Welfare quarantining: reversing the burden of truth

6 February 2010
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The federal government's new quarantining rules won't solve the problem they're designed to address, argues Kemran Mestan{C}

LIZ is twenty-two. The mother of a six-month old baby, she is neither studying nor working, and she receives the parenting payment (single) from Centrelink. Because Liz lives in a “declared income management area” and is under twenty-five, the federal government’s new welfare legislation means that she will be subject to income management because she has been in receipt of the parenting payment for more than thirteen weeks...

This case study comes from explanatory memorandum accompanying the federal government’s Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill, introduced into parliament in late 2009. With this bill the government has kept its promise to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act, but only at the cost of discriminating against poor people regardless of their indigeneity.

“Liz” has not necessarily done anything to suggest she is unable to spend her money prudently for herself or her child, except for living in an area that the minister has deemed to contain “serious disadvantage". Dr John Falzon from the St Vincent de Paul Society describes the policy as “discrimination by postcode", and there are good reasons for questioning its aims and impact.

From July 2010 the minister, Jenny Macklin, will be able to demarcate any area within the Northern Territory and quarantine half of an individual's income support payments and 100 per cent of any lump sum payments. The quarantined income can only be spent using a special card, the Basics Card, at designated stores. Tobacco, alcohol and pornography cannot be purchased using the card. The plan is to apply the same system across Australia by 2011–12, again in areas with concentrations of people of low socio-economic status.

The categories of people whose welfare can be quarantined (or, as the government prefers to characterise it, “managed”) are described as disengaged youth (which is the category Liz falls into), long-term welfare recipients (excluding pensioners and recipients of disability benefits) and people deemed to require welfare quarantining by a Centrelink social worker or child-protection authority. Although the Northern Territory intervention was initially justified as “saving the children”, many if not most of the people likely to be affected by the new policies do not have children.

The government says that a central principle of its welfare reform agenda, of which welfare quarantining is a “key tool”, is based on enhancing individual responsibility. This seems paradoxical: surely people who have less liberty to decide how to spend their money are being entrusted with less responsibility? Moreover, the government is offering incentives to people not included in the mandatory categories to voluntarily relinquish control over half of their income. These measures suggest that when the government speaks of responsibility, what it really means is obligation – that individuals will be required to behave in prescribed ways.

The policy doesn’t appear to be intended to demonise marginalised people. With the opposition in disarray, the government has no need to resort to such tactics to secure votes. In fact, releasing the legislation in November, while the media was distracted by an opposition leadership scuffle, suggests that the government does not want to highlight the issue.

Although Labor might never have initiated the policy, it has happily embraced the welfare quarantining introduced by the Coalition government. There are two distinct reasons why Labor has so enthusiastically embraced and extended welfare quarantining, one electoral, one ideological.

To understand the electoral explanation, we need to recall the context of the introduction of the Northern Territory intervention, when welfare quarantining was established: an election was imminent and John Howard was looking for an issue to “wedge” Labor. Kevin Rudd refused to take the bait, going along with whatever the Coaltion threw at him. Because Mr Rudd has sought to avoid abrupt policy changes – to stick to his promises and convictions – he has shown a reluctance to reverse endorsed policies such as his support for quarantining.

On the other hand, though, Mr Rudd and his government are keen to be respected players internationally. Hence, in April last year the government affirmed support for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (Australia was one of only four nations that initially failed to sign the agreement in 2007.) The problem, as the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur asserted in September 2009, was that the Northern Territory intervention, which suspended the Racial Discrimination Act, was incompatible with Australia’s obligations.

One obvious solution was to expand welfare quarantining to non-Indigenous people. This was an easier choice for the Rudd government because welfare quarantining is consistent with an increasingly prevalent ideological trend, implemented by both Labour and the Coalition. This trend has seen a shift from understanding poverty in terms of systemic failures, such as structural unemployment, to viewing it as a result of individual failures, such as incompetent, criminal or immoral behaviour. Hence, policy solutions are largely based on controlling the behaviour of disadvantaged people.

Welfare quarantining is not the first time that Aboriginal people have been used as guinea pigs for implementing policies that were later applied to broader disadvantaged populations. In 1977 the Fraser government introduced a work for the dole scheme for Indigenous people called Community Development Employment Projects. Programs resembling this scheme were then applied to non-indigenous populations by Labor, which mandated activity agreements and introduced a Job Compact scheme that drew on the idea of reciprocal obligation. These policies were then the foundation for the Coalition government’s Mutual Obligation strategy, which intensified the punitive elements attached to activity requirements.

Although the government would never describe its policies as paternalistic, its stated justifications for the policy are explicitly so. But paternalistic policies, like even some of the worst social policies, are based on a grain of truth. It would be naive to think that some people receiving income support do not spend their money in imprudent ways. Good social policy comes from considering all the relevant facts and giving them appropriate weight. It is a matter of what is emphasised and what is neglected. Welfare quarantining emphasises individual failures and neglects the causes of poverty, such as poor education resources and a lack of opportunities for fulfilling employment. Furthermore, welfare quarantining is by far the most significant change to welfare policy that the Rudd government has introduced. How is quarantining welfare payments meant to “tackle the destructive, intergenerational cycle of passive welfare”? This is not a rhetorical question, but a request to the policy-makers for further explanation.

Not only is welfare quarantining unlikely to achieve its stated goals, it will have adverse effects, making the lives of the worst off even worse. Welfare quarantining will stigmatise the targeted populations; it sends out the message that people who receive welfare are irresponsible. Imagine having to pay for your groceries with a quarantine card: it’s likely you would be anxious that the surrounding people are thinking “this is one of those people that can’t be trusted with money and she probably abuses her kids.” Thus a trip to the store could become an ordeal. Although people can gain exceptions from quarantining, the burden of proof lies on them, with the assumption of incompetence or untrustworthiness until demonstrated otherwise. Furthermore, gaining the proof could be a humiliating experience, such as requesting your child’s school provide evidence that your child has been attending regularly.

The burden of proof should surely be reversed. Only if there is a strong case that an individual could benefit from welfare quarantining should it be considered. For example, in the case of child wellbeing, case by case welfare quarantining could be combined with improved universal services. That is, improved maternal and child health services could involve nurses more regularly visiting homes to provide healthcare for children, and thereby they would be well placed to report risks to child well-being. This would avoid stigmatising whole populations merely based on where they live and if they require welfare support, thus preserving Australian egalitarianism.

Under the current arrangement though, to add to the injury of stigmatisation, the government will insultingly offer a one-off matched savings payment, but only on the condition that the person undertakes a money management course. Anyone capable of saving a single cent on an annual income as low as $11,856, in the case of New Start allowance, surely has no need for such courses. What’s worse, on completing the money management course, the additional payment is itself quarantined; the government obviously doesn’t have much faith in money management courses.

Welfare quarantining won’t increase personal responsibility, and it will certainly not break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, but on the other hand it will stigmatise whole populations. The government’s attention to addressing disadvantage is commendable, but policies that largely attribute the causes of disadvantage to individual failings, whilst ignoring the structural issues, are unlikely to have a significant positive effect. •

Kemran Mestan is a PhD student in the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology

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Kemran Mestan, 2010, Welfare quarantining: reversing the burden of truth , APO, viewed 27 March 2017, <http://apo.org.au/node/20320>.

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