Members of an Aboriginal community on Cape York Peninsula are calling for their income management trial to continue, saying their town has changed for the better.
Hope Vale is one of five communities that have been part of the decade-long Cape York Welfare Reform Trial, a joint initiative of the State and Federal Governments and Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute, which has so far cost more than $100 million.
It pre-dates the Federal Government’s Cashless Debit Card trial in Ceduna in South Australia and WA’s East Kimberley and Goldfields regions, which was the subject of a critical National Audit Office report this week.
That report found it was “difficult to conclude” whether the $18 million program had reduced social harm, such as alcoholism and violence, due to a “lack of robustness in data collection”.
Under the Cape York program, a statutory authority called the Family Responsibilities Commission (FRC) can put welfare recipients on the BasicsCard, which quarantines payments for food and essentials.
Triggers include not sending children to school, tenancy breaches or being convicted of criminal offences.
A changed community
Elder Victor Gibson is one of three local FRC commissioners from Hope Vale who can call residents in for case conferencing, refer them to support services and sometimes put them on the BasicsCard.
He said the trial was “very challenging” to implement in the face of community opposition in 2008, but things had come a long way since then.
“Since we started this thing, we never had any children get removed from the community, we never had people get moved out of their homes.”
Fellow FRC commissioner and Hope Vale school attendance officer Cheryl Cannon said social norms had improved significantly.
“And the general pride of place here. Before, our streets were lined with plastic bags, paper bags, and no-one cared.
“But now it’s everybody’s business we keep it clean and it’s a lovely community. If you drive down the street, that’s what you see.”
But official data paints a more ambiguous picture.
Hope Vale’s school attendance rate was 87.6 per cent in 2008, dipped to 70.2 per cent in 2013 and was 75.3 per cent in 2017.
The FRC said it exceeded 90 per cent at one point towards the end of term two this year, although attendance was consistently an issue on Fridays with the workday finishing at noon.
When comparing 2008 and 2017, magistrates courts notifications remained steady at about 300, Child Safety notices halved from 109 to 48, while housing tenancy notifications increased from four to 15.
According to the FRC’s most recent annual report, 212 people were put on BasicsCards across the five communities in 2016-17, with 28 in Hope Vale.
Mixed feelings about the card
Hope Vale mother-of-five Nancy Gore recently got off the BasicsCard and said she had mixed feelings about the experience.
“It was alright but when I’ve been on it so long I was getting wild about it,” she said.
“It wasn’t helpful for me because I’ve got my little girl, she’s sick, she’s got arthritis, and she ups and downs to Cairns Hospital.
“Can’t get a taxi from the airport to the hospital because you’ve got no cash. Only the Basic Card will have the money in it.”
But Ms Gore said there had been positives.
Mr Gibson said other people on the BasicsCard came to see benefits.
People can volunteer to go on the card
“And a lot of these people that we put on income management are coming back and saying it helped me, and now I want it to be on a voluntary basis on the program, and some of them are doing that,” he said.
In 2016–17, 21 people volunteered to have their income managed across the five communities.
The Cape York Welfare Reform Trial has been extended until the end of the year, but its future beyond that is in doubt with the program under review by the State and Federal Governments.
Ms Cannon said while some in the community could manage without the FRC, others may not.
“I hope [the program] goes on, but those people who have benefited from it should be much stronger for it too.”
Future of program is unclear
Mr Gibson said while it was difficult to predict what would happen if the program was axed.
He feared the community could go backwards without a proper exit strategy.
“If you’re going to close the program down, what have you got in place? At the moment there’s nothing in place yet if program leaves,” he said.
“I mean it worked in our community. We don’t like to see it being taken away, you know. And we’re not doing it for the sake of us having it, we’re doing it for our children.
The program also runs in Aurukun, Mossman Gorge, Coen and Doomadgee.
The ABC has sought comment from the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion.