Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Welfare reforms and the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act – Doorstop, Canberra

E & OE – proof only

JENNY MACKLIN: Last night a critical piece of legislation passed through the Australian Parliament. This legislation will do two things. One is to introduce very significant welfare reform and also see the reinstatement of the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act. The welfare reforms that are part of this legislation very much represent an ongoing effort by the Government to deliver welfare reform. All we want to see is an increase in parental responsibility, we are wanting to fight passive welfare, and wanting to make sure that we do everything we possibly can to protect vulnerable people, particularly children. We are of the view that income management has been a useful tool in the Northern Territory, but also in some parts of Western Australia where it’s in operation and in some communities on Cape York. We do think that income management is going to be a useful tool for Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people, so this legislation will enable us to roll out the benefits of income management across the Northern Territory. It will apply to a number of groups, for those under 25 it will apply to those who have been on Newstart or Parenting Payment for longer than three months. For those who are over the age of 25 it will apply to those similar payments where people have been on the payments for longer than twelve months. It will not apply in a mandatory sense to age pensioners or to disability support pensioners, and I want to say that very clearly.

We do recognise that there are important reasons to introduce income management in specific circumstances. Where we have child protection authorities recommending that income management would benefit a child where there’s evidence of neglect for example, the child protection authorities will be able to recommend that a person have their welfare payments income managed, and there will also be provision for Centrelink to introduce income management for an individual if that person is found to be vulnerable. For example, if there’s a concern about violence, a serious harassment for money, if there’s a problem with homelessness for example. We do recognise how significant this legislation is also for the reinstatement of the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act. We do understand that Aboriginal people in particular want the Racial Discrimination Act to operate again so we are very pleased that we have been able to deliver on the commitment we made to make sure that the Racial Discrimination Act again applies. These are very significant reforms, reforms that we have consulted widely on, particularly in the Northern Territory. They will now be operational from 1 July and we’ll gradually roll them out across the Northern Territory over the next six months.

JOURNALIST: Ms Macklin do you anticipate that next year there might be some communities in other States that might be subject to quarantining?

JENNY MACKLIN: The way it’s going to work is that in the first instance it will apply across the Northern Territory because it has the largest concentration of most disadvantaged places in Australia. After the end of calendar 2011 we’ll do an extensive evaluation of the impact of income management in the Territory and then we’ll seek to roll it out to other disadvantaged parts of Australia.

JOURNALIST: So by the start of 2012 …

JENNY MACKLIN: Well there’ll be an evaluation first and then after that.

JOURNALIST: So there’s a chance that you might see that’s been a total failure and that other communities won’t (inaudible)?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well I doubt that because of the experience already in the Northern Territory. We have some experience now in the Territory that is demonstrating that income management has been a valuable tool. We are seeing more food on the table, more money being spent on food and clothing, less money being spent on alcohol, so we certainly have some evidence that’s it’s helpful but there will be a proper evaluation.

JOURNALIST: But if you already have some evidence why not roll it out already, why do another evaluation at the end of next year if you’ve already had some evidence?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well we want to make sure that as we roll it out we do it on the basis of evidence so we will make sure there’s a proper evaluation. As you know we also have a different approach underway in Western Australia. So across the suburbs of Perth and in the Kimberley we already have in place the child protection measure and increasingly we are seeing the child protection authorities in Western Australia using this measure. More and more parents being referred by the child protection authorities to Centrelink and we have some evidence that this is helping those families. There’s also evidence on Cape York with families being referred by the Family Responsibilities Commission to Centrelink for income management. Once again we’ve certainly got good early evidence that parents are getting their finances in order as a result of income management, getting their kids to school as a result of the efforts of the Family Responsibilities Commission. So this is all about doing everything we possible can to make sure that we encourage parents to do the right thing, get their kids to school, make sure they’re properly fed and clothed.

JOURNALIST: If this measure’s so good why do the vast majority of welfare agencies criticise then?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well we have a mixture of views. I do accept that there are different views that have been held by different groups but I think it’s important to look at the evidence on the ground. We’ve done very extensive consultations in the Northern Territory where it’s now been in operation for a couple of years. The majority, not everybody, but the majority are certainly of the view that income management has been helpful to their family.

JOURNALIST: So on the question of evidence, the information released last night in say for example, in education, things seem to be going backwards. I mean so how can this be presented as reforms that are doing their job when in fact the evidence on the ground from Government Business Managers is saying this isn’t working. More people are missing school, parents aren’t engaged with their kids schooling?

JENNY MACKLIN: You’re dead right. We still do have a serious challenge ahead on education. But just so you know there is no link at the moment between income management and education. The way it was designed in the first instance had no link with education. That’s what this legislation introduces for the first time. If parents are not doing the right thing by their children and they’re on, they are long-term beneficiaries of parenting payment or Newstart, they will be income managed. If they do the right thing as every parent should, and the majority of parents do do the right thing. But if they do the right thing, they will be able to opt out of income management but that link with education has not existed up until now.

JOURNALIST: You say not many aged pensioners or disability pensioners will be affected by this course (inaudible) has the Government done any modelling on how many individuals (inaudible) would become subject?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well really the only evidence we have so far to base any estimates on is what’s happening in Western Australia where we have the child protection measure in place already and of course very, very few aged or disability pensioners are likely to be caught up in the child protection system, so we do expect the numbers to be very small from that measure. There may be some aged or disability support pensioners who decide to put their hand up and volunteer for income management and they and others will be able to volunteer if they think that income management is useful for them. And I do expect there will be a number of people in the Northern Territory who now find income management a useful tool who will continue with it on a voluntary basis.

JOURNALIST: Why not go the whole hog though and just say, if you take the welfare payment you’re going to have it managed irrespective of no (inaudible) circumstances, you don’t need to be referred by child protection authorities?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well we are doing that for some groups. We particularly recognise that we have an issue with disadvantaged youth, and so for those young people under the age of 25 who are on Newstart or Parenting Payment they will be income managed if they’ve been on the payment for longer than three months because we want to make sure that their money is not going on alcohol. We want to make sure that they’re paying their rent and we also want an incentive for them to get engaged with having a job or for further training. So we’re trying to use this as a way to really encourage people to behave responsibly. We know that the welfare system is a two-way street. We have responsibilities as a Government to make sure that welfare payments are there when people need them, when people fall on hard times, they lose their jobs, we know we need to look out for people. And I think the Australian people support that. But the Australian people will also recognise that people have to meet their obligations. They also have to behave responsibly, not spend their welfare money on alcohol and gambling, do the right thing by their kids, get their kids to school. So that’s what this is about.

JOURNALIST: But you’re targeting, you’re sort of, what I don’t understand though is you’re only (inaudible) some groups, you’re not everyone. Like if you, as soon as you go on the dole, you have it managed. Why not do it for everyone?

JENNY MACKLIN: Because for many people they’re only on unemployment benefits for a short period while they’re looking for a new job, people are in and out of the labour market. We recognise there are a lot of people who are very engaged with the labour market who are largely working but might have a few short periods of unemployment. They’re behaving responsibly, they’re out looking for a job. What we’re trying to do is support those people who are longer term unemployed or disengaged youth, to really help them get their affairs in order. That’s what this is about.

JOURNALIST: Ms Macklin, are you fully reinstating the Racial Discrimination Act? I mean, where is the evidence to show that these special measures are actually beneficial?

JENNY MACKLIN: I think the important thing for everyone to recognise about the Racial Discrimination Act is of course special measures are part of the Racial Discrimination Act, they are part of the convention on the elimination of racial discrimination. So special measures are used worldwide as a way of making sure that there can be measures put in place that are going to help Indigenous peoples and that’s exactly what we’re doing here. We certainly have a lot of evidence that the alcohol controls for example have been beneficial. If you think that rampant alcoholism is good for Aboriginal people, I challenge you to suggest anyone who agrees with that. So there’s a lot of evidence that Aboriginal people want these alcohol controls. We want to make sure that they’re put in place in consultation with Aboriginal people so we’ll be doing a lot of work with Aboriginal people, continuing the development of alcohol management plans. There is some very good examples in the Territory of very, very effective alcohol management plans. Probably the most effective I would say is that that exists on Groote Eylandt. People themselves have really taken this into their own hands and developed alcohol controls. We want to see that happen elsewhere, but of course that will take a little time. Alcohol abuse is no good for anybody. We know that alcohol induced violence in many, many Aboriginal communities is hurting a lot of people and it’s our responsibility to do everything we can to reduce it.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) I missed the start of the question on this. Has it been reinstated, when will it (inaudible) July 1?

JENNY MACKLIN: July 1 for the new measures, so the way the legislation is written the (inaudible) applies to the new measures from 1 July, so the non-discriminatory income management measure for example, and then it will take us some time to transition into the new measures, the new special measures, over the next six months. So it will apply totally across the board from the end of December this year.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) James Anaya was here last year who strongly critical of the Government had suspended it, can I ask are you as Indigenous Affairs Minister and also personally, comfortable for it being suspended for so long?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well we indicated in Opposition and then in Government that we wanted to reinstate the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act. This Act delivers on that commitment and we’re very pleased to be doing that.

JOURNALIST: Ms Macklin, do you expect any legal challenges now that the RDA has been reinstated?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, of course, that’s entirely a matter for other individuals but what we’ve done of course is get good legal advice about the measures that we’ve put before the Parliament. The Parliament has agreed to the legislation across the political divide and I think it’s understood by the Parliament that this is very important legislation on two fronts. One is, it introduces very important welfare reforms, and secondly, it reinstates the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act.