What if the following motions, passed unanimously at the recent NSW ALP conference, had dealt with a blatantly economic issue like exchange rates or a tax rather than differences over social programs for disadvantaged people? You might have heard about them in the news if they had.
The motions in question read as follows:
Conference calls on the Federal Government to halt the imposition of compulsory income management in Bankstown or in any community.
Conference calls for a revision of the Stronger Futures legislation and repeal of current provisions in the Social Security Act that facilitate income management.
Conference calls for the redirection of all funds earmarked for administering compulsory income management into programs that will provide real and much needed support for people in the community that are vulnerable or struggling, including increased funding for social services and job creation.
Conference calls for the right to immediately exit compulsory income management to be granted to all people in the NT, WA and Queensland already on the system.
Moved by Sally McManus of the Australia Services Union, and seconded by Russ Collison of the Australian Workers Union.
The PM herself defines her interests as "working people" and shows no interest in the murky overlap between Indigenous policy and welfare. Maybe this explains why there were no headlines about income management (IM) at the NSW ALP conference. There wasn’t even reporting on a serious federal-state split emerging as the conference effectively attacked a major, recently legislated federal policy.
The stimulus for the motions came from a campaign being waged by a coalition of ethnic groups, churches, unions and community services in Bankstown who have tried to stop the changes. They failed and, on 1 July, five new areas came under a new IM regime.
As well as Bankstown, the extended IM program includes Logan, Playford, Rockhampton and Shepparton. They are being subjected to a trial version which allows the federal government to compulsorily quarantine from 50 to 100 per cent of the Centrelink income of 1000 recipients, who will usually be placed on a BasicsCard that can only be used at a limited number of outlets. This program is the obvious next step in the plans of both the federal government and opposition to gradually apply this model to all recipients of stigmatised payments, such sa the unemployed and sole parents.
This slow policy shift is a sneaky way of changing the basis of some of our social security payments. It has largely gone unnoticed because of under-reporting of the tussle between the federal government and those who oppose this major change in policy. The objectors include many NT Indigenous groups, most major welfare groups, legal experts, researchers and advocacy organisations. Their concerns include racism, the undermining of the right to income support, and the lack of proof for the effectiveness of paternalism and conditional welfare.
There are widespread objections to an official approach based on the assumption that many of those on welfare, such as Aboriginal recipients, need to be infantilised to learn how to be money managers. There is no clear evidence that NT communities are safer or children are better off after four years plus of IM. The official best evidence on offer is anecdotal and their own statistics show deterioration or stasis on many social indicators.
This process raises two questions: First, why introduce administratively expensive policies without any clear evidence that they are effective? And second, why are they getting away with it?
The history is partly the problem. The Howard Northern Territory Emergency Intervention started by imposing universal control over 50 per cent of the income of all Commonwealth income support recipients in 73 Indigenous communities. The rhetoric about addressing child abuse and the Aboriginal target group limited debate, and the Intervention proceeded with few objections bar some affected local people.
The incoming Rudd government continued the Intervention, ignoring their commissioned report by Peter Yu which raised possible problems with compulsory income management and doubts about its benefits. Instead, under UN pressure to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act, Minister Jenny Macklin, legislated in 2010 to extend IM to most of the income recipients in the NT, but excluded those on aged pensions, carers, disability support and veterans payments. This effectively differentiated between respectable and unpopular income recipients.
This legislated change led to a Senate Inquiry. Most submissions included concerns about extending compulsory income management but it went through despite the lack of evidence that it worked. Another set of laws went through last month to allow a further extension of the program to anywhere else the government nominates.
The local program initiatives cover three categories of recipients: Voluntary Income Management, a more expensive version of an existing Centrepay program; vulnerable people as assessed by Centrelink, and Child Protection families, nominated by state welfare people.
The last lot can have up to 100 per cent of their income put on a BasicsCard, the others have 50 per cent taken. The card/process does not constrain what people can buy — except no smokes, gambling or grog. As long as they use a shop that has signed up, they can use the cards to buy any other crap. In Bankstown, these are mainly the big supermarkets as local ethnic shops that sell wholesale and less manufactured food have not signed on.
State public sector unions moved the motions against income management. They are protecting their members and the public from being involved in badly designed programs. Money is not usually an issue in child protection case management and managing your income on Newstart is difficult as the payment is grossly inadequate. Many poor people are being put at risk of further unfairness.
How has this very dubious collection of policies survived? I defined this recently as the result of casual racism and prejudice. Most people who have heard something about these massive changes assume they apply only to the incompetent: Indigenous people, the unemployed, asylum seekers, sole parents and so on.
All these groups are stigmatised in many ways that people accept they need paternalistic control. Too many media outlets share these blinkers and fail to ask hard questions or report concerns. The Government can then use silence and omissions to cover up their bad policies. And when a serious challenge to the policy is issued – like the motion at the ALP conference — it passes almost unnoticed.