On the spot fines still on table to tackle truancy

By Amy McQuire, October 20, 2013, Tracker Magazine.

NATIONAL: Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion says on-the-spot fines to tackle truancy in Aboriginal communities would not be ruled out under an Abbott government.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott outlined his preferred position to raise school attendance in Aboriginal communities in a speech to the Sydney Institute at the start of the election campaign.

“I support quarantining welfare payments for the long term unemployed, but it’s always struck me as a very cumbersome way to enforce school attendance,” Mr Abbott told the Sydney Institute.

“This was always a federal substitute for the states and territories’ neglect to enforce truancy laws. On-the-spot fines, administered by truancy officers, would be a much more straightforward way to proceed so an incoming Coalition government would work with states and territories to bring this about.”

In an interview with Tracker, Senator Scullion said he had not talked to any states and territories about the fines but instead the Coalition were focused on rolling out the School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM) – where a portion of a person’s welfare payment is quarantined if they fail to send their children to school.

“We’ve indicated we would strengthen the SEAM particularly in remote and regional areas. Tony Abbott hasn’t said we would introduce fines – he’s also said we would strengthen the SEAM model,” Senator Scullion told Tracker.

“We don’t have a single solution. That’s not the context of his statement. That will be a part of a suite of measures that will be considered. It’s not a responsibility of federal government if somebody doesn’t go to school.”

The SEAM trials have been in several Northern Territory communities and selected locations in Queensland since 2009 and were rolled out more widely to prescribed communities under the rebadged intervention – Stronger Futures in 2012.

The Coalition plans on expanding SEAM across the country. But there are still doubts about whether the trials work in lifting school attendance.

Senator Scullion did not comment on whether the federal government would force states or territories to implement the SEAM trials if they came up against opposition to the proposal.

“I have to say I don’t think that would be the case. I think there’s no jurisdiction that wouldn’t want our kids to go to school,” Senator Scullion said.

“The SEAM process is a process which applies a huge amount of resources for a kid that isn’t able to get there.

“… If people continuously simply refuse to take children to schools it may be an imposition on your welfare benefit. I don’t see that as controversial. “

“I don’t think there’s any programs which will be without criticism. I accept the criticism and I think it’s useful. An awful lot of people criticize but what are you going to do about exercising the right of children to get an education. It’s not a wobbly right – it’s a serious right for every child in Australia to have an education. If the parents aren’t able to exercise that right, who is going to exercise it?”

Senator Scullion has knocked back suggestion there is not enough evidence to justify the trial’s expansion.

But there is ongoing criticism that cutting a family’s income will only burden them further.

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