Is income management smart policy and will it improve peoples’ health and wellbeing? A resounding “NO” is the answer from some of Australia’s leading experts on health equity.

The following article is by Professor Mark Harris, Ms Elizabeth Harris, Mr Ben Harris-Roxas, and Associate Professor Marilyn Wise from the University of NSW’s Research Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity. They write:

“The Rudd government has made much of its effort to ensure that all policies and programs, particularly those intended to address complex problems are based on the best available research-derived evidence.

Improving the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory is one such problem – and associated with this is the importance of ensuring that the children receive high quality school education.

Why, then, has the government decided to ignore all available evidence continue to subject Aboriginal citizens living in the Northern Territory who are receiving welfare payments to compulsory income management?

There is no evidence to support the contention that compulsory income management results in improved health or school attendance among children. Studies from the Latin America, the Caribbean, the US, and Australia have all confirmed that sanctions (including, but not only, the quarantining of income) do not result in improved school enrolment and attendance in the medium or long term.

Not only has the government decided to continue to impose compulsory income management as a component of the revised Northern Territory Emergency Response, it has decided to expand the range of welfare recipients in the NT whose income is to be compulsorily managed by government.

The express purpose of this extension is so that the compulsory income management scheme to which Aboriginal communities have been subjected for two years under the NTER is not ‘discriminatory’ – and hence, enables restoration of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

However, this ignores the fact that, compulsory income management is discriminatory on the grounds of socioeconomic status –  in particular, affecting people on New Start and Youth Allowances who have already been disadvantaged in recent changes to welfare benefits.

It also ignores the fact that most of the people who need welfare payments to survive would not choose to do this had governments (and society) ensured that they had equal access to the opportunities and resources that everyone needs to survive and flourish – to high quality education, to meaningful work, and to participation in social decision making.

The government feels it has established that some Aboriginal children, women and older people are ‘safer, better fed and clothes, getting a better night’s sleep, and experiencing less humbugging for money’ as a result of the first phase of the NT Intervention. Other benefits to wellbeing and/or health were also described. Together, these benefits have been used to justify the continuation of the compulsory income management (and other elements of the NTER).

However, it is equally the case that the government found that the implementation of the NTER had caused multiple negative effects – humiliation, embarrassment, confusion, increased discrimination, and a real sense of shame among many caring and responsible men. These are the ‘costs’ of the NTER – the negative impacts on mental health, social and emotional wellbeing, are significant.

For some reason, however, the new legislation has ignored these – assuming the benefits to outweigh the costs. We would question this very seriously.

Finally where is the “exit strategy”?  How many generations of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal welfare recipients are to have their income managed, compulsorily by government, and at what personal and administrative costs before we are forced to apologise for the social and emotional harm that has been done?”


Meanwhile, Dr David Atkinson, a WA doctor with longstanding experience in Indigenous health,  writes:

“As a doctor with around 15 years’ experience of working in remote communities and in Indigenous health, I have serious concerns about the plans to extend income management.

There is some scope for sensible initiatives to help some people manage their money on a local scale. And it is quite right that policy should not be decided upon a racial basis.

But that does not mean that extending income management is a sensible policy. A centralised initiative run from Canberra is likely to be a disaster, and might cause as many problems as it solves.

The Federal Government too often makes the mistake of thinking Canberra is the source of all solutions, an approach that is bound to end in causing yet more problems.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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