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Government ignores evidence of policy failure on Aboriginal issues

The government is ignoring protests against income management, and evidence it doesn’t work. AAP/Larine Statham

The government is ignoring evidence that income management in Aboriginal communities isn’t working. Despite a raft of studies showing it isn’t changing behaviour or significantly improving people’s life chances, the Commonwealth is determined to press on with expanding the policy.

Another disappointing Productivity Commission biennial report on Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage shows limited improvement and, like the recent Finance Department report, suggests much of the government’s Indigenous policy is neither effective nor appropriately assessed.

Working with the community

The OID report reiterates the Commission’s analysis that the things that work have “community involvement in program design and decision-making” — a “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” approach.

The Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) process and, unfortunately, the following changes and current proposals for further change show how government fails to follow that recommendation.

The dismal lack of progress of most indicators suggests this could be a reason why many programs fail.

Income management failings

In the same week, the Australian Law Reform Commission Discussion Paper on Family Violence was released with questions on the value of current income management policy direction.

It adds to the many reports and surveys that question whether there is any serious evidence base for the benefits of a compulsory income management program.

The many reports from the Yu review and the majority of submissions to the Senate review of the legislation failed the policy.

But the government ignored the critiques and recommendations, claiming the benefits are recognised, particularly by women in the Northern Territory.

What do participants think?

Women’s Experience of Income Management in the Northern Territory reported the views of those involved in the program.

A survey of more than 180 women raises serious questions about the benefits of a compulsory program under which the majority don’t feel safer. Nor has it changed what they buy, despite claims from the government minister Jenny Macklinto the contrary.

They also report feeling shame and being disrespected, and most see no merit in their involvement.

The report was produced by the Equality Rights Alliance, a Canberra-based funded alliance of women’s groups.

It was deliberately limited to giving the women in Alice Springs and Darwin a voice on how it felt to be part of a program that controlled half their income, but did not evaluate any other aspects of the effectiveness of the program.

Expanding on failure

This type of feedback is particularly valuable because of the continued debates about the limited and disputed “evidence” of the effectiveness of the program.

Its origins, as part of the Howard government’s NT Emergency Response, is no longer limited to residents of 73 communities.

It initially covered all income recipients, including age, veteran, disability support pensioners and carers without no capacity for exemptions but the New Income Management legislation, passed last year, is achieves the feat of being both wider and more limited.

It is operating only in the Northern Territory but potentially covers any benefit recipients who qualify on type and time on the payment on a non-racial basis, anywhere in Australia.

The new version exempts the more socially acceptable pension and carer recipients, who can stay on voluntarily. A version of Income Management will be extended to five new sites including Bankstown, Logan and Shepparton in July 2012, presumably as pilots for further expansion.

These changes mean a major shift is occurring in our welfare payment system almost by stealth, so quarantining half the welfare payment may become the norm for all beneficiaries.

Where’s the evidence?

The changes occurred despite there being no serious evidence that it has so far demonstrated any measurable benefits for its recipients and their communities.

The often quoted studies done by the government were very limited and criticised by many including the AIHW as indicative at best.

Only one NT group has fully supported the government position on the retention of compulsory income management, the NPY women’s group.

The views of these women and some others have often been quoted by Minister Macklin and others. It is their reliance this group and others from personal communications that highlight the importance of the ERA’s project of voicing the views of a reasonable sample of women in the NT.

The expansion of the program already under way required some wider evidence of how people felt. The ERA chose to ask women as the program would affect many, particularly low income sole and partnered parents.

Negative views

The study reports widespread negative feelings about income management from many of its recipients, suggests the possibility that the program cold be at risk of damaging some of the more vulnerable recipients.

This anxiety also emerges in the ALRC’s work. The mix of qualitative and quantitative responses to focus groups, open interviews and questionnaires indicated that many women found the processes of using a Basics Card very distressing, and damaging to their self-esteem. Most talked about wanting to go back to being paid in cash rather than the Basics Card.

They wanted flexibility in where and how they paid for goods and services, greater transparency of what they are paying for, and feeling that they are in control of their finances.

They also talked about the indignity of assumptions that they couldn’t manage their own money or look after their children.

Some women talked about feeling that they lose skills in managing their own money after being on income management, as they lose awareness of when payments are due and how to save up for regular bills.

Their answers to the multiple-choice survey show their level of concern. 77% chose “I feel people aren’t as nice to me when they see that I use Basics Card”. 72% said “I do not feel safer since I got Basics Card”. 85% chose “I do not feel respected when I talk to Centrelink”, 79% answered “I do not like using the Basics Card and want to stop using it now.”

The 20% who answered “I am happy with the Basics Card and want to keep using it as it is now” were mainly pensioners who are now exempt from compulsory inclusion.

Evidence before expansion

These participants are not statistically representative of the overall NT population, a point raised by the minister to devalue the study.

Yet the results are particularly useful because the numbers are much higher that any of the surveys quoted by the government, which also did not ask people how they felt using the card.

The results are useful indicators of the possible effects in Bankstown or Shepparton, the new areas chosen for the program. I also received some additional data from a small survey in Yuendumu, suggesting similar results would come from the more remote communities.

Why does Indigenous policy fail?

The broader question remains unanswered - why do Indigenous programs not achieve their goals? The limited statistics that are available, including the OID report, do not indicate any particular improvements in violence levels, health, school attendance and household budgeting and purchasing.

In fact some violence and child abuse figures are worse. The failures suggest that more attention should be paid to findings such those of the Productivity Commission and AIHW.

It is therefore concerning to note that the Commonwealth still is promoting policies and programs, designed in Canberra and often not evaluated for possible damage.

Political pressures means that “proof” on whether a policy or program works become highly contested.

The stated intentions of the income management program, both as part of the NT Emergency Response and the more recent revised version were clearly aimed at better family functioning but the data and responses above suggest that it is failing to achieve these ends and may even cause damage.

There is very limited evidence in any official survey of recipients’ views on program delivery.

This Productivity Commission report is an important contribution to the debate we should have on whether the program should be continued.

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