Remember passive welfare? It’s real, it’s still here and it’s hurting our children

, - June 16, 2018

Passive welfare has fallen out of the lexicon of Australia’s political leaders. Passive welfare is the idea that long-term government income support and certain forms of service delivery actually lock people into welfare dependency.

Furthermore, passive welfare creates dependency for young people, who never join the productive economy, which in turn produces social problems for them, their families and communities that worsen across time.

The existence and effects of passive welfare are still denied. There are no longer concerted policies aimed at tackling it. The only reforms are vestiges from Tony Abbott’s government. There are ongoing trials of the cashless welfare card recommended by mining magnate Andrew Forrest and the Family Responsibilities Commission in Cape York, and the Basics Card introduced as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response.

Today the words passive welfare are never uttered. The last Labor politician I heard use the words was its former minister. Jenny Macklin understood passive welfare was real and maintained the Basics Card while repealing the NTER’s discriminatory elements. It caused her grief from the anti-intervention left, but Macklin saved countless lives and gave children a chance they would never have had.

The opponents from the left have gained the ascendancy and leaders choose to ignore passive welfare even if they know it is a fundamental problem.

Last week Labor’s Bill Shorten told his Aboriginal audience at the Barunga Festival in the Northern Territory that child removal rates represented a national crisis and that he would convene a summit to work out a response when elected prime minister.

Former Labor president and chairman of Abbott’s advisory council Warren Mundine launch­ed a swingeing attack on the Opposition Leader. He said Shorten was “talking a load of garbage” and “hasn’t got a clue”, saying: “I’m quite happy to sit down and have a conversation about it and save him the trouble of another talkfest.” Mundine was chairman of the advisory council for three years. I am unaware of any policy it provided to the Abbott or Turnbull governments. If one was developed, was it adopted — and if not, why not?

In the same week the Northern Territory News attacked Malcolm Turnbull, saying he had not visited the Territory in 278 days and certainly not since the Tennant Creek toddler rape had come to light, and suggesting he “simply does not care”. The Prime Minister rejected the allegation, pointing to increased investments in the Territory and his intention to visit in August.

These accusations against Turnbull and Shorten were all made in the shadow of the crimes against the child in Tennant Creek. Mundine said it was just the “tip of the iceberg”.

When young children are neglected by parents who are drunk, drugged or fixated for hours (sometimes days) gambling with cards or on poker machines, they are left vulnerable to abuse.

Parents and adults who profess love for their children but then make all forms of excuses for the role of grog, drugs and gambling in the neglect of children, and ultimately their poor supervision and care leading to children’s vulnerability, are like all addicts. They become defence counsels for their own addictions. It is always someone else’s fault and the fault of some external factor, never their drinking, drugging and gambling.

Turnbull is fixated on the advice of his appointed advisory council chairman, Canberra University professor Chris Sarra, that his government would “do things with rather than to” indigenous people. But what does this mean in relation to the child protection crisis in indigenous communities? How do you work with addicts rather than actually doing something about the circumstances of children who are being neglected right this minute, and who are vulnerable to abuse this very night?

If it were your child, would you wait until you found someone to do something with rather than to?

It’s just a platitude, but the Prime Minister wears it as an excuse to do nothing.

Sarra has been co-chairman of the advisory council for a year and a half. I am not aware of any policy produced by his council in relation to child protection. If it has, what is it, and what has the Turnbull government done with it?

Sarra and Mundine are polar opposites when it comes to these issues. These successive chairmen of the country’s peak advisory body could not be more different. They reflect the differences between the two prime ministers who appointed them.

Mundine believes passive welfare is real. He believes in cashless welfare and welfare reform, and that there is a child protection crisis and that government must intervene. The man who replaced him has long viewed welfare reform as punitive and insulting. I don’t know whether he thinks there is a child protection crisis; in any case he preaches the gospel of working with rather than “doing things to” people. I see no evidence of this platitude translating into actual action, either in high-level policy or ground-level action.

In Cape York during the past 10 years we pushed for a Family Responsibilities Commission to give select elders power to intervene when parents fail in respect of basic responsibilities to their children. When I am opposed in respect of my advocacy for constitutional reform recognising indigenous Australians, comment thread keyboard warriors of this newspaper are wont to say “Send your Aboriginal kids to school, Noel”. Little do these people know that in four communities in Cape York you lose control over your welfare if you don’t send your kids to school, by order of these elders.

Local commissioners use their powers to place conditions on welfare to help parents stabilise their behaviour, when there is risk of child neglect and vulnerability to abuse. They counsel parents and link them with support services to budget their money and attend parenting programs. They are provided with mental health counselling and addiction services.

Many hundreds of children have been diverted from the out-of-home care system because of this intervention. Many hundreds of families have got their act together, and many of them support their children attending boarding schools in Brisbane and other southern centres.

The first client of the FRC in one community in 2008, a mother of four young children, now has three of them in the best schools in Queensland. They became the highest attenders at school, excelling in literacy and numeracy, and the boy who was primary school dux last year now attends the best school in the state, Brisbane Boys Grammar. Ten years later and this mother stepped up and created a new future for her children.

But we have a long way to go. There are problems to which we don’t have a solution. Gambling remains a chronic problem and there is no response. Cannabis is rife, and it is entrenched in remote communities. Ice has grown as a problem, and the one promising response of Campbell Newman’s government crackdown against the ravaging methamphetamine evil was resisted and replaced with no credible response from Annastacia Palaszczuk’s government.

Every day we receive text messages telling us attendance figures for Cape York Academy schools. Every day families come to opportunity hubs in the communities for support with budgeting, parenting and domestic challenges. Parents put aside money into trust accounts for their children at primary and secondary schools and, increasingly, at university. The funds held in trust across four communities now total $2 million.

By supporting families to rebuild, we seek to tackle the child protection crisis. At the same time the state system operates alongside our efforts and still removes children where support efforts fail. The problems are multifaceted and the work is extremely challenging. But the constant goal of our work is to tackle passive welfare in all its manifestations. Everyone who works with us knows it is the core problem we must overcome.

Meanwhile the Palaszczuk government has appointed Sarra as the chief bureaucrat in charge of its Aboriginal affairs agency. The future of our welfare reform agenda will be challenged. Sarra has been a critic of the Cape York Welfare Reform for 10 years now. He never supported sending kids to boarding schools. He does not support intervention and his appointment sends a clear signal about where Palaszczuk and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jackie Trad stand. They too don’t believe passive welfare is a problem.

I am of course closer to Mundine’s thinking than Sarra’s. However, I think the advisory council once chaired by Mundine and now by Sarra is a useless joke. It was poorly conceived in the first place, a token and toothless body that hasn’t played any worthwhile role.

Until our parliamentary leaders get serious and understand the importance of a properly constituted voice contributing to the law and policymaking processes of this country, indigenous affairs will continue to struggle. Mundine and Sarra both disparaged the voice proposal, with the latter recently telling the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas that he agreed with Turnbull’s rejection last year.

There was no evidence of any formal consultation by the government with the IAC on constitutional reform, so Sarra appears to have had side conversations with the Prime Minister. Extraordinarily, it seems Turnbull was advising Sarra rather than the other way around.

A Shorten government with equality as its raison d’etre will need to understand that passive welfare is at least half of the problem of inequality. It is not just inequality of opportunity and the availability and terms of employment: passive welfare condemns large sections of the nation to inequality. You will have to tackle passive welfare if you want greater equality. You will have to tackle passive welfare if you want children to stay with their families.

Turnbull, meanwhile, needs to answer precisely what it means to do things with, rather than to, people who are at risk, especially the children.