Welfare Reform – ABC RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly
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FRAN KELLY: Yesterday we spoke with the former Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alistair Nicholson. He was very critical of the Federal Government’s plans to extend income quarantining or income management across the Northern Territory and ultimately across the nation. He argued that the proposed legislation which will be debated in the Senate in May or June is a sham, and said that the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, is misrepresenting the results of consultations held with Indigenous communities.
ALISTAIR NICHOLSON: “She makes quite unspecified assertions about some 500 consultations. It turns out many of those are one to one. We don’t know who they were between. There is no record of them, or no record that’s produced. And the only real evidence suggests strong opposition.”
FRAN KELLY: Former Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alistair Nicholson, on Breakfast yesterday.
Well if the legislation is passed, income quarantining will extend to both black and white welfare recipients across the Northern Territory starting from July, July next year I think it is. Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin joins us now. Minister welcome.
JENNY MACKLIN: Thank you Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Can we just clear this up? If this Bill does pass, it means all welfare recipients in the Northern Territory will have their income managed or quarantined if they fall into certain categories?
JENNY MACKLIN: It will start from July this year…..
FRAN KELLY: July this year, sorry.
JENNY MACKLIN: If we get the legislation through the Senate as you’ve just described. And it will apply to certain groups on Parenting Payment and Newstart payments and people who are recommended by Child Protection Authorities and also people who want to volunteer for income management. We’ve certainly found in Western Australia that there are significant numbers of people putting their own hands up for income management because they can see how beneficial it is. I think that’s the important point to make Fran is we aren’t doing this because of any ideological view. It really is about improving the lives, particularly of women and children. And as you would know I’ve spoken with so many people, women and men, in many, many remote parts of the Northern Territory, Cape York, in Western Australia where we have a different form of income management underway. And what they tell me is that there are real benefits of income management to them and their families.
FRAN KELLY: Okay, let’s go to that because we heard from Alistair Nicholson there being very critical what he, of your consultation processes. He says a lot of those 500 were one on one. It is true that the 500 consultations that you did are not all with groups, isn’t it?
JENNY MACKLIN: I think that’s a really important point. The fact is we ran probably the biggest consultation that we’ve ever run on any issue on income management right throughout the Northern Territory. Some of the meetings were quite large. But unlike some people, I think it’s a good thing to have one on one meetings to enable an individual woman or an individual man to be able to come forward and put their point of view in a way that they can’t in a big meeting where they might feel too shy or too intimidated to do so. So what we’ve done is very, very wide ranging consultations, thousands of people were involved. We’ve published the results of those consultations, they’re on the website. But we also had an independent monitoring report of those consultations. That too is on the website.
FRAN KELLY: But Minister I’ve looked at those consultations and certainly a lot of them do say there have been some benefits. But when you ask, I looked at the ones from Alice Springs which was a consultation workshop, and the one in Katherine, clearly people say, asked do you want it to continue, we want it gone completely, we don’t want compulsory income management, we want it to stop. That’s what the one from Katherine I think it is says. If it’s going to continue we support a voluntary model which seemed to be from all five consultations I had a look at. All said they preferred a voluntary thing. Another comment says, it should only be compulsory for those who can’t manage their own money, it shouldn’t be compulsory for everyone. Doesn’t sound like they were in favour of it?
JENNY MACKLIN: That’s right, and not everybody is in favour of it. But of course what I have to do is look at what the majority say, and the majority view certainly is that we should continue income management. We can point to as many who have very different views who just say, this has been so important to me. It’s meant that more food is on the table, less money is being spent on alcohol and gambling, there’s less harassment for money, that there’s money available at the end of the week. So I think you have to balance both points of view, that’s certainly what I’ve had to do.
FRAN KELLY: In terms of balance then, why does it need to be mandatory? Why can’t it be, because under the new rules that will come in from July this year, it means that people who are on Newstart, people over twenty-five on Newstart for instance, and Parenting Payment for more than twelve months, will automatically have 50% of their benefits quarantined, that’s right isn’t it?
JENNY MACKLIN: And if they do one thing that’s so important for their children, get their children to school on a regular basis, they’ll be able to make the decision to opt out of income management. What we’re wanting to do is really put some obligation into our welfare payments to say to parents, you do the right by your kids, you get them to school, and this won’t apply to you.
FRAN KELLY: Why not turn it around the other way? Why not make it that people who prove they can’t manage their own money or aren’t looking after their kids get penalised, and if you don’t, you don’t get penalised. I mean, Alistair Nicholson said that what your changes do, what your new law does, is demonise and punish welfare recipients as a class.
JENNY MACKLIN: I know that’s the view of some people. But that’s why I go back to listening to what people have actually said both to me and to the very extensive consultations that we’ve had. And of course, the views we’re getting from people in other parts of Australia who see the benefits of compulsory income management, who say to me, please don’t get rid of compulsory income management. That’s what’s meant there’s more money available to us to spend on food. That the money is not going to be available for alcohol. We’ve seen from the surveys of community stores that we’ve done, that we’ve actually got more food, more fresh fruit and vegies being bought. I think it is very important to look at that evidence.
FRAN KELLY: Oh, no doubt that needs to be achieved, but groups like, let me list some of them, ACOSS, St Vincent’s de Paul, Uniting Care, the Salvation Army, Catholic Social Services. A long, long list of people who’ve made submissions to your inquiry that were not critical of the decision to try and achieve these outcomes, they just said this was the wrong way to do it. They all oppose mandatory income management. Doesn’t that trouble you or concern you?
JENNY MACKLIN: Well, obviously I want to listen to all of the different views that are put forward and I have certainly met with many of the groups that you’ve just talked about, but I’ve also listened to others. So if you look at the Brotherhood of St Laurence and their comments to the inquiry. Mission Australia, their public comments and their comments to the inquiry. If you listen to the NPY Women’s Council, a group of women who represent some of the most disadvantaged women in Central Australia who desperately want to see compulsory income management maintained so that there is less money spent on alcohol. These are the women who are subjected to violence created by alcohol abuse. I think it’s important that I listen to them and recognise that income management is a very, very helpful tool. To put food on the table and to have less money spent on alcohol. That’s really what it’s about, a useful tool.
FRAN KELLY: But is it using a sledge hammer to crack a nut? That seems to be what people are saying and others, including Justice Nicholson, have described it as a ruse simply to get around the Racial Discrimination Act. Because you’ve promised that you will make the intervention work within the Act and the only way to do that is to extend the income management to black and white Australians?
JENNY MACKLIN: Well I don’t accept that criticism at all. We did make a commitment to reinstate the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act and the legislation that we have in the Parliament right now will do that. To make sure the Racial Discrimination Act applies, we’ve had to redesign all of the measures under the Northern Territory Emergency Response, including income management. We’re proposing a non-discriminatory approach to income management because we said as a useful tool, a useful tool to really make sure we do another helpful thing to make sure that people use their welfare payments for the benefit of their children. And we actually put some pressure on families to do the right thing by their children. To get their children to school, to make sure that money’s available for food. These are positive things that will benefit children and we think that’s the way to go.
FRAN KELLY: And just very briefly, we have to go. But after it’s rolled out across the Northern Territory, the plan is that it will have a national roll out?
JENNY MACKLIN: Well, we’ll have a proper evaluation starting at the end of 2011. We’ll look at the evidence from the Northern Territory and our plan is then to extend it if it’s successful to other disadvantaged parts of the country.
FRAN KELLY: All right Jenny Macklin, thank you very much for joining us.
JENNY MACKLIN: Thank you.