Late Tuesday in Canberra, while the eyes of the nation were focused on a climate split in the coalition party room, the minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, quietly briefed a selected few journalists on controversial plans to roll-out welfare quarantining nationwide.
Both the timing and manner of the release were highly suspicious -- with the announcement being embargoed to prevent lawyers, human rights advocates and the Greens from scrutinising, let alone criticising, such a seismic shift in Labor social policy.
There has been no ministerial press conference to officially announce one of the biggest ever changes in Australia’s social policy.
Like a thief in the night, Labor was hoping nobody was watching. The radical plan involves expanding mandatory welfare quarantining laws to apply to the whole of Australia -- although it appears likely the application of these national laws will be limited to a 'trial' in the Northern Territory until after the next election.
But the intention is clear: the laws apply to the whole nation, and it is entirely at the minister’s discretion to identify target communities at any time.
When the legislation is passed, the minister will have the power to proclaim any area in Australia a 'declared income management area'. The new measures will then apply to quarantine 50% of the welfare payment of income recipients in these declared areas who fit the broad categories of:
-- all those on Youth Allowance, Newstart, special benefits and parenting payments who are 15-25 years and have been receiving payments for 13 out of 26 weeks in declared areas will be quarantined.
-- all Youth Allowance, Newstart, special benefits and both parenting payments who are over 25 but not yet pension age and have received payment for 52 weeks out of past 104 weeks in declared areas will be quarantined.
Vulnerable welfare recipients
(on any income support payments) -- can be individually declared 'vulnerable' or 'at risk' by the secretary, following guidelines made by the minister.
Clearly this is an attempt by the government to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) in the NT, while still maintaining the Howard-Brough Intervention measures.
The government claims it has community support for income quarantining as a result of the consultation process recently carried out by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs in prescribed communities in the Northern Territory.
However, it is now clear that this approach was not as open, transparent or fair as the government would have us believe. The recently released independent report Will they be heard
found that there has been a failure to consult properly, and that claims of alleged support for the proposed measures are far from credible.
Both the costs and the implications of this monumental move are huge. It surely represents the largest change in social policy by an ALP government in recent history, and signals a massive shift in values from the ALP roots in the culture of "a fair go" to a highly conservative paternalistic social policy that singles out the disadvantaged and deliberately limits their choices "for their own good".
The ALP is apparently buying into the argument that single parents, the unemployed and other disadvantaged families waste their money, don't care for and can't look after their kids, and need to be compelled to do the right thing.
There is no evidence to support the claims that this approach actually works -- let alone that this morally dubious, expensive and administration-intensive approach can deliver outcomes that justify its complexity and cost.
It is a signal that behind the spin the Rudd government is much more socially conservative than its rhetoric about social inclusion would have us believe. It is shocking that a Labor government would countenance this kind of "boots and all" approach and pursue such a risky and expensive social experiment -- without a shred of evidence of positive outcomes from this level of social control.
Through this change in policy, the government is not so much moving away from discriminating against Aboriginal people as expanding its discrimination to include a wider group of low-income and disadvantaged Australians.
The Rudd government made a fundamental error when it backed the racist approach of the previous government. While there is no doubt that more resources are needed to address Aboriginal disadvantage and to close the gap on health, education and life outcomes the punitive approach of intervention, of restricting and micro-managing the day-to-day choices of the marginalised and socially excluded is not the way to encourage and empower them.
It is outrageous that after so many years of crying out for these resources, they are being so blatantly squandered on unnecessary, ill-conceived and ineffectual measures … while successful programs and organisations still go begging.
Rather than attempting to punish struggling, low-income families, the government should be dealing with the underlying causes of neglect and delivering proper support for families in crisis.