It is more than a year now since then Federal Families Minister Mal Brough first floated the idea of paying welfare recipients in kind rather than cash for a proportion of their government benefits. Back then in May 2006 there was a predictable outcry from welfare groups describing the proposal as paternalistic and offensive.

The issue of providing welfare aid other than in cash came back on to the Australian political agenda when Prime Minister John Howard, at the urging of Mr Brough, finally decided to do something about Aboriginal welfare other than simply talk.

And yesterday Mr Howard finally acknowledged the plan for what it is – the introduction of food stamps along the lines contained in the United States Food Stamp Act of 1964 that was a major plank in President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s great society program.

The transcript of yesterday’s press conference by Mr Howard held at Bega tells the story:

JOURNALIST: On the welfare discussions in Cabinet yesterday, did you reach any conclusions?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes we did, and there will be a more detailed statement made about it, but the general principle that Cabinet endorsed yesterday was that if parents neglect their children or there is evidence that children are being abused, then we are going to change the law so that their family benefit and other payments can be quarantined, not taken away, but quarantined so that the benefit of those payments is directed towards the welfare of the children and we’re not going to discriminate between different groups of Australians in the application of that policy.

JOURNALIST: Will you have food stamps Mr Howard? Is that one thing you’re looking at?

PRIME MINISTER: Well something you could loosely call that. I think there are more sophisticated techniques and different descriptions now with EFTPOS, but the principle is the same; that the money is dedicated towards something which is guaranteed to help the child that is meant to be cared for. Now this is justified because parents receive this money on trust in a way for their children and if they’re not doing their job, the community is entitled to say well we’re going to stand in your place and see that the money is directed to the children.

When the detailed announcement is finally made there will no doubt again be cries of paternalism. The mindless critics will pay no regard to the record in the USA where food stamps of the kind Mr Brough advocates have long been an important, and uncontroversial, part of the welfare system.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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