9. Income quarantining
When the then Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, spoke to the NT Emergency Response legislation in Federal Parliament last year, he stated Labor's preference for a targeted income quarantining regime. However, he conceded that Labor was supporting the blanket quarantining measure in the NT on an interim basis because it accepted there was not sufficient existing capacity in the NT to administer a targeted scheme and because of concerns related to overcrowding. Mr Rudd further invoked as a reason, advice that the legislation did not offend the Racial Discrimination Act.38 The recent Final Report of the NT Emergency Response Taskforce acknowledged that "at some point income management should become voluntary" and that
"The Taskforce strongly recommends that early consideration be given as to what happens with income management in different communities given that at 1 July, some communities will have had income management in place for many months and others will have only just had it implemented." 39
Since assuming office, the Rudd Government has continued to progressively roll out blanket income quarantining to prescribed Aboriginal communities in the NT. This is despite receiving official advice that the measure is racially discriminatory40, has no basis in evidence and has caused immense confusion, hardship and disruption to many of those placed on it. Considering these impacts and the huge cost of administering blanket compulsory income quarantining one might have assumed that a halt would have been placed on further roll-out until a selective scheme could be put in place. Why has there been no attempt to modify the scheme in the NT to conform with the Rudd Government's stated support for selective income management? This is particularly so when it is currently implementing two versions of selective income quarantining as trials in other parts of the country, one of which (Cape York) also provides for community participation in the application of income management.
The Rudd Government is in danger of continuing the previous Government's errors of experimenting with the lives of Indigenous people and imposing solutions without evidence.
AMSANT urges the Review Panel to recommend an immediate halt to the further rollout of compulsory blanket income quarantining and that its replacement with an alternative targeted scheme should only occur where there is community support for the measure or where the targeted scheme is applied to all welfare recipients on a nondiscriminatory basis. Compulsory blanket income quarantining should be removed from those communities already subject to it and substituted with the targeted scheme subject to the conditions outlined above. [See Recommendation 12]
Problems with compulsory income quarantining
AMSANT has had considerable feedback from our member services concerning issues associated with income quarantining. This feedback has been mixed, with some community residents reporting that income management has had positive benefits, including increased spending on food and clothing and less on alcohol and gambling. However, by far the majority of feedback has been about negative impacts associated with income management, indicating that concerns are widespread and the problems systemic.
The most frequent responses have been expressions of anger, resentment and humiliation felt by many who responsibly manage their income, at being treated like a child and being subject to a racially-discriminatory measure that is not applied to the rest of society.
Many residents have been experiencing problems with the administrative arrangements of quarantining, including the use of store cards. This includes problems accessing money and lack of understanding of the system. In remote areas where communications are poor and travel into regional centres is very expensive, the financial impacts on individuals and families of extra travel can be very high.
Examples of problems experienced include people travelling considerable distances into Centrelink offices only to find that their money was not available or that they couldn't obtain store cards. At one community where the local store had not been licensed, community members have to pay $40 each way for a taxi to obtain their quarantined money and to access stores. At other communities the taxi fares to the nearest Centrelink and store can range from $80 to $120 each way. Contrary to the intention of the policy, for many people such significant additional costs have reduced the amount of money available to purchase fresh foods.
Further problems were created by the introduction of strict proof of identity requirements to access quarantined funds, which left many people, particularly older residents, with no income for a considerable period of time until they could obtain the required documentation.
Many people have also been confused by the new arrangements and the use of store cards. Some have been unaware of their quarantined money accounts. Those using store cards were often unable to use the small amounts of money that often remained on the cards after using them at supermarkets and other stores because money couldn't be cashed out from the cards. Instead it was absorbed by the supermarkets and stores.
Another area of difficulty for those on income quarantining has been the lack of discretionary cash for larger purchases, such as repairing and registering cars, buying fridges and washing machines or for travel to other communities for funerals or for other family and cultural reasons.
Aboriginal people in the NT are highly mobile and often stay for periods of time when they do travel. In addition to travel for family and cultural reasons, people may have to travel to receive medical treatment in regional centres, to sort out issues with government agencies, attend meetings or to avoid being cut off in the wet season. The restrictive necessity to advise Centrelink in advance to organise for payments to be re-directed has created many difficulties for people.
A further concern with income quarantining is that it has reduced and made more difficult the ability of individuals to manage their income and financial affairs. While perhaps an unintended consequence, it is one that runs counter to the broader aims of the NTER.
It is AMSANT's view that in reviewing the income quarantining regime, the Review Panel will need to establish:
- Whether and to what degree income quarantining has resulted in the increased purchasing of healthy foods and reduced spending on alcohol and drugs;
- The full cost of implementing and maintaining the income quarantining regime and whether the high administrative costs of the blanket management of individual incomes by bureaucrats is justified in terms of the identified benefits and the negative impacts experienced by those subject to it; and,
- What alternative evidence-based measures are available that are based on voluntary participation or targeted strategies. For example, CentrePay is an existing successful, voluntary system that has been used widely in the NT to enable individuals and families to manage their welfare income. The system currently being trialed in Cape York also warrants further examination. [See Recommendation 13]
It is AMSANT's strong view that the fact that some individuals have expressed satisfaction with or support for income quarantining is not a valid reason for continuing it as a compulsory measure in prescribed communities. Introduction of measures that infringe on the rights of community members should only occur with the prior, informed consent of communities based on consideration of evidence-based alternatives for achieving agreed outcomes.
In this regard, AMSANT also expresses concern regarding the proposed trials linking income support payments with school attendance. There is no evidence that suspending a family's income support will increase school attendance and in fact the evaluation of the Halls Creek trial41 showed that factors affecting lack of school attendance included the inability of parents to change their children's behaviour (in not attending school), poor teacher quality and school culture, and housing overcrowding (and consequent lack of sleep, disruption etc). Suspending income support payments will not impact on any of these factors. A broader, evidence-based approach is needed (See also Section 12 - Education).
38. House of Representatives Official Hansard No. 11, 2007, Tuesday, 7 August 2007, p108.
39. NTER Taskforce Final Report to Government, p21 (their emphasis).
40. Social Justice Report 2007, Chapter 3. See also Section 3 above.
41. Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, Halls Creek Engaging Families Trial, February-July 2006: Evaluation Report, September 2006.