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Establishing an appropriate framework for a social policy research agenda to take the Territory, and the nation, into the 21st century: address to a seminar and public discussion by: North Australia Research Unit, the Australian National University.

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Address to a Seminar and Public Discussion by:

North Australia Research Unit

The Australian National University


Establishing an Appropriate Framework for a

Social Policy Research Agenda to take the Territory,

and the Nation, into the 2lst Century



Thank you Dr Christine Fletcher for the invitation to speak today. and to those of you who helped to bring the seminar together and those participating. I welcome Professor Cliff Walsh to share the focus agenda with me.

We are here today, to discuss social policy research in the Territory and specifically to begin thinking about how to best approach and prepare for what the 21st Century holds for us as a community. This is a very important exercise, as I believe there are a number of social trends and circumstances peculiar to the Territory that set us apart from the rest of Australia. This is before we begin to even consider the added challenges posed by the geographic isolation faced by Territory communities.

I am certainly not the first to acknowledge the challenges the Territory poses. I cherish a copy of a historical document published in 1937, known as the Payne and Fletcher Report, that was written specifically to prescribe a way forward for the pioneers of the Territory.. The outline of the report begins:

The Northern Territory as it exists today is a national problem, a national obligation, a challeng e to other nations, and a detriment to ourselves.

We have come a long way since this observation was made. Such views have long since been superseded by the Territory's strong record of success in development.

Elsewhere, the report goes on to list many re commendations, suggestions and project proposals. At the same time it also often detours into unacceptable ideas on racism and other topics and occasionally has a few quips of humour, including such "Administrative Maxims" for the early public service as:

Do your best to guide Head-quarters in formulating correct policies. The man on the spot should always be in a position to make clear-cut and definite recommendations for the guidance of Head-quarters. Never shirk responsibility in this regard.

In speakin g today I am wearing two hats: one as Senator for the Northern Territory and the other as the Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Social Security.

As Senator for the Northern Territory I have always taken a keen interest in the work of about 55 various Commonwealth Government departments and agencies based in the Territory and their respective contributions. And of course, being a member of the Country Liberal Party I make no apologies for influencing and oversighting many policies resulting in Northern Territory Government initiatives.

Wearing my second hat as Parliamentary Secretary I have taken a closer interest in the range of programs administered by Centrelink on behalf of the Department of Social Security. From income support for unemployed people, to pensions for the elderly and disadvantaged, and family support - such programs are crucial in underpinning the regional economies of many communities around the Territory and right across Australia.

Before discussing this theme and sharing with you my thoughts on future opportunities and challenges facing the Territory I would first like to stray from my brief slightly and discuss by way of background social policy and protection in terms of globalisation and international trends and agendas.


Globalisation - or greater global competition. trade, capital mobility, communications and population movement - is sometimes seen as a threat to systems of social protection in developed countries. It has been argued that international competition creates an environment in which producers in high social protection countries will lose out to their competitors from locations with lower social standards and therefore lower costs. Producers in the high cost countries will, as a result, be forced to either reduce social protection in the current environment or relocate if they do not wish to be forced out of business. This scenario is, in fact, an exaggeration - if labour costs alone were the measure of competitiveness Malawi would be one of the fastest growing countries in the world. Further, it can be argued that a well designed and effective social safety net actually improves competitiveness by reducing resistance to economic change.

As globalisation makes some tax bases more mobile and less easy to tax the ability of governments to finance social protection with a lower income base will become more of an issue. The burden of taxes must therefore fall more heavily on workers if globali sation erodes capital-source income.

There is no doubt that increased 'globalisation' will result in economies becoming more sensitive to development in other countries. You cannot trade with someone without having your destiny linked to theirs - this is an inevitable price of the mutual enrichment that trade brings. From this arises a challenge for Australia to develop social protection that is supportive of our positioning as a highly skilled, flexible and competitive nation. Recent developments in Asia and the associated flow on to the Australian economy bear evidence to this point. Greater global competition will result in job losses in same industries, as well as gains in others.

The recent NARU workshop on " Redeveloping Good Neighbourly Relations: profiles of the Northern Territory : South Australia and our trading partners in Asia " highlighted our important trade relationships with our Asian neighbours. It is timely at this seminar to also place on the agenda the social priorities of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore and in particular the need for reciprocal government to government initiatives land opportunities for cooperative development.

Perhaps the most common international social issue we tend to hear or read about is the incidence of rapidly ageing populations and the resulting demands on pension and retirement income systems. International trends suggest that population ageing will peak in the 2010 -2035 period with the ratio of contributors (workers) to the retired at its lowest. The World Bank's "Three Pillar" approach to retirement funding is increasingly being considered by governments as a viable model to counter this growing imbalance. This basic model consists of a contribution component, a taxpayer funded component and a third pillar where individuals are encouraged to make private arrangements for their own well being.

The 'up side' if you like, to this range of challenges is that we are not alone. All other developed countries are in the same position and face similar social policy problems and challenges going into the new century. Governments are in active dialogue and for the most part agree on a common set of themes and direction. This is evidenced by the main conclusions of a meeting of Ministers from the 29 OECD member countries held last month to discuss issues raised in a paper drafted by the Japanese Government titled The New Social Policy Agenda for a Caring World . Ministers agreed on a list of main conclusions from the meeting, as contained in the official OECD communique:  


23-24 JUNE 1998

Ministers agreed:

  • That structural reform of Social and health care systems should achieve greater equity and efficiency of social protection systems;
  • to promote employment-oriented social policies to combat poverty, inequality and exclusion;
  • to ensure the best possible start for children by promoting early childhood development and family friendly policies which would help families balance work and caring responsibilities, and by improving employment opportunities for those parents without work;
  • to promote a healthier population by focusing on more prevention and the broader factors contributing to health improvements and by tackling persistent inequalities in health status;
  • that necessary reforms of retirement pension systems should not be delayed, so that they provide adequate income support while ensuring their long term sustainability;
  • to co-ordinate the roles of health and social care systems so they provide appropriate and integrated care for those with long-term needs;
  • to promote an appropriate balance in rights, responsibilities and opportunities between government. at its various levels, and individuals, families, social partners and communities; and
  • to support the elaboration of effective instruments for monitoring and evaluating program outcomes. and to develop intemationally-comparable social indicators.

OECD member countries agree that effective social policy and health care are an integral part of economic development. In acknowledging this and looking to the future Ministers listed the challenges facing developed countries as follows:

  • high and persiste nt unemployment;
  • the growth of social exclusion involving the persistence of extreme poverty and high income inequality:
  • high rates of family break-up;
  • persistent differences in health status within populations in OECD countries;
  • population ageing is expected to reduce the prospective increase in overall living standards', and.
  • fiscal consolidation imposing tight constraints on social expenditures which account for a large share of public spending.

Social Security Policy Issues - an Australian perspec tive

It is estimated that the Australian Government's expenditure on the social security system for 1997/98 was 542 billion, around 30 per cent of Commonwealth outlays and 7 per cent of GDP. Social Security spending roughly doubled from 3 to 6 per cent of GDP between 1972 and 1978, and has generally stayed above 6 per cent of GDP since.

There will be pressures for further increases in social security spending over the next 20 to 30 years, partly due to continued population ageing and also because of policy commitments to maintaining and improving the real level of payments. Adverse labour market trends could exacerbate these cost pressures.

One important factor has been structural change in the Australian labour market which has seen large numbers of older workers, in particular male workers, lose their employment. The Commonwealth Government intends analysing this issue in more detail to establish if it does in fact have a regional dimension.

Australia shares the concerns of other OECD countries that the future ageing of the population in combination with an apparent shrinking of the employed workforce will place extra strains on the welfare state that will make it more difficult to sustain in the longer run. Although it is important to remember that, due to past migration, Australia is better placed in this respect than most other developed countries.

Australia has a comparatively very tightly targeted social security system,. and a tax system with a nominally highly progressive structure. These design features make it difficult to cut spending further without jeopardizing core objectives such as adequacy or further exacerbating undesirable "poverty traps", and are a major reason that the government is keen to foster self-provision for retirement. At the same time, the structure of the tax system requires reform.

Offsetting this, there are factors likely to assist in maintaining the sustainability of the system. including the increases in the private income of social security recipients, and in the longer run, the maturation of the mandatory superannuation system. The "affordability" of the social security system, however, fundamentally hinges on trends in the labour market and community attitudes to social security spending.

Since Centrelink began formally undertaking the service delivery functions of the Department of Social Security and some functions of the former CES, DSS has become much smaller - focussing on research and policy advice.

Several strands of DSS' current research are aimed at assessing outcomes for customers on a regional basis. This research will build on recent academic writings that have suggested marked differences in living standards depending on which part of Australia you live in, and that differences have increased over recent years.

DSS is also undertaking a broad research agenda aimed at developing a better understanding of the spatial impact of social policies and the degree to which policy needs to respond to spatial characteristics. An important part of this is understanding the difference that living in a more or less disadvantaged area makes (with all else being equal) to an individual's life prospects. The first phase of this project involves examining the relative contributions of DSS payments to total incomes in the regions throughout Australia. Early results from this research indicate:

On average, 15.8% of after-tax personal income in Australia was derived from transfer payments provided by DSS in 1995-96. This ratio varied widely across areas. A quarter of all Australians lived in areas where the ratio was less than 11.6%, but a quarter lived in areas where it was more than 21.1 %.

The clearest pattern is that of a higher reliance upon transfer payments outside the Capital cities. On average, non-Capital city areas get 19.3% of their disposable income from DSS, while Capital city areas get 14.0%.

Geographic Polarisation of Disadvantage

The Department is also building on an influential study by Bob Gregory and Boyd Hunter by updating it to the 1996 Census to see if the trend Gregory and Hunter identifies towards increasing geographic polarisation of disadvantage has continued since 1991. This will not only bring this study up to date - by covering a longer time period, it will help abstract the longer term patterns from the influence of the business cycle.

Gregory and Hunter's methodology will also be extended to try and test the effects of internal migration and of commuting on locational disadvantage. This is an important extension as it will help decide whether the increasing polarisation is, broadly speaking, a consequence of widening inequality generally or is a policy concern in its own right, suggesting further examination of regionalised social policy.

Housing research

DSS currently has underway a study comparing housing data in the 1991 and 1996 Censuses. This will give a much more detailed picture of relative movements of housing conditions in the regions of Australia than can be gained from more continuous data sources such as the ABS and the Real Estate Institute of Australia. While the study's focus is specifically housing, economic variables such as employment and unemployment will be used in the analysis. There should thus be considerable spinoffs into wider regional issues. The results of this study will also in time be published.

Service Delivery to Rural and Remote Area s

An important aim of separating the policy and service delivery functions in the Social Security portfolio was to reduce inconvenience for customers who were previously required to go to a number of different offices. This is particularly important in rural areas as DSS offices were not always located in the same towns as CES offices.

Centrelink has a strong focus on improving the quality of service delivery and, in conjunction with DSS, the dissemination of information about services. programs, payments and allowances to customers in rural and remote areas.

Centrelink is looking at a range of options to improve services in rural and regional locations through the introduction of a national Centrelink rural servicing strategy. There has already been considerable input received from community groups, private organisations and other government agencies (particularly at the State/Territory level), examining future service delivery arrangements and Centrelink will continue to consult with customers in rural/regional areas to tailor services to meet the needs of their communities.

Currently, Centrelink delivers Social Security services through a number of mechanisms beyond its regional Customer Service Centre offices, including:

Mobile and visiting services - these operate in small and remote towns without a permanent Centrelink office, with the frequency of visits varied to suit customer requirements;

Non-government agencies that act as Agents on behalf of Centrelink in rural and remote locations to provide services and information;

Cooperative arrangements with State and Local governments for the delivery of services on Centrelink's behalf in some regional locations. Within Northern Australia, discussions have been held with local government to identify ways in which overall service delivery can be enhanced;

Call centres allow those with access to telephone services to quickly access information on their payments from any remote localities. Centrelink operates the largest single purpose call centre network in Australia - the operation currently consists of 23 Call Centres, of which 13 are located in Regional Australia and employs 3,000 staff nationally, of which 1950 are employed in regional centres. Access to call centres is being improved by extending operating hours and reducing call waiting times;

The Internet - the DSS Internet site provides information on the Department's programs, policy and research and the Centrelink site provides basic information on the delivery of payments and services:

The use of specialist officers, such as the Financial Information Service Officers, to form local links with community organisations; and

The Community Agent Program (CAP), which allows indigenous community organisations to set up a small office facility and employ a Community agent on a part time basis to assist people with Social Security matters. Of the network of 141 Community Agents, more than half of these are in Northern Australia. The delivery of services to indigenous customers through CAP needs to be seen in the context of overall indigenous customer servicing including visiting arrangements, in some cases the outposting of staff and the delivery of services by regional offices.

Service Delivery and IT

The use of communication and technological advances to facilitate and improve the quality of delivery of Social Security services in rural areas is also a significant Part of Centrelink's focus. New technologies and telecommunications are providing opportunities to overcome distance and isolation by facilitating effective service delivery and increasing access to services.

A number of technological developments are currently planned or under way. These  


electronic lodgement of claims;

the capacity to provide change of address or income details via electronic kiosk or telephone;

providing se rvices and concessions through the development of smart card technology;

the the provision of information on Social Security programs and services via the Internet or touch screen terminals. (Centrelink is examining opportunities for enabling access to the Internet for local people through Agents and the long term potential for interactive communications);

facilities to accept claims for benefits over the telephone to overcome difficulties in physically accessing Centrelink offices and to avert delays with mail services;

the use of video-conferencing facilities to provide a direct video link to Centrelink for customers; and

setting up information booths directly connected to Centrelink's call centres.

Information technology based initiatives are particul arly important to the Territory where the tyranny of distance is a basic service delivery issue to most communities.

Northern Territory

If I can now put on my "Senator for the Northern Territory" hat and talk about some issues that are Territory specific and more parochial.

In the Northern Territory social security payments represent 11.2% of net personal income. This increases to 16.2% when income support payments made by DEETYA, the Department of Veterans' Affairs and CDEP funding through ATSIC are included. In terms of coverage, 22.3% of the population of the Northern Territory receive some support from social security.

It is interesting to compare the Territory's rate of 22.3% with that of Queensland where 32.2% of the population receives support from social security and similar benefits. It is not difficult to begin drawing parallels between the incidence of relatively low income communities and the recent electoral success and political popularity of single issue and complaint based groups like Pauline Hanson's One Nation - which frankly I believe has no relevance or place in the Territory.

It has to be said that the Northern Territory is not as dependent on the government's social safety net as other jurisdictions. We enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes and have a strong economic growth rate. We are a vibrant multicultural community that certainly does not welcome the ugly race based divisions and problems experienced elsewhere. The Territory is geographically well placed to lead Australia's trade push into Asia and has prospered as a result. We do, however, have our own unique social challenges and problems to address and overcome.

For the past 3 years my office has written to every Commonwealth Department and Agency in the Territory asking for information on their operations. The information requested includes: the number of employees based in the NT, salaries expenditure, administration expenditure, program expenditure and capital expenditure.

From this information a total approximate expenditure figure for each Commonwealth Agency in the Territory is calculated (I say approximate for expenditure and employee numbers because we write to the Departments requesting projected expenditure for the fo rthcoming financial year based on budget estimates).

This exercise has proven to be fascinating and has given me a profile of the Territory that I find very useful and quite surprising in many ways. In a social policy context I think it is important to know where the money is coming from and where it is flowing.

As you can see from the distributed spreadsheet the Commonwealth expenditure for 1997/98 was about $1.5 billion. This includes the $1.387 billion shown as total estimated expenditure and an additional $200 million from the Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility in Alice Springs and Telstra (who for security and commercial reasons don't supply me with full details but I am aware their contribution is about $100 million each per annum). In each of the past 3 years it is a fact that this expenditure has increased by about 10% per annum at a time of reduced national budgeting.

In addition to this enormous amount of Commonwealth money the Northern Territory  

Government received, coincidentally, $1,387 billion in General Purpose and other Commonwealth Grants.

The NT Government receives a significant proportion of their revenue in the form of Commonwealth Grants. The Federal Government's forthcoming tax reform package and Federal/State financial relationships will be important impacting considerations.

When we add the Commonwealth departmental appropriation with the NT Government grants a figure of almost $3 billion in total Commonwealth expenditure in the Northern Territory for 1997/98 is realised.

This is an approximate figure per capita of $15,000. This may seem an extraordinarily large sum of money for each and every Territorian in terms of Commonwealth expenditure but I can assure you that there are many other electorates where the figure may be higher.

In some other electorates unemployment is higher, or there are far greater number of aged pensioners, and in some electorates the number of people receiving various other government allowances is significantly higher than in the Territory. It is probable, however, that only the electorates of Grey (SA) and Kalgoorlie (WA) would have similar financial contributions necessary for Aboriginal communities and support programs.

If we move on to examine the "main players on the block" in the Territory it is obvious Defence is the largest spending department, both in number of employees on the payroll and total expenditure.

Defence personnel numbers in the Territory are already high with the ongoing Army Presence in the North (APIN) project. At the end of this year and into early 1999 it is expected that 500 more defence personnel will arrive along with about 1,200 dependants (bringing total numbers of service related Territorians to approximately 14,000 including dependants). The APIN project as a whole has had a huge impact on the Northern Territory, demographically, socially and economically.

Whilst Defence and the various levels of Government have done a superb job of integrating Defence personnel into the community and ensuring that the project flows as smoothly as possible it would be interesting to see some statistical analysis on the demographic impact of Defence in the Territory.

There is also the large Defence capital works component, which has injected significant funds into the construction industry and the NT economy over several years. In 97/98 Defence capital works expenditure was (projected to be) $143 million and this financial year it is anticipated to be $133 million, without capital expenditure by Pine Cap taken into account.

This capital expenditure (which is steadily tailing off) along with the recurrent and significant salary component of $160 million, excluding Pine Gap, must have a great impact on the labour market in the Territory.

We will also see in the future, as defence personnel stay in the NT for longer tenures and choose to live here after leaving the services, a permanent movement from southern states to the Territory of older Australians wanting to be with their sons, daughters and grandchildren. We need to make allowances for these population demographic changes in the near future.

Whilst Defence is the biggest spending Commonwealth department in the Territory  

DSS, ATSIC, DEETYA and the Department of Health and Family Services (plus the  

Health Insurance Commission), are also major contributors to the economy.

The projected annual expenditures for 1997/98 for each of these departments was $350 million for DSS/Centrelink, $185 million for ATSIC, $140 million for DEETYA and $102 million for Health and Family Services when combined with the Health Insurance Commission.

I sincerely ask does this large amount of Commonwealth expenditure insulate us somewhat from any negative effects of globalisation and the impact of the Asian financial crisis or is this a false hope?

From a social priority perspective each of the departments with income support and community service bases have very significant consequences for human relationships and the underpinning of voluntary sector activity. Whilst economically the dollars are important we must not walk away from guaranteeing that decision making has a fundamental human face and responsibility.

The unique characteristics of the NT - with high Aboriginal and ethnic population components - demand constant testing of needs and equity matters. There is also great variation within the Territory on a regional basis with some areas having an abundance of natural resources or tourist attractions that aid employment and growth or provide advantages from sheer weight of numbers.

This is a point that we must bear in mind when discussing social policy in relation to the Northern Territory. There are many factors including the regional variations, transport and distances, and the culture and population mixes that can exacerbate and complicate issues. There is no magic bullet or solution that will resolve any one particular social problem for the whole of the Territory.

In preparing for this seminar I sought a list of priority issues from each of the main social policy departments. If I can now move onto some of these issues as I interpret them and raise some 'pet' issues of my own, throwing some ideas into the arena for research.



I am proudly a member of a Federal Government that believes that it is business success that will create permanent prosperity and jobs. I welcomed the recent report of the Spicer Review into CDEP that recommended an increased emphasis on joint venturing between CDEP schemes and private enterprise. Aboriginal people have experienced high unemployment for too long and an unacceptable number of these are long-term unemployed. It is still a sad fact that up to 70% of Aboriginal people in employment are in publicly funded positions such as CDEP schemes.  


There are 53 CDEP projects in the Territory with 7534 participants (with an annual budget exceeding $87 million in 97/98). If we could get even half of those schemes involved in joint ventures with private enterprise the changes in the Territory's labour market would be enormous with Aboriginal people gaining new skills, opportunities and dignity that the public sector is unable to offer.  


We need research to identify regions where private sector involvement in Aboriginal communities would be feasible and beneficial to the communities involved or the reasons why opportunities have been over-looked in the past.  


If there are no employment prospects in a region and no prospects for industry or private enterprise then we may have to look at giving CDEP schemes and participants the freedom to tender for work in areas where it is available. (Is it feasible to have 'mobile' CDEP schemes moving around the Territory building roads for example?)  




I made reference earlier to the trend I expect to see of older Australians moving to Darwin to be near their extended families who are here for Defence reasons. This trend will obviously put pressure on our aged care services as will another trend that suggests Territorians are now choosing to retire in the Territory rather than move interstate. An accurate evidence-based project is needed to identify if this is the case and the likely future needs of this group.  


Aged Territorians will generally be urban based but the needs of those in rural and remote areas should also be identified and prioritised. There is also scope for further work in the areas of disability and child care services.  


In preparing this paper the provision of important health delivery services has not been comprehensively addressed. The Menzies School of Health Research is actively engaged in this task, however the interrelationships with social policy should always be acknowledged. (perhaps a further NARU/Menzies workshop in this area would be helpful).  


Employment, Education and Training


In the area of education and training there are many interesting and innovative programs under way. Two of particular interest to me are the Regional Assistance Program (PAP) and the work of the Northern Territory Area Consultative Committee. (ACC)  


focus on strategies to increase employment and apprenticeship opportunities in remote and rural regions where there are additional disadvantages due to location. RAP focuses on the development of small business opportunities to improve the skills in the local workforce and develop infrastructure. Innovative examples in train are a "Small Business Incubator without walls" concept in the Barkly region and an Arts related project in Winnellie and Palmerston.  


The Area Consultative Committee is developing a strategic regional plan and employment strategy to provide direction and regional initiatives for employment, skills growth and economic development.  


Whilst there are many excellent initiatives in this area it saddens me greatly to see that the retention rate for Aboriginal year 12 students in the Northern Territory was only 8.5% compared with 59% for non-indigenous students in 1996.  


We know there exists a direct link between education and youth unemployment. Put simply, young people who are educated or in the education system are much better placed to seek gainful, rewarding employment. This is a fact and education is the key to our youth unemployment problems.  


The rate of Aboriginal youth unemployment is simply not acceptable and is a cause for great concern because of the long term social consequences for large numbers of Aboriginal Territorians in the future. Luckily the curriculums of Batchelor College, the Northern Territory University, Kormilda, Yirara and Saint John's Colleges are addressing these educational challenges. It will be important to constantly measure the effectiveness and results of new educational and trade training initiatives.  




We are in a time of rapid and global change that affects us all in many ways.

Territorians and Australians are changing at a pace that was not envisaged even twenty years ago at self-government. We are opening our economy and experiencing the impact of international competition and globalisation.  


We are not alone in this (frightening as it may be to some members of the community), as it is obviously a world-wide phenomenon that cannot be ignored or entered into in a half-hearted manner.  


To maintain the high standards of living and the prosperity that we, as a nation enjoy, we must at the very least keep pace with this change and hopefully, maintain a competitive edge. It is vital to our economic and social well being.  


Whilst embracing these necessary adjustments in our economy and business world we must also ensure that they are supported by social policies which offer people a choice and promote self-reliance.  


We know that one of the most fundamental requirements of a health economy is a good social safety net to underwrite the growth potential of economies and help facilitate economic adjustment.  


The disadvantaged in our society must always have the security of an efficient and  

effective social security, system to fall back on in times of hardship.

Good social policy is predicated on well-targeted, rigorous social policy research.

It is our role as politicians, academics, policy advisers, bureaucrats and leaders to ensure that we develop social policy that is adaptable and flexible enough to meet the demands of our changing world and region. We must address the needs of all in our policies and in doing so ensure effective and efficient service delivery.  


My responsibility as a Federal Senator I do not take lightly. It saddens me to see the politics of division that is being practised by the One Nation Party. Pauline Hanson and her advisers are showing a total lack of social responsibility by promoting a return to economic and social policies which would see Australia quickly attain the status of a world pariah and make the prospect of Paul Keating's banana republic look positively cheery.  


Let me close with one of the more inspirational pieces of advice from the 1937 Payne  

and Fletcher Report:

"...strive to do your official work in such a manner that Australia will be the better for your service."