It Started With The Intervention

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When the ALP government, the Coalition opposition and the Centre for Independent Studies agree on welfare policy, they damage the life chances of those on the lower rungs of the ladder of opportunity.

The above organisations have become promoters of nineteenth century moralism in their agreement on the "merits" of a conservative set of welfare reforms. These were passed on 21 June in the last moments of the previous government.

The new welfare laws impose income management on a range of working age welfare recipients on a non-racialised basis — and they are already being rolled out in the NT. The new legislation allows the government to sequester and direct half all benefits paid to sole parents, the unemployed and some other recipients of generally less popular categories of welfare payments. Here’s Minister Macklin explaining the reforms on an ALP blog:

"This week, the Senate passed legislation in the best interests of Australia’s most vulnerable children, by helping families up and out of entrenched welfare dependency.

"The government’s reforms include extending a new, non discriminatory income management system across the Northern Territory to an estimated 20,000 people in urban, regional and remote areas, as a first step in a national roll out of income management in disadvantaged regions.

"In 2011-12, there will be a rigorous evaluation of the reforms in the Northern Territory, which will inform future roll out to other disadvantaged locations beyond the Northern Territory.

"I know there are strongly held views about these reforms but at their core they are about human dignity. The dignity of being a responsible parent, seeing your children go to school each day with no limits to their aspirations. The dignity of earning a pay cheque, of learning the skills to get a job."

This introduction of so-called "conditional welfare" has happened by stealth and the NT Intervention has been used as the stalking horse. These policies are not novel; Australia is finally catching up with the solid dose of conservative, paternalistic (or should that be maternalistic) welfare policies already in place in the USA and to some degree in the UK. These primarily were cuts in financial entitlements and increased pressure to take any available paid work, often focused on sole parents in the USA.

I’m talking about policies that are based on an odd mix of economic liberalism and conservative beliefs about human nature that assume people are individually responsible for what happens to them. Failure, therefore, is primarily the fault of individuals, or maybe their families. This then mandates high levels of social control policies which imply governments are not responsible for disadvantage — except through the misplaced generosity of unconditional welfare.

Australia first fiddled with payments via a tightening of eligibilities — but things changed. With Noel Pearson as the prime proclaimer of the evil of "sit down money" (and a report on possible sexual abuse) adding to the welfare mix, the Howard government had the trigger it wanted to move welfare policy to more control by perpetrating income management on 72 Aboriginal communities.

This policy shift was described clearly by Tom Dusevic in the Weekend Australian last month in an article which shed light on the Macklin, Abbot and CIS axis:

"But among the policy areas where Labor and the Coalition have bonded, somewhat quietly, is one that should bode well for further reform: welfare. It could be the main parties will develop a social policy consensus that mirrors the partnership on economic reform that began under Labor in 1983 and continued when John Howard became prime minister in 1996.

"Both Gillard and Abbott extol the virtues of hard work, and to a large degree their careers embody that. With "hard heads and soft hearts", they speak about the corrosive effects of welfare dependency, try to promote increased workforce participation, and are wedded to the principle of mutual obligation. It’s gone largely unnoticed by most commentators, but Labor is breaking from the shackles of its age-old welfare traditions.

""There is now good scope for bipartisan agreement on welfare reform," Jessica Brown, a policy analyst at Sydney’s Centre for Independent Studies, tells Inquirer.

"Over the past decade the major parties have moved into line on their approach to welfare. During the election campaign it seemed as if Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott were competing to be seen to be tougher on the issue."

That the NT Intervention entailed a massive change to welfare escaped much notice when it was rolled out because it was part of an emergency program in what were seen as failed communities. The current extension of the program has also been largely overlooked because it’s happening in the NT and it affects groups often used as scapegoats.

This strange alliance between the Coalition, the ALP and the CIS turns on a highly conservative shared faith in the human capacity to sin — which also involves the Malthusian concept that the under-classes are poor because they are basically incompetent.

Following this logic, unlike morally superior hard working citizens, those of working age on welfare payments need to be coerced into hard work and thrift by reducing their income and how they control it. This contrasts with the other side of the tracks, where the rich apparently need to be bribed to succeed — which suggests a very limited optimism about human capabilities ie we respond to greed or coercion.

Long term evaluations have shown very limited improvement in the lives of many sole parents and others affected by tightening welfare in the USA in the 1990s. Both there and in the UK seem to have moved some people into paid work, but it has been into work that is low paid and insecure, so they increase the inequity of the working poor.

In Australia, there is little evidence that the Intervention measures in this area are benefiting local people. The Senate Inquiry overwhelmingly recorded considerable evidence of non performance or limited benefits and very high costs. Last month, The Australian reported that "In the three years since the Howard government launched the intervention into 73 remote NT communities, the ranks of the NT-based federal bureaucracy have swelled by 180. There has been a combined increase since June 2007 of 609 staff of FaHCSIA based in the NT and public servants employed in the NT Department of Local Government, Housing and Regional Services." These numbers suggest that the government is more ready to fund bureaucrats than welfare recipients.

In spite of this lack of benefits, Minister Macklin’s office continues to claim more "good news" in the NT:

"A new tool to help ensure parents are providing their children with the necessities of life is now available across the Northern Territory. As part of the Australian Government’s roll-out of non-discriminatory income management across the Territory, we have introduced child protection income management. This means Territory Government child protection workers can now refer parents to Centrelink for compulsory income management when children are being neglected or are at risk of neglect."

While Macklin’s media release claimed the evaluation showed income management was helping to improve the lives of families in Western Australia, but a close reading reveals serious limits, however, to using the data for generalising and assuming clear benefits.

The numbers are limited so standard errors are high as there are only 149 interviews across three samples and two sites — and the report includes no hard data that shows improved lives, as it reports just the opinions of participants. This lack of evidence, together with the lack of clear support from other studies suggests these approaches are not the answer to remedying disadvantages.

On the other hand, there is now ample evidence from a wide range of researchers that the solutions to such problems need to be mainly systemic. Inequality in itself causes damage when it feeds into perceived structural unfairness. Indeed, meticulously produced epidemiological studies, including this one, released recently in Australia by NATSEM and Australian Catholic Health, identify inequality not personal dysfunction as responsible for mass disadvantage and ill health.

This research approach suggests the Government’s welfare policy needs to address continued structural social inequalities and lack of systemic fairness as these are the main cause of ongoing social and economic dysfunction. Right now, however, there is nothing in the social inclusion policies or other government welfare initiatives that suggest this evidence is even being considered. Instead, former political antagonists are now singing from the same songsheet about the merits of conditional welfare, ignoring high delivery costs — and leaving little space for effective evidence based reform. 

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