Take your pick:
On the one side is Alastair Nicholson, nearly all major welfare agencies, including sole parent groups, other women’s groups, Indigenous Doctors, Academic researchers, a report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, some statistics and one small longitudinal research project who all oppose continuing and extending compulsory income management in the NT and potentially throughout Australia. The basis for the objections range across defending human rights to the practical problems of any such program, but all agree that there is no serious evidence that income management works.
On the other side is Jenny Macklin, presumably her Cabinet colleagues and other Caucus members whom she has briefed, the NPY women’s group from Central Australia, another group from there worried about those with brain damage, a scattering of statements, mostly opinions, but no data, on the merits of IM and reported but unproven statements of benefits by shops.
I have no doubt that the Minister feels strongly that she is doing the right thing by the women and children in the NT, who are having difficulties at the local level, and nobody is opposing the rights of such groups to have in place an easily accessible form of income management tailored to local needs. I am sure that when she and her colleagues ask some of the women they meet whether they have seen benefits from IM, they will obligingly agree they have, and may well have done.
However, the personalised claims made by the Minister, that she knows IM is good because of what she has been told cannot be given the same gravitas as the volume of actual evidence that has been collected in approved professional ways that do not support the net benefits.
Alastair Nicholson expressed his serious doubts about the benefits of IM and the way the Government was reinstating the Racial Discrimination Act in a Monday night speech and reiterated some points on Tuesday’s RN Breakfast session. He has been involved in an in depth analysis of the only published records of the consultations that Macklin claims supported the extension of the program to non Indigenous people. In the publicly available material there was rejection of any compulsory program, even through this option was not in the discussion paper, in any of the five recorded sessions. Claims therefore of majority support from the unpublished data are not credible.
It is significant that no organisation or expert has supported the claims of evidence of the benefits of the program. The limited research data from the Menzies Health research Institute and Australian Indigenous Doctors Association (AIDA) show no net benefits. This last report stressed that any positive effects of better use of Government income would be outweighed by the psychological damage done by negative experiences and personal discomfort. No attempt was made in any of the official data collections to measure whether there were ongoing negative effects from the processes involved eg the often expressed feelings of shame and embarrassment of having to line up in certain aisle and having to get approval for certain types of spending eg travel expenses.
Jenny Macklin had the right of response to Nicholson’s criticisms and accusations on today’s RN Breakfast. Listening carefully to her responses, it is obvious, as mentioned above that she does believe she is doing the right thing, but appears impervious to any evidence that counters her beliefs. She sees her stand as not ideological but improving the lives of women and children. The basis for this are “I have spoken to many men and women, they say there are real benefits for them” and later “I have to look at the majority who say it’s important to them”.
As there is no such data, this view must be based on those people she, and maybe her colleagues, talk to. As a long time researcher, I am both aware of selective memory and the tendencies of the less powerful to agree with the more powerful in conversation. The question is whether this should be the basis on which to make major policy changes that will deeply affect sole parents, the unemployed and young people on benefits.
The ideological shift is major. Noel Pearson agrees with her policies, because he has for a long time supported the conservative viewpoint, shared by Abbott, about shifting welfare polices from financial control over one’s very limited income to conditionality on how it is spent. There is no evidence that this punitive approach works anywhere and, in fact, the evidence from many sources is it may make things worse as people are infantilised and become less responsible for their own well being.
Therefore many community groups are asking the ALP Caucus, to stop this legislation from going through.