BY AMY MCQUIRE, SEPTEMBER 14, 2011
Originally published in Tracker Magazine.
A new report surveys nearly 200 women affected by the controversial compulsory income management scheme. (AAP IMAGE/DEAN LEWINS)
NORTHERN TERRITORY: Some Northern Territory women suffering from domestic violence would rather stay in abusive relationships than risk having their welfare payments quarantined.
That’s one of the anecdotes told to a group of researchers documenting the viewpoints of over one hundred women who have come into contact with the controversial income management scheme.
Compulsory income management was one of the most radical planks of the Northern Territory intervention in 2007, which was announced by the Howard government following concerns about child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.
Aboriginal people living in the 73 prescribed communities under the intervention automatically had 50 percent of the welfare payments quarantined, to be spent on necessary goods like food and clothing, regardless of their past history, or even whether or not they had children.
The scheme has now been extended to the whole of the Northern Territory, in a bid to make the NT intervention laws comply with the Racial Discrimination Act.
The Gillard government has also announced it is rolling out a watered down form of income management to five selected communities around Australia.
But a new report conducted by the Equality Rights Alliance, and which specifically focuses on the experiences of women, has cast doubt on the federal Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin’s repeated claims that income management is helping Aboriginal women and children manage their money.
Ms Macklin has used anecdotal reports of Aboriginal women endorsing the scheme to justify its expansion, despite evidence like the Rudd government’s own Northern Territory Emergency Response review, which recommended it be made voluntary.
The researchers, who documented the views of 180 women – the majority Aboriginal – paint a troubling picture about the perception of compulsory income management amongst women.
A domestic violence support worker told the researchers that women were often advised to ask Centrelink for a crisis payment if they needed help getting out of violent relationships.
“Some weeks later (after receiving the payment), she says they were put onto compulsory income management under the vulnerable welfare recipient measures,” the report states.
“Having heard this, other women have told the domestic violence crisis workers they would rather stay in the abusive relationships than risk ending up on income management.
Centrelink did not respond to a series of questions submitted by Tracker, instead referring it to the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA).
FaHCSIA did not respond by the time of press.
Project Coordinator for the Equal Rights Alliance Emma Davidson told Tracker that she didn’t believe stories like these were isolated.
“One thing that stood out for me was that a lot of these issues we were hearing from women, we were also hearing from multiple women,” Ms Davidson said.
“If one woman was saying she had a problem with a certain issue, we often had multiple women saying the same thing. And these were women living quite different life experiences and in different locations.
The report also found that 85 percent of women surveyed did not believe that income management had changed their spending habits. Only 22 percent of women said that they had saved money.
Ninety-one percent of respondents also said that the BasicsCard did not make a difference to their relationships with family. And 74 percent said it did not make it easier to look after a family.
“Certainly of the women that participated in this research, the majority of them were not happy,” Ms Davidson said.
“There were some women that had some positive things to say about it. We did expect a range of opinions, but we certainly didn’t go out there expecting the types of unanimous responses we got to some questions.”
One of the responses that stood out to Ms Davidson was whether women felt respected when dealing with Centrelink.
“That question was optional, but 100 percent of respondents chose to answer it. And 85 percent said that they didn’t feel respected.
“The mere fact that one question got a 100 percent response is overwhelming.
“It shows that a lot of work needs to be done to improve relationships between Centrelink and women who are targeted for income management.
“The reason they are referring those women is because of a perception that these women are at an increased financial vulnerability or there are safety issues.
“If these women are saying they don’t feel respected when talking to Centrelink, and they don’t want to tell Centrelink they are having problems, that’s concerning.”
There were several logistical problems raised in the report. Concerns were expressed over the inability to check funds on BasicsCards, and the report found that even after four years, there still was a lot of misinformation surrounding the system.
Minister Macklin told Tracker in a written statement that the report was flawed because it didn’t talk to women in remote communities.
“Unfortunately there are a number of flaws in the way the Equality Rights Alliance has conducted its research that mean this is not a sound report for the government to base policy on,” Ms Macklin said.
“The report is based on interviews with women in just Darwin and Alice Springs and does not take into account the experience of women in remote communities.
“In addition, the report does not make it clear how it selected the women it surveyed.
“It seems the interviews are simply based on people who turned up to interviews in response to posters advertising the sessions, and it is unlikely to be representative of the population of women on income management.
“A number of reports and evaluations have shown income management does benefit women, and is a way to remain safe from financial harassment and to ensure children are cared for and fed.”
Ms Macklin said that she had received strong messages of support from women in remote communities about the benefits of income management.
Ms Davidson says that resources prevented the alliance from investigating the experiences of women in remote communities. But she says it is still the most comprehensive collection of women’s views on the scheme.
“This report is really important because it is about understanding the views of women in Alice Springs and Darwin. We are not claiming to represent the view of remote areas.
“The important thing is we have heard from more than 180 women on income management. They’ve given us their view and that’s more women than has ever participated in any of the previous studies we know of.”