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Issue #1444      24 February 2010

Mounting criticism over welfare plans

Criticism is mounting over federal government plans to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act in Aboriginal communities under the Northern Territory intervention, by extending compulsory income quarantining to all Australian welfare recipients.

The government introduced its Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009 and Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (2009 Measures) Bill 2009 in late November.

The Bills were referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, which is due to report on March 9 on their likely impact and effectiveness.

The government says the proposed changes make income quarantining non-discriminatory, and reform the NT Emergency Response (NTER) around community input into alcohol management and policing, limiting the circumstances for five-year compulsory leases over townships, and strengthening community store licensing.

Because the government does not have the numbers in the Senate, it needs the federal Opposition or, alternatively, the Australian Greens and Independents to support the changes.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said she was concerned the Greens would try to delay the changes and appealed to the Opposition to support them, enabling their implementation from 1 July.

The Opposition introduced compulsory income management under the NTER in 2007, with Labor backing.

A spokesperson for Opposition human services spokesman Kevin Andrews declined to say which way Mr Andrews was leaning, but said he believed that income management had delivered substantial benefits for Indigenous people and “would be concerned if the proposed legislation watered down any of those benefits”.

The Greens firmly believe compulsory income quarantining for welfare recipients demonises people, whether they are Indigenous or non-Indigenous.

WA Greens Senator Rachel Siewert told The Koori Mail newspaper she was angry the government was trying to limit debate on the proposed changes.

“They’re trying to limit the debate on what would be the most fundamental changes to the way we deliver welfare in this country,” she said.

“We don’t provide welfare because we have a right to control people’s lives. In Australia, we have always had this inalienable provision of social security so now we are redefining that in Australia without a debate and that’s outrageous.”

Senator Siewert said the government had been “dragged, kicking and screaming” towards reinstating the RDA in Indigenous communities but was now trying to be too clever by half with a “triple whammy”.

“The government has seen this as a golden opportunity to supposedly keep their promise about the RDA, keep the intervention, but also roll out these discriminatory measures (compulsory income quarantining) to the rest of the community,” she said.

The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, of which Senator Siewert is deputy chair, had its first hearing on the Bills in Canberra two weeks ago after receiving 35 written submissions – most of them strongly opposed to expansion of income quarantining.

Amongst them was one from Amnesty International Australia (AIA), which last week labelled the government’s claim that the proposed new laws would reinstate the RDA in the NT as “misleading” and evidence required to assess the success of the intervention to be “woefully inadequate”.

“While Amnesty International welcomes the government’s proposed repealing of clauses in the NTER legislation that remove anti-discrimination protections for Indigenous residents of prescribed communities, the organisation believes that these moves do not sufficiently reinstate protections against discrimination,” the human rights lobby group said in a statement.

“Amnesty International is concerned that these Bills do not propose an immediate halt to race-based welfare quarantining, will not reverse racially-discriminatory actions already initiated under the NTER and offer no redress for discrimination already suffered.”

Amnesty Indigenous Rights Campaigner Rodney Dillon said it was time Australia rejected racially discriminatory laws affecting Indigenous peoples.

Aboriginal rights campaigner and UN advocate Les Malezer said any risk that the legislation would be voted down was also because of the problems that existed within it – totally unrelated to the reinstatement of the RDA.

“You know, and I know, that the RDA can be immediately reinstated without the other ‘baggage’ regarding control and management of people and communities,” Mr Malezer wrote in an email to Minister Jenny Macklin’s office.

“The fact that the ALP supported the suspension of the RDA in June 2007 cannot be put aside...The ALP has delayed until now to attempt legislation, almost as if racial discrimination is okay for a time and doesn’t really affect black people’s sensitivities – ALP-speak for ‘I’m all right, Jack’.”

The Koori Mail  

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