Making the welfare payments of Indigenous people conditional on measures such as their children’s school attendance is becoming an increasingly popular policy measure in Australia. The stated aims of such an approach include ensuring that money is spent on essentials such as food, clothing and housing, and increasing children’s participation in school. The former Coalition Federal Government supported the introduction of such schemes - most publicly, as part of its intervention in the Northern Territory. The Rudd Labor Government has continued this policy approach, with Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, confirming support for three ‘income management’ models in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. Though such schemes have been regularly characterised as trials, there has been little public information or discussion about their underpinning policy rationale.
This approach marks an unprecedented new phase in welfare policy in Australia. This Issues Paper will set out the increasing influence of the concept of mutual obligation in Australia and its particular application to Indigenous policy. It canvasses the current trials linking welfare payments to school attendance and outlines what evaluations have indicated about such schemes to date. It then provides an analysis of key concerns about the approach - namely its lack of basis in evidence, the fact that measures introduced under such schemes do not necessarily serve its overall aims, that there are particular human rights implications for such an approach. It also points to the reality that the resources and attention focused on such schemes combined with the ongoing issue of chronic under-resourcing in Indigenous policy generally is unlikely to ‘close the gap’ for Indigenous communities.