This email landed at Croakey today. “Macklin’s office really has no shame!”

My correspondent* was commenting on the response from Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin to a study published today in the Medical Journal of Australia showing that the federal government’s income management policy is not making an impact on tobacco and healthy food sales in remote community shops in the NT.

Clearly anticipating adverse coverage from the study, the Government yesterday issued this release, stating: “The Australian Government is requesting an urgent report from key departments on policy options to help reduce the consumption of high sugar drinks in remote communities. A new study from the Menzies School of Health Research has highlighted the need to lower the consumption of high sugar drinks in remote Indigenous Northern Territory communities.”

I’m not a great fan of the exclamation mark – much over-used – but in this case the email comment deserved a whole row of them. As in, Macklin’s office really has no shame!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Minister and her staffers have clearly been watching way too much Yes Minister.

The script, which I’m sure you’ve seen too many times before, goes like this…What do you do when confronted with an unpalatable truth: why, of course you order an inquiry to distract attention and stop uncomfortable questions.

Never mind that there have already been zillions of dust-gathering reports and recommendations about how to improve healthy food choices in remote communities. Never mind that the study’s authors specifically identified income management – rather than soft drinks – as the policy issue in question.

Two of the study’s co-authors, Julie Brimblecombe and David Thomas, were not prepared to let Macklin’s response stand unchallenged (the Minister was also on ABC radio this morning, downplaying the MJA study’s findings and re-stating the Government’s plans to roll out income management more broadly).

They put their case in this Crikey article today as to why their findings carry more weight than the government’s evaluation that Minister Macklin prefers to cite in support of income management.

Commenting on the researchers’ piece at Crikey, ANU academic Professor Jon Altman wrote: “…it is quite inappropriate to compare this research undertaken by academic experts at arms-length from government from research undertaken by federal bureaucrats or their paid consultants; and to compare rigorous quantitative research that addresses a specific question of sales before and after income quarantining with qualitative research that asks general questions about expenditures on broad categories of goods in government-licenced stores post Intervention only.

“The Australian government is clearly embarrassed by these research findings for three reasons. First, $82.8 million have just been committed in the 2010/11 Budget to create a new scheme for income management, an investment in a process to regulate the behaviour of welfare recipients in the NT. All up $410.5 million will be committed in six years to what might prove an entirely unproductive expenditure.

“Second, legislation is about to be tabled in the federal parliament predicated on an assumption that income management is good for Indigenous (and other) subjects in the NT, something this research seriously questions. Third, the Rudd government has remained firmly wedded to this intervention measure since its election in November 2007; saying sorry for others ‘historical’ errors is clearly politically easier than saying sorry for your own ‘path dependent’ acquiescence and possible mistakes.”

This latest MJA study is not the first piece of serious research to undermine the Government’s claims about the benefits of income management.

In the same issue of the journal, the president of the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, Dr Peter O’Mara, cites the health impact assessment (previously covered at Croakey) which concluded that the NT intervention will do more harm than good. “The report’s disturbing prediction — that the intervention will cause profound long-term damage to our Indigenous communities — should be of concern to all Australians, including medical practitioners,” he says.

“Generally speaking, governments need to think about the ways they can work together with Indigenous people, but, more immediately, AIDA believes that the Racial Discrimination Act must be reinstated and compulsory income management must be overturned.”

My Crikey blogging colleague Eva Cox has described Minister Macklin’s response to the new MJA study as “incredibly trivialising and dismissive”.

It’s also quite insulting. Apart from anything, it’s an insult to the Government’s professed commitment to “evidence-based policy”.

• The email came from a seasoned observer of NT politics, especially the politics of health (and perhaps I should also mention that this person is not part of the Menzies School of Health Research team).

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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