In 2007 the former Howard Government announced a national emergency response to child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory (NT). The NT Intervention, as it became known, involved a range of different measures. For more information about the Intervention see the NT Intervention Fact Sheet and the June 2008 Update.
One of the most concerning, and expensive, aspects of the NT Intervention was the quarantining of welfare payments for Aboriginal people living in Northern Territory remote Aboriginal communities. The laws represent a major wind back of the rights of Aboriginal people and welfare recipients.
The welfare laws involve replacing 50% of welfare payments made to all residents living in one of the ‘prescribed’ Aboriginal community with cards that can only be spent on food and clothing, and only at major retailers such as Coles. The rules are also referred to as an Income Management Regime.
The laws did not target Aboriginal people who have been found to be negligent parents or have in some way misused their money – it applies to all the Aboriginal people living in particular Aboriginal communities, even while they are staying in another area. Centrelink, the government organisation which organises welfare payments, can also decide to put extra people under the same regime, who live in other areas, if there is evidence of child neglect or a child not attending school.
The laws are racially discriminatory because they only apply to Aboriginal people.
In order to pass the laws the Government had to amend the Racial Discrimination Act, which says that services cannot be withheld from one group of people, just because of their race. The Racial Discrimination Act is based on the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Australia has signed up to.
In fact, the only three times the Racial Discrimination Act has been amended since it was introduced in Australia 1975 has been to erode the rights of Aboriginal people - to change the Native Title Act, the Hindmarsh Island Bridge legislation and for the NT Intervention.
In Australia there a few examples of Aboriginal communities which have chosen to take part in programs where they hand over control of some of their welfare money under income management regimes. Aboriginal people in these communities who have failed to spend the money needed on their children or have failed to avoid their child skipping school had their payments suspended.
A scheme such as this exists in Cape York, Queensland. Unlike the NT Intervention scheme, the Cape York scheme was developed with the Aboriginal community, and is generally supported by the community. Under the Cape York scheme Aboriginal people’s welfare money is controlled only after a decision by a legally trained Commissioner and local Aboriginal elders.
The NT Intervention scheme, on the other hand, does not involve any Aboriginal decision makers and was imposed despite strong opposition from the community. One year into the scheme, there is significant evidence of the hardship and injustice imposed by the NT Intervention’s welfare program.
Examples include Aboriginal people being forced to travel long distances to access the shops at which they are permitted to use the cards, the inability to pool resources within the community to make essential major purchases such as furniture, and the humiliation associated with the cards, which shop owners often assume are the result of negligent parenting or alcohol abuse.
Many Aboriginal groups continue to call for the scheme to be ended, calling it paternalistic and claiming that it harks back to the days when Aboriginal people were given rations instead of the pay.
Although the newly elected Rudd Government has undertaken a review of the NT Intervention, to decide whether it will continue with it, the Government has expressed its support for extended welfare quarantining. The Government is looking to extend welfare quarantining to all communities – not just Aboriginal people.
In February 2008 the Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin announced that income management trials would be introduced in WA communities in the second part of 2008, targeting families where child abuse is an issue. Under the WA scheme child protection officers will be given power to recommend how much of both Indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) and non-Indigenous people’s welfare payments should be deducted as punishment for neglecting or abusing their children.
Speaking at an Aboriginal community in La Perouse, Sydney, in May 2008 the Environment Minister Peter Garrett flagged the possibility of extending welfare quarantining into urban Aboriginal communities.
Evidence in Australia and internationally to date has yet to prove that controlling welfare payments has a positive effect on child abuse rates or on increasing child attendance in school, in the long term.
The United Nations recently expressed concern with the NT Intervention policy and the winding back of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act.