For many years I worked in trauma rehabilitation, programme development and service delivery with marginalized and disadvantaged groups, and I have closely followed the rollout of the Intervention and especially the Quarantining (Income Management) across the Northern Territory.

I have become increasingly alarmed that, public comment from the Minister’s office is so one-sided that it fails to mention any of the inherent problems associated with Income Management (IM). This is not to comment on the programme itself or to imply that it is without merit.

It is known that many, especially women, have embraced the programme, and we are told, have found freedom from the practice of ‘humbugging’. Clearly for some, IM has proved to be a useful tool which protects vulnerable individuals from bullying and provides them with more control over their spending.

However, there are others who have found IM to be demeaning and extreme. They feel their independence has been removed and even the purchase of their everyday needs is controlled by government. In some instances, the strict administration of the programme has required considerable travel by taxi and charter plane resulting in large portions of family welfare income being been lost to transportation costs.

Having read many of the submissions to the current Senate Select Committee, I note that there are numerous references to IM related problems. During the Review last year IM-related examples were presented to the visiting review members and were taken into consideration when the recommendations were handed down.

Why is it then that the inherent problems mentioned, and reaction to them across the Territory and other parts of the country, that have led to numerous and ongoing demonstrations, have been all but ignored by the Minister? The failure to acknowledge the problems has undermined the trust that government has been so eager to establish with Aboriginal people.

Of equal concern is the references to ‘evidence’ in various departmental and ministerial statements.

Even in the recent “Future Directions” discussion paper’s accompanying letter, the Minister writes “evidence to date tells us that..…”, and this leads us to believe that evidence is being gathered that will support the official views that are reported.

 

We know that the ALP’s Guiding Principles for the relationship between Aboriginal Australians and government includes the pledge that:

Labor will take an evidence-based approach to improve the social, cultural and economic well-being of Indigenous Australians

For evidence on IM, departmental officers direct us to the “Second Stores Post Licensing Monitoring Report 2008”. This survey is conducted at regular intervals by telephone interviews, of 10 to 45 minutes duration, with store operators. This is a survey which captures the subjective observations and opinions of store operators. We are told that it is not supported by any examination of financial records.

The preamble to the survey contains a long list of favourable changes that have taken place, according to the observations of store operators, as a result of the introduction of income management. While it is interesting to obtain the views of store operators, the conclusions being drawn from them are easily misinterpreted as ‘facts’ about the outcomes of the programme itself. More relevant would have been the views of the community members.

The whole of the introduction to this survey and monitoring report, including the Summary and Background sections, fail to mention any identified problem experienced by the communities. One has to wonder just how reliant the observations of store operators really are. Only when we get into the survey itself is there mention from one store operator who, “reflects that IM is hard for people who travel, because their money is held at only one store and travel money is restricted to discretionary cash.”

If you search hard enough you will be informed that, “It is important to note that in some communities, residents were already buying healthy food and had money management arrangements which supported the purchase of larger items through lay-by style arrangements’.

Yes it is important, so very important that this note is tucked away and easily overlooked. However, what comment is made of these people who are suffering gross government restrictions without any just cause. What are the store operators observing of these customers?

The information being collected is the subjective views of store operators on how they perceive aspects of income management. As respondents to the survey they are morally compromised because of a clear conflict of interest. For example the response of store operators to the first area of interest – the overall impact of income management on the community – is that over three-quarters of the store operators had positive things to say about the impact of income management on the community.

Now, one would have to ask, why wouldn’t the store operators have a positive view of the impact of IM on the community (qm). The store operators are business people, not welfare personnel. Good practice dictates that they make profit. With IM they have a captive market which automatically increases the operator margins. In almost all cases these store businesses are without competition. The result is state issued monopolies. As far as ‘evidence’ in concerned, the failure to validate information/opinion with independent evidence renders the survey information as being without credibility.

This is why I have become alarmed and the questions remain. Why has the government not set up a valid study as to the impact of IM across the Territory, using qualified interpreters and guaranteeing confidentiality (qm) Why is the government determined, in the absence of credible evidence, to insisted on the continuation of the IM as a blanket measure without offering any real choice (qm) Why is government failing to listen to or acknowledge the inherent problems in considering this matter (qm). Why is government determined to reject the recommendations, including voluntary income management, of the Review Report which acknowledges all the community views – positive and negative (qm)

The Review Report recommendations included:

• The current blanket application of compulsory income management in the Northern Territory cease.
• Income management be available on a voluntary basis to community members who choose to have some of their income quarantined for specific purposes, as determined by them.

These recommendations appeared to be a sensible response to a programme which has polarized aboriginal communities across the Territory.

That the Minister is working towards the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act is to be welcomed. But what of the above recommendations and the reason for my concerns (qm).To reject the recommendations of the Review which was headed by Peter Yu seems to fly in the face of another ALP Guiding Principle:

Labor will harness Indigenous decision-making power in relation to the formulation and delivery of policies and programs.

To reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act is of the greatest importance. At the same time we are given to understand that government intends to ‘reset the relationship’ with Aboriginal communities.
Resetting the relationship requires honesty and trust on both sides. If government is seen to be closing a blind eye to the problems of one group of Aboriginal people, while ‘cosying up’ with another group, little will result. If government is committed to the use of evidenced–based strategies for the longer term policy development, then evidence must be credible and not simply designed for the purpose of propping-up elements of the Intervention.

To attempt to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act while endorsing unchanged ‘special measures’ that have already been rejected by large factions of the Aboriginal community would be totally naive. The special measures need to be seen as ‘beneficial’, supported by the communities they will directly affect and reflect the principles of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

My greatest fear is that the government believes it ‘knows best’ and just as with its data collection from store operators is listening to the wrong people. The government is committed to ‘consultation’ but this doesn’t mean hearing what you want to hear and being deaf to what doesn’t fit into the already formulated grand plan. It doesn’t mean talking to people who support you without also talking to people who don’t.

It doesn’t mean calling a programme ‘voluntary’ if in fact you have to apply to government to leave it. Voluntary actually requires that you choose to stay in it.

For any proposed special measures to have credibility, communities across the Northern Territory must be consulted and importantly give voice to all through the use of qualified interpreters. Transcripts of consultations should be made public because resetting the relationship with Aboriginal Australians is of paramount importance. It is what this government has promised to do. It is not simply a process of ticking the boxes. What is being decided must be genuinely negotiated and respectfully agreed to. Anything less will be a betrayal.

Is this government capable of resetting the relationship with Aboriginal Australians (qm) Certainly! Does this government have the courage to genuinely engage (qm) That is much harder to answer. So far the move to reinstate the RDA is more related to wanting to ‘look good’ for the UN and those who value human rights. The opportunity for government to listen and respond with an open mind is now.

Rather than lining up with previous governments, genuine in their desire to help maybe, but arrogantly failing to listen, it is worth thinking back to the comment of Kim Beazley Senior:

“In Australia, our ways have mostly produced disaster for the Aboriginal people. I suspect that only when their right to be distinctive is accepted, will policy become creative”… Kim Beazley Sr.

And so I am alarmed, I am asking now for government, the Minister and the Department to set out publicly the process which is being used to determine the support of Aboriginal communities for any proposed ‘special measures’. This can only be achieved if the consultation process is transparent. Otherwise it will not provide the credibility required to reset the relationship.

Full transparency is what we expect from your government, Prime Minister Rudd.