Government’s Healthy Welfare Card no solution to alcohol abuse

MICK GOODA

THE AUSTRALIAN

JANUARY 25, 2016

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country, old wounds are being reopened. Many of our people are being forced to revisit the past trauma of income management and stolen wages.

The federal government’s Healthy Welfare Card has created great concern and contention, as the measure will disproport­ionately affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and claw back our hard-won rights and freedoms.

The government, with the support of the opposition, has passed legislation, without any amendments and with very little consultation, to control the finances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in three trial sites, beginning with the South Aust­ralian town of Ceduna next month. The third proposed site, of Halls Creek in the Kimberley, rejected the idea out of hand, with the shire president Malcolm Edwards saying it had adopted the position of its Aboriginal advisory committee to reject the plan.

“At the last meeting, they voted against having the card. They thought it was a bit unfair because it targeted everyone,” Mr Edwards said.

All welfare recipients in the trial areas will have 80 per cent of their welfare quarantined to a bank card. Only 20 per cent of their welfare payment would be available in cash, which the Assistant Minister for Social Services, Alan Tudge, has himself admitted could leave some welfare recipients with as little as $60 in their pocket each week.

It is deeply troubling that the government is “contemplating how to proceed should the trials prove successful” before any trials have even begun.

It begs the question — have the trials been structured in such a way the results have already been predetermined?

What is most perplexing is the government’s apparent fascination with controlling the finances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Our mob are once again the guinea pigs in a trial program lacking any evidence base.

As I outlined in my 2015 Social Justice and Native Title Report, where people have experienced benefits as a result of income management, the results have been modest when compared to their stated objectives. For many, income management results in few or no benefits, and a “sense of loss of control, shame and unfairness”.

Any possible benefit of the card must be weighed against the sense of disempowerment our people ­already face. It must be weighed against the stigma our people continue to face, and the restrictions placed on our basic rights and freedoms we fought so hard for.

We are told by the government that the measure will tackle the ­serious issue of alcohol and drug abuse within our communities.

There is no doubt that alcohol and drug abuse are contributing factors to creating dangerous and disruptive communities; and all children have the right to grow up in safe, nurturing environments — Aboriginal and Torres Strait ­Islander children are no exception.

We have no evidence to support the prediction that a restriction on cash payments will curb an individual’s addiction or their ability to provide a safe environment for their children.

According to Mr Tudge, restricting supply is an effective measure to address these problems. But in the same way that people with serious addiction can circumvent restrictions on supply, they will undoubtedly find innovative ways to circumvent limits on their capacity to purchase.

The role of government is to provide effective policy, based on the best available evidence. In the case of the Healthy Welfare Card, there is no conclusive evidence that it will effectively address issues of alcohol and drug abuse, and encourage good parenting.

Our people do not need a compulsory blanket approach to tackling these issues. We want to work with government to develop long-term, effective solutions to the challenges we face.

I agree with Mr Tudge when he says, “collectively we have to get control of the alcohol abuse that destroys communities and threatens the next generation”, but I disagree that the card is “the solution”. Serious addiction requires thoughtful treatment options rather than punitive measures and silver bullets.

The hardest part of this proposal to accept is that yet again the treatment of our people will be ­different to mainstream Australia, and it is this differentiation of treatment that we have fought so hard to bring into the open.

Mick Gooda is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

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