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Community Affairs Legislation Committee

LANGTON, Professor Marcia AM, Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health

Committee met at 9:00

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR ( Senator Seselja ): Welcome. The committee will now commence its inquiry into the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015. Could you please confirm that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you.

Prof. Langton : No, but I am aware of it.

CHAIR: Thank you. I now invite you, if you would like to, to make a short opening statement. After that, we will move to questions.

Prof. Langton : I am very familiar with the community of Kununurra, which is one of the proposed trial sites, but not so much with Ceduna, although I have been there—I have read the literature on Ceduna; in fact about 30 years ago I positioned a French anthropologist there to do the best community profile ever done.

I first started working in the area around Kununurra in 1980 and I have continued working there ever since. I was there last weekend in fact—I will not go through all the details; I can put those in writing to you later, if you want to know more about my work in the East Kimberley and West Kimberley.

I support the legislation, especially in relation to the trial in Kununurra—and by implication in Ceduna—because my experience of Kununurra is that the community desperately needs a circuit-breaker in order to be able to deal with the alcohol, abuse and the increasing illegal drug use.

For many years, particular people in Kununurra have been campaigning for alcohol restrictions. Some restrictions have applied but some more are going to be introduced. In many ways it is far too late for this community, because of the toll that alcohol has taken in the last 40 years. I know from my discussions that the key leaders and most of the young people that I have spoken to who are the emerging leaders support this trial and they support it precisely because they want to be able to deal with the impact of alcohol abuse on their community; to transition people from extreme welfare dependence to a more productive life in the workforce, proceeding to obtain rental accommodation or joining the transitional housing program and saving money to buy a house; to send their children to school; and to have a better life.

For example, I think the most obvious symptom of the alcohol misuse in Kununurra is the number of children at night running around the streets. I went for a walk last Saturday and Sunday evening, and there were children on the streets from early in the evening till late at night. The reason why they are on the streets is because they are not safe at home. It has been happening for about 20 years, so now it is almost normalised in the community that children are out on the street all night. I have seen much larger numbers in the past and people tell me that there has not been much improvement. About 10 years ago, when I was on the board of the Jirrawun artist cooperative, the elders donated $20,000 to the police to try to help get the kids off the street. I will stop there for a moment if you have any questions.

CHAIR: Thank you. You paint a picture of some of the concerns you have in Kununurra and you say you are not as familiar with Ceduna. I am interested from a more general perspective in relation to these kinds of trials. Obviously, some of the criticisms are around the fact that it is paternalistic or limits people's humans rights. What is your response to those criticisms?

Prof. Langton : I do not believe that it is paternalistic at all. Aboriginal leaders in these communities want this measure, and they want this measure because you have to see alcohol abuse to the extent that it occurs in these communities at firsthand to understand their concerns. What has happened over the last 50 years is that Aboriginal people have become normalised to welfare dependency. The proposition that a capable adult could go and get a job is simply regarded as impossible by many Aboriginal people because they have a mindset that their permanent destination is social security dependence. As a result, the numbers of drinkers in these communities, and it is typical of many communities where there are large numbers of Aboriginal people—in Kununurra you know the proportion of the population that is Indigenous is around 85 per cent—the very high level of incapacitation from alcohol abuse causes the elders to try to find measures to make the community safe for all the others.

This is not a paternalistic measure; this is a protective measure that leaders have examined closely and want for their communities because children are unsafe, women are unsafe and, more and more, people are being dragged into the drinking culture and increasing the proportion of drinkers in the community.

In relation to human rights, this is not a human rights abuse. The proposition is not race based. Both of these towns are open towns that have multicultural populations, including Australian settler folk, various kinds of Australians from elsewhere in the world, and very large Aboriginal populations—and much larger Aboriginal populations in the Hinterland of these towns. I was at an event on Saturday in Kununurra, where everybody in the community, whatever their cultural background, were unanimous in their support for this trial.

CHAIR: You talked about issues around safety, particularly for women and children. How do you see this card or this trial helping to address that?

Prof. Langton : I do not know if you are familiar with the term 'humbugging', and there is another term that is used: 'demand sharing'. In Aboriginal societies where they are much closer to the traditional way of life, demand sharing is requests from relations, even distant kin folk. These societies have become perverted by generations of poverty and welfare dependence to the extent that it is now impossible for a social security dependent nuclear Aboriginal family—they are never really nuclear, but let us say a typical household in a typical house in a town—to be able to afford to feed their family in the second week after the payment. The reason is the pressure they are under to give money to people. They can even have their money taken from them by force. So a typical Aboriginal household in a community where a large proportion of the population is social security dependent cannot afford to eat for the entire two weeks. In some parts of Australia that second week is when you go hungry.

In order to even out the social security income and allow household heads to put food on the table, especially for children and especially for growing children, all of us who have talked about this matter have decided we need this circuit breaker as a temporary measure. How long this would last for I cannot predict, but we need it in order to enable families to step out of social security dependence into a better way of life, with at least some members of their families in the workforce. The humbugging is the critical problem and most of the humbugging is done by men—of all ages. They take the money for alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography, or they just take it because they can.

The result is that you have undernourishment of children, failure to thrive. These are very serious health problems in the Aboriginal community. Even though the infant mortality rates are slightly improving, we are not going to see the kinds of improvements that we need without an intervention like this.

Senator SIEWERT: Nobody is denying the dreadful problems facing Aboriginal communities. I have spent quite a bit of time in Kununurra and I have spent time in Ceduna, so I have seen it for myself. My concern—I have multiple concerns—is that the very things that you have just been talking about do not, from the evidence, from the evaluations of income management, seem to actually deliver. The final evaluation of the NT process said:

The evaluation could not find any substantive evidence of the program having significant changes relative to its key policy objectives, including changing people’s behaviours.

Prof. Langton : Let me answer your question. First of all, this is not income management.

Senator SIEWERT: But it is.

Prof. Langton : No, it is not income management.

Senator SIEWERT: Why not?

Prof. Langton : It is quite a different model. Income management works in a kind of reverse way. What is being proposed here will work substantially differently and it is important to trial this in order to see if this kind of approach will work better. Under this scheme, there will be something like the Families Responsibilities Commission—that is, a committee of responsible members of the community, including elders, who subscribe to good social norms, who hear cases to remove the high levels of the cashless component of the income to enable people to access the cash, depending on, critically, whether or not they are sending their children to school every day. I was talking to Ian Trust about this last weekend, and he said to me that if that component of this scheme works, many people in the community will very quickly have the cashless component of their payment reduced.

The other point about this is that this is being introduced into Kununurra, and I hope the Ceduna leaders come and have a look at Kununurra and adopt some of the measures that have been in place as a result of work by Wunan and the other Aboriginal organisations. There is a context here for the implementation of the cashless debit card in that you already have social programs delivered by very well governed and innovative Aboriginal organisations in order to enable people to graduate out of welfare dependence. In this context, the community leaders, unlike the Northern Territory intervention, have said that they want it. They will play a very large role in it; they will be able to wrap their own programs around the implementation of the cashless debit card so that they can assist families who are having difficulties.

The operation in the Northern Territory was administered by Commonwealth public servants very much divorced from the Indigenous sector. That is a very substantial difference. And, in any case, I am not persuaded by those evaluation reports. Of course I have read them. I am an anthropologist, and I go to a lot of these communities regularly. It is obvious that income management in the Northern Territory has changed the Northern Territory substantially. The point of the evaluation report is that the change cannot be measured, or the change was not measured. That is a very different thing from declaring success or failure. In that regard, it is essential that we have a much more rigorous evaluation, monitoring and reporting mechanism for the cashless debit card trial.

I was not impressed at all with the evaluations in the Northern Territory. I also suspect they were rather ideologically driven. I am anxious to see the recruitment of evaluation specialists, especially population health epidemiologist specialists—it sounds like self-interest, but I would not be involved in it—because it is important to get the evaluation right so that we can understand. In small towns like this, it is entirely possible, with a well-designed program, to measure outcomes household by household. It has to be done from the beginning, not after the fact. Those evaluations in the Northern Territory were after the fact, and not carried out by the kinds of people with the specialisations that I would like to see monitoring this trial.

Senator SIEWERT: What is your understanding of the money that has been allocated for such an evaluation?

Prof. Langton : I do not have any knowledge of that.

Senator SIEWERT: Do you know if there has been discussions about how that evaluation would take place?

Prof. Langton : I do not know. That is why I am raising this issue. I believe that, because these are trials, it is essential that there is rigorous evaluation from the beginning of the trial, not after the fact. I do not know of any discussions about this.

Senator SIEWERT: You talked about the issues around supports and the services that the organisations will be able to provide. What is your understanding of the services and the funding that is going to be available for those services. There is obviously going to be a need for a huge effort to provide those support services.

Prof. Langton : I do not want to interfere in what the local town leadership are doing. I understand that they are trying to negotiate a package of trial measures that would be deliver by their organisations and institutions. It is critically important that that is the case. If there was a failure in the Northern Territory in the income management implementation, it was that local government and Indigenous civil society were not engaged in the implementation. We have the opportunity to do that here. All of the responsible people in Kununurra are very keen to do that and no, I am waiting to find out where their negotiations land. I imagine that you are too.

Senator MOORE: Professor Langton, I am following up from Senator Siewert's questions around what is needed to make the trial work. You have talked about your view of the way the card will work, but, from your perspective, what is need in the community to make the plan successful?

Prof. Langton : Again, I do not want to say anything that overrides what the locals say.

Senator MOORE: What are they telling you?

Prof. Langton : For instance, I did hear last weekend from one of the board members of the Gelganyem Trust that they were so impressed with this idea that they want to make their charitable trust payments through a similar method. They can quite clearly see what the logic is, and the logic is to find a way to allocate income to the essentials to raising families by diverting it away from alcohol, tobacco, gambling and so on. They are keen to see that their charitable trust distributions are likewise brought into the scheme.

I think that is a really innovative measure. I was just saying to them, 'I think that it's got national significance.' Of course, the other thing is that they have already got their transitional housing scheme—and, if you are not aware of it, you should have a look at it because the Aboriginal population live in different kinds of zones in Kununurra. As you walk from the centre of town to the last reserve on the edge of the town, you see the living conditions deteriorate. This is not just about income; this is about behaviour.

The transitional housing scheme and many of the other schemes in town are designed to change the behaviour of people that causes them to live in poverty. That means being able to look after a house. People will look after a house, if they are invested in it and if they have some control over it. The transitional housing scheme works—and it works beautifully but it has a very long waiting list, might I add—to bring people from living in a substandard house on a reserve out on the edge of town in the worst circumstances to being a productive member of the workforce, saving and being able to purchase a home. So that scheme is essential. Then you have your various health services and drug and alcohol services. They are absolutely necessary to make this work.

I guess what we are all worried about is what happens to the hardened alcoholics when they do not have the cash to buy alcohol? There will have to be specialist services for them and rehab. I have spoken to hardened alcoholics on the streets who want this card introduced because they want to be rescued from the grip of alcohol. I thought that was very interesting.

In the past, these debates have been polarised between the drinkers and the nondrinkers. The nondrinkers never want any reforms. The drinkers just want life to continue as it is, so that they can drink alcohol mostly using other people's money. And there are the people who are desperate to preserve their incomes to be able to support their families properly. Now we are seeing alcoholics and binge drinkers and other misusers of alcohol actually welcoming these measures because they themselves are trapped in a drinking culture that is part of this demand-sharing, humbugging culture and they want out. They want supports. They want people to pull them out of it.

Senator MOORE: You do accept that any trial is much wider than just the part of their social security payment, that you have to have the other services? You have to have the housing services and the health services—they all have to be part of it or else nothing is going to change.

Prof. Langton : Fortunately, the Aboriginal leaders of Kununurra have worked for 40 years to put those in place. You will be speaking to them later in the day, no doubt.

Senator MOORE: Yes. Do they tell you that they are sufficient?

Prof. Langton : I believe so. I believe that was the point of the discussions. I do not want to speak for them because they will have a much better idea of what they want to do. Their discussions have been confidential and they have not share them with me. They have spoken to me in general terms and I am impressed with what I am hearing. But what I do want to hear is that there is a settlement of their negotiations that they are happy with so that they have the necessary funding to provide the services to make this trial as successful as possible in transitioning people out of welfare.

Senator MOORE: You made the point that it is not discriminatory in the way it is going to work because it is across the whole community. The way I hear your evidence and the way I have read the evidence, a lot of this focus is like an extended alcohol management plan. The focus has been driven by the evil that everyone knows that alcohol has caused in the communities. People in those communities who do not drink or who drink in a way that is not seen by the community as a problem are going to be part of it as well, if they are on a social welfare payments. Do you have any comment on that?

Prof. Langton : I am sure that those people on social security payments who do not drink would rather not be on social security payments and would rather be in the workforce. There is a prawn farm opening up nearby that will be able to offer, I believe, 1,000 jobs. So having a job placement program that works rather than your typical Job Services agency that trains Aboriginal people to be trained Aborigines, or training for training's sake, is important in the scheme of things. I do not think that this is going to be a problem because, as I said at the beginning, the council or committee that is being designed to hear the cases of these very same people who do not warrant a very high level of the cashless component of their income would be quickly in different circumstances. I have heard people say, 'I do not want 80 per cent of my income cashless.' Some people say they could manage well on 30 per cent, some say 40 per cent and some say 50 per cent, but I can guarantee you that most of them want some part of their social security payment cashless so that they are not humbugged and they have enough food on the table for the second week of the payment.

Senator CAMERON: I am looking at one of the submissions that we have and I would like to get your response. A submission from a Ceduna resident says that the proposal stereotypes the community and only a small section of the community has been involved in consultations. This individual is on disability support pension and indicates that their kids are achievers at school. They have a small mortgage and an offset account that would be a problem if this measure was forced upon them. How do you deal with the balance between the needs of the community affected by alcohol and the needs of those who are not? Basically, how do you deal with the individual concerns against, say, what I understand you would argue would be the broader community benefits?

Prof. Langton : That is what the trial needs to determine. This person, I imagine, once the system is running, would immediately apply to have 100 per cent of the cash made available, and one would want efficiency in the system so that the case was heard. The banks have helped to design the debit card, which means that there is no discrimination at the checkout counter. With mortgage payments, if people who are on social security are paying off a home, perhaps what you need to have is an immediate category so that, if the mortgage repayments are, say, 25 per cent of the social security income, that 25 per cent is the cashless component and it is automatically transferred to the mortgage account. So I cannot see what the problem is, really.

Senator CAMERON: I suppose the card is one issue. You have raised a number of other concerns—

Prof. Langton : It is not just alcohol—you see, now you are misrepresenting my evidence. Can I just say at the outset that one of the things I said was that—

Senator CAMERON: Professor Langton, just wait a minute. I have not misrepresented you; I am just asking you a question. I did not say a word.

Prof. Langton : Well, I am not presenting the proposal as an alcohol management plan.

Senator CAMERON: And I did not put that to you.

Prof. Langton : I said that this is about getting people off social security. This is a critical measure for getting people to understand that they do not need to live on social security intergenerationally.

Senator CAMERON: That is fine, and I was going to try to get to that, but I have not put anything to you other than one question. What I am concerned about is, if we are going to deal with the alcohol problem, you have raised two other issues. One is the issue of employment, and I suppose the other issue is the general capacity of people to get employment. Do you know what the unemployment rate is in Ceduna? Secondly, how do you deal with this alcohol problem, which is a health problem, if we are cutting $160 million out of Indigenous health support, which is what has happened in the budget?

Prof. Langton : I do not know what the unemployment rate is in Ceduna, and I said at the outset of my evidence that I am not so familiar with the Ceduna community. What I do know is this: there are two approaches to managing alcohol as a public health threat. One is the supply approach, and the other is the demand approach. No-one in Australia has been successful in implementing or getting past the proposal stage, so a supply approach—such as a floor price for alcohol, limitations on alcohol supplies by alcohol content, trading hours and so on—has been pretty normal in towns. Restrictions have been hard won. But there is an additional problem, and that is that people on social security are able to access up to 57 different kinds of payment. So, the cash available—

Senator CAMERON: Sorry to interrupt you, but you indicated to me that you did not want us to be focusing on alcohol, and I agree with you. I am trying to identify another couple of issues the committee will have to deal with.

CHAIR: It will have to be done very quickly, because we are over time.

Senator CAMERON: Yes. Very quickly, can you come back to this issue of health support and employment? Where does the employment come from and how do we get the health support in for people who are suffering from alcoholism? And where does the money for that come from?

Prof. Langton : Well, there are health services in Kununurra. There is the Boab clinic. There are the government clinics. There are health services there. On the weekend I met with the chronic disease manager for the East Kimberley, and he likewise is keen to see all of this work, because of the kidney disease and diabetes epidemic in the Aboriginal community. People are working on these issues. It is not as if they do not exist; these services do exist. As you say, it is important to identify what else is necessary in the trials, but I am not a local service provider, so I cannot really answer your question in the way that you would want it answered. But it is a good question to ask, because there are going to be people who have chronic diseases, like diabetes, kidney disease and so on. I can only imagine that a let-up in the alcohol abuse in these towns would be a good thing for them. Certainly heavy drinkers are going to need extra services.

CHAIR: We might have to leave it there. Thank you very much for your evidence. We appreciate it.

Prof. Langton : Thank you very much.