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Compulsory income management: socially inclusive?

The Federal Government continues to portray the proposed roll-out of compulsory income management as somehow being integral to its commitment to a social inclusion agenda.

To this end we witnessed the sad spectacle of data being wheeled out towards the end of last year, purportedly showing how compulsory income management in its current racist application as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response, is somehow responsible for wonderful improvements in the quality of life of families affected.

This "evidence base" was gathered from 76 "income management clients" out of a possible 15,125. These people were interviewed in 4 affected locations out of a possible 73 prescribed communities and town camps. As the authors of the report point out: "The research studies used in the income management evaluations would all sit towards the bottom of the evidence hierarchy. A major problem for the evaluation was the lack of a comparison group, or baseline data, to measure what would have happened in the absence of income management." (Report on the evaluation of income management in the Northern Territory)

This is a cynical manoeuvre by the government. In an effort to get around the Racial Discrimination Act it has decided to go down the American path of close supervision of people who are doing it tough. The discrimination will not cease. It will merely be broadened. This is insulting to the people we stand in solidarity with.

This paltry effort to conceal racial discrimination merely leads the government into the equally dangerous waters of class discrimination as well as gender discrimination, particularly in its impact on sole parents. Former chief justice, Alistair Nicholson says compulsory income management is like Big Brother and interferes with people's rights and liberties. "The government is so desperate to retain what I would see as some of the objectionable aspects of the intervention that it's prepared to go to these lengths to do so," he said.

Of course, those of us who engaged in this critique are an easy target. We've been called everything from communists to "a self-perpetuating welfare industry". We are not interested in perpetuating the status quo. We are interested in progressive social change. Families Minister Jenny Macklin says she wants to help end welfare dependence. I have tried to explain to both sides of politics the simple fact that social security payments are not the problem. Neither are they the solution. It is not enough to stop at social security payments. But to put the blame for poverty on these payments is completely disingenuous. We are repeatedly told that the people "on welfare" to use the rather degrading American term are basically dysfunctional; that they are either mad or bad; that the fault for their exclusion lies fundamentally with them and so, like naughty children, they must be made to change or be punished.

This is deeply offensive to anyone, Indigenous or nonindigenous.

Minister Macklin continues to repeat the claim that compulsory income management is working, despite the reports of humiliation and well-founded resentment experienced by people whose only crime is that they are Indigenous. Income management can be an extremely useful tool in some circumstances, specifically when it is voluntary and forms part of a context of support and appropriate service-delivery. It is not true that people doing it tough can have a better life as a result of being treated in a paternalistic way. World Health Organisation reports consistently make the link between good health outcomes and a sense of empowerment, a sense of being in control. Compulsory income management disempowers and denigrates.

The people we assist are struggling on inadequate levels of Centrelink benefits. We are deeply disappointed to see that instead of addressing this problem the government has chosen to subject people to further measures of control. This does nothing for people's dignity. Neither does it address any of the problems some might be having in their lives.

We fail to be convinced by the highly questionable evidence that is being presented as a justification for this poorlytargeted policy. It is sad to see a government that claims to be committed to a path of social inclusion indulging in such a coercive and controlling approach rather than honestly looking at the supports that people need, starting with a review of inadequate payments.

To suggest that exemptions will be available for some welfare recipients if they can demonstrate responsible behaviour is an indication that the government is beginning with the assumption that welfare recipients are guilty until proven innocent. People are clearly being constructed as "spectators in the definition of their own need" as author Richard Sennett put it so eloquently.

The government is merrily helping to consolidate the wedge that has for some time been driven between those in paid work and those who are on the margins of the labour market. This is inimical to the principle of a fair go. It is also inaccurate, especially in the light of recent research from Dr John Buchanan and his colleagues at the University of Sydney's Workplace Research Centre on the precarious and insecure nature of casual work, especially at the low end of the labour market. We hoped that the global financial crisis might provide an opportunity for all of us to re-imagine the way we look at social and economic security, giving us a fresh perspective on why people are pushed by unfair structures and unjust histories to do what they can to survive on the edges of society.

We do not abandon our hope for a genuine re-framing. We maintain the belief that the people who are excluded are best equipped to determine the best means and ends of real social inclusion based on justice rather than paternalism. As Lilla Watson and a group of other Aboriginal activists in Queensland in the 1970s put it:

"If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."

Dr John Falzon

Chief Executive Officer, St Vincent de Paul Society National Council

Dr John Falzon is the Chief Executive Officer of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council. He also sits on the Australian Social Inclusion Board.
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Author:Falzon, John
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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