Marie McInerney writes:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups are urging an extra Newstart loading for recipients in remote areas who cannot afford healthy food or transport and for major changes to punitive compliance programs that disproportionately hurt Indigenous people.
The calls have come in submissions to the Greens-led Senate inquiry into the adequacy of Newstart and other welfare payments from the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and the National Association of Community Controlled Health Organisations (NACCHO), and are backed up in the formal submission from the Northern Territory Government.
NACCHO has also repeated growing calls for the Federal Government to overhaul the “discriminatory” Community Development Program (CDP) that it says is not leading to jobs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and results in harmful fines and other penalties.
This article is part of a mini-series at Croakey reporting on submissions to inquiry, launched amid the Federal Government’s refusal to #RaisetheRate of the Newstart allowance.
In its submission, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress backs the call from mainstream organisations for an immediate $75 a week lift in the Newstart payment.
But it also calls for:
- an additional loading on Newstart payments for those in remote or very remote areas to address the significantly higher cost of living in those areas, especially in relation to basic living expenses and healthy food, and
- redesign of Newstart program requirements and systems to ensure they are socially and culturally appropriate and accessible for Aboriginal people, especially those in remote areas.
Congress CEO Donna Ah Chee says that income support payments fall below the poverty line nationally but the situation is particularly serious for people in remote areas where the cost of living is much higher especially for food.
The same basket of healthy food costs on average 60 percent more in a remote community store than a major supermarket in the Northern Territory.”
The NT Government’s submission echoes these concerns.
It says that University of New South Wales research sets the minimum income required to reach a healthy living (MIHL) standard at $597 per week for a single working adult, and $434 for an unemployed single adult.
However, it says these estimates don’t take into account the increased cost of living experienced by many in the Territory who are living outside major centres, where in 2017, a basket of healthy food items cost on average $319 more in a remote store than in a major supermarket in the NT.
“This equates to 34 percent of the household income for a family of six, which is more than double the national household average of disposable income required for food,” it says.
The NT Government says the cost of transport also has a significant impact on cost of living, particularly in remote or regional areas, where public transport options are limited or non-existent, and fuel prices can be prohibitively high.
NACCHO’s submission has been developed in collaboration with two of its affiliates – the Aboriginal Health & Medical Research Council (AH&MRC) and Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia (AHCWA).
Together they urge an overhaul of the CDP, which the Federal Government’s own review found is three times more likely to penalise Aboriginal participants than non-Aboriginal participants, and more often.
NACCHO says the program, which requires remote area participants to engage in up to 25 hours of work for the dole, “does not achieve the goals it set out to do, and is discriminatory against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who comprise more than 80 percent of participants across Australia”.
As well as being excluded from the Fair Work Act 2009, which means no superannuation or protection from occupational health and safety laws, CDP’s mostly Indigenous participants are hit by debilitating fines for unavoidable breaches, it says.
NACCHO says that high costs, ill health, mental health conditions, homelessness, disability, remoteness, family, community, country and cultural obligations and language barriers mean participants sometimes cannot avoid missing or being late for CDP activities, and are often unable to notify activity organisers in advance.
That attracts a significant penalty: already low income support payments attached to CDP are cut by $50 a week, from $244.85 to just $194.85, it says.
Communities with high numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants were issued with the highest number of these fines in 2018, with participants in one Aboriginal community fined an average of 15 times.
Fining members for missing a session, with no consideration at all to the complexities of the social determinants and cultural obligations facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, is unacceptable and directly discriminates against them.
The discrimination and harm of CDP has been ongoing, and reinforces the need for an Aboriginal-led model that ensures Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are receiving an appropriate income, and addresses the unique social settings and limited labour markets within remote communities.”
The Northern Territory Government also highlighted much higher obligations and penalties imposed by the CDP on the mostly Indigenous participants in the scheme, who were subject to 112,511 financial penalties in 2017.
Participants in the NT have received a disproportionate amount of penalties compared to national participants (45% of all persistent non-compliance penalties across all national programs, despite representing less than 2% of the whole caseload),” it said, noting that these programs are not providing lasting job outcomes as intended.
(See more detail from the 2018 review commissioned by the Federal Government.)
Congress also urged reform of “inflexible and inappropriate program rules” that further disadvantage Aboriginal people, saying it has received many reports of how program requirements under the Newstart system “undermine income stability and food security, by not taking into account the particular social and cultural realities of life in Central Australia”.
Ah Chee said:
In common with many remote areas, many Aboriginal people in Central Australia have English as a second language, have limited access to phone and internet services, and do not have the technical and literacy skills required to navigate the payments system.”
In addition, program requirements are designed for urban mainstream environment where there are relatively high numbers of services and greater opportunities for employment.
As a result, many Aboriginal people have their payments stopped or find it impossible to meet program requirements in the first place, leading to further reduced income and/or income insecurity for Aboriginal families.”
Legacies of colonisation and racism
Canvasing the need for a total overhaul of benefits and employment and housing policies NACCHO says the legacy of colonisation, continuing impacts of racism and a range of social determinants of health is resulting in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living well below an ‘acceptable standard of living’.
Dispossession from land and resources has made the rest of the nation rich while many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities are impoverished.
It calls for all government department staff involved in social and health payments and services, including the National Disability Insurance Scheme, to receive training so they can assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to access the support for which they are eligible.
It says that while it agrees with the call to increase Newstart and other income support payments from Labor, the Greens, most Nationals and the majority of Crossbenchers, it also calls for:
- a greater investment in jobs with adequate pay for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across urban, rural and remote Australia
- greater access to the pension to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are entitled to it
- the Community Development Program (CDP) to be enhanced
- consideration of additional vulnerabilities when determining income support payments
- the periodical review of the adequacy of payments in light of community living standards, with appropriate increases made and indexation applied (in alignment with wage and rent increases)
- an increase of housing schemes to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to purchase their own homes
- one-off payments to assist in the purchase of household essentials, e.g. white goods, air conditioning etc
- extending an identified workforce to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people navigate Newstart and other income support payment rights and obligations.