Today the Productivity Commission releases its latest report on Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage, which shows only 13 of 45 measures showed any improvement and seven went backwards.  The dismal results, following the recently released finance report on non-progress may add to more blaming of Aboriginal communities but experiences detailed below on the income management program suggest the cause may be government failure to accept evidence or advice that runs counter to a long pattern of inappropriate policy making. The Productivity Commission and the Australiana Institute of Health welfare have stated top down, culturally insensitive programs do not work.

The introduction and expansion of income management programs goes on regardless of new data and informed opinions suggesting much of the program is damaging and also unwelcome. My article last Friday here reported negative concerns from most women in an NT survey by the Equal Rights Alliance. The sample size and methods were valid and significant, yet the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, was quoted on Saturday trying to undermine its findings by raising an irrelevant issue.

Despite the program now being implemented in the whole NT and being planned for further extensions to urban areas elsewhere, she “criticised the study’s methodology because it did not survey women in remote communities, and its sample was unlikely to be representative”. The findings were not in line with other research. Nor did they reflect ”the significant take-up of voluntary income management across the Northern Territory at more than 4500 people, more than double the anticipated amount,” she said. 

The sampling point is irrelevant as the program is no longer primarily focused on remote areas. Her claim that people stay on voluntarily can be interpreted as suggesting if it is so popular it doesn’t not need to be compulsory. There is also anecdotal evidence, including below, that  many stay on because terminating is too hard.

This type of nit picking echoes the attack made by this government on an earlier report by the reputable Menzies Health Research Institute, which had the only longitudinal data on purchasing before and after the introduction of income management. Because their  results did not support the official view, a document attacking the conclusions was circulated but was roundly refuted by the researchers in Crikey. Interestingly, the same critique emerged again last week when FaHCSIA emailed to a community coalition opposing the extension of IM to five new sites. The government through its public servants are still sending a dubious critique, in this case to convince the 40 or more community groups that the program had benefits.

Sadly, the government lacks any more appropriate data to prove the benefits of its program because it is not there. Interestingly, another report this week could also cast doubt on the better food consumption claimed for income management. An evaluation of 22 stores in remote communities suggests that better stock and organisation of the stores is mainly responsible for more healthy food rather than the IM program.

This would fit with the ERA results, where women claimed that the card had not changed their purchasing habits. Apart from other ERA findings, which showed a major rejection of the program, some new data arrived from a private survey on the BasicsCard at Yuendumu. This email, a response to my article, stated:

No mention of the $250 bribe to stay on it, nor the fact that people had to jump through hoops to get off it. A more accurate version would be “45 percent took the trouble to get off income management and valued their freedom of choice more than $250 for half a year and the others resigned themselves to staying on it or couldn’t navigate the bureaucratic impediments to get off it”.

From the survey that Eva Cox is writing about, it would appear that if everyone had been automatically released from compulsory IM, a maximum of around 15% of women would have voluntarily chosen to sign up for it. I “surveyed” 82 people at Yuendumu myself (two-thirds women) by asking people to put their name to the following two alternatives:
Nganimpa karnalu-nyinami ngunkurr-nyinanja-wangu basic card-iki (roughly translates into — We don’t agree with the basic card -Income Management) or
Nganimpa karnalu ngunkurr-nyinami basic card-iki (We agree with the basic card)
I make no claims as to the adequacy of this approach, but interestingly there were 61 against IM, 11 in favour (a similar result to the urban surveys) and 10 either thought there were good and bad aspects to IM, or didn’t have an opinion or didn’t want to put their name down. When asked if people were on IM, those that weren’t often appeared to be offended by the question. Being on IM seems to be a bit of a “shame job” for many.

I agree with its author about the validity of the survey but its results are close enough to the ERA study to suggest the results are useful. The results of both surveys query the constantly reiterated claims by the minister and others, that it is women who benefit from and like IM.

This view is also challenged in a discussion paper issued this week by the respected Australian Law Reform Commission on Family Violence.  The paper discusses the role of  income management when imposed compulsorily on those women involved in domestic violence as Centrelink deems them to be “vulnerable”. To quote the paper in some detail

“One particular legislative area that illustrates a response that is driven by policy concerns as to the safety of children, but operates with a constrained place for an idea of individual agency, is that of the compulsory income management regime discussed in Chapter  13, overriding autonomy by a concern to protect  vulnerable people. Such areas reveal a tension between ideas of individual freedom, and self-agency, and what may be described as protective paternalism. For example, the Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse considers compulsory income management: to be a disempowering approach to people who have already been significantly disempowered by the abuse (e.g. having no involvement with household finances, having to give over their money to abusive partners, experiencing emotional and psychological abuse).  It is effectively blaming victims of violence for their financial situation rather than acknowledging that their hardship is more likely to be a product of the abuse.’

Later this idea is expanded:

Chapter 13 examines the implications of family violence for how individuals may become subject to, or obtain exemptions from, the application of income management; and the consequences of income management for people experiencing family violence. The ALRC concludes that the complexity of family violence, and the intertwining of family violence in a number of the ‘vulnerability indicators’ that trigger the imposition of compulsory income management, leads to serious questions about whether it is an appropriate response. The ALRC proposes that there should be a flexible and voluntary form of income management offered to people experiencing family violence to ensure that the complex needs of the victims are provided for and their safety protected.

And the discussion paper frames recommendations for a basically voluntary program with much tighter controls over definitions of vulnerability. Presumably  the recommendations are based on evidence of problems that challenge the government justifications for the policy. The origins of the NT emergency relief program were claimed to be for the protection of children and their families against violence, yet the ALRC paper suggests IM may be putting many more at risk.

Together with the other evidence of discomfort and shaming, the evidence available in these and earlier surveys supports the views of the Coalition of 40 NGOs who are asking  for a moratorium on expansion of income management and the abolition of compulsory income management. They can be found here.

Peter Fray

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