Why In Bankstown? Why Anywhere?

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"Not in Bankstown, Not Anywhere", a coalition of Indigenous and community groups, rallied in Bankstown’s Paul Keating park on Saturday in opposition to the Gillard Government’s plan to roll out income management in five "disadvantaged" locations across Australia.

But given the ongoing criticism of the scheme, a question would be a more appropriate slogan: "Why in Bankstown, why anywhere?"

Pam Batkin, the Executive Officer of Woodville Community Services, told the meeting her colleagues across the community sector could not understand why Bankstown had been chosen for the initial roll-out of the trial.

"It doesn’t make sense. Adjacent areas have higher unemployment, higher rates of child abuse," Batkin said.

Indicators of social disadvantage in the 2006 census support the claim: Bankstown is far outstripped on these indicators by nearby Fairfield, Blacktown and Liverpool.

Sue McClelland, manager of the Bankstown Women’s Health Centre, told New Matilda she had problems about the assessment process for measuring whether a person qualifies as "financially vulnerable". She anticipates that interviews to assess hardship will be rushed, in some cases being conducted over the phone by Centrelink staff or on referral by third parties in the community sector. "How can you assess whether someone is vulnerable over the phone?," McClelland asked.

Problems with the implementation of the scheme and the way assessments will be made have been under criticism for some time. An assessment of financial vulnerability results in compulsory quarantining of 50 per cent of welfare payments. The other compulsory criterion, child protection, results in 70 per cent of welfare payments being quarantined.

But assessments of vulnerability are conducted on a case-by-case basis by Centrelink staff according to fixed criteria, which are so broad as to capture almost anyone in receipt of social security payments. For instance, the Newstart allowance of $231 per week is regarded as low enough to place recipients under financial stress as a matter of course, bringing them automatically inside the purview of the vulnerability criterion.

Risk of homelessness, another "indicator of vulnerability", has been identified by the National Welfare Rights Network as problematic. In 2010 the group noted:

"People at risk of homelessness or in a severe personal crisis are already reporting that they will not seek the extra support that Centrelink offers (such as the option of the weekly payment of income support) because they fear seeking help will increase the chances that they will be targeted for the new income management rules."

Voluntary participants receive an "incentive" payment of $250 after 26 consecutive weeks on the scheme. Speakers at the weekend rally denounced the payments as a "bribe" to stay on.

Appeals for those having their income managed are another source of contention. After seeing a review officer at Centrelink, the next step for participants is the Social Security Appeals Tribunal (SSAT) or Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Although applications to the SSAT do not cost anything and travel time is reimbursed, legal representation is not provided, making self-representation the norm.

Although the SSAT is an informal forum — it has no rules of procedure or evidence, and the government party to proceedings does not appear to avoid an adversarial environment — for those compulsorily placed on income management the process may still be too daunting for everyday matters. For example, a recipient seeking to spend quarantined money on getting their car repaired in order to drive to work or interviews may well have the request declined as "non-essential". Welfare quarantining then necessitates an appeal to a Centrelink review officer and then the tribunal, for a basic transaction that wouldn’t have been considered unusual if not for the existence of the scheme.

Moreover, reviews overwhelmingly return a result in favour of the original decision. Senate estimate questioning on review rates showed that from 86 decisions reviewed by a Centrelink original decision maker, 59 reviewed by an authorised review officer and four reviewed by the SSAT:

"70 [original decision maker cases]were affirmed. So they affirmed the Centrelink decision. In five the decision was set aside. Essentially the matter was looked at afresh. One was varied. Ten requests for review were withdrawn. Of the decisions reviewed by an authorised review officer, 48 affirmed the original decision; three set aside the original decision and eight requests for review were withdrawn. Of the four decisions reviewed by the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, my understanding is three have been affirmed and the remaining one is still pending. I understand that two that have been affirmed have appealed to the AAT and those matters are still pending."

Other questions put to the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) during Senate Estimates were less illuminating, with many taken on notice.

What should be obvious and what is admitted by the department is that the scheme itself does not inject funds into creating opportunities for communities, but instead spends money on compliance and assessment, with the majority of funds going "directly to the Human Services portfolio for Centrelink service delivery".

Figures calculated by the "Not in Bankstown, Not Anywhere" group put the $117.5 million budgeted to roll out the scheme nationwide at around $4500 per person, per annum, most of which will go to compliance and paying the wages of Centrelink staff.

New Matilda

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