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Tuesday, 23 February 2010
Page: 1580

Mr ANDREWS (8:21 PM) —The Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009 has a number of objectives. Primary among them, as the title of the bill suggests, is the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act to the legislation pertaining to the Northern Territory intervention. It also proposes to change the income management measures now in operation in 73 Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. Under the existing arrangements, welfare recipients in the 73 communities in the Northern Territory have their income managed. The legislation specifically excluded the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. It also provided that measures were ‘special measures’ for the benefit of Indigenous people. The income management was made subject to social security appeals by the government in 2008.

Under this government’s bill, income management will be extended to the whole of the Northern Territory and it will be subject to the Racial Discrimination Act. Other measures such as alcohol and pornography restrictions will be maintained—‘special measures’ for the purposes of the Racial Discrimination Act. It is also proposed to extend it nationally at some time in the future. However, the income management will be applied in more limited circumstances than present: firstly, for people aged 15 to 25 in receipt of youth allowance, Newstart allowance, special benefit or parenting payment for more than 13 weeks in the last 26 weeks; secondly, for people aged 25 and above and younger than age pension age who are in receipt of the above benefits for more than 52 weeks in the last 104 weeks; and, thirdly, for people assessed by social workers or Northern Territory child protection workers for reasons including vulnerability to financial crisis, domestic violence or economic abuse. In addition, people can voluntarily opt into the system.

These restrictions will be open to exceptions: for people studying full time or with a reasonable pattern of work; for parents of school-age children who can demonstrate no more than five unexplained absences from school; and for parents of preschool children who have met a range of requirements, including immunisation and medical check-ups. The exemption will last for 12 months then be reviewed. The decision to place a person on income management and to grant or refuse an exemption will be subject to a social security appeal. Income management can be applied to areas outside the Northern Territory by the legislative instrument. The government proposes an evaluation in 2011-12 before considering the exemptions.

Income management has been successful. In its report to the minister entitled Closing the gap in the Northern Territory, the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs stated:

Income management is a central measure in the Northern Territory Emergency Response. It ensures that Commonwealth Income Support and Family Assistance payments are used for the benefit of children and to increase the financial security of people raising children.

Moreover, the Final stores post licensing monitoring report found that the overall impact of income management has been positive for these communities. The report found:

Customer shopping habits have changed significantly in most stores, with 68.2 per cent of store operators reporting an increase in the amount of healthy food purchased. This includes items such as fruit and vegetables, as well as dairy foods and meat.

            …         …         …

Community residents, particularly women, are telling store operators that they now have more control over their money, with greater capacity to manage humbug.

Store operators reported that feedback is generally positive, especially from women, once people understand how it works. Most money was allocated to food, 65.4 per cent; community housing rent, 8.4 per cent; clothing and footwear, 5.9 per cent; and store cards, 5.3 per cent. School nutrition amounted to 2.9 per cent. Accordingly, income management should only be changed if there is a compelling case to do so.

Writing in his recent book The politics of suffering, the anthropologist Peter Sutton, a long-time friend and supporter of Indigenous Australians, observed this:

The first consideration must be to focus on those conditions that are conducive to the emotional and physical wellbeing of the unborn, infants, children, adolescents, the elderly and adult women and men. It is remarkable how many people living in the comfort, affluence and healthy surroundings of Australia’s suburbia have in the debates over Indigenous policy and especially the intervention covertly promoted the view that respect of cultural differences and racially defined political autonomy takes precedence over a child’s basic human right to have love, wellbeing and safety. It is as if political feelings and political values are more important than one’s emotional feelings and moral values as fellows of those other human beings in the ghettos.

He continued:

I believe that considerations of care should be put before considerations of strict justice as a matter of principle. There are times when one of these might have to yield to the other. In general, I am inclined to give priority to care and to tough out the storm of complaints about flawed justice. Others take a different view. In the case of conflict between care and appeasement, there should be no argument. Appeasement of vested interest groups goes.

This is someone long associated with Indigenous people on these issues. It is born of an insight into the failures of decades of public policy and a rejection of a failed philosophy that prevailed for so long about Indigenous issues. Returning to Sutton, he said:

Do-goodism can take many forms. One is saccharin sympathy but another is self-redemptive legal and political crusading on behalf of marginal citizens that proceeds on the assumption that the emotional wounds will be healed by laws and documents and covenants signed in Geneva.

This brings me back to the bill. It is born of Labor’s insistence that the Racial Discrimination Act apply to income management. According to this belief, specific measures for Indigenous communities are inappropriate, although I note that special measures are being retained in other parts of the proposed legislation. Moreover, it is lawyers and courts who will decide the application of discrimination measures rather than the people through their parliamentary representatives.

Special measures are measures that provide a benefit to a particular group so that a group can secure adequate advancement and exercise and enjoy human rights on the same basis as others in the community. The measures contained in the response do not seek to take away rights and freedoms; rather, they aim to rebuild social and economic structures and therefore give meaningful content to Indigenous rights and freedoms.

Many Indigenous people in the Northern Territory continue to face significant social and economic barriers to the enjoyment of their rights to health, development, education, property, security and culture. Instead of protecting human rights, this bill will return many honourable Indigenous people to exploitation by others, the inadequate protection of social workers and a maze of legal contests. Indeed, the government has not tabled its illegal advice about the impact of these changes on the viability of the proposed measures. As Sutton wrote:

Caring measures based on the vital human right of freedom from abuse, the right to adequate nutrition and medical treatment, the right to economic and spatial mobility rather than documentary measures based on increasingly stratospheric rights and international covenants lie at the effective end of realistic processes of improvement.

Debate interrupted.