Dec 2, 2011

The cunning of consultation: school attendance and welfare reform

Kids, even in remote indigenous Australia, do not live by school attendance alone, they also need food. And families with no income will inevitably become an economic burden for others in their community, writes Jon Altman.

North American anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli coined the term "the cunning of recognition" to expose the multicultural legacy of settler colonialism and how it perpetuates unequal systems of power. The "cunning" of neoliberal multiculturalism is that it acknowledges difference, while simultaneously disciplining, regulating and constraining otherness. And so it is with what is termed "consultation" by the Australian government in its project to expand key elements of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Intervention, especially the disciplining and punishing of welfare recipients for school truancy by their children as a central plank of intervention mark 2. A series of reports in October and November have made it quite clear that the intervention, currently re-labelled the National Partnership Agreement to Close the Gap in the Northern Territory, is having limited measurable impacts for residents of prescribed communities. Poor outcomes are evident in many areas including very clearly in the area of school attendance that hovers around 60% and that seems to be worse the larger the community. Keen to reduce the opprobrium of paternalistic intervention mark 1 and its unprecedented fiscal impost on federal coffers, the Australian government is looking to reshape intervention mark 2 now so much more diplomatically relabelled "Stronger Futures for the Northern Territory". At the same time the Gillard government appears hypersensitive to any charge from the media, opposition, focus group research or swinging voters that it is going soft on the need for draconian and paternalistic interventions. And so the soft targets of school attendance; surely every Australian child irrespective of ethnicity must attend school to have future choice? And the responsibility of welfare recipients to get their children to school -- surely this is the least that unemployed, single or disabled parents can do to pay back society for the generous income support they have received? -- have been selected for an escalated and additional layer of punitive measures. The Improving School Enrolment and Attendance (through Welfare Reform) Measure or SEAM (with the bracketed welfare reform element conveniently left out of the acronym), a voluntary pilot scheme is now to be potentially extended on a mandatory basis to all welfare recipients in the Northern Territory and elsewhere, even though there is no evidence that the trials have worked. The first tranche is made up of 16 specific sites in the Territory. SEAM sees the neoliberal Daddy State in its most coercive and potentially destructive manifestation of moral behaviourism. A benchmark for attendance will be set and there will be much counselling of families assisted by a truancy "support" worker; if parents do not meet their part of agreed attendance plans their income support payments will be suspended. It is not clear how families are expected to survive without income. What is inexplicable and unconscionable about such draconian possibilities is that they are being proposed by a government concerned about food security and children’s well-being. But kids, even in remote indigenous Australia, do not live by school attendance alone, they also need food. And families with no income will inevitably become an economic burden for others in their community counter to the aim of other measures such as income management. The tabled Australian government amendments indicate that SEAM will be aligned with the Northern Territory government’s Every Child Every Day strategy, but it is hard to see how this will occur. The Commonwealth strategy looks to make just welfare recipients responsible using the stick of income suspension; while the NT government looks to make all parents responsible using the sanction of fines. There is a distinct possibility that the two schemes will be at loggerheads and clumsy and wasteful in and in any case there is not a shred of evidence, fiscal might aside, that Canberra is better placed than Darwin in this difficult area of policy. Indeed the NT laws seem more wide ranging and less race-based; and fining is probably more equitable than discretionary withdrawal of income support.Earlier this month, when the Northern Territory Emergency Response Evaluation Report 2011 and the Community Safety and Wellbeing Research Study were released The Australian reported Minister Jenny Macklin was emboldened by evidence proving her agenda would end child suffering. It is hard to reconcile that with the proposed SEAM measures. And to anti-intervention activists the minister said "Look at the evidence. This has nothing to do with ideology or politics; it is about what people need and what (their) aspirations are for their own lives and their children’s lives". In the absence of evidence, it is hard to see SEAM deriving from anything other than ideology and politics. There is no evidence from SEAM pilots that the measure actually improves attendance. And there is no evidence that the children of welfare recipients in remote indigenous communities are more likely to be truants than the children of those in employment -- this is just a moralistic and moralising conception of truancy as the individual failing of parents in receipt of welfare. In 2007, the Howard government passed racist income quarantining laws that required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. The Rudd opposition and then government that had meekly acquiesced to these laws subsequently copped considerable national and international opprobrium. And so in 2010 it amended the law to include non indigenous Australians in its income management regime, thus making it non-racist, at least in a technical legal sense. The Gillard government has cleverly learnt and now seeks to bypass the charge of racism by being cunning in the manner it is implementing these ideological measures. On one hand, the measures as proposed are neither race-based nor regionally focused, even though initially they will mainly target a small number of large Aboriginal townships in the NT where school attendance appears especially low, but where development prospects are supposedly greatest. On the other, according to the government spin, it is Aboriginal people who truly desire these draconian special measures as evident from widespread consultation. And so even if SEAM principally targets indigenous Australians, the Australian government can argue to the global community that it complies with the Racial Discrimination Act as a beneficial special measure consented to by the Aboriginal people impacted and thus meeting the minimum benchmark set by the High Court in the celebrated case Gerhardy v Brown in 1985. There are other ways of thinking and talking about indigenous education and development, but such alternatives are closed off, suppressed and silenced. They mainly come from white and black practitioners at the education coalface, Aboriginal activists, civil society and those parts of the academy that are not subject to state capture. Take, for example, the very different interpretation and counter-narrative of what happened at consultations reported in Cuts to Welfare Payments for School Non-Attendance: Requested or Imposed?, a must read, available on the Concerned Australians website. This analysis from a diverse set of 10 community meetings indicates that "there was not a single request for welfare cuts or fines to those parents with children who were not attending school". Concern about education was given a high priority, but what was sought was the re-introduction of bilingual learning, access to full-time education in homelands, support for Aboriginal teachers, acknowledging culture in the curriculum and the need to distribute funds more equitably. The Australian government is keen to focus its policy attention and the taxpayers’ financial resources on punitive measures to punish parents of truants in receipt of welfare. This though takes too much attention away from the role of the state to ensure that school infrastructure is of sufficient physical quality and that remote teachers are sufficiently skilled to attract students with quality, locally relevant, engrossing, perhaps bi-lingual, education that would make staying away from school an unattractive option. A decent education is unquestionably important for jobs, confidence and political empowerment. But for the bicultural ways of remote living Aboriginal people it needs to be tailored for success in two worlds, not just an imposed one based on mainstream aspirations. Evidently, this is a massive challenge that is beyond current and past Australian governments; and so it is far easier for the powerful to deploy discursive weapons and welfare sticks. Monolithic and imposed solutions to complex problems are high risk, especially for the supposed subjects of the state project of educational improvement. Australian governments need to invest less in cunning consultation and more in canvassing policy alternatives and learnings about educational success from here and overseas. Jon Altman is a research professor in anthropology at The Australian National University and a "concerned Australian"; from 1990 to 2010 he was director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, ANU. This article was originally published in Tracker

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12 thoughts on “The cunning of consultation: school attendance and welfare reform

  1. Bob Durnan

    The Concerned Australians’ “analysis from a diverse set of 10 community meetings” is not quite what it is presented to be.
    The ten consultations which Michele Harris and Rosa McKenna analysed are not representative of the 73 communities and hundreds of outstations covered by the NTER. The 10 allegedly “diverse” settings include “public meetings in the large urban towns of Alice Springs and Darwin, proposed hub towns, and town camps, as well as one conducted on a homeland. The transcripts represent communities from across the Northern Territory.”

    Well, sorry Michele and Rosa, but public meetings in town camps and Darwin and Alice Springs are only representative of themselves; they do not represent the 69 bush communities in which consultations were held. In many cases several meetings were held in these remote places. At most, the Concerned Australians have analysed transcripts from around 5 of the 20 hub towns, one from an outstation , and none from the 49 small to medium sized Aboriginal towns which are neither ‘hub towns’ nor outstations.

    I have not seen a list of which hub town meeting transcripts were included in their analysis, but it would be surprising if they did not include several from the home towns of some of the anti-Intervention advocates who have been most prominent in the Concerned Australians group.

    These are the places which have been inundated with visits from national anti-intervention
    activists and their international fellow travellers, and it is not surprising that meetings in these places would be dominated by views that are at odds with those often found amongst the leadership of other communities.

    I fail to see how anybody could say that this is necessarily a representative sample of the many other consultation meetings that were held throughout these 69 communities.

  2. Jon Altman

    Bob, perhaps by focusing a little too much on the question of representativeness of the report by concerned Australians (and on that score on can also query how representative are government-sponsored community consultations in terms of who participates) you miss my substantive point which is that we need alternative viewpoints and should encourage their airings; after all none of us have a mortgage on the correct policy settings in the difficult area of school attendance. I encourage people to look at the report distributed by concerned Australians because such alternate viewpoints are being crowded out by a deluge of government-undertaken or government-commissioned reports that are not without their own forms of moral hazard.

    The key question perhaps is do you disagree with what is being prioritised in terms of education options in the 10 community meetings reported?

    The key question that I have posed to government bureaucrats and to Minister Macklin is if the drastic action of suspending welfare is taken, how are the circumstances of families or the likelihood of school attendance improved? And why is there a need for the Commonwealth to duplicate the efforts of the NT in the areas of both school attendance (which I raise) and alcohol and drugs management (which I do not) where a very innovative Alcohol and Drugs Tribunal has recently been established under NT Alcohol Reform Laws?

  3. Davies Ben

    Just copy the American education system the troops up north to make sure we follow America’s orders!!!!!!

    With a literacy rate of 68% their rank and yank system works really well for the staff!!!!!

    John Howard’s plan has worked really well and now we don’t even use our troops on our own people.

    For all the concerned citizens stop attending meetings civil disobedience is the only option left!!!!!!

  4. Bob Durnan

    Thanks Jon. I had read the Harris/McKenna report when it first appeared several weeks ago, and have seen many quotes from it and references to it since then, so I’m not sure that it has been successfully crowded out by reports that were commissioned by the Commonwealth. It seemed to me then to have numerous weaknesses, and in returning to it now I am even more convinced that it is not a particularly useful or objective guide to the facts about a number of things.
    However, it does list the places from which consultation meeting transcripts were obtained. They are:
    Maningrida, Yuendumu, Bagot, Yirrkala, Kintore, Mutitjulu, Galiwin’ku, Alice Springs Town Camps, Alice Springs Public Meeting, Darwin Public Meeting.
    At this point I could finish by saying “I rest my case.”
    However, you asked an interesting question about education priorities. The important issues identified by the Harris/McKenna analysis would seem to me to be the re-introduction of bilingual learning (but only where there is demonstrated support for this from students’ parents/carers, sufficient enrolled students fluent in a particular language, and where it is feasible in terms of availability of sufficiently experienced, qualified teacher-linguists and trained LOTE teachers to make it a wise move). Support for Aboriginal teachers is always important, as is support for all teachers. Acknowledging culture in the curriculum is also important, as is the need to distribute funds reasonably equitably over time.

    However it is of concern if some people are still demanding categorically that there be unrealistic “access to full-time education in homelands”, without consideration of pupil numbers, guaranteed continuity of residence by students, and several other key factors such as costs and availability of adequate teacher accommodation and workspaces.

    However, personally, as my priority option, I support the Commonwealth and NT governments in their efforts to prioritise school attendance, create school infrastructure of sufficient physical quality in hub communities, and recruit and retain teachers with sufficient skills to attract, engross, teach and retain students with quality education and appropriate respect and discipline (whether or not it is particularly locally relevant or bi-lingual). I think these things, supported by strictly enforced sanctions against unjustifiable non-attendance, together would make staying away from school a very unattractive option.

    But also – importantly – all parties should read the fine print of the Macklin proposal carefully and without rancour or prejudice. Macklin is clearly not proposing that all of a family’s income from welfare payments will be suspended, as Part A Family Tax Benefits will not be suspended. It is the Part H income support payments like Newstart and Parenting Payment that may be suspended. The family’s Part H welfare income stream will be restored, and lost welfare income will be reimbursed, immediately upon compliance with their agreed attendance plan. There is little chance that children will go hungry, as a Centrelink social worker will be assigned to their case from the begiinning to help avoid such outcomes, and they will be able to receive meals as soon as they attend school, where meals are provided.

  5. Whistleblower

    I read this article twice and I’m not sure where it’s coming from or where it is going to. The issue to me is quite clear. Aboriginal children have no hope of competing in a modern economy unless they acquire high level skills to enable them fit in with Australia’s economic requirements and to consequently provide dignity through work. Successive generations of semiliterate aboriginals living on welfare is a self-perpetuating crisis, and if kids don’t go to school what hope do they have of gaining economic independence and the associated dignity that comes from that.

    For the last 45 years I have watched with despair continuing failure to address the fundamental issue which is that you cannot succeed economically in this country without an appropriate education, and bilingual teaching, although it might satisfy do-gooders places additional stress on the learner trying to reach a high educational outcomes. This combined with the dysfunctional aspects of home environments seems to lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and welfare dependency.

    “Tough love” is required, but the government cannot administer “tough-love” because of activists and do-gooders getting their rocks off by opposing any form of intervention. Furthermore it is grossly unfair to represent such intervention as being racist. It is not racial discrimination to try to address social welfare dependency in specific sections of our community unless those affected feel that poverty and welfare dependency is preferable to economic independence and dignity.

    Having said this, withdrawal of welfare benefits is a fairly crude methodof trying to get parents to get the kids to go to school. Perhaps consideration could be given to a system involving an ongoing cumulative accrual of benefits for school attendance and positive outcomes in terms of learning through cash bonuses for attendance, and cash bonuses for learning outcomes which would be set as targets and independently measured. Aboriginal students could also be given the opportunity to bank credits to help facilitate higher education when a local school options are insufficient and they and their families need to move to larger centres in order for them to receive an appropriate education.

  6. Plane

    If you point or points are, to encourage multiple viewpoints – sure. But I cannot work out at least some of your logic.

    You note “in Cuts to Welfare Payments for School Non-Attendance: Requested or Imposed?, a must read, available on the Concerned Australians website. This analysis from a diverse set of 10 community meetings. . .”

    And in my view, you are rightly challenged by Bob Durnan as this more representing views in town camps in Alice Springs and Darwin.

    So is it “a must read” or is it part of much more diverse picture?

    You then answer Durnan by shifting his criticism by questioning how representative have the Government consultatons been? Huh? So apparently the Governemt is selective to back their policy and now? you are going to do the same?

    Please, I have no idea (and I am just a reader of media reports on this) whether the Welfare reforms are working or not. But it looks to me that there isn’t a enough evidence for anyone to claim anything – yet .

    However, I strongly agree with you for the need for diverse solutions but only if it is backed by some facts.

  7. Bob Durnan

    You make some very good points.
    Macklin’s proposal to withdraw benefits on a temporary basis only (provided school attendance picks up immediately) amounts to introduction of a de facto system for rewarding school attendance. It has the advantage of being non-discriminatory.

    A “system involving an ongoing cumulative accrual of benefits for school attendance and positive outcomes in terms of learning through cash bonuses for attendance, and cash bonuses for learning outcomes which would be set as targets and independently measured” would also be very useful, but probably would involve more pain than could be borne by a political culture already suffering near-fatal burns from Hansonism, Boltology and the on-going high intensity fire-power of Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, Mark Whittaker, their super-rich backers, and others of their ilk who seem to grow richer and more powerful by fanning the flames of envy, resentment and prejudice.

  8. teecha

    The Little children are sacred report suggested linking welfare payments to non-attendance as an enhanced legal response, but it’s only one of many suggested responses.

    The report made a recommendation:
    introduce a universal meals program for Aboriginal students (breakfast, morning
    tea, lunch and afternoon tea) with parents to contribute to the cost of providing
    meals and the community or volunteers to undertake food preparation

  9. teecha

    Sorry, “Post Comment” does not mean “Preview”!

    Are welfare payments quarantined for non-attendance being diverted to the provision meals at schools? It could give kids a good reason to go to school and make positive associations with attendance for them. It also potentially increases community participation in the school and reduces Jon Altman’s concern about affected families becoming an economic burden.

  10. Bob Durnan

    The NTER Intervention introduced a widespread, well managed “meals program for Aboriginal students” in most NT schools, with “parents … contribut[ing] to the cost of providing meals and the community [members paid] to undertake food preparation” in 2008.*
    There are big variations occurring between (and within) NT schools (both public and private) in relation to enrolment and attendance rates, and it needs much more detailed research and analysis than that which has been published to date.
    The scenario in Central Australia seems to be that, in general, school attendance by students in the very early primary years has improved a great deal, reflecting the extra $460 million worth of initiatives funded by the Commonwealth in NT schools under the NTER Intervention and BER. (These initiatives include 200 extra teachers for schools with Aboriginal students, expansion of Aboriginal pre-school places, expanded infrastructure, the school nutrition program, the Families as First Teachers Program, and programs to improve teacher recruiting, skills and retention in remote Aboriginal schools.) Complementary measures from other government sectors have also helped, including increased activities by well-trained Centrelink social workers, increased child health services, and welfare quarantining (aka Income Management).
    However the improved attendance rate level usually declines with the increased age of pupils, with most of the higher rates of non-attendance occurring amongst post-primary aged students .
    At the same time, the proportion of school-age teenagers (the age group which has always had the worst enrolment rates) actually enrolled has risen substantially in some communities, leading to the paradox that schools which may have improved enrolments the most, and managed to also greatly improve attendance rates amongst primary-aged students, may look as though they are going backwards because many of the newly-enrolled older students are dropping out during the year, and many of the remainder may not be turning up very often at school.

    It is in this area of secondary-school education that the critics have a significant point: there need to be more special needs staff, and more teachers with more appropriate skills, in more of the schools to handle the needs of this difficult group of sometimes alienated and problematic teenaged students, many of whom have probably only attended primary school very sporadically in the pre-Intervention years.
    This also necessarily means the need for more investment in infrastructure such as classrooms, trades skills workshops, media centres, teacher accommodation, recreation facilities and youth centres.
    These should be matched by an expanded presence of suitably qualified, locally-resident social workers and adult educators to work with parents and other family members on a range of issues, such as literacy, family wellbeing, household management, parenting skills and budgetting; and training programs for local Aboriginal people to assist them.
    All these things amount to a very large sum of money, to establish and to operate.
    It would be refreshing to see critics such as Altmann, Cox, Behrendt and company spending less time and effort on ideologically-based general attacks on Macklin and Gillard’s politics and approaches to problem solving, and more time using their considerable skills on lobbying for committments by governments to meet these specific kinds of needs in the near future.

    I hope that there are plans to continue the schools nutrition/meals program when the NTER legislation runs out in June 2012, even though it is expensive. Although it in some ways removes responsibility from parents for their own children’s wellbeing, and creates a degree of dependency, I think that, on balance, the immediate benefits to many children and schools, and the likely long-term health, education and social improvements, outweigh these dependency factors, and warrant the continued investment – at least for a few more years until more appropriate average attendance rates have been achieved, more parents have learned to take their parental responsibilities more seriously, and literacy and numeracy levels have moved closer to what is needed for school-leavers to function adequately in contemporary Australian society.
    * It is also worth noting that this school meals/nutrition program is one of many recommendations from the Anderson/Wild LCAS Report which have been implemented by one or both governments during the last 4 years – a fact which is continually disregarded or denied by many of the propagandists amongst the ideologically motivated opponents of the NTER Intervention in the ACOSS, APONT, GLW, IRAG, ANTaR, DARC, STICS, MAIC, Socialist Alliance, Siewert, Jumbunna parallel universe.

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