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Central Australian perspectives of welfare reform.

On 21 June 2007 the Australian Government announced a 'national emergency' to protect Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. The result was a raft of changes to key areas of social policy including pornography, alcohol, welfare, l an d tenure, Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) and housing. The impact of the changes has been to control almost all parts of Aboriginal people's lives, with in come management arguably having the greatest impact on the daily lived experiences of Aboriginal m en and women in the Northern Territory.

Under income management, 50% of income support payments an d 100% of family assistance payments are directed by Centrelink to stores, housing providers and others to meet 'priority needs' (food, clothing, rent, transportation, health, etc). The Northern Territory's income management regime is a non-negotiable blanket measure, applicable to all welfare recipients residing in prescribed areas of the Northern Territory, regardless of whether a person has responsibility for a child. Moreover, it is discriminatory.


In March to June 2008, the Central Land Council interviewed community residents from six central Australian communities on their perspectives of a number of the NTER measures. Responses for income management were extremely nuanced with support and opposition to the measure almost equally divided. Interestingly, there was no statistically significant difference between the responses from men and women. People interviewed cited advantages and disadvantages associated with income management, for example three comments were:
   As a Council member, I hear good things and bad things about the
   changes. The good things are that everyone in a house is buying
   food for the house. The bad things are the people say there is not
   enough cash. Winter is coming and people like to go away for things
   like sports weekends to other places like South Australia. Can
   people get their money sent to other places?

   They should have managed money for people that need it. People used
   to save money.. It's racist. Lots of people have learnt to save
   money. It's racist, like treating us like kids. It's only for Yapa
   [Aboriginal people] not for Kardiya [nonAboriginal people]. They
   should ask community and the individual should decide. Each
   community should decide.. They shouldn't do it to pension people. .

   Before the intervention we used to buy grog ourselves with money
   from our pocket. People had money to buy more grog, but now no
   money in [my] pocket.

There was also some evidence to suggest that if in come management was better directed towards people with alcohol, gambling and substance misuse problems, than Aboriginal people would be more supportive of it. The CLC has argued that if income management is in place, it should be voluntary or trigger base d and be supported with financial management training. Moreover, we have argued for stronger community engagement in determining solutions to family and child welfare.

Principally, the NTER assumes a link between social dysfunction, child neglect and substance misuse and passive welfare. And, the debate about the legitimacy of this link is well worth having. However, it is now clearer than ever that the Government's committed to expanding welfare re form across Australia (FaHSCIA 2009). The CLC believes that more could be done to empower Aboriginal people in the process and we are currently investigating different models of welfare reform across Australia and internationally.

The Cape York Family Responsibility Commission model is one such model that we are investigating. The model in comparison to in come management in the Northern Territory:

* employs income management as a last resort discretionary measure

* is only being conducted on a trial basis (4 years)

* uses community members in the decision making

* consultative' process

* is based on program that includes other support structures (including counselling and financial management support), and,

* appears to be less punitive than the blanket model adopted in the Northern Territory.

It is well recognised that community involvement an d community driven solutions are necessary for lasting and sustainable outcomes. In this regard, there is a lot more work that could be done to ensure that community supported welfare reform approaches are adopted in the Northern Territory.

Alyson Wright, Policy Research Officer, Central Land Council
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Author:Wright, Alyson
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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