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School attendance and welfare

By Ruth McCausland - posted Monday, 30 June 2008

On the first anniversary of the Northern Territory intervention, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin announced a $17.6 million trial aimed at improving school attendance by making parents’ welfare payments conditional on their children’s adequate school attendance. Starting next year, parents in Hermannsburg, Katherine, the Katherine town camps, Wallace Rockhole, Wadeye and the Tiwi Islands whose children are not enrolled in or do not regularly attend school may have their welfare payments suspended until they do so.

Measures such as making parents’ welfare payments conditional on their children’s school attendance have a seductive simplicity. People have become tired of being told that the causes of disadvantage and dysfunction in Indigenous communities are complex and long-standing and require responses in the same vein.

The coercion and paternalism of past policy eras appeals to some people who despair at the levels of violence and hopelessness in some Indigenous communities.


The Rudd Government seems to have embraced the significant “mutual obligation” policy legacy of its predecessor - a shift from the notion that welfare payments are an inalienable entitlement to minimal financial support from the government by those raising children or those unable (though not necessarily unwilling) to participate in the workforce, to a system where such payments are conditional on an individualised contractual arrangement where the recipient must fulfil certain behavioural or other obligations imposed by government.

It is appealingly labelled “mutual” despite the obvious disparity of power and choice between the parties.

That welfare payments should be conditional on certain behaviour has become a kind of received wisdom in Australia - the notion that certain people receiving government benefits should “give something back” to society. Starting with Work for the Dole for young, unemployed people, it was then extended to people on parenting and disability pensions and now to entire communities.

Supporters of mutual obligation underpinning welfare policy argue that those receiving income support are not simply entitled to government assistance and that there should be an obligation to make an “active” contribution to society. Such a policy approach is closely associated with American new paternalist Lawrence Mead, who stated that such measures “assume the people concerned need assistance but they also need direction if they are to live constructively”.

Noel Pearson has been Australia’s strongest proponent of conditional welfare, arguing that welfare payments without a requirement to give anything back in return has led to an undermining of Aboriginal notions of reciprocity and in turn, powerlessness and dysfunction.

Pearson’s view of welfare has had enormous influence on policy in Australia, embraced with gusto by the Howard government and now it seems by Rudd’s. Mirroring proposals by Pearson in his report From Hand Out to Hand Up, changes to the Social Security Act made to support the Northern Territory intervention have given governments unprecedented new control over individuals’ welfare payments.


It was not widely publicised that changes to social security and family assistance legislation now enable Centrelink to place any welfare recipient on “income management” based on certain triggers, where up to 100 per cent of a person’s welfare payments can be “set aside” and “directed to appropriate expenditure”. Those triggers can include unsatisfactory school attendance by a recipient’s child, or in the Northern Territory, just living in or visiting a particular area.

Referred to benignly as “income management regimes”, 50 per cent of the income support and family assistance payments of every Indigenous individual in those prescribed areas in the Northern Territory has been quarantined for an initial period of 12 months - irrespective of whether they have neglected or abused their children, or even if they have direct responsibility for children at all.

The Rudd Government has confirmed its support for the welfare-school attendance policy nexus, with Minister Macklin advocating trials in the Kimberleys, Cape York as well as the Northern Territory to reportedly give the Government the evidence it needs “to find out what works”.

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A version of this article was first published in the National Indigenous Times on May 29, 2008.

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About the Author

Ruth McCausland is a Senior Researcher at Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, University of Technology Sydney.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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