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Labor punishing the poor

By Jo Coghlan - posted Monday, 4 June 2012

The Gillard government had the opportunity to raise its profile on Indigenous issues recently had it selected former ALP National President Warren Mundine to the Senate. Instead, indigenous policy seems to remain on the fringes of Labor's national attention. Rather than developing more just policies than Intervention, the Gillard government has expanded Intervention to ten non-indigenous communities in regional and urban centres.

Bad policies, like income quarantining, remain bad policy regardless of how many people it effects. When the Howard government introduced income quarantining as part of Northern Territory (NT) Intervention in 2007 it was a bad policy. The Gillard government's extension of the policy in 2011-12 doesn't mean it is good social or public policy.

In June 2007 the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) was introduced as the federal government's response to the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children. One of the measures of the NTER was the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payments Reform) Act 2007.


The legislation mandated that 50 per cent of Centrelink provided payments to Indigenous people residing in remote NT communities be managed by the federal government. Under the Act, money was withheld for rent, food, energy bills, medical care, and household goods. In order to introduce this measure the Howard government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) because the legislation applied specifically and exclusively to Indigenous Australians.

The Howard government argued that in introducing income quarantining less money would be available for drug and alcohol consumption, money would be spent in "socially responsible" ways, and incidents of child abuse would decrease. Studies however found that there was no correlation between income quarantining and socially responsible spending. Hence there was little correlation between income quarantining and reductions in child abuse.

The 2007 measure was little more than a punitive policy that failed to demonstrate any positive reduction in child abuse, the original rationale for the policy and it remains so in 2012. As Paul Toohey argues, NT Intervention was necessary because child sex abuse among Aborigines was "en masse', parents were failing to provide their children with fundamental protections and human rights." Again, Toohey argues (p.2) that Australians were asked to accept that:

Aborigines, after 60,000 years of survival in some of the most hellishly harsh country known to humans, had, in the last forty years, forgotten how to raise children: that the part of the Aboriginal DNA allotted to parenthood had been cast adrift from the genome or, perhaps, was never really there.

NT income quarantining was initially implemented in 73 Indigenous communities. It affected over 45,000 Indigenous families, which represented 70 per cent of the territory's Aboriginal population. From indigenous banker, Glen Brennan, the message of NT income quarantining was:

Teetotalers and drunks, spenders and savers, good and bad parents - it makes no difference. If you're an Aboriginal person receiving welfare payments in the NT, you live under the Emergency Response and half your welfare must be spent on the priority goods like food, clothes, rent and health care. You can't use the money for alcohol, tobacco, pornography or gambling – well at least not the quarantined half anyway.


Rudd's economic equity model of income quarantining

With the election of the Rudd Labor government in November 2007 complete with the national apology to Indigenous Australians (delivered by Rudd in February 2008) some may have thought that Intervention measures such as income quarantining would be wound back. As Rudd told the national parliament:

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians. A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again. A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

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About the Author

Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.

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