Questioning welfare policies


Opinion Piece - Frank Quinlan
Executive Director, Catholic Social Services Australia
30 July 2010 (as published in Eureka Street)

In June the Government passed a bill extending blanket welfare quarantining from a handful of trial sites to the entire Northern Territory and then across the country.

The Opposition Leader Tony Abbott supports the policy. In an address to the Sydney Institute this week, he asked, 'if the automatic quarantining is just and fair in the north, why not implement it elsewhere?'. 'An incoming Coalition government', he added, 'will carefully review the operation of this wider form of quarantining after July next year, when it has been in operation for 12 months, with a view to extending it more widely across Australia.'

The Coalition's approach seems very similar to the Government's. But welfare quarantining is bad policy, especially when applied to whole populations. Early indications from the Northern Territory suggest that the program has little, even negative, effect when applied to whole populations. It is a rhetorical response to a political problem, not an evidence based response to very real, urgent social problems.

According to the National Welfare Rights Network there were more than 341,000 people on Newstart Allowance for more than one year as of June 2010, an increase of 40,000 since December 2009. These people are living in chronic poverty. Yet the lack of substantial welfare policy in the election campaign so far suggests the social services sector will be expected to go to the polls without knowing what the major parties plan to do to address long term unemployment and poverty.

Susan Helyar, National Director of UnitingCare Australia, notes that income management consumes thousands of dollars per recipient — almost all of it spent on government administration and bureaucracy. And she rightly points out that this money 'could be much better spent on rolling out programs that work'.

To highlight just one example, there are huge unmet needs for mental health services among the unemployed. A 2003 study by the Australian National University's Peter Butterworth found that over 30 per cent of single women with children receiving income support were suffering from anxiety disorders and over 20 per cent from affective (depressive) disorders. It's hard to imagine that income quarantining is an effective treatment for anxiety and depression. The unemployed are already burdened by substantial 'participation' requirements.

Caring for children will often mean caring for their parents. Like all of us, income support recipients may need a push from time to time. But decisions about how obligations should apply ought to be made on a case by case basis by workers who know the person's circumstances and their local community. We don't need populist, one-size-fits all schemes that divert scarce funds away from services and into the Centrelink bureaucracy.

Rather than rhetoric about welfare quarantining, the sector needs long term commitment to programs and services that help parents keep their children safe from violence, support the work of schools and teachers, and help parents provide children with healthy diets. We need to provide high quality services for those parents with mental health problems and the minority with drug and alcohol addictions.

Social services agencies need firm, costed commitments from government that program funding will be secure and responsive to the needs of clients. Without such commitments agencies will have increasing trouble recruiting and training the staff needed to deliver programs and think strategically about how to provide better programs in future.

The current kind of content-free campaigning, appealing to popular biases and stereotypes but not delivering detailed commitments, has real consequences for the social services sector and the people it serves.

Following the furor over the mining super profits tax, the Government demonstrated that it can resolve uncertainty in an industry if it chooses to. Like the mining industry, whose planning for the future was hampered by uncertainty regarding future tax arrangements, the social services sector still doesn't know what concrete policies it will be dealing with after the election.

Unlike the mining industry, the social services sector doesn't have millions of dollars to spend to bring it to the attention of the public.

Populist responses such as welfare quarantining create the impression of action, without the substance of policy and planning, and are a distraction from the major issues.

Centacare Catholic Social Services (Diocese of Parramatta) is one of 65 member organisations represented by Catholic Social Services Australia. All told, this membership provides services to more than a million people each year in remote, regional and metropolitan Australia.

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