Marcia Langton talks about a promising welfare management trial and how constitutional recognition would complete the Commonwealth. By Karen Middleton.

Marcia Langton on Recognition and income management

Karen Middleton The federal government recently announced planned changes to welfare policy, moving to an actuarial style measuring welfare costs over a lifetime, identifying groups most at risk of lifetime dependency and intervening early to prevent it. What is your response?

Marcia Langton I agree with it in theory. The devil is in the detail. It really depends on how they implement it. The government lost an opportunity to sell the investment approach to reforming the welfare burden by allowing right-wing elements to start talking about lifters and leaners and bludgers. Instead of attending to the detail and actually making the reforms, they want to bellyache about bludgers. There’s some pretty straightforward things to do. It’s an intergovernmental issue, as well – state and federal.

KM A lack of co-ordination?

ML Well, there doesn’t seem to be any, as far as I know. The recommendation that has come out this week is that all youth going on to Newstart have to wait four weeks before they’re eligible. What we recommended in the Forrest review was that no youth can go on to Newstart without getting a letter from the principal of the school – that all youth have to be in school, in training or in a job. But all the incentives are for youth going straight onto Newstart and then ending up permanently social security-dependent.

KM Do you think we pussyfoot around that issue because we’re concerned about being paternalistic to Indigenous kids?

ML Yeah. With Indigenous kids, it’s crisis proportions. In remote areas 45 per cent of Indigenous youth are not in school, training or a job. So it’s nearly half our population, therefore, pretty much permanently social security-dependent because they’re not educated, they’re not trained and they’re not work-ready, and they never will be on present trends.

KM So at what point do you intervene to stop that cycle?

ML All these left-wing bleaters said, “Oh, you can’t have the principal signing a letter, that’s too paternalistic.” Nobody will settle on something sensible because they don’t want to be seen as cruel, without understanding that dooming somebody to a life on social security is the most cruel thing that you can do to a youngster.

KM What about welfare income management under the Northern Territory “Intervention”, involving the Basics Card, and now the slightly different Healthy Welfare Card, being trialled in Ceduna and Kununurra. You supported the concept of the Healthy Welfare Card. What’s your view now that you can see how it works?

ML They’re two entirely different systems. The NT emergency intervention is 500 pages of legislation introduced in 2007. That income management system is managed by the department of social security. Roughly one in three people in the Northern Territory is an Indigenous person. We’re not talking about your middle-class Kooris and Noongars; we’re talking about majority severely poor population, severely sick and mostly unemployed, mostly undereducated. That intervention is very costly, it has been poorly evaluated, and the people who have the most to say about how paternalistic it was don’t even live in the Northern Territory, [have] never been on welfare.

What I find disappointing about the evaluations is that there should have been a rigorous research system in order to interview women. The rates of homicide of Indigenous women in the Northern Territory – by Indigenous men – and the rates of violence where the Indigenous women are victims are through the roof. Homicide rates in the Pitjantjatjara lands are more than 80 times the rest of Australia.

KM So are you saying some form of intervention and income management was justified but you don’t support the way it was rolled out?

ML I did support the need for an intervention. I did not support the way it was rolled out. What’s the point of bringing in the army, for instance? They don’t have any powers to do things in communities.

KM I think the argument was muscle power for infrastructure building.

ML So various members of the Labor Party were able to say, “It’s a military invasion of Aboriginal communities.” Like the engineers’ corps are going to start shooting people. Yeah, sure. People were terrified. They went bush, they refused to co-operate. Poorly handled, no advisers.

KM What is the difference between that form of income management and what is being piloted in Ceduna and Kununurra?

ML The Basics Card in the Northern Territory is a white card issued by the social security department. So when you go into the supermarket you get into a different line. All the white people who’ve got jobs – and one or two blackfellas with a job – are over there in the line with the regular bank-issued cards, and all the blackfellas who have the Basics Card and are on social security and subject to income management are over in this line. It’s very embarrassing and creates a form of apartheid. Bad policy implementation.

The Healthy Welfare Card, or as it’s properly called in the legislative amendment, the restricted debit card, is an entirely different system. The two trial sites – Kununurra in Western Australia and Ceduna in South Australia – are not Aboriginal communities, they’re regular towns. In these two towns, the restricted debit card targets all social security income recipients, not just Aboriginal people. The aim is to provide a bank-issued card that looks like any other bank-issued card, so there’s no separate line. They have less access to cash and this card has got an inbuilt blocking system – you can’t buy alcohol with it.

KM And how is it working so far?

ML Well, unlike the Northern Territory where the figures go up and down, so far in these two towns there has been a big drop in the number of hospital admissions of women for assault. What’s the main health problem in Alice Springs? People will say, “Oh, it’s diabetes.” No, it’s not. The biggest health problem in Alice Springs is violence. Who’s the most common type of person to be admitted to a remote area hospital? An Indigenous woman. So the big drops in these hospital admissions is really encouraging. The restricted debit card in these two towns is being formally evaluated, but there’s no evaluation report out yet. So what I’m saying is anecdotal. Alcohol consumption is down and gambling is down. So these are really good outcomes.

KM What else do you think is required to address violence?

ML Basically you can’t let the police just keep getting away with not turning up to a reported incident and not charging perpetrators of violence on the grounds that the Aboriginal woman is not going to stick it out and give the evidence. You’ve got to have this situation you’re getting in some jurisdictions now where whether or not the victim is prepared to give evidence, the perpetrator is charged and the hospital report, or whatever, is the evidence. And we have the serious problem with police all over the country saying, “Oh, there’s no point in showing up to an incident of violence in an Aboriginal home because they’re all like that. They’re just Aboriginal, that’s just what they do.” That’s not police procedure. That’s some person making up their own mind about which laws of Australia they’re going to implement.

KM And other than policing?

ML The courts have to deal with it properly. None of the national Indigenous bodies, the national leadership – nobody will talk about it because everyone is embarrassed.

KM On the issue of constitutional recognition and the associated question about a treaty, what is your view on the value of pushing forward to a referendum on constitutional recognition?

ML During the course of the campaign for constitutional recognition, Premier Daniel Andrews in Victoria announced he was going to negotiate a treaty with Victoria’s Aborigines, which just threw the whole recognition campaign and debate off-track.

KM You feel like he’s derailed the process?

ML Yes. Probably naively and probably not deliberately, but this is the kind of advice that’s been given in government on Indigenous policy issues. It’s just random, ad hoc and nobody really understands the damage that they cause.

KM How would you articulate the value in constitutional recognition?

ML Basically it’s this: Indigenous people are not fully incorporated into the constitution because we exist only by default, as persons in the constitution. We were totally excluded until the ’67 referendum, and that referendum deleted two racially discriminatory references in clauses. So now we can be counted in the census and the Commonwealth can make laws for us, but we exist primarily as a racial category.

KM What do you say to people who say that it’s just a symbolic change?

ML It’s not just a symbolic change. Are laws symbolic? Is our constitution symbolic? No, they’re the rule books, right? And if we don’t fit into the rule books properly, then our full humanity doesn’t exist. I’ll leave it to constitutional lawyers to get the wording right, but the science is in: we were here first. Why shouldn’t we be recognised as such in the constitution? You complete the Commonwealth if you say, “Yes, our constitution is based on our British heritage; we’re also the most successful multicultural nation on earth; and there are the First Australians.” So there are three essential parts to our national make-up – let’s be honest about it in the constitution.

And I would personally like to see the concept of race removed, replaced with the idea of First Australians. People ask, “But how would you then have legislation that only applies to Indigenous people?” Well that’s called, in the UN system, “special measures”. Australian governments use special measures all the time to address a special kind of disadvantage and a special need. A special measure must be temporary. It has to end when the need is met or the disadvantage is overcome. Our disadvantage should be the subject of special measures legislation based on need, not on race. That is one of the fundamental reasons we have such appalling socioeconomic conditions – because we’re conceived of constitutionally and legally and in the national imagination as a race.

KM Is there value in a treaty after recognition, or should that be abandoned?

ML I don’t think it should be abandoned. It’s too bad that politicians don’t ask for some advice on this matter before they open their mouths.


This is an edited transcript from A Month of Saturdays, hosted by Karen Middleton at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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