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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1658

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (10:06 AM) —I rise to support the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009. Australia needs welfare reform to protect the most vulnerable and to link welfare to school attendance, study and work. This government is introducing major welfare reforms to extend the clear benefits of income management to more vulnerable Australians. We want to start in the Northern Territory, but we want to be able to extend income management to other vulnerable Australians across the country. It is the case that our reforms will make sure that people’s welfare payments are spent on the essentials of life: food and rent, not alcohol and gambling.

There are now 16,000 people on compulsory income management in the Northern Territory. That compares with around 1,400 people who were on compulsory income management when we came to government. The number of people on income management in the Northern Territory with our reforms is estimated to be 20,000. This is all about personal responsibility and making sure that we do everything we possibly can to get children to school and to get young people engaged in work and training. We want to fight passive welfare and to link the payment of welfare to making sure that children go to school on a regular basis and that young people continue their studies and go to work. These arrangements do not apply at the moment.

The changes that we have proposed will make sure that income management can be rolled out in towns in the Northern Territory—Tennant Creek, Katherine and the suburbs of Alice Springs and Darwin—where there are significant and desperate circumstances for many people. There are many Australian families across Australia who could be really assisted by income management. The Australian government wants to extend income management to other disadvantaged regions across Australia after a comprehensive evaluation of the new reforms at the end of 2011.

The straight payment of welfare money to individuals and families has not achieved the social policy objectives we have set for the welfare system. We must act now to make the Northern Territory Emergency Response sustainable for the long term. This legislation before parliament will also make sure that the Northern Territory Emergency Response can be effective in the long term by enabling the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act. It is critical that we have bipartisan support for this bill, so it was disappointing to hear the comments from the member for Menzies.

The Leader of the Opposition had previously said that he wanted to see income management extended to other welfare recipients, and that is exactly what this government’s reforms will do. The Leader of the Opposition has also said he wants the Northern Territory Emergency Response to become sustainable over the long term, and that is exactly what these reforms will do. We do need to have welfare reform to make sure that the Northern Territory Emergency Response is sustainable for the longer term and that the benefits of income management can be extended to other vulnerable Australians.

The legislation was introduced into parliament on 25 November 2009. It is currently subject to an inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, which will report next month. There are some changes to the scheme. Previously, the scheme applied in a blanket fashion across all welfare recipients. Under the proposed reforms it will apply to at-risk groups and be linked to specific social policy objectives like school attendance, learn-or-earn policies for school leavers and long-term unemployment. Age pensioners, disability support pensioners and veterans will be brought into compulsory income management where they are identified as being vulnerable by a Centrelink social worker. Families with at-risk children identified through the child protection system would also attract compulsory income management.

Those people who are compulsorily income managed will be supported to save money with new match-saving programs. There are also generous financial incentives for people who wish to volunteer for income management. These arrangements reflect the government’s view that income management can provide substantial benefits, particularly to vulnerable families. In addition to these reforms the Australian government will invest an additional $53 million in financial literacy support.

There has been strong support for the legislation and income management generally, and I will go to a few quotes from groups who support the approach the government is taking. Toby Hall from Mission Australia said:

… it’s probably a good thing that actually income management’s introduced, that it means that there’s a little bit of pressure to move off benefit and into work …

The Australian Human Rights Commission said that this legislation:

… will improve the measures that currently apply to individuals in prescribed communities in the Northern Territory.

Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Graeme Innes, said in a media release on 25 November 2009:

We particularly welcome the redesign of the income management measures to ensure they are non-discriminatory.

Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory, representing 26 Aboriginal community controlled health clinics and services across the Northern Territory, has urged all political parties to support the passage of this legislation:

What we are saying is pass this bill, allow Aboriginal Territorians to be treated equitably.

That was on 10 February this year. The manager of a supermarket in Yirrkala was quoted in the Northern Territory News as saying:

I can tell you first-hand that the income management is working extremely well. I am not speaking from an antidiscrimination point of view, but from a practical point of view. The people of the Yirrkala have seen a drop in gambling, less anti-social behaviour and I know first-hand more money is being spent on essentials.

Noel Pearson on 30 March 2009 in an ABC online story said:

The big surge in the amount of money being spent on food and clothing is … cause for great happiness on my part.

As part of the proposal there will be further evaluation before there is a national rollout. The government is committed to further evaluating the new amended income management scheme from the end of 2011. The new scheme will be rolled out across the Northern Territory from July 2010 if it is passed through this parliament. Future rollout elsewhere in Australia will be informed by evidence gained from this evaluation activity and by other objective criteria, including evidence of disadvantage in Australia and consideration of where income management would benefit individuals and families. There is a compelling case in relation to the evidence to date on the benefits of income management in the Northern Territory.

I would now like to have a look at the summary of the government’s consultations between June and August 2009. The consultations involved thousands of people in all 73 Northern Territory Emergency Response communities as well as several other Northern Territory Aboriginal communities and town camps between June and the end of August 2009. The vast majority of these people were consulted in over 500 tier 1 and tier 2 consultation meetings in the communities. There were also 11 tier 3 and 4 workshops with regional leaders and stakeholder organisations. A total of 277 people attended tier 3 and 4 workshops, 176 in tier 3 and 101 in tier 4. The majority of the participants were Indigenous people who were either nominated as individuals or selected by their community or organisation to speak on behalf of the community or organisation. The engagement process was independently overseen by the Cultural and Indigenous Research Centre Australia, whose report the government has publicly released on the FaHCSIA website.

Children, women, parents, families and older people were identified as groups who benefited most from income management. The most frequently identified benefits of income management for children included more money being spent on food, clothing and school related expenses. There are a number of comments that children were looking healthier because of a better diet. The school nutrition program was mentioned several times as contributing to this. A benefit of income management frequently identified by women was that there was less humbugging. In addition to the reduced incidence of humbugging, a frequently mentioned benefit of income management for parents and families was that it has enabled people to better manage their household budgeting, including planning for major items and utility expenses. Some men also said there were benefits for themselves and their families as a result of income management. These benefits included more and better food being eaten, improved budgeting, more money being spent on white goods and furniture, less money being spent on gambling and less humbugging. The most frequently identified benefits of income management for older people include the reduced incidence of humbugging, better health outcomes and less need for them to take responsibility for caring for grandchildren.

The Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs had primary responsibility for the income management evaluation. The department developed the evaluation approach and methodology and managed the data collection process. The two main data sources for the evaluation were a client survey that collected quantitative data and focus groups of key stakeholders that collected qualitative data. The client survey involved face-to-face interviews with 76 income management clients in four community locations. The stakeholder focus groups involved 167 stakeholders, including community representatives from the same four locations and community sector and government employees from a wider range of locations. The data showed that there have been improvements in child wellbeing since the introduction of income management. More than half of the parents interviewed reported that their children are eating more, weighed more and were healthier. Three-quarters of people interviewed reported spending more on food and half reported buying more fruit and vegetables. More than half of the people interviewed reported that there was less gambling, less drinking and less harassment for money.

The interviews, conducted in three rounds, were part of a process of routine monitoring for the first 18 months of store licensing. This is in relation to the monitoring report of store licensing of 2009. The findings in this report are based on 66 community stores that have been licensed and include all three rounds of interviews and synthesis of all previous results. Operators of the 66 community stores were interviewed for the monitoring report. 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, dairy foods and meat. Community residents, particularly women, are telling store operators that they now have more control over their money and greater capacity to manage humbug.

Initial mistrust and confusion about income management has abated over time. Store operators are reporting that feedback is generally positive, especially from women, once people understand how it works. Community feedback on the Northern Territory Emergency Response research report in September 2008—the Cultural and Indigenous Research Centre Australia report—was commissioned by the Independent Northern Territory Emergency Response Review Board and is available on the website of FaHCSIA. Consultations were conducted in four communities between August and September 2008. The methodology used in each location varied and was developed in consultation with local partners. People caring for others—especially women who were caring for young children both older and younger women—larger families; and/or people with disabilities were the most positive about income management. Generally, women tended to be more positive than men; however, most people, even some who opposed the Emergency Response, recognised the positive impact of income management on children. Single men tended to be the least positive about income management, especially where they did not have childcare responsibilities.

Perception of the Emergency Response was driven by only a few of the Emergency Response initiatives, and in many cases the overall perception of the Emergency Response seemed to relate to income management. Positive perceptions of income management were mainly related to increases in food consumption, with children being the main beneficiaries; increased savings, which has enabled greater purchasing of household goods and ease in paying bills; and a reduction in family tension through reductions in humbugging. Apart from the positive comments about income management, positive feedback was also provided on the school nutrition program and improved stock in the community store.

The Central Land Council undertook research called Reviewing the Northern Territory Emergency Response: perspectives from six communities in Central Australia to document the experiences and opinions of Aboriginal people in Central Australia in relation to the Emergency Response. The research was undertaken from February to June 2008 with the assistance of local Aboriginal researchers. The research focused on the main measures implemented in the first year of the Northern Territory Emergency Response. This report can be found online. It is based on a detailed participation evaluation survey of 141 Aboriginal residents in these communities. The research conducted demonstrated the diversity of opinion around the Emergency Response measures across communities as well as amongst residents in a community.

Reponses across survey participants were almost evenly divided between people in favour of and those opposed to income management. Gender and age were not significant factors in influencing people’s level of support; however, income type influenced people’s support for income management. People on a wage were most supportive of income management. Perceived advantages associated with income management included increased household expenditure on food and children, young men contributing to family shopping and reductions in gambling and drinking.

This bill contains a range of measures, including amendments to the income management arrangements under the social security law, alcohol and pornography restrictions, and community store licensing arrangements under the Northern Territory National Emergency Act 2007 which are designed to improve the circumstances of families and to improve the circumstances of people living in remote, rural and regional communities. This is an important piece of legislation. It is legislation that deserves bipartisan support, and it is incredibly disappointing hearing the contribution from the member for Menzies. I commend this bill to the House.