Labor's Intervention on steroids


Last week, Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs in a 21st century Labor Government led by a prime minister from the left of the party, announced a new raft of welfare measures for Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

To her credit, Macklin has long conceded that the Howard Government Intervention was implemented in a ham-fisted, culturally insensitive and racially discriminatory manner.

But last Monday she said: 'School attendance in these new sites is particularly poor, and it is clear that our efforts in these townships must be strengthened to ensure children are getting a decent education and go to school every day.'

She was joined by Education Minister Peter Garrett who said parents must 'understand that their income support entitlements may be affected if their children are not going to school'.

When interviewed by Fran Kelly on ABC Breakfast, Macklin said: 'It may be that we have to address bullying at school, it may be making sure that a child is helped to get up in the morning and walk to school. What we want to do is work closely with parents, work closely with the Northern Territory Government, to make sure that children do get to school every day.'

Special measures for Indigenous Australians should be imposed only on those individuals or communities which seek them, and with provision for individuals to opt out if they do not wish to avail themselves the special community measures being imposed.

There is no substitute for relationships and respect for human dignity when designing welfare measures for the assistance of the poor and the excluded of our society, especially Indigenous Australians in remote communities.

The historic Apology by our national parliament provided the basis for the ongoing building of that  relationship. But it ended last Monday with ministerial calls for the racially targeted docking of welfare payments for parents whose children are not regularly attending school on remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

Legislation is to be introduced to the House of Representatives this week. Presumably this will require the placement of truancy officers, rather than additional teachers, in remote Aboriginal communities.

Where is the evidence based approach which shows that this could possibly work? There have been no trials with demonstrable results. This approach would not be attempted by the Commonwealth government for any other group in society.

In Cape York, Noel Pearson and the Cape York Institute convinced the Queensland Government to set up a Family Responsibilities Commission three years ago covering four Aboriginal communities. In its 2009–10 annual report, the Family Responsibilities Commissioner noted: 'The Local Commissioners have been pivotal in gaining the trust and understanding of community members in regard to school attendance obligations and the rights of families to live peacefully and in safety.'

As yet there are no flash results to report from the Queensland project. But at least it is based on the right principles. Instead of appointing local commissioners, the Commonwealth is more interested in the cost efficient and more controlled use of government officials to impose outcomes by means of the 'stick approach', reducing welfare payments of non-compliant parents.

If the Queensland model is judged by the Commonwealth to be too expensive, giving insufficient return by way of measurable outcomes for the investment in the local community, there will be no reason to expect better outcomes from an approach which gives less emphasis to trust, understanding and involvement of the local community.

There is no evidence that the truancy officers who will have to visit remote communities regularly will be able to achieve anything more than the dedicated teachers living permanently in these communities. We will have Commonwealth public servants entering houses to help children get up in the morning. We will have public servants walking children to school in circumstances where parents are not motivated to assist.

This is the nanny state on steroids.

And who will be responsible for feeding the children whose parents have had their welfare payments suspended? Presumably the truancy officers will double up as providers for hungry children.

While applauding Macklin's commitment to improving school attendance and educational achievement in remote communities, I would urge her to leave the conditional welfare payment stick behind this time, and to take on the harder and more expensive challenges elucidated in the Stronger Futures Report on Consultations released last month.

Namely, the provision of mentors and parenting education, greater Indigenous involvement in school teaching and curriculum, greater involvement by parents and elders in school activities, the provision of more local or regional high schools, the need for 'vocational education, careers advice in schools, and education that was linked to jobs' and 'the need for school to be an interesting and positive experience for children living in remote communities'.

If these things are not provided, what purpose is served by docking the welfare payments of parents lacking the motivation to send their child to a school which seems irrelevant and useless, probably because it is?

The Commonwealth should embrace one of the benefits of a federal system and await clearer outcomes from the Queensland experiment with the Family Responsibilities Commission before making Aboriginal parental welfare payments conditional on child school attendance.

Let's not be treated to another Federal Labor charade, that the targeted docking of Aboriginal welfare payments is to be classed as a special measure under the Racial Discrimination Act for the benefit of those who will not receive full payment.

With trust and a commitment to relationships built on respect for inherent human dignity and cultural difference, we can strengthen the welfare safety net for the neediest First Australians without constructing a nanny state bound to fail with Commonwealth truancy officers wandering remote communities wondering about their purpose in being there at all.


Frank BrennanFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. This is an extract from the 4th Annual Gerald Ward Lecture on Social Justice delivered by Fr Brennan at the National Library of Australia on 18 November 2011 (full text).

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Jenny Macklin, Intervention, remote communities, Peter Garrett, education



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Existing comments

I find the whole business of taking away welfare payments from people who have no other means to live because of some so-called "offense" to be appalling and heartless.

Both Liberal and Labor are guilty of making people, who have no means of making a living for themselves, into second class citizens who are subject to financial penalties others don't suffer and have no money to sustain themselves.

Liberal and labor have much to answer for with their treatment of the poor and marginalised, and legalising the death penalty of babies in the womb.
Trent | 22 November 2011

I would have no problem with a sensitvely-implemented intervention IF it were non-discriminatory. What is appropriate for Indigenous Australians on welfare is equally appropriate for non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous communities do not have the monopoly on truency, neglect, money spent on booze, cigarettes, gambling etc.
Patricia | 22 November 2011

I concur with the piece but I need to know from someone where is there a model which makes things better for children who seem to lose out all the time.

Where is something working that gets some semblance of good outcomes for children
The story is so complex I wonder if it can be unravelled but I do know children are the unfortunate pawns.

Is there a curriculum which entices kids to participate.
GAJ | 22 November 2011

I'm puzzled why the 'stick' approach has been taken instead of the rather gentler 'carrot' deal. Instead of the possibility of truant officers why not start something like a combination of school buses plus breakfast and a sandwich for lunch. Its friendly, and acknowledges the difficulties that parents have in getting their children to front up for school. Also it's not patronising. Mary Maraz
Mary Maraz | 22 November 2011

In 1972 I encountered a positive discrimination which worked and about which nobody complained.At a remote school where I taught parents of Aboriginal children were paid a bonus if their children attended school regularly. Attendance reports were sent to authorities (monthly, I think), the children attended school and did well, and the parents were happy. Positivity beats negativity every time.
Adrian C. | 22 November 2011

I suggest employing mentors for teachers (as well as for parents themselves) as an addition to Frank Brennan's important recommendations. Mentors, could also assist in curriculum development and community relations because one of the major characteristics of intercultural relations in remote areas is the reinventing of the wheel. When people leave or retire, often a rich store of experience is lost thus including these people as mentors – from both cultures -- could offer what often have been very hard won skills.

Brennan's community focused recommendations have the immense disadvantage of lacking political expedience: it takes years, if not decades for real understanding and trust to develop and this process is not readily identified or measurable on a dollar for outcomes basis. Furthermore, discussions on Aboriginal education, health knowledge etc, take little account of the cultural translation in families where one or more members are part of the western thinking either through being European or other means (such as adoption). Aboriginal people who do not have these links are most often the people who have to cope with European people who are inexperienced in their own fields and their often short stay may be characterized by stress and cultural disorientation.

Jabiru Jane | 22 November 2011

Last weekend SBS TV presented a wonderful documentary on a football (soccer) carnival for indigenous schoolchildren from all States, many of the children from remote communities. It was stated that selection and participation in the carnival was dependent on school attendance. Many of the teams' officials were indigenous people. The children interviewed were articulate, happy and had a vision to play soccer for Australia one day. The story wss clearly not staged for TV. Noel Pearson has often spoken on the need for minimisation of uncontrolled welfare dependence in his people and the need for individual accountability. Clearly, despite much money and genuine effort from missionaries, governments and people like you Prof Brennan over many years our indigenous people are still a long way behind the eight ball, contributed to in no small measure by their own inability in some places to use the welfare available to advance themselves, their own chidren, their own spirituality, and rich culture.

Governments should do something, Frank, and perhaps there has to be an incentive as there appeared to be in the soccer carnival mentioned above. The time is long overdue to act in the interests of the Aboriginal people and that does mean that any incentive to advance and maintain the culture should be undertaken. The time for the bleeding heart has been shown to achieve nothing, Frank.

The government is to be applauded for the effort and should of course apply the same rules to all Australians, not just the indigenous people. There are plenty of drunken, drug-addicted, irresponsible, good old Aussie Anglo-Saxons out there who should also have their payments tied to parental performance and endeavour. In fact some of the white fellas are far more deserving of "government interference" than many of the indigenous people who through dependence have no opportunity knocking on the door.

I like your commentaries, Frank, and you are very influential. Great things could be achieved if you could find a way to remove persistent negativity towards any suggested solution from your efforts for the Aboriginal people.
john frawley | 22 November 2011

I dealt with this Minister on public health matters several years ago. She appears to have maintained the same levels of unsubtlety and limited social understanding now as she displayed then.
endee | 22 November 2011

Bravo Patricia! Your comment needs to be heard before finalisation of this welfare intervention implementation - with the added consideration of being incorporated Australia wide.

Perhaps then the focus can return to were it should be - the education system. Why would First Nations children want to attend a systematic process delivered by peoples (generally speaking) who do not understand their way of life, spirituality, thinking, deep pain, and mistrust of current governance.

Perhaps the government's constant looking at 'standardised' issues like bullying, which has not been addressed successfully in mainstream society, could be amended to looking at taking the teaching to the children, to incorporation and acknowledgement of traditional learnings (artistic, spiritual, life skills), to amendments on rigid punctuality, to incorporation of learnings in the language of country, to incoporation of elder lessons, to cooking classes which include locating native foods, to classes held outdoors, etc, etc, etc.

Non-indigenous children would also benefit greatly from lessons held this way within mainstream education subjects. Our education system has much to answer for on questionable content, exclusionary practices, and focus on conformity rather than individuality. There are enough children not coping within the system now to warrant variations. For all Australians.

Leanne Scott | 22 November 2011

Fair go Frank, they're attendance officers not "truancy officers". I suggest that we get Serco on the job. Serco might be low profile but that company is providing millions of dollars worth of services to govermnents around Australia. Foe example Serco has just signed a $1.3 billion contract with the WA government to build the Fiona Stanley Hospital, not to mention running the Acacia Prison and providing "excellent education" in the Borallon Correctional Centre in Queensland etc. etc. Health, education, rehabilitation, restorative justice etc, Serco is all over it.They're costing us billions, but hey, if we put them on to the indigenous case and pay them on results we'll get thos aboriginal kids rounded up and in school five days (or more) a week, in no time.

On second thoughts we could perhaps invoke the British PM David'Cameron's "Big Society", in which community activism and volunteering are the aims.
Claude Rigney | 22 November 2011

Maybe we need to consider whether the Sylabus is suitable or challenging enough for our indegenious brothers and sisters' kids to want to be at school. As a retired teacher, my memory of classrooms was apart from control, trying to instill in the the students a thirst and a love of learning as well a reason for doing so.These Indigenous children in many cases have no future to look forward to as there are no jobs at the end of it so why go to school anyway!

Sadly we still have the carrot and stick approach..Please, please can someone come up with a better solution...soon!!
Gavin O'Brien | 22 November 2011

Supporting prior comments, I would emphasise providing mentors for parents to enable them to be part of their children's education.

Recently on Radio National, I heard a report of a program conducted by the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, in which parents are mentored to enable them to help their children in school work. Well established,the program has already helped break the poverty / limited education cycle for 3,500 families.

The cost and effort of providing truancy officers in remote communities would be better invested in providing mentors, sourced as per Jabiru Jane's comment, to work with parents.

Similarly, I would suggest provision of mentors from a range of business models, particularly small to medium rural industries, to work with communities to develop local businesses.

More than anything else, remote communities need economic opportunity, not primarily for economic gain but for employment. Employment fills the day and occupies the mind, providing fulfilment as well as livelihood.

Alcohol and petrol sniffing, fighting and sexual abuse (the stated justification for the Intervention) are symptomatic of frustrated communities, with many adults facing the seemingly hopeless repetition, day after day wondering, What am I going to do today?

I know from growing up in a small country town, that limited experience produces limited vision. Mentors provide ideas, help connect communities to potential markets, assess start-up requirements and and facilitate training.
Ian Fraser | 23 November 2011

Perhaps the Jesuits, who were wonderful teachers, could go to the Aboriginal communities and resume doing what they were best at. Unfortunately most non-indigenous people don't want to live in remote communities to teach, nurse, mentor etc. It would be wonderful to see Father Brennan's vision come to fruition but without immense commitment from great numbers Aboriginals it's not going to happen. The mainly women and children who are reaping the benefits of the "Intervention", who have lived in hunger and fear of violence because the welfare cheque has been squandered on alcohol, they are not complaining about the niceties of this endeavour. After the $billions which have been poured into Aboriginal welfare over many years, this initiative is the closest thing to success I've seen. If there was a Noel Pearson in every community things may be different. Unlike Father Brennan I am a pragmatist. We agree on the goal not on the method of achieving it.
Lynn | 24 November 2011

It's just naked racism. Macklin used to campaign to get children out of refugee prisons, she now sits back happily and lets it happen and abuses them in the process. Even it seems agreed to flogging them off unattended to Malaysia. Why would she care about brown Australians? The racist paternalism drives me crazy and after 230 years of it we know it doesn't work.
Marilyn Shepherd | 24 November 2011

"If these things are not provided, what purpose is served by docking the welfare payments of parents lacking the motivation to send their child to a school which seems irrelevant and useless, probably because it is?" So why bother at all if the schooling process is totally irrelevant??? I think that you have pushed the argument a step too far in your despair at the policy vectors that are all stick and negative carrot.

I recommend that Australia should take a close look at the Brasilian approach embodied in the 'bolsa familia' (family purse) which provides for an incentive payment for each child being sent to school by the parents - monthly payments and relatively substantial. So, if a parent decides not to send a child to school, that parent is effectively reducing the potential monthly family income, or, to put it in positive terms, the parent makes a conscious decision to forego a benefit. This strategy has been in place in Brasil for 8 years now and school attendance has skyrocketed to nearly 98% in our State, which is traditionally a low school attendance area because kids have always been expected to contribute to familial income by helping on the farm, selling on the street, working in the oficinas (workshops)and begging. Now, the oficinas have to offer decent wages, rather than rely on child labour, the schools are multiplying (we call them Lula schools as they are all built to one design) and kids from very very poor families are now beginning to make their way through high school and on to University with the help of an 'adult' bolsa. The undoubted benefits of the incentive of the bolsa familia far outstrip any punitive approach. Why do we persist with the notion of punishing people who don't do what we all agree is a good thing, when they do not see the world our way??
Mike | 28 November 2011

Here's a thought amidst all this hand-wringing: why don't we scrap all subsidies to aboriginal remote communities? Those who want to authentically live the traditional indigenous lifestyle can do so - hunting and gathering and dependent on nature for all the needs of life, and not depending on a cheque in the mail - as was done successfully for thousands of years. Those who don't so wish can join the Australia that is western civilization - as many have, with equal great success. Sure, correlation is not causation, but I have my strong suspicion that the peculiar problems, educational and otherwise, of these manifestly artificial remote communities can be tracked back to starry-eyed, influential, well-meaning but - let's face it, patronising - lefties of the sixties like Nugget Coombs.
HH | 29 November 2011


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