Income management a wrong turn on the road to reconciliation

Punitive policies do nothing to foster relationships between Indigenous communities and service providers, writes Lovelle D’Souza.

In addition to blanket grog bans, more Indigenous communities are falling under income management - or welfare quarantining - regulations. Photo Credit: Justin Cozart via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0
In addition to blanket grog bans, more Indigenous communities are falling under income management – or welfare quarantining – regulations. Photo Credit: Justin Cozart via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The patchwork quilt of welfare quarantining will expand to remote South Australia next month as the Gillard government targets the remote Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands for the scheme.

Voluntary and forced income management is already operating in the Northern Territory, Bankstown in Sydney, Logan and Rockhampton in Queensland, Greater Shepparton in Victoria, and some parts of metropolitan Perth and the Kimberley region in Western Australia. Its purpose is to partially restrict the spending of welfare payments to necessities such as food, clothing, and utilities.

I recently spent three weeks in the remote Indigenous community of Nganmurriyanga in the NT, running recreational programs for Indigenous kids as part of the Linkz Odyssey program.

My time at the coalface has convinced me that the ‘circuit breaker’ approach to Indigenous disadvantage – that punitive, reductive measures like income management are required to force change in behaviour – is entirely unhelpful.

Rather, it is the development of personal relationships and a commitment to the long view which are the key drivers of positive development.

While ongoing cyclical hardships were apparent in Nganmurriyanga, it was encouraging to see the fruits of sustained, cooperative efforts to change the situation, involving both Indigenous families and staff – both white and Indigenous. Local school principal Sue, who has lived in Nganmarriyanga for 5 years, has been waging very effective campaigns to increase the attendance rate and improve nutrition during school hours, with measures including training local men and women, to run the school cafeteria and serve three fresh, nutritious meals to the kids every day.

According to Sue, the Intervention didn’t have much of an impact on Nganmarriyanga, which was already voluntarily dry. But for communities where the police and army tanks did roll in, the hostility and swiftness of events did much to instill distrust in government, not to mention recall the deeply scarring events of the past.

Sue’s key piece of advice to those overwhelmed by the scale of the problem of entrenched Indigenous disadvantage was: “don’t expect things to happen over night”. This is certainly a lesson that government would do well to heed.

At the crux of the positive developments in the community, particularly in relation to the younger generation, were the relationships and programs nurtured over time, wherein the people delivering programs made an effort to get to know the participants and follow up on them, as Sue and the teachers in Nganmarriyanga did with the parents of truants, much to the improvement of school attendance records.

Given the isolation and significant pay cut that working in a remote community entails, it is a challenge to attract talented, caring people who are prepared to commit for longer than two years. But when such individuals do find their way there, the difference they make seems far more valuable than any platitudes, sweeping reforms or government handouts.

Case in point: an income management system had been requested by senior women in the APY lands to prevent the diversion of welfare and income into alcohol purchases or ‘humbugging’ (where people are forced to share earnings with family members). However the scheme actually being rolled out in SA communities only deals with those on welfare, giving them a “Basics” card which can only be spent on food, housing, and bills.

It ignores the situation of those people, often vulnerable women, who are either trying to get paid work and are discouraged because of humbugging that occurs when they obtain actual qualifications, or trying to hold down a job and manage their income wisely. Such individuals would benefit from voluntary income management accompanied by ongoing financial planning (for when they transition out of income management), delivered by people they know and trust.

But in a world of myopic and short-term policy-making, such nuance is lost, leaving people like Sue and the residents of Nganmarriyanga to devise their own solutions in spite of the work of the government, not because of it.