A major welfare rights organisation has criticized a review into Indigenous employment parity for going beyond the scope of its terms of reference and handing down recommendations that would result in “cruel, harsh, and inhumane” outcomes.
In a submission to the Indigenous Jobs and Training Review, headed by billionaire mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, the National Welfare Rights Network has argued many of Forrest’s recommendations would have devastating impacts and do little to improve employment outcomes for Indigenous people.
“It is troubling that the Review over-reached its terms of reference by choosing to make extensive and far-reaching recommendations about the design and architecture of the social security,” the submission said.
“This is particularly so, when a parallel process is occurring with the McClure Welfare Review.”
The Review, which has now closed its call for submissions, is open about the broad scope of its recommendations and insists all must be followed by government if immediate and significant changes are to occur.
A central recommendation is the creation of a “Healthy Welfare Card” which would see welfare payments transferred into a special bank account and allow the recipient of the support to make purchases with the card.
The card would restrict welfare recipients from spending income on prohibited items such as alcohol, and limit them to “essential goods” such as food, utilities, and rent.
“We need to make the necessary changes to Australia’s welfare system to empower individuals to use it as it was intended. Welfare is provided to help people build healthy lifestyles and make the best choices they can for themselves and their families — particularly their children,” the Review says.
“It is a social safety net of last resort and should never be a destination, or support poor choices.”
While acknowledging the system would avoid a major issue associated with other welfare management systems – the sense of public humiliation many feel when forced to use them – the Welfare Rights Group derided the idea.
“People living on the lowest incomes in Australia would be subjected to a massive social experiment, the likes of which we have not seen before.”
In fact, it has been seen before – the Forrest Review recommendations are modeled closely on the Northern Territory intervention welfare provisions, which forced more than 15,000 Aboriginal people onto a ‘BasicsCard’.
The group also warned the cashless system would have unforeseen consequences.
“Cardholders will face restrictions to everyday activities: for example, transport may be problematic where private buses operate, parking meters may be restricted in some areas and food from the school canteen is out of the question. You won’t have the coins required to access a shopping trolley, the laundromat or buy the occasional newspaper.”
“Furthermore, school children won’t be able to participate in ‘gold coin’ days or use the swimming pool.”
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has previously hosed down suggestions the government would expand welfare quarantining as widely as the review suggests, but hinted some expansion will take place.
“One of the beauties of this card that Andrew is asking us to work towards, it’s not only something that could make it easier to have welfare quarantined, it would also be something that people could actually embrace voluntarily as a way of better budgeting,” Abbott said.
Welfare groups, including the National Welfare Rights Network, are not opposed to voluntary measures.
Aside from concerns about the Healthy Welfare Card, the submission said Forrest had ignored structural barriers to employment as well as infrastructural shortfalls.
In some cases, it accused Forrest of failing to understand the policy areas he on which he was providing recommendations.
“It is difficult to respond to this recommendation as it seems to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the current system,” the submission said in relating to proposed changes to Disability Support Pension eligibility.
Despite the general criticisms, the group did back some of the Review’s recommendations, including prenatal, early childhood and education measures.
The Review also recommends the Commonwealth do more to contract services to Indigenous-run companies.
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