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One year of the Rudd Government

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 25 Nov 2008

This government came into power with a promise of social inclusion. Many in the community took this to mean that the government would be acting on that basis and that part of that social inclusion reform and agenda would be welfare reform. Unfortunately, that is not what we have seen. In fact, we have seen the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Ms Macklin, and other ministers ‘out-Howard' Howard in the way they have approached welfare reform.

Instead of reforming the Northern Territory intervention, which we all know had no evidence base and was a knee-jerk, dog whistle approach to how we handle Indigenous disadvantage in the Northern Territory, we have seen the government continuing this discriminatory approach. This is despite the fact that the government, when in opposition, made very strong statements about the Racial Discrimination Act and how it was outrageous that the Northern Territory intervention was exempted from the provisions of the RDA legislation. Unfortunately, we have seen the government putting off introducing racial discrimination legislation to make sure that the Northern Territory intervention complies with the RDA. This has been put off until at least the latter half of next year, I would suggest.

Despite a Northern Territory review saying very strongly that the compulsory nature of income quarantining should be stopped and it all should be done on a voluntary basis, the government have announced they will continue compulsory income quarantining in the Northern Territory. Then, on top of that, we get the government rolling out income quarantining on a trial basis in my home state of Western Australia, in many towns in the Kimberley and in the Cannington district, which includes about 39 suburbs in the south-west of Perth. That is based on no evidence. There is no evidence base to support this approach. The government came into power saying they would base all of their policies on evidence. There is no evidence base; the government cannot point to any evidence base. In fact, the overwhelming evidence in the Northern Territory and overseas shows that the punitive approach of income quarantining does not work. It is a knee-jerk, simplistic reaction to what are very complex social problems.

The Australian Greens are certainly not saying that we should not be doing anything about child abuse and child neglect. The point is that cutting off people's income does not deal with these issues. In fact, it can exacerbate the issues, as it has done in the Northern Territory. There is little available funding to address the complex issues that we need to address if we are going to address the underlying causes, such as the still outrageous overcrowding of housing, poor education, poor access to education and poor health outcomes.

When the government made their Indigenous apology on 13 February, they said as part of that that the events would never be allowed to happen again. Unfortunately, it is all happening again. We have racist policies in place in this country that see the same discriminatory approach being taken to Aboriginal Australians. Where is the government's commitment to getting rid of the RDA exemption? Where is the government's promise of an evidence base? They are nowhere to be seen. In fact, as I said, the government have been so stridently ignoring the evidence that one might think they have blinkers on.

When I asked in estimates about the evidence base for the income quarantining and what requirements the government would be placing on the Western Australian government to make sure that the services that were required for those being income quarantined would be delivered, they said, ‘All we're doing is providing a tool. All we're doing is providing income quarantining as a tool for the Western Australian government to use and apply.' As I was listening to this, in my mind was being run a scene of Pontius Pilate washing his hands. ‘It's not our problem,' they said. ‘It's the state's problem. All we're doing is providing a tool.'

We see a similar sort of approach being taken to the schools requirement bill where the government is proposing that, if a child repeatedly plays truant from school, income support will be cut by up to 13 weeks or in some cases could actually be cut permanently. Again, there is no evidence base. Evidence overseas shows that this punitive approach does not work, that you need to be working with parents and that you need to be providing case support and addressing the underlying causes of nonattendance. These include a whole range of issues. They start with No. 1, the parents having had a bad time at school. No. 2 is about ensuring that the underlying causes, such as poor housing and poor health outcomes, are being addressed. Then it is about making sure that school is culturally appropriate. In the last few weeks the Northern Territory government have announced that they will be requiring English to be taught for the first four hours of school. I understand that the federal government are encouraging and in fact supporting that approach. That is despite the evidence that shows that bilingual education is having better outcomes. (Time expired)

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