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Community Affairs Legislation Committee

ALTMAN, Professor Jon, Private capacity [by video link]

CATON, Ms Leeanne, Director, Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory [by video link]

HUNTER, Ms Donna, Executive Officer, Aboriginal Housing Northern Territory [by video link]

ROE, Ms Theresa, Network Coordinator, Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory [by video link]

SUTTON, Ms Georgie, Policy and Governance Officer, Central Land Council (presenting on behalf of Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory) [by audio link]


CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you for appearing before the committee today. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Ms Caton : I'm the chair of Aboriginal Housing NT, which comes under APO NT.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Do any of you wish to make a brief opening statement? If not, we'll move to questions. Professor Altman?

Prof. Altman : I would like to make a very brief opening statement. Thank you very much for the invitation here today. In the brevity of the hearing, I just want to make one or two brief introductory comments. In 1991, I co-authored a paper with Will Sanders titled 'From exclusion to dependence: Aborigines and the welfare state in Australia'. It tracked the long historical struggle of Indigenous people as denizens, and then citizens, for equitable treatment by the settler states. It also warned that, once fully incorporated into the social security system, gaining economic independence and freedom from welfare might be an extremely difficult, if not impossible, challenge. Thirty years on, welfare is increasingly being weaponised to discipline Indigenous and other subjects to force them into engagement with market capitalism, including in remote places where it has and continues to fail. In very remote Australia, seven out of 10 Indigenous adults are not in mainstream employment and are dependent on welfare for their family. They invariably live in deep poverty, effectively punished for their attachment to country. Being on JobSeeker for them is not a temporary or short-term stopgap measure until employment for all magically eventuates.

So what does $25 a week do for them? First, especially in the aftermath of the COVID supplements last year, it returns people to deep poverty and disappointment and associated anomie and deleterious physical and psychological wellbeing—the perfect recipe for widening, not reducing, disparity. Second, what does an extra $25 a week do for the government's commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No. 1, to end poverty in all its forms everywhere, including here in Australia, by 2030? In truth, not much. This is extreme myopia that is reminiscent of tentative steps taken to address the looming climate disaster—the longer one delays seeking immediate political gain, the greater the longer-term challenge and costs. Effectively reducing the COVID supplement from $550 a fortnight to $50 a fortnight in less than a year is brutal policymaking. Sadly, this proposed amendment represents a lost opportunity for rare bipartisanship in increasing welfare support to more realistic and less damaging levels. But as the clock ticks down to 31 March, it seems highly unlikely that there is time to properly debate the need for more sensible policymaking.

CHAIR: APO NT, do you want to make an opening statement?

Ms Caton : Yes, thank you. Firstly, I'd like to acknowledge the owners of the land that we live and work on, the Larrakia people, and I acknowledge elders past, present and emerging. I thank the committee for giving us the opportunity to share our concerns about the rate of income support provided by the government and how it impacts Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. Since 2010, APO NT has been working to develop policies on critical issues facing Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. As peak organisations of the Northern Territory, we share the aim of protecting and advancing the wellbeing and rights of Aboriginal people and their communities.

The bill currently before the House of Representatives would increase the maximum basic rate of working age social security payments by $50 per fortnight, compared with the pre-COVID levels. This proposed increase of just $3.57 per day is wildly inadequate and a slap in the face to those who receive income support, including many Aboriginal Territorians. We join the Australian Council of Social Service in calling for income support to be increased to a level that would actually enable recipients to live above the poverty line. To achieve this, working age welfare payments must be increased by a minimum of $25 a day. The $550 coronavirus supplement was introduced in March 2020 to support the many people who, as the Prime Minister said, had lost a job through no fault of their own. In doing so, the government effectively admitted that the rates of income support are simply not enough for people to live on—well, for most people to live on. And yet the many Aboriginal Territorians who have been on income support for years, often through no fault of their own, have been and continue to be expected to live on these measly rates plus the extra $3.57 per day.

I shouldn't need to tell you that the employment gap in the Northern Territory is the worst in the country. Just 30 per cent of working age Aboriginal Territorians have a job, compared with over 80 per cent of their non-Aboriginal counterparts. For those who can work, there are not enough jobs. The cost of living is higher in remote parts of the Northern Territory. Our people are paying more for food and essentials, with not enough extra support. Yet, instead of helping by raising the welfare rate to a decent level and investing in job creation, the government seems insistent on keeping Aboriginal people disenfranchised through poor rates of income support and continuing the discriminatory Community Development Program and unproven standards of compulsory income management.

APONT calls on this committee to recommend that the bill not be passed in its current form. We ask that the committee recommend the bill be amended to increase income support to a minimum of $65 a day, and we call on the Australian government to invest in job creation, particularly in remote Aboriginal communities, so that our people have a viable alternative to remaining on welfare into the future. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thanks. I'll go to Senator McCarthy first.

Senator McCARTHY: Hello to everyone who is online. It's good to have you on. I might just go to APONT first. I think it's really important for the committee to get a real understanding of what the coronavirus supplement did in terms of our remote communities—in particular, in northern Australia—and the impact that that had on families and what it was that they were able to then spend that extra money on. Could I go to you, Ms Caton.

Ms Caton : Yes. It gave some families a bit of breathing space where they could actually afford the high cost of living in remote communities. As I said, it was a breathing space, but let's just talk about the impact on the youth in these families that are reliant on income-managed social security payments. As we know, across the Northern Territory, crime rates are increasing and I think they're only going to further increase with the current levels of social security that our families are currently expected to live on, where there's no cash available. During the COVID virus, there was a bit of extra money flowing in so that children could get money to go to school and for pocket money and going to play sports and stuff—the five dollars here, the five dollars there. That was all available during the COVID virus supplement, which is not going to be happening any further.

Ms Roe : It also gave families an opportunity to buy new fridges and to buy healthier food—it's very expensive out in remote communities to buy fresh, healthy food—so people are eating better and having a bit more choice. And they're purchasing essential items for their households. It also provides additional support for their kids' schooling and those sorts of things, which is really important in remote Australia.

Ms Sutton : Another thing that we heard—it's been too soon to have had a formal study done, but we did hear this anecdotally from providers in remote areas—is that there was less demand on relief that was provided. Some stores might have informal arrangements where they can provide a purchase order to families that need to get from one payment to the next. The number of requests made for services like that, we were told, were much reduced while people were receiving a higher rate of income support.

Prof. Altman : The House of Representatives reports on remote community stores, pricing and food security. It reported, in some detail, how much expenditure at remote stores increased with the coronavirus supplement, primarily on basic food stuffs. I think the figure was, in some places, around 50 per cent increase in turnover. I think it's worth looking at that report published in December of last year.

Senator McCARTHY: Just following on from the responses that you've all provided, what impact, anecdotally, do you think it's had on the health and lifestyle for First Nations people in those regional communities? You've spoken about the food and the retail sector, but has it had other impacts as well?

Ms Caton : It provides people with a bit more of an opportunity to have better choice. That's one of the major impacts on health: having a choice. Having breathing space can sometimes alleviate mental health issues, when it comes to having no money and always struggling.

Ms Roe : It's also clear a lot of families could participate in cultural activities if they had extra fuel money, for example, so they could go out hunting or do some ceremonies they couldn't otherwise afford. As well as undertaking cultural activities, it's about getting the kids more involved in sports and recreational activities. On welfare, you don't have much money to support them to do all of those extra things. For lifestyle, it's an improvement.

Prof. Altman : We mustn't overlook that the COVID supplement was also linked to relaxation of mutual obligation requirements. People, firstly, were freed from compulsory Work for the Dole, so they could undertake activities that they prioritise, and secondly, weren't penalised. Those brutal penalty rates for people who were breaching the Work for the Dole requirements were relaxed, particularly in that first tranche of the COVID supplement payment of $550 a fortnight that went to late September. There was certainly reporting—as my colleagues from APO NT report—that people were engaging in a lot more activity going back on to country, participating in cultural activities, but, more importantly, supplementing the increased expenditure on food stuffs at stores with increased consumption of bush tucker, which is nutritionally very healthy.

Senator McCARTHY: I was going to come to that, Professor Altman. I might go to it now before I finish with a couple of questions. In terms of mutual obligation and the dob in hotline, what are your thoughts in terms of [inaudible] that have to ring and apply for 20 jobs again? That's open to all of you.

Ms Caton : Sorry, could you repeat that? We had difficulty hearing that question.

Prof. Altman : Perhaps I can jump in. I think the idea that you dob in somebody who is not seeking a job certainly makes very little sense in remote Australia where there are very few jobs to start with. I think that requiring people to apply for 20 jobs is just extraordinarily counterproductive. What we saw during the period of the COVID supplement and the relaxation of mutual obligation was that people were actually freed to undertake productive work. Seeking 20 jobs a month in places where there are no jobs is highly unproductive work. So why do we demean people by requiring them to apply for jobs that do not exist? Of course, my emphasis here is on remote and very remote Australia, but I suspect that in much of regional Australia and possibly even metropolitan Australia it's the same: we are punishing people in situations where there are no jobs and diverting them from productive work.

Senator McCARTHY: Ms Caton, did you hear that question? It was about the government's dob in a jobseeker. Will that work in remote Australia?

Ms Caton : I totally agree with Professor Altman. There are no jobs out there [inaudible] the majority of the paid jobs are filled by non-Aboriginal people working in remote communities. Our people, basically, seem to be getting the continual run-around in relation to an increase in JobSeeker COVID payments. That's now back to what it was before, and there is looking for jobs where there are no jobs to apply for. It just is an added burden and stress on people who are already living in very stressful conditions on Centrelink payments.

Senator McCARTHY: There have been recent media reports saying that a lot of these COVID supplements in communities have been spent on gambling. What's your response to that?

Ms Caton : We haven't seen any evidence on that. Although there was an article in the NT news the other day, unfortunately. You're right. There was a lot of money. Speaking from my role in housing, there was a lot of cash. Rivers of cash were flowing through some of our community living areas. Yes, I would somewhat have to agree with some of that.

Ms Sutton : If I may jump in. I think Ms Caton agrees that there are some instances of that, but, broadly, we would be arguing that the actions of some people, when given additional income, shouldn't penalise everybody from receiving what's a fair income.

Ms Caton : Correct.

Ms Sutton : We don't believe that anybody deserves to live in poverty, and, while there are lots of issues facing people, rather than punishing with unfair payments we would argue that what that's speaking to is a need for services, a need for support, a need for ongoing education and a need to address the underlying issues rather than just snapping back to a previous level and punishing everybody for the actions of some people who maybe have not used that money in what we might consider the best way possible. Ultimately, we don't believe that anybody deserves to be living in levels below the poverty line.

Prof. Altman : If I could make a comment on the issue of gambling. We mustn't overlook the fact that the payments made to most Indigenous people are income managed. If we're suddenly seeing some escalation in gambling—and I don't think there's any evidence for that—it tends to suggest that income management's in fact not working. But I certainly agree with everything that's been said. There might be some cases of increased gambling, but, to the best of best of my knowledge, gambling is not an illegal activity in Australian society, and it's certainly not something that only remote and Indigenous people participate in.

Senator McCARTHY: This question is to each of the groups: is this also a missed opportunity to fix the CDP program and reshape the way remote communities and remote communities function?

Prof. Altman : I think it's an extraordinary missed opportunity, because everything we've heard suggests that giving people more reasonable income support and relaxing mutual obligation in fact enhances people's livelihoods and wellbeing. So why would we go back to a punitive, unproductive program—that is supposed to move people from unemployment to employment—that's proven to be unsuccessful in moving people into work, but extremely successful at punishing people?

We've just got to keep in mind the extraordinary level of penalising of people for breaching that occurred. The latest figures we have are only to December 2019. Nevertheless, those figures that are issued by the government show extraordinarily high levels of breaching. Francis Markham and myself—and I mentioned this in our submission—indicate that on average that breaching across the CDP participant population is in fact further reducing their income below an already deep poverty that they experience just living on the JobSeeker payment. So, the CDP is almost like a form of double jeopardy, and it should be abolished as a program as soon as possible.

Ms Sutton : I'll jump in on that one, too. Thanks for the question, Senator McCarthy. I think fundamentally the presumption that a punitive program like CDP can essentially be so awful that people will have to seek out employment just doesn't add up in remote communities. We know that the job vacancies aren't there. So, APONT has been arguing for a long time that while we agree that it would be a better situation for more people to be employed rather than being on the CDP and living on social security support payments, in order for that to happen we're calling on the government to invest in job creation in those communities. We know that the vacancies just aren't there. We've presented a number of proposals at various committees, and we included them as attachments to our submission. That could be a place for the government to start, to invest money in job creation in remote communities and help, rather than continue to punish people for not being able to get a job that doesn't exist—to actually provide some support so that people can experience life in the workforce, gain skills and ultimately build the essential service providers and other providers in remote communities so that more people can actually have a chance of getting work and not having to continue to live on these levels. So yes, I agree with the premise of your question. As well as raising the rate, there's really a missed opportunity here to look at some significant reform that could have a really positive impact for people living in remote areas.

CHAIR: Thank you. On that note, we'll move to Senator Siewert to ask her questions, bearing in mind that we need to move to the next witnesses to have a one o'clock finish.

Senator SIEWERT: I'll be very short, because Senator McCarthy has in fact covered both of the areas that I wanted to cover. I want to go to almost where you left off, Ms Sutton, in terms of job creation, but I want to go to the broader issue that we touched on earlier—the underlying issues that are the cause of poverty and disadvantage. During the increase in the payment of the coronavirus supplement, when for some communities and some people there was talk of increased expenditure on alcohol and gambling et cetera, those problems were identified for a minority of communities and people. But was there any effort by government to actually then invest in addressing those underlying causes of disadvantage? Were additional resources identified and given to communities to in fact address those underlying causes?

Ms Sutton : Not that I'm aware of. If anything, less support was being provided to people in remote communities during the period of biosecurity lockdowns. Permits or exemptions were required in order for people to move from somewhere like Alice Springs or Darwin and out into a remote community. Given the transient nature—well, 'transient' is the wrong word, but I mean the fact that lots of service providers are doing travelling work—a lot of communities had fewer support services in terms of being able to go out to those communities at the time. Does that answer your question?

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you.

Prof. Altman : Could I make a point, Senator Siewert: we mustn't lose sight of the fact that doubling people's welfare overnight was probably the most significant income shock that those communities have had since the introduction of welfare in the 1970s. This was an extraordinary change to household incomes, and in some ways it was irresponsible of government not to consider what the impact of that might be in remote Indigenous communities, because there were two logics at play here. One logic was that we were having the coronavirus supplement of $550 for people who'd lost jobs, but in remote Indigenous Australia it wasn't going to people who had lost jobs; it was going to people who'd never had jobs. So suddenly they had a doubling of income. Of course, there would be some people who would struggle to spend that extra income, which appeared overnight, in a responsible manner. But we've had absolutely no research that's suggesting that that extra income was spent irresponsibly across a wide spectrum of jobseekers. Of course, one of the issues during the coronavirus, with the biosecurity lockdown, was that in fact it was very difficult to visit communities to undertake research with participants in these schemes, so everything we've heard has been more or less anecdotal or has come from submissions to the House of Representatives inquiry last year.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you. I'm very aware of time, but perhaps I could ask a question on notice. I very much hesitate to, so I'll just do the one. One of the requirements with the new changes to mutual obligations announced last week was that they'll be doing an audit of job applications to see if people are making meaningful applications and they're genuine. If it's not going to be too much work in the time frame, could you, Professor Altman and APO NT, each take on notice what impact that would have on First Nations peoples, particularly in community?

Ms Caton : We can certainly take that on notice.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, everybody, for taking time, at reasonably short notice, to be here. There is even more short notice for the question on notice, because we need your responses by close of business tomorrow, as we are planning to report on Friday 12 March to the Senate. So thank you very much for your time. I will let you all return to your day.