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What welfare policies?


Catholic Social ServicesIn June the Government passed a bill extending blanket welfare quarantining from a handful of trial sites to the entire Northern Territory and then across the country.

The Opposition Leader Tony Abbott supports the policy. In an address to the Sydney Institute this week, he asked, 'if the automatic quarantining is just and fair in the north, why not implement it elsewhere?'. 'An incoming Coalition government', he added, 'will carefully review the operation of this wider form of quarantining after July next year, when it has been in operation for 12 months, with a view to extending it more widely across Australia.'

The Coalition's approach seems very similar to the Government's. But welfare quarantining is bad policy, especially when applied to whole populations. Early indications from the Northern Territory suggest that the program has little, even negative, effect when applied to whole populations. It is a rhetorical response to a political problem, not an evidence based response to very real, urgent social problems.

According to the National Welfare Rights Network there were more than 341,000 people on Newstart Allowance for more than one year as of June 2010, an increase of 40,000 since December 2009. These people are living in chronic poverty. Yet the lack of substantial welfare policy in the election campaign so far suggests the social services sector will be expected to go to the polls without knowing what the major parties plan to do to address long term unemployment and poverty.

Susan Helyar, National Director of UnitingCare Australia, notes that income management consumes thousands of dollars per recipient — almost all of it spent on government administration and bureaucracy. And she rightly points out that this money 'could be much better spent on rolling out programs that work'.

To highlight just one example, there are huge unmet needs for mental health services among the unemployed. A 2003 study by the Australian National University's Peter Butterworth found that over 30 per cent of single women with children receiving income support were suffering from anxiety disorders and over 20 per cent from affective (depressive) disorders. It's hard to imagine that income quarantining is an effective treatment for anxiety and depression. The unemployed are already burdened by substantial 'participation' requirements.

Caring for children will often mean caring for their parents. Like all of us, income support recipients may need a push from time to time. But decisions about how obligations should apply ought to be made on a case by case basis by workers who know the person's circumstances and their local community. We don't need populist, one-size-fits all schemes that divert scarce funds away from services and into the Centrelink bureaucracy.

Rather than rhetoric about welfare quarantining, the sector needs long term commitment to programs and services that help parents keep their children safe from violence, support the work of schools and teachers, and help parents provide children with healthy diets. We need to provide high quality services for those parents with mental health problems and the minority with drug and alcohol addictions.

Social services agencies need firm, costed commitments from government that program funding will be secure and responsive to the needs of clients. Without such commitments agencies will have increasing trouble recruiting and training the staff needed to deliver programs and think strategically about how to provide better programs in future.

The current kind of content-free campaigning, appealing to popular biases and stereotypes but not delivering detailed commitments, has real consequences for the social services sector and the people it serves.

Following the furor over the mining super profits tax, the Government demonstrated that it can resolve uncertainty in an industry if it chooses to. Like the mining industry, whose planning for the future was hampered by uncertainty regarding future tax arrangements, the social services sector still doesn't know what concrete policies it will be dealing with after the election.

Unlike the mining industry, the social services sector doesn't have millions of dollars to spend to bring it to the attention of the public.

Populist responses such as welfare quarantining create the impression of action, without the substance of policy and planning, and are a distraction from the major issues.

Frank QuinlanFrank Quinlan is the executive director of Catholic Social Services Australia.


Topic tags: Frank Quinlan, Catholic Social Services, welfare quarantining, income management, intervenion



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Existing comments

It is good to keep these issues before the public, since most people know nothing about them. When income management comes to our own town, we will begin to understand what Indigenous people in the NT have been experiencing.

The United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is meeting early in August. Two eminent Indigenous elders, Rev. Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM from Elcho Island in East Arnhem Land and Rosalie Kunoth-Monks from Utopia in Central Australia, will present a report called, "Loss of Rights", expressing the voices of Aboriginal people about the effects of the Intervention, including income management.

Janet | 30 July 2010  

"depression and anxiety" ... is it any wonder the population is getting fatter .... it's comfort eating and no amount of bullshit about exercise and healthy lifestyles is going to change that ... It's Big Brother that's making people feel helpless .... and you lot are also either living in denial or are ignorant.

PS Good Story ... now do one on comfort eating and comforting the population instead of politicking our lives away ...

Greig Williams | 30 July 2010  

I agree that it's good to keep these issues before the public. Thank you Frank Quinlan and Eureka Street for this piece. I would also like to read a piece by the two eminent indigenous elders mentioned by Janet, perhaps a piece that summarises their "Loss of Rights" report and their response to the UN committee meeting. Let's hear a lot more on this, directly from our indigenous citizens.

Michelle Fahy | 30 July 2010  

A hard headed piece that deserves wide exposure. Keep it up Frank!

Joe Castley | 30 July 2010  

'Social services agencies need firm, costed commitments from government that program funding will be secure and responsive to the needs of client'

We are not clients, we are citizens. I am sick to death of this kind of terminology. Who ever invented such terms, should go back to school.

roger danilson | 30 July 2010  

In response to Michelle, the transcript of an 'Elders Conversation' featuring the two mentioned elders, that was held in May is available at:

www.socialpolicyconnections.com.au. It can be accessed by scrolling down the homepage to the section on 'The NT Intervention'. This covers in detail the thinking that these people will convey to th UNCERD meeting.

joe annetts | 30 July 2010  

What policies indeed! Thanks for raising this topic that is neglected by the major parties and most of the media. Frank Quinlan is one of only a few lonely voices speaking about the plight of the poor in this wealthy nation. While some issues - like mental health, disability - are receiving some overdue attention, the unemployed have no champion among our politicians. We must keep reminding those who would lead that there is much hidden suffering and that amelioration of that suffering is both worthy and urgent. Income quarantining is not the answer to inadequate income. If the goal of social inclusion is to be met, more than lip-service is required.

Myrna Tonkinson | 31 July 2010  

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