the Government and were not given a chance to put forward their own ideas for reform. The consultations also demonstrated a lack of support for the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) within the community who resented the manner in which they had been singled out by these discriminatory measures.
Both the costs and the implications of this move are huge. This is the largest change in social policy by an ALP government in recent history and signals a massive shift in values from the ALP roots in the culture of "a fair go" to a highly conservative paternalistic social policy which singles out the disadvantaged and deliberately limits their choices "for their own good".
The ALP is apparently buying into the argument that single parents, the unemployed and other disadvantaged families waste their money, don’t care for their kids and can’t look after them, and need to be compelled to do the right thing.
Meanwhile, there is no evidence that this morally dubious, expensive and administration-intensive approach can deliver outcomes that justify its complexity and cost.
The Rudd Government’s step is a signal that it is much more socially conservative than its rhetoric about social inclusion would have us believe. For a government that came to power on the back of a campaign for the rights of working families, they seem eager and willing to undertake massive experiments in public policy.
Through this change in policy, the Government is not so much moving away from discriminating against Aboriginal people as expanding its discrimination to include a wider group of low-income and disadvantaged Australians.
While there is no doubt that more resources are needed to address Aboriginal disadvantage and to close the gap on health, education and life outcomes, the punitive approach of intervention, of restricting and micro-managing the day-to-day choices of the marginalised and socially excluded is not the way to encourage and empower them.
Now, after so many years of insufficient resources going to improve the lives of disadvantaged people, the Government has chosen to blatantly squander a very large amount of money on unnecessary, ill-conceived and ineffectual measures while many successful programs and organisations still go begging.
Rather than attempting to punish struggling, low-income families, the Government should be dealing with the underlying causes of neglect and delivering proper support for families in crisis.