The nasty maternalistic state

Sole parents and the unemployed beware! Jenny Macklin is trying to take half your income away. From July in the NT, and 2011 for the rest of the country, she wants to implement the most drastic change to our social security system ever. And almost nobody knows about it. She is expecting support from the very conservative Opposition front bench to have the legislation passed quickly so she can impose these new measures as soon as possible despite almost universal opposition from a wide range of groups.

If she succeeds, those on most payments, except age and disability payments, for more than 12 months will have half their income restricted on a plastic card, usable in certain shops and confined to approved items. While these exclusions are currently cigarettes and alcohol, the government is looking for new systems that will report the bar codes of all items bought. Presumably chocolate biscuits and soft drink could soon be added and all sorts prescriptive lists of what’s acceptable. These controls will be placed on all eligible recipients, in low income post codes initially, not just those who have shown themselves to be bad parents or even are parents. This undermines one of her justifications and will shame the majority of sole parents and unemployed people who are capable of managing their meagre funds very responsibly.

This ‘income management’ program is being touted by Macklin with excessive irrelevant hyperbole, as shown in her recent speech at the Social Inclusion conference last month:

Over time, a new income management system will be rolled out nationally aimed at fostering individual responsibility; providing a platform for people to move up and out of welfare dependence and to tackle the destructive, intergenerational cycle of passive welfare.

She goes on to say:

Income management can help people regain control over their lives – rebuilding financial capacity where this capacity has been broken down by addiction or when lives spin out of control.

Where is the evidence that most recipients of income support are affected by addiction or are involved in intergenerational passive welfare? Why does she assume that lack of financial control is fixed by excessive external control? The changes will affect thousands of people who manage their already too limited income well. They will not be able to buy bargains, go to markets or buy second hand if not from approved shops. Potential recipients include those who have lost their jobs in the GFC shakeout, people without adequate English skills to find work, older people who cannot find jobs, sole parents dealing well with solo parenting and others whose lack of workforce attachment has a myriad of reasons, none of which are about personal problems. Gaining exemptions from quarantining will require their proving competence so the assumptions is guilt until the recipient can prove innocence eg by having to ask your child’s school for evidence of your child’s attendance. How embarrassing!

The Greens set up a Senate Inquiry on the legislation that started hearings this month. There are 35 submissions so far (Feb 3) including ACOSS, Anglicare, St Vincent de Paul and NAPCAN, which deals with child abuse, NONE of the submissions support the proposed changes. This is very significant as most of these named agencies are not the usual suspects and generally support government initiatives.

All the submissions are critical of the way data was used and outline problems if the program is expanded as planned. Some recognise the need for income management but only for those who have shown themselves to be disordered and incompetent money managers; all oppose strongly a universal expansion. Most say the extra money that has been allocated for the expensive administration (about $4,000 pa per recipient) would be better spent on services or income for recipients. Interestingly, there is only one submission from a group representing immigrants who will find the new program particularly hard, which suggests these sectors are not aware and have not been consulted.

The Macklin claims for the effectiveness of the program are based on the supposed good results of  Income Management, imposed on 73 Aboriginal communities as part of the emergency response. I have looked closely at the so-called evidence, as have most submissions  and there are serious doubts whether the NT program has had an overall positive effect on the communities and individuals involved. There are questions on the validity of the data the government is using and the gaps of no data. No attempts were made to measure the ill effects that the process may have had. There is no international research that shows the good effect of such controls. Imposing such constraints on people’s lives has not been shown anywhere to be of benefit while loss of self esteem and sense of control is known to be damaging.

There are other problems, apart from the $80 per week per person administrative costs, such as the lack of support services, cultural damages and the undermining of existing programs and relationships. The defence of the program is that some like it, but this does not justify retaining  and expanding a program, even if there were some limited benefits for a few groups to a national  program for all. It has had problems in the often isolated and very stressed NT communities, so why would it transfer into other areas, cities and the diversity of  groups these hold?

No one in government appears to have looked at the whole picture, relying instead on both a few items of inadequate research data and their versions of the contents of some very shonky consultation processes to tout the program’s success. The main rationale for the extension of the program appears to be to get the government off the hook as they promised to reinstate the suspended Racial Discrimination Act. This is illustrated by Macklin’s statement this week that the Greens needed to realise that delaying the bill was the same as delaying her attempts to make the NT income-management system compliant with the RDA.

Equality can be positive or negative: raising Indigenous rights to equal non Indigenous ones has benefits but reducing the rights of non Indigenous welfare recipients to match the injustices affecting Indigenous people is not on! This is not the equality we need to see nor is it in the spirit of UN conventions.  This move must be stopped before it creates futile misery for many income recipients!

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