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May 17, 2010

Macklin’s twists truth on income management

Jenny Macklin has dismissed a new study revealing the government’s income management policy is not making an impact on tobacco and health food sales in indigenous communities. The study's authors hit back.

We are the co-authors of a study published today in the Medical Journal of Australia, which shows that the federal government’s income management policy is not making an impact on tobacco and health food sales in remote community shops in the NT. Smoking and poor diet are responsible for much of the health gap between indigenous and other Australians.

We are concerned that indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin has responded to our study by highlighting the results of the government’s evaluation. She has told journalists that the government intends to press ahead with plans to roll out income management more broadly, and has appeared to dismiss our findings.

The evaluation cited by the minister was based on interviews with 76 income management clients in four communities, telephone interviews with 66 store operators as well as interviews with business managers and other stakeholders across several locations.

This is poor use of qualitative research to answer a question that essentially requires quantitative data: are people buying more healthy food as a result of income management?

Our study provides that quantitative data. It used sales data to measure how much was being spent each month across 10 stores in the Northern Territory, 18 months before and 18 months after income management was introduced. In contrast, the government’s evaluation report of income management and spending relied entirely on people’s perceptions in a large number of interviews.

We confirm store managers’ claims that there was no change in people’s spending on tobacco.

However, in contrast to the government report, we found that spending on food and drinks and fruit and vegetables did not change with income management. Soft drinks sales increased.

The one time during income management that spending went up for all store commodities was when people actually had more money: at the time of the government stimulus payment.

Telling people of low income how they can use 50% of their income may make no difference to their spending, but giving a lump of cash does.


(Source: Medical Journal of Australia — click to enlarge)

The government’s evaluation report claims that “the main benefit identified [of income management] was the increase in the amount of money spent on food for community members, especially children”.  This is now questioned by our evidence.

Even its minor claims of improved food choices, more fresh and more healthy food being purchased, are linked to the new licensing of stores in these communities — not income management.

Continued income management in remote NT Aboriginal communities and its extension to all welfare recipients does not seem to fit with the government’s credo of evidence-based policy.

Whilst the government’s defence of income management with only very shaky evidence has been controversial, gaining little support from public health experts, it has received applause for its work on prevention, and smoking in particular.

It has allocated $100 million to indigenous tobacco control, using the limited local indigenous research but extensive international evidence from other contexts.  Its recent decisions to increase the tax on cigarettes and to restrict tobacco companies’ advertising using cigarette packets are also likely to reduce indigenous smoking.

But attempts to tackle indigenous people’s poor diet have not been as coherent and are off to a shaky start.  There is no funding for either the COAG food security initiative or the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nutrition Strategy and Action Plan.  The government is yet to respond to the 33 recommendations of the Senate inquiry into remote community stores.

But store licensing, which is setting minimal standards in remote stores in the NT, and the funding of 100 new indigenous healthy lifestyle workers are welcome and positive steps.

Less welcome is the reluctance to consider food subsidies. Yes, they are expensive and difficult to monitor, but there is increasing international evidence that modifying price and monetary benefits, such as food stamps, help to improve the diet of economically disadvantaged groups.

As Amanda Lee and colleagues have stated, we need rigorous testing of economic solutions to increase access to healthy food in remote communities.

Skirting the real issue of affordability and poverty, while defending and extending income management policies, may delay improvements in indigenous people’s poor diet and the government’s pledge to  “close the gap”.

*Dr Julie Brimblecombe and Associate Professor David Thomas are from the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin

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83 thoughts on “Macklin’s twists truth on income management

  1. Chris Graham

    Just wanted to mention Rita Markwell (the Minister’s adviser) and Mike Dillon (the minister’s other adviser). Would hate to think they didn’t the credit for this disgusting assault on the nation’s most disadvantaged people.

  2. Daniel

    Hey Rush post your picture.

  3. Scott

    I’ve read the article in the Medical Journal of Australia and I don’t see any references to inflation (other than a comment that total sales increased at a rate similar to inflation) . I’m happy to be proved wrong if you have the raw data (or a reference that the sales data is inflation adjusted)
    As for the Jon Altman comment, hey I don’t blame you. But if this report really is “the most comprehensive and scholarly quantitative research available to date on the food and tobacco expenditure impacts of income quarantining before and after the Intervention”, all I can say is there mustn’t be much out there.

  4. Daniel

    Reminder that Rush Limbugh feels confident enough to call women “bush pigs” through the safety of an internet pseudonym but is not confident enough to post a picture of himself. Although it’s understandable if he looks like a fat, pill-addict like the real Rush Limbaugh.

  5. Liz45

    @RUSH – “How about giving them training or jobs so they can work and provide this for themselves, subsidise it all, but they have to work for it.” They had CDEP jobs which were benefiting many indigenous people, but Howard stopped it so he could quarantine 50% of their income – couldn’t do it to those on CDEP. Some of these jobs were in communities and provided some essential goods and services such as the vegetable gardens etc. How many aboriginal people have received job training and/or skills in almost 3 yrs of the intervention?

    I have every right to criticise Abbott or anyone else in the now opposition, as they had almost 12 yrs in office, many inquiries(13 I think altogether) etc and they did zilch! In fact, they had talk fests and got impatient with aboriginal women who were rightly concerned with domestic violence among other things. Not much interest shown by Howard until the applications started to roll in for mining leases etc? Funny how things got moving after that, including resuming land????Added to this is the fact, that the federal govt wants a nuclear waste dump on aboriginal land! Just coincidence, I suppose?

    Why should aboriginal people have to work for the goods and services the rest of the country have provided for them, and who quite rightly take them for granted? What guarantee did you have to give to get water and sewerage in your neighbourhood, and a state school nearby? Why do indigenous people have to jump through hoops to have schools, houses and health care?

    If you bothered to find out some facts about monies going to aboriginal people, you’d find via the ABS(Australian Bureau of Statistics)that in every city, region, and remote areas, aboriginal people receive less than non-aboriginal people. There’s only about 500,000 aboriginal people in the country, and successive govts have ignored their plight for a couple of centuries now. The $700 million is just to CATCH UP with the facilities non-aboriginal people have as an automatic right!

    If you were fair dinkum you’d protest at middle class welfare; you’d point to the family benefit payments going to millionaires; you’d raise the fact, that private schools with millions in the bank will get even more millions this yr via the federal govt; you’d object to people with assets of a million dollars and more receiving the aged pension – shall I go on? You don’t mind that $10 Billion goes to the fossil fuel industries; that about $20 billion goes to the superannuation industry, and nor do you mention the subsidies big mining companies receive, eg, the mining company(BHP?) got its water from the SA govt free of charge for its uranium mine at Olympic Dam?

    No, you’d rather show your bias against the basic needs and basic human rights of aboriginal people. The Billions$$$ derived from rich assets on aboriginal land hasn’t gone to the people – why is that?

  6. Graeme Lewis

    I say only to all of you as you pontificate on this critical subject – who of you, including the authors who started this – how many of you have spent ANY time amongst disadvantaged folk in the communities. There is clearly a problem with the diversion of welfare payments from the needy to gambling porn and alcohol, and the issue must be addressed somehow.

    Spruiking nonsense about rights etc misses the whole point about the needy and the helpless – kids, mums, grandparents etc etc.

  7. jungarrayi

    Graeme, you might ask the same (“who has spent ANY time…?) of the politicians, bureaucrats and public servants that have imposed this Intervention on remote Aboriginal communities.

    I for one have lived here over three decades and can tell you that the stereotype (the paedophyle rings, “barons of pornography” as Tony Abbott called them, the “rivers of grog” and dysfunctional communities) propagated by propaganda is far from the truth.
    The Intervention (renamed “Closing the Gap”) is the latest ethnocentric xenophobic assimilationist attack on the few remaining societies that retain their own languages and world views. Rights are not nonsense. They are fundamental if justice is ever to prevail.

    Others have said it better than I:

    “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.

    From Quadrant magazine (April 2010 p 67).
    “Indigenous Australians have suffered mightily form the coercive benevolence of the state…
    As C.S. Lewis noted: “those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences”….

    “There is no evidence that this punitive approach works anywhere and, in fact, the evidence from many sources is it may make things worse as people are infantilised and become less responsible for their own well being…”
    Eva Cox in a blog article on the proposed continuation and extension of Income quarantining.

    And finally:
    “Cultural survival is not about preservation, sequestering indigenous peoples in enclaves like some sort of zoological specimens. Change itself does not destroy a culture. All societies are constantly evolving. Indeed a culture survives when it has enough confidence in its past and enough say in its future to maintain its spirit and essence through all the changes it will inevitably undergo. It is not change that will destroy culture but power.’
    — Wade Davis; Radio National, Big Ideas program; The Massey Lectures, ‘Century of the Wind’, 25-2-2010

    Income management is a bizarre, counterproductive waste of money. It is being run by Centrelink, probably the most inefficient of government agencies. To call it “management” is a joke in bad taste.

  8. Liz45

    GRAEME LEWIS – I’ve already stated that I went to hear Rickard Downs(from one of the aboriginal communities, who, disgusted with the Rudd govt’s continued racist policies, walked off), I read a lot; I’m involved with a Women’s Health Centre in my area, I’m involved with the Union movement and I read a lot and listen ‘a lot’ too! I didn’t live in Germany during WW2, but I know that Hitler was an evil monster? I’m also on an aged pension, with no other income, so I have some idea of what stuggle is, but I hasten to add, that it’s nothing by comparison to the racism and horrors reaped on aboriginal people every day! I’m far from being a “pontificate” only person!

    When you start asking about how many of our tax billions that go to the fossil fuel industries, to big business and wealthy private schools etc, and how much of the money is spent of lunches and dinners at fancy places, golf playing and overseas trips and trips to resorts, then you can start questioning how aboriginal people and others on low incomes spend their money. I’ve listened to the elders and community leaders who are saying, that living under this patriarchal system is causing more stress and poverty than before. All indicators, such as domestic violence have increased due to more stress. Ask how many communities have social workers or refuges or even funding for the women to protect other women and kids – there’s next to zilch. The fact is, that this was not organised to help aboriginal people, it was a farce, organised to remove aboriginal people from their lands, and bring back the harsh protectionism of the past – with horrific results. Why? For the minerals etc under and above the ground, and a nuclear waste dump!

    The first step by Howard/Brough with the help of the media, including Lateline, was to paint a picture of horrific abuse of kids – after almost 3 yrs, not one person has been prosecuted. Doesn’t this raise questions of credibility in your mind? Why haven’t the recommendations of the Little Children Are Sacred report been activated? What is happening now is the opposite of the recommendations in the report! In fact, there were a large number of children with bad ear problems, but I bet hardly any have seen an ear specialist, let alone had their medical problems attended to! What about dental treatment?

  9. Liz45

    For more information re the walk off in the NT and Richard Downs actions, support etc. There’s also information on the National Indigenous Times newspaper’s website. All informative!

  10. SBH

    Greame Lewis, Liz’s point about the Little Children are Sacred report is pertinent. This report seeks to determine any causal link between the intervention and improvements to those things you care about. It can’t find any which raises real questions about just what good it is actually delivering for Aboriginal children, women and communities.

    Rather than adopting an idealogical tone I’d have thought you’ld want to know if the intervention was actually working. By the way, I’d be grateful if you didn’t make generalising assumptions about my work or background.

    Scott, Two things. Firstly you are dead right. The amount of research done on Indigenous issues is small. Doing a literature review on just about any indigenous issue you choose is much easier than the issue for the dominant culture. The amount of research is just puny.

    Second, I think you may have a point that inflation should have been included but I can’t tell if the authors did take it into account from the MJA piece. I’ve had a look at Tobacco and alcohol inflation in Darwin for the year to September 2009 ABS (6401.0) and it ran at about 5.5% with alcholol apparently making bigger gains than tobacco. This seems to have been an increase on 2007 rates (around 3.6%) but I don’t think it accounts for the large increase in tobacco reciepts. Thanks for pointing this out.

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