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Mar 23, 2009

How the NT intervention is harming children

Income management shames those who live under it and takes us back to the days of the mission. It sets Aboriginal people apart from their fellow Australians, writes Irene Fisher.

It is 15 days since the Rudd Labor Government announced it would continue the NT Intervention for a further three years. The Government promised that the results of the Intervention would be monitored and that changes would be “evidence-based”.

What evidence is there that the Intervention has directly assisted in caring for our children — the premise on which the Intervention has been based?

The Sunrise Health Service has been at the front line in dealing with the health components of the NTER. The child health checks were seen as a new and innovative measure under the Intervention; however Sunrise had been conducting such checks in our region since the Medical Benefits Item was introduced.

Sunrise’s success rate is significantly higher than areas of the Territory in which the child health checks were carried out by visiting rather than local health professionals — 95 per cent compared to 74 per cent of children.

Anaemia in children generally leads to poor growth and development and is an accepted indicator of poor nutrition and children’s general health. Sunrise is able to make direct comparisons between pre and post Intervention data.

In the six months to December 2006, the rate in our region was 20 per cent. This was unacceptably high but had been reducing. By December 2007, the figure had gone up to 36 per cent. By June 2008, this level had reached 55 per cent, a level that was maintained in the six months to December 2008.

To be fair, there may be other factors involved, but we know the Intervention and its handmaiden of income management has had a direct impact on nutrition.

As income management first arrived in Katherine in late 2007, we documented a number of instances where the roll out affected peoples’ capacity to purchase food at all. This included diabetics being unable to access managed income for weeks at a time in the period leading up to Christmas 2007.

It is worrying that the collection of evidence under the child health check initiative will cease at 30 June. Despite the fact that its Territory-wide coverage is only 74 per cent and that the program has only been monitored for 18 months, that set of evidence will no longer be collected in a coordinated way through the Intervention process.

Compulsory and universal income management was designed, according to its proponents, to protect our children. Half of welfare income is now effectively quarantined for the 70 per cent of the Aboriginal population of the NT on Aboriginal land as well as community living areas and town camps. One hundred per cent of baby bonus money is also quarantined and made available over three months — unlike its lump sum availability for other Australian mothers. Likewise, the Rudd Government stimulus money is 100 per cent managed and again paid out over a period of months rather than a lump sum.

Income management affects aged pensioners without children, functional families, those who neither drink nor take drugs and families in which school attendance is high.

Access to quarantined money is controlled through the issue of the Basic Card, a form of debit card which is only available to be used at approved stores, and for approved purchases. If people want to buy items outside these stores — such as white goods, furniture or children’s toys — they must obtain a written quote, with the government paying for such goods directly with the supplier.

It’s a bizarre and bureaucratic system with an annual cost — mostly through the employment of hundreds of public servants to “manage” — of some $90 million a year. $90 million to “manage” some $270 million of quarantined income. It’s hard to imagine a more inefficient government program and there is no evidence that it will work as claimed.

Income management has not reduced alcohol or drug consumption, indeed the alcohol restrictions on prescribed communities has merely shifted the problem to town. It has not stopped humbug or the conversion of Basic Card purchases into cash for grog. Nor has it increased the supply of fresh food which is vital to fighting anaemia.

Jenny Macklin cited so-called “evidence” on this matter in a press release last July when she said there was some evidence of an improvement in the consumption of fresh food. It turned out this “evidence” was based on phone calls to ten stores. Six said yes when asked if sales of fresh food had increased, without supporting evidence; one said no, and three were unknown.

So much for evidence-based policy replacing ideology.

The claim by Jenny Macklin that Labor “will take an evidence-based approach to improve the social, hollow, cultural and economic well-being of Indigenous Australians” frankly rings hollow.

Income management shames those who live under it and takes us back to the days of the mission. It sets Aboriginal people apart from their fellow Australians.

I have yet to see any evidence that the removal of human rights leads to better health or educational outcomes or can protect our children. It has been calculated that over the next 25 years, some 30,000 Aboriginal children will be born in the NT. At a rough estimate, some 20,000 will grow up in the environment of the “prescribed communities”.

Unless things change, these kids will grow up under a regime in which they do not enjoy the human rights the rest of us do. Already about 1,200-1,400 Aboriginal kids have been born into this brave new world.

And the Intervention was supposed to save our kids.

• This is an edited version of a talk prepared by Irene Fisher for a public forum in Sydney yesterday organised by the Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney. It was delivered by Professor Larissa Behrendt on behalf of Irene, who was ill. The full transcript is available here.

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4 thoughts on “How the NT intervention is harming children

  1. Jenny Mac

    This is not the only health initiative that was community owned – and successful – to have been crashed by the Intervention. Ampilatwatja Health service was taken down by OATSIH, for some obscure reasons of administrative expediency. A successful school breakfast program run by Red Cross across the region was crashed as well. Vast sums of Intervention cash are being soaked up by the agencies in between people in remote communities and the money. Remote community people who have never had a drink in their lives have given up hope, and are getting on the grog. Government doesn’t want to know as long as they are being told what they want to hear.

  2. Ian N.

    Does the $90M that Irene refers to factor in the cost of conformance?. There is very little evidence that the terms of Basic Card are being met by suppliers and plenty of anecdotal evidence that non-prescribed goods of all sorts are being supplied. The issue of running another billing through the checkout is seen as just to onerous, so it is not done and why would you, nobody checks anyway. It all goes on the Basic, even if you don;t need it! What a Nonsense!. “We have excess money in our basics so let us go and get something”! Unscrupulous suppliers are now putting anything in their store on Basic. Why are larger outlets now stocking goods that they never did before and which are not prescribed? Why are the prices on these goods at profiteering levels? Simply because they have a “captive” market and the competition has been hobbled. This is plain and simple abuse under the guise of something else. It is being perpetrated against Australians by Australians with no evidence of any redeeming qualities. Educated Australians mange there own income. People that live on aboriginal lands are educated in many many ways and some can do with a hand in areas where they are vulnerable. This support should be targeted and specific ensuring that basic respect and dignity is maintained. A well trained mentor with involvement with a number of families could be appointed to assist and support the cash flow of the family via budgets etc. thus providing a potential for ongoing improvement. What is the legacy of Basic’s ? More dependency based on the lowest common denominator?. The Basic’s concept is belittling people and putting scarce resources straight into the hands of profiteers.

  3. Frank Baarda

    The above article coincided with a joint media release from Jenny Macklin and Warren Snowdon:

    “The Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) is making good progress with more than 15,000 people on income management, more police on the beat and a successful school nutrition program in 70 communities.
    The Australian Government is moving the NTER to a sustainable development phase to ensure measures will be effective for the long-term, including engagement and partnership with Indigenous communities.
    We are committed to strengthening our efforts to combat violence, child abuse and rebuild social norms.
    The Government must help protect women and children from the shocking levels of abuse and violence”.
    ,and a bit further down: ” At 13 March, 15,204 customers are being income-managed”.
    Customers indeed!
    So not only are they enforcing a draconian inefficient bizarre scheme that is counter productive towards its alleged aims but they’re proud of it!
    One of the main recommendations of the largely ignored NTER Review Board Report (Peter Yu et al) was that:
    “The current blanket application of compulsory income management in the Northern Territory cease.”
    Pretty straight forward I would have thought.

    Meanwhile we that live on “prescribed areas” are overjoyed by the prospect of the NTER moving into “a sustainable development phase”. Can’t wait!!!

  4. Jillian

    There are some very valid points made here. The cost of $90 million to manage $270 million and the fact that income management has not reduced alcohol or drug consumption… Prior to reading this, I was unsure of whether income management was a good idea, but this is enough to convince me that it’s not. I hope the policy will be reversed.