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No evidence of benefit but plenty of harm as government seeks to extend income management card

The government’s cashless debit card was not only a breach of Australia’s human rights obligations and an affront to Indigenous self-determination, it also contradicted commitments to reducing health inequalities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and was wholly without an evidence base.

This was the scathing assessment offered by dissenting reports of a Senate inquiry into the proposed extension of the government’s income quarantining initiative for people reliant on the safety net, handed down last week.

Under the proposal, the entirety of the Northern Territory, Cape York in Far North Queensland, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay will be designated ‘trial sites’ until 2021 for the rollout of the Cashless Debit Card (CDC), which will involve most people on working-age welfare payments in these regions — some 23,000 Australians — having 80 percent of their benefit quarantined for use at accredited sites. A form of the CDC has been in existence in the NT since the Intervention 12 years ago and on Cape York for more than a decade. It has also been rolled out in Ceduna, South Australia, and the Goldfields region of Western Australia in recent years.

The Senate inquiry waved through the legislation with a minor caveat on clarifying the Minister’s discretionary powers, but the ALP and Greens slammed the proposal in dissenting reports calling for the legislation to be scrapped. They noted that the majority of submissions (including the Northern Territory Government) and witnesses to the inquiry had opposed the bill, and there had been no meaningful consultation with the affected communities.

Drawing on submissions from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups including the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT, Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation, Danila Dilba Health Service and the Milingimbi/Yuurwi Island communities, the dissenting reports highlighted a range of concerns, which we have summarised below.

Does not improve, and on some indicators, worsens health

The health impacts of income management were underscored by a number of submissions which noted that there was no evidence of a benefit from the policy and, on some indicators, it had actually been demonstrated to cause harm.

Research presented by the Menzies School of Health Research showed that the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal birthweights had widened following introduction of the policy, with the cohort affected by the rollout 100 grams smaller, on average, and 30 percent more likely to be born low birthweight.

“The magnitude of this effect is comparable to what has been reported from other international studies of births to women exposed to famines or extreme weather events such as cyclones,” the Menzies submission says.

“We believe these findings suggest that income management as a component of the Northern Territory Emergency Response has not contributed to any improvement in Aboriginal birth outcomes.”

University of Queensland researchers studying the effects of compulsory income management in Australia and New Zealand told the inquiry there were real practical issues using the Basics or Indue card in the health system, with people reporting they were unable to use it to purchase medicines or aids like glasses, or to pay bills. It had also been linked to mental health problems like anxiety and depression, intimate partner violence and abuse, and social isolation, with abundant evidence related to the social determinants of health.

Darwin’s Danila Dilba Health Service said income management cards had done nothing to address the affordability and accessibility of healthy foods in remote communities, one of the key issues impacting on health.

Danila Dilba CEO Olga Havnen told the Senate inquiry:

There is no evidence from store turnover or sales data that there has been any significant change in people’s purchasing or consumption patterns. There has been no significant discernible difference between the volume of healthy foods purchased pre Intervention and post.”

If anything, Havnen said the cost of healthy foods in remote areas was worsening, and this was supported by the Central Land Council, which told the inquiry food and other essential items were 60 percent more costly than in major urban centres.

Rather than alleviating disadvantage, the Human Rights Law Centre submission showed an “appalling increase in poverty rates in remote communities”, with a real decline in disposable incomes at the same time that the cost of living rose. A number of submissions documented how people were actually worse off under the cards because they were slugged with processing or overlimit fees (sometimes as high as $10) or minimum purchase requirements.

The proposal was also seen as directly contradicting the aims and spirit of the Closing the Gap refresh.

“It is not consistent with the collaborative and consultative spirit of the next phase of Closing the Gap, or the broad reform agenda of the NIAA seeking to return decision-making and control to Aboriginal people across a range of sectors, including health, housing and education,” said the CLC’s Dr Josie Douglas.

Added John Paterson, the CEO of AMSANT:

The establishment of the joint council and commitment from all governments to a partnership approach to a renewed closing the gap strategy stands in stark contrast to the government’s approach in imposing the cashless debit card on us. This measure is likely to undermine progress on closing the gap.”

Finally, the purported achievements of the card, including a reduction in harms related to alcohol, were broadly seen as having little to do with income management and were instead the result of other NT government policies including the banned drinkers’ register and floor price on alcohol.

Stigma, shame, self-determination and human rights

The stigma and shame associated with use of the Basics or Indue card was highlighted by many submissions to the inquiry, with the impacts of prejudice so significant several organisations warned it was actually driving people out of the system — typically those who were most in need of a safety net.

Groups including the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) noted that Indigenous people were over-represented in the cohort and the legislation “largely targets Aboriginal people, regardless of their situation”. This was seen as an issue for both self-determination and human rights.

Explained Maimie Bulter from the NPY Women’s Council:

If this card comes along, it’ll just really put us down. We wouldn’t know where we’re heading. Already it’s a shock to us, because we don’t know nothing about government changes, you know. We just live along every day, every second day. It’s the day—how we live.

These changes have been frustrating for us, you know. We just don’t know happening to us. What’s happening? If this card does come along, it’ll take us right back to when our ancestors first walked into the mission and were fed by rations.”

The inquiry report conceded that the legislation infringed on three fundamental human rights — the right to social security, the right to a private life, and the right to equality and non-discrimination — but said this was “reasonable and proportionate” to achieving its objectives. It denied the policy had racist intent, saying it was “not applied based on race or cultural factors” but that locations were chosen “based on objective data, including high levels of welfare dependence and community harm”.

It all but ignored the Northern Territory government’s submission opposing the bill, which highlighted significant practical hurdles to the rollout including the fact it was to occur outside of regular Centrelink channels, with cards to be mailed out and recipients required to have internet and or phone access to check their balance and otherwise administer their account:

This will be difficult for people living in remote locations with limited phone and web access and very poor postal services—and impossible for people living more remotely in one of the Territory’s 500 homelands or outstations.

It is our strong view that a significant body of work needs to be undertaken to examine how these arrangements can work in remote areas.

We do not see this working and remain highly concerned about the impact on existing social crisis services when a number of people will be unable to access their funds.”

The inquiry also ignored evidence from groups like the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation that the rollout would stymie local enterprise, which was largely reliant on cash payments and lacked the capacity or resources to transition to a cashless platform.

While it noted the success of community-driven voluntary management programs in places like Tangentyere and East Arnhem Land, the inquiry saw these as being complementary rather than preferable to mandatory government quarantining.

The East Arnhem program, ALPA FOODcard, had been hugely successful, according to the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation, with 12,500 people across the region participating in its decade of operations, voluntarily allocating some $15 million in income to “healthy choices” as determined by the community:

Extensive community consultation determined what could be purchased. This included most grocery items and baby requirements in line with ALPA’s healthy choice policy. Excluded items include soft drinks, cigarettes, tobacco and toys. Categories are regularly refined and evaluated based on feedback from cardholders, store committees and the ALPA board of directors.

We do believe that voluntary solutions are the answer and that communities and community organisations are best placed to support meaningful and sustainable change. One-size-fits-all interventions from the government have not delivered positive change, despite a decade of oppressing our members and our communities. It is time for a different approach.”

Places already vulnerable people at greater risk

One of the touted objective of income management is to prevent groups like people with a disability or older people from being exploited for their payments, but evidence to the inquiry suggested it was entrenching rather than addressing such problems.

APY lands not-for-profit Moneymob Talkabout said research at the Goldfields trial site had shown increasing elder abuse, with cards and allocations taken by family members, and humbugging of older people, people with a disability and those with mental health issues, particularly by younger relatives who had been cut off by Centrelink.

“Some of them want money for gunja or grog and get very angry if they don’t get it. The situation happens to a lot of people who are aged, have disabilities or mental health issues. The quarantining of welfare payments has not stopped this,” the group said.

This was supported by the Menzies submission, which noted that “in the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children dataset, family members who moved from no welfare restrictions to welfare restrictions were almost 100% more likely to report an incident of harassment for money and family arguments.”

No evidence base

Contrary to government claims that it was the great panacea for social ills, and despite a decade of research into this question, the overwhelming consensus of submissions and testimony to the inquiry was that there was simply no evidence that it had been an effective policy.

As succinctly put by Danila Dilba:

More than 23,000 Aboriginal people have been subjected to income management or income quarantining since 2007.

The original objectives of income management were supposedly to improve the health, wellbeing and education outcomes of Aboriginal children and to protect women and older people from humbugging and violence.

During the period 2007 to the present time, some 12 years, there is an absolutely astonishing lack of credible evidence that income management has made any significant improvement to any of the key indicators of wellbeing: child health, birth weights, failure to thrive, and child protection notifications and substantiations.

There are no improvements in school attendance, and certainly nothing we can see would suggest that there has been a reduction in family or community violence.”

There have now been five legislative inquiries into the cashless debit card, none of which have turned up any evidence of its purported benefits.

An independent evaluation in 2014 found no “consistent evidence of income management having a significant systematic positive impact”, including on spending on or consumption of alcohol, tobacco, fresh fruit or vegetables; financial wellbeing at a household level; child wellbeing, school enrolments or learning outcomes.

The lead author of this evaluation, Dr Rob Bray, recently updated this analysis and came to the same conclusions, saying “there has been a total absence of any improvement in the outcomes for Indigenous people in the Northern Territory which can be attributed to income management, despite the fact that the most vulnerable third of this population has been subject to the measure for over a decade.”

You can watch Dr Bray and colleagues give evidence to the Senate inquiry below.

Rather than increasing scrutiny on the program to try and address these concerns, the proposed legislation actually dials back requirements for review, removing the condition that an evaluation be conducted by an independent expert or that it be completed within a six month timeframe.  The Central Australian Aboriginal Corporation has dismissed these watered-down requirements as little more than a “desktop exercise”.

Concluding their dissenting report, the Greens said:

Compulsory income management has been trialled in the Northern Territory for 12 long years, it has not reduced social harm, it has not reduced disadvantage, the evaluation of the approach showed it met none of its objectives. It has in fact caused harm and distress to many. The continuation of compulsory income management through the introduction of the Cashless Debit Card is not supported by the evidence, is not supported by the community and will cause further distress and potential harm. It is time that compulsory income management was abandoned.”

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