May 17, 2010

Does Macklin’s office have no shame? More on the income management study…

This email landed at Croakey today. “Macklin’s office really has no shame!” My correspondent* was commenting on the response from Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin to a

Melissa Sweet — Health journalist and <a href=Croakey co-ordinator" class="author__portrait">

Melissa Sweet

Health journalist and Croakey co-ordinator

This email landed at Croakey today. “Macklin’s office really has no shame!”

My correspondent* was commenting on the response from Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin to a study published today in the Medical Journal of Australia showing that the federal government’s income management policy is not making an impact on tobacco and healthy food sales in remote community shops in the NT.

Clearly anticipating adverse coverage from the study, the Government yesterday issued this release, stating: “The Australian Government is requesting an urgent report from key departments on policy options to help reduce the consumption of high sugar drinks in remote communities. A new study from the Menzies School of Health Research has highlighted the need to lower the consumption of high sugar drinks in remote Indigenous Northern Territory communities.”

I’m not a great fan of the exclamation mark – much over-used – but in this case the email comment deserved a whole row of them. As in, Macklin’s office really has no shame!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Minister and her staffers have clearly been watching way too much Yes Minister.

The script, which I’m sure you’ve seen too many times before, goes like this…What do you do when confronted with an unpalatable truth: why, of course you order an inquiry to distract attention and stop uncomfortable questions.

Never mind that there have already been zillions of dust-gathering reports and recommendations about how to improve healthy food choices in remote communities. Never mind that the study’s authors specifically identified income management – rather than soft drinks – as the policy issue in question.

Two of the study’s co-authors, Julie Brimblecombe and David Thomas, were not prepared to let Macklin’s response stand unchallenged (the Minister was also on ABC radio this morning, downplaying the MJA study’s findings and re-stating the Government’s plans to roll out income management more broadly).

They put their case in this Crikey article today as to why their findings carry more weight than the government’s evaluation that Minister Macklin prefers to cite in support of income management.

Commenting on the researchers’ piece at Crikey, ANU academic Professor Jon Altman wrote: “…it is quite inappropriate to compare this research undertaken by academic experts at arms-length from government from research undertaken by federal bureaucrats or their paid consultants; and to compare rigorous quantitative research that addresses a specific question of sales before and after income quarantining with qualitative research that asks general questions about expenditures on broad categories of goods in government-licenced stores post Intervention only.

“The Australian government is clearly embarrassed by these research findings for three reasons. First, $82.8 million have just been committed in the 2010/11 Budget to create a new scheme for income management, an investment in a process to regulate the behaviour of welfare recipients in the NT. All up $410.5 million will be committed in six years to what might prove an entirely unproductive expenditure.

“Second, legislation is about to be tabled in the federal parliament predicated on an assumption that income management is good for Indigenous (and other) subjects in the NT, something this research seriously questions. Third, the Rudd government has remained firmly wedded to this intervention measure since its election in November 2007; saying sorry for others ‘historical’ errors is clearly politically easier than saying sorry for your own ‘path dependent’ acquiescence and possible mistakes.”

This latest MJA study is not the first piece of serious research to undermine the Government’s claims about the benefits of income management.

In the same issue of the journal, the president of the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, Dr Peter O’Mara, cites the health impact assessment (previously covered at Croakey) which concluded that the NT intervention will do more harm than good. “The report’s disturbing prediction — that the intervention will cause profound long-term damage to our Indigenous communities — should be of concern to all Australians, including medical practitioners,” he says.

“Generally speaking, governments need to think about the ways they can work together with Indigenous people, but, more immediately, AIDA believes that the Racial Discrimination Act must be reinstated and compulsory income management must be overturned.”

My Crikey blogging colleague Eva Cox has described Minister Macklin’s response to the new MJA study as “incredibly trivialising and dismissive”.

It’s also quite insulting. Apart from anything, it’s an insult to the Government’s professed commitment to “evidence-based policy”.

• The email came from a seasoned observer of NT politics, especially the politics of health (and perhaps I should also mention that this person is not part of the Menzies School of Health Research team).

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8 thoughts on “Does Macklin’s office have no shame? More on the income management study…

  1. The Government campaign against researchers who dared question income management – Croakey

    […] has previously reported on efforts by Minister Macklin and colleagues to undermine a study from the Menzies School of […]

  2. David de Vries

    “The Commonwealth Government endorsed Pearson’s initiative for Cape York and then imposed a lazy and fundamentally different model on the NT”
    The terms ‘Basics Card’ and ‘quarantining’ continue to trick everyone into thinking welfare payments must be spent on food and clothing. The way it works is that a store gets registered to accept payments via Basics Card then they sell whatever except tobacco, alcohol and porn. This means non basics such as toys, sugary drinks, junk food, dvd’s etc. In towns in the NT there are toy shops that accept Basics. Smokers and drinkers still have cash for their needs.
    This implementation has caused a lot of angst, been racist, ineffective and lazy.

    Some ways forward were talked about at the AMSANT Fresh Food Summit, Tennant Creek 5-6 May 2010. One way presented was to develop some approved healthy lines and market them aggressively.

  3. Steve Gumerungi Hodder

    IMO, the MOST honourable Ms Scrymgour has stuck to her guns (despite being rejected & put in the corner by her own team previously) & (again, my own opinion) represented Indigenous Territorians truthfully.

    If Territory Labor holds a minority govt., wouldn’t this be a prime opportunity for Marion to hold govt. to ransom (account) on the way forward as Aboriginal residents want, instead of it being the other way for so long?
    Sink the Black Tampa!


    […] the Crikey health blog:Does Macklin’s office have no shame? More on the income management study……17 May 10: “This email landed at Croakey today. “Macklin’s office really has no shame!” […]

  5. Croakey

    Marion, just to let you and other Croakey readers know: you do not have to be a Crikey subscriber to comment at Croakey. All you have to do is take a minute or so to register at the Croakey website (sorry I know this is painful and time consuming but it is a requirement from Crikey in order to reduce risk of defamatory comments etc) – and then you can freely post comments.
    Thanks for engaging with the Croakey discussion.

  6. David Dalrymple

    I have asked David Dalrymple to post this comment on this site for me as I am not a subscriber to Crikey. I have in the past and need to rejoin. My comments are as follows:

    The researchers are well qualified, the study is based on concrete sales data (not subjective anecdotal reporting like the Federal Governments own commissioned study) and it has the imprimatur of the highly respected Menzies School of Health Research. The stated conclusion is “income management independent of the government stimilus payment appears to have had no beneficial effect on tobacco and cigarette sales, soft drink or fruit and vegetable sales”. It is time to revisit the hype and spin that prevailed back in mid-2007 when this measure was introduced. The situation at the time was that Noel Pearson had developed a “fault-based” welfare reform proposal for implementation in Cape York. It was a proposal in which as a last resort income management could be imposed on particular dysfunctional or delinquent families along with a number of other arrangements, all in the context of close case management of the individuals concerned. Income management in that context had some chance of achieving a benefit because it was part of a package of case-managed measures targeted at particular individuals whose inability to exercise responsibility was demonstrated. The Commonwealth Government endorsed Pearson’s initiative for Cape York and then imposed a lazy and fundamentally different model on the NT, deliberately removing CDEP employees from work into welfare in order to achieve their objective. Rather than criticising the Federal Government for this, Mr Pearson praised and supported the intervention. The rest is history. To its great discredit, the current Commowealth Government has maintained the destructive combination of universal income management and the winding down of CDEP, asserting all the while that it sought to act on the basis of “evidence”. The evidence compiled in the Menzies report speaks for itself, as does the deterioration since the abandonment of CDEP in work participation, morale, and tidiness and general appearance of our communities. It is time for Minister Macklin to change course…..

    Marion Scrymgour MLA

  7. Dacq

    One of the things that I’ve learned from 25 yrs in public health (yeah, slow learner) is that where a proposed initiative isn’t consistent with people’s (including politicians’) conception of ‘common sense’, you’ve got a real struggle. In other words, if logic suggests that something should or should not ‘work’, but you want to argue the opposite, you’ve got a marketing problem. I wonder if this is one of those cases: because the welfare quarantining approach would seem, on the face of it, to be an effective solution to a perceived problem (money being spent on the ‘wrong’ things), the presentation of evidence to the contrary needs more than the simple display of facts in order to be convincing. As numerous commentaries have also indicated, identifying exactly what the ‘problem’ is may also be the problem, and the present situation seems to be, among other things, a classic public health no-no: supply-side solutions expected to work in the absence of demand-reduction strategies.

  8. SBH

    short answer, no, she has no shame. And just what is happening with the pilot sites where school attendance was linked to wlefare payments? No supporting evidence was ever advanced on that one either. Although there was quite a lot of adverse evidence, like most of the schools didn’t actually have attendance problems but who would care about that. A useless health and education spokesperson in opposition unable to defend medicare or public schooling and worse than useless as a minister.

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