Bartlett surprises

Parents’ pensions may be direct debited for rent, power and food (photo courtesy ABC)

Proposal from federal Family Services Minister Mal Brough:

Family Services Minister Mal Brough is proposing that some welfare-dependent families could be forced to direct debit part of their income to pay for rent, electricity and food in a bid to help children.

The Minister says there are examples, especially in remote Indigenous communities, of parents wasting their welfare payments on drugs, cigarettes and alcohol while their children are in need.

Minister Brough also recently canvassed the vexed question of removal of neglected and abused Aboriginal children. You could easily write the expected responses of Democrats and Greens: “racism”, paternalism” etc. But surprisingly that’s not how Democrat spokesperson and blogger Andrew Bartlett reacted at all:

There are a lot of difficulties with Mr Broughs proposal, including nothing to help the parents address any underlying problems, and I cant see how it could work fairly in its current form. But as well as criticising, we do need to acknowledge that many children are failing to be protected from serious neglect and abuse, Senator Bartlett said.The Minister has said he wants public debate on the idea, and I call on community groups to grab this rare opportunity to have a constructive debate on the interests and welfare of children.

Many children are currently being harmed due to parental and social failure. This not only damages the child, it hurts and costs our whole community for many years afterwards.”

So we need to do more than just criticise this proposal, we need to come up with solutions to child neglect.

This must not be seen as an issue of people wasting the taxpayer money they get in welfare payments. It is to do with child neglect, which can occur in all families not just welfare families. …

To date the federal government has been reluctant to take national leadership on childrens issues, despite the big failings in child protection services at State level.But if Mr Brough is serious about giving a greater national approach to child neglect, that should be welcomed by the community, even if the specific proposal he has put forward has problems.

I am tired of seeing children suffering unnecessarily from parents who are unable, for whatever reason, to take basic steps to care for their children and protect from them neglect or abuse.

Sadly, we didn’t see that sort of honest, constructive response from Labor spokesperson Senator Kim Carr. What we saw instead was the usual partisan point-scoring and blame-shifting:

Senator Kim Carr, Shadow Minister for Housing, said today that Mal Brough, the Minister for Family and Community Services, has no credibility on children in crisis when the Howard Government continues to ignore the dual crises in housing affordability and homelessness.

Senator Carr said, “What the Howard Government fails to understand is that stable, secure, affordable housing is square one in enabling children to participate in education.

“The Howard Government has failed to act on homelessness, failed to act on housing affordability in both the ownership and rental markets and failed to act on Indigenous housing.

Carr is a left faction time-server and a waste of space. His kneejerk response partly negates the promising approach exhibited in a recent policy press release by Labor’s indigenous affairs spokesperson Chris Evans. If Beazley was a competent leader he’d muzzle Carr and leave the running on such issues to Chris Evans.

Carr is right that housing is a major problem in Aboriginal communities (one of many), and solving it will certainly require more federal government money. But it will also require more state and territory government money as well. Housing is predominantly a state responsibility and all the state and territory governments are Labor colleagues of Senator Carr. Moreover, it’s not only a question of money, it’s also a question of appropriate housing design, but even more so of engendering responsibility at an individual, extended family and community level. In many communities, houses are regularly trashed irrespective of their design. Nor is that just a question of overcrowding; it flows from drug and alcohol-fuelled extreme violence. As Andrew Bartlett observes:

It is a confronting problem with no easy answers, but there is no doubt we are falling short at the moment, and it is time for people to cast aside their ideologies and have an honest look at how we can do better.

As Bartlett also observed in a recent post on his blog:

The main hope I have is that the whole area gets much greater priority politically than it has to date, and doesn’t keep being all but ignored except where it can be used as an ideological nulla nulla to score a short-term political point.

If only there were more honest, sincere, constructive politicians like Andrew Bartlett and less cynical, ideological dickheads like Kim Carr (or Wilson Tuckey for that matter).


About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.
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25 Responses to Bartlett surprises

  1. Paul Watson says:

    This story is a good example of Howard government dog-whistling, as aided by collusive media spin-meistering.

    As Mal Brough originally laid it out (and here the “original”

  2. Paul,

    I don’t know if it’s “indefensibly racist” – I guess it depends on how its implemented and justified. And it’s hardly a comprehensive policy. But would diverting the income of those who’ve not paid rent into rent be on balance good or bad for the children?

  3. Patrick says:

    I have come to the conclusion, based on about 100 positives and 0 negatives observed thus far, that anyone who uses the phrase ‘dog-whistle politics’ is an utterly hidebound leftist who is not going to contribute anything more than ‘Howard Bad; Others Good’.

    At least it helps save reading time on blogs…

  4. Patrick says:

    Wayne Swan was apparently less Pavlovian (just to make sure we keep the discourse on the same level):
    Opposition Treasury spokesman Wayne Swan was more measured, saying the Labor Party was always looking for “constructive proposals to combat severe disadvantage”.

    That feature also gives prominence to Peter Beattie’s odd triangulation (with him as the object not subject) in this case.

  5. Ken Parish says:


    No doubt Brough is partly engaging in political rehtoric that he thinks will appeal to his core constituents (however you want to characterise them), just as Kim Carr is seeking to appeal to the urban left latte set.

    Both make some good points, but both are mostly just point-scoring. That’s why I find Andrew Bartlett’s approach so refreshing. Governments do need to spend more money, but they also need to work in constructive partnership with families and communities to find ways to engender greater responsibility/acountability at an individual, family and community level. Without that, spending however much money won’t improve the situation.

  6. observa says:

    While deductions may well be aimed at indigenous communities, I gather there is also the growing problem of pokie addicts. It’s pretty hard to argue Centrelink payments need to be higher for dependant children and then stand idly by and watch those payments squandered by inadequate adults.

  7. Scott Wickstein says:

    It would be nice to see some humility by the advocates of government intervention. The plain fact is that if people are determined to live their life in a certain way, there’s just not a lot you can do about it, no matter how much or how well meaning you disapprove of it.

    That’s one very good reason that the poor will always be with us.

  8. Homer Paxton says:

    who is going to do the investigation behind this and how do you prove people are gambling away money etc.

    It seems to me one would have to something holus bolus like foodstamps

  9. Ken Parish says:

    Homer and Scott both make good points. It’s certainly important to ask how Centrelink would determine which pensioner parents were guilty of drinking or gambling away too much of their benefits instead of spending the money on their kids. Would you have an army of informants in Aboriginal communities and Housing Commission flats?

    At the same time, there are plenty of obvious and egregious cases where detection doesn’t present a problem. The trouble is that acting only in those cases would result in a significant level of arbitrariness, and might tend to target Aboriginal people simply because they’re likely to be more recognisable as welfare recipients and therefore more likely to be dobbed in.

    And if we moved to a regime of foodstamps for all parent pensioners, then:

    (a) there are clear issues of personal dignity and autonomy; and
    (b) you’d probably end up creating a black market trade in foodstamps for grog. Alcoholics are nothing if not resourceful in finding ways to get their hands on grog.

    Scott’s argument is the respectable libertarian one, and certainly avoids objectionable aspects of “nanny state-ism”. But in placing the emphasis on people choosing to live in a particular way, it ignores the fact that they are also inflicting their choices on their children and therefore perpetuating the generational cycle of poverty. In part no doubt that’s why Andrew Bartlett observes that there are no easy answers.

  10. Homer Paxton says:

    I am not going to deny there isn’t a problem but the application of this just can’t be done unless it is done on a whole basis.

    My guess is that it would introduce a whole new area for lawyers if done on an individual basis.

  11. Ian says:

    One word, well two :-), debit card.

  12. Paul Watson says:

    Nicholas wrote:

    “Paul, . . . would diverting the income of those who’ve not paid rent into rent be on balance good or bad for the children?”.

    Um, that’s a “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” type question.

    For the record, I don’t have strong personal objections to “White”

  13. Patrick says:

    Um, I’m pretty libertarian myself – which is why I can’t understand anyone objecting to this idea based on individual liberty.

    Firstly, if you take the money, you are in a fine position to put up and shut up or shift out.
    Secondly, if you choose to live in a certain manner, you absolutely deserve to pay the consequences, including such shocking consequences as incomplete liberty over the expenditure of, er, someone else’s money!!

    And, Paul, your position re Aborigines is a ‘If the silly woman won’t stick up for herself it is no affair of mine’ type shirking.

  14. observa says:

    Actually it might well be worth using the default position of freedom to spend as you wish, but using the stick of Big Brother controls where it is obvious children are involved. This may have a powerful big stick incentive further up the Centrelink chain to do the right thing. Abuse it(fiscal freedom) and lose it Centrelink parents. The trigger for controls would be school truancy, hungry kids at school and kids on the prowl alone at unreasonable hours, criminal behaviour, etc. This could be the forerunner of a program of removing kids under the worst cases of neglect. There’s probably little point in implementing such controls on childless adults.

    I’d have to say that identifying the pokie addicted parents and their problem kids as a result, is the least of such a system’s problems. Ask the Salvos or Vinnies. They’re usually picking up the fallout here.

  15. phil says:

    Stone the crows, I must be losing my leftism, but Observa makes some good points. Throwing money at the problem without requiring something in return can’t go on forever.

  16. Ken,

    Carr’s response might be reflexive, but IMO, he’s on the money on the subject of housing. More here.

  17. Ken Parish says:


    No, Carr was just scoring cheap points. He might just as well have said “Brough has no credibility on housing and homelessness until he deals contructively with alcoholism, violence and child neglect”. In fact, that’s precisely what he would have said if Brough had been making a positive policy announcement about housing instead of one about welfare rules. It’s the standard politician’s gambit. if your opponent says “The problem is X”, you say “No the problem is Y and it’s all your fault”.

    In fact all these issues are inextricably bound up together, and all need to be tackled much more seriously and simultaneously by all levels of government and communities and families as well. That’s why Bartlett’s position is so refreshing.

    Carr’s glib line is doubly dishonest, because as ALP Housing spokesperson he would be well aware that the most recent Commonwealth State Housing Agreement specifically devolved responsibility for provision of indigenous and other disadvantaged housing to the states and territories (in part to reduce duplication) in return for the Commonwealth giving the States an additional $4.75 billion over the life of the agreement (including $485 million specifically for Aboriginal rental housing and $328 million for community housing).

    Thus for Carr to say that Brough has no credibility because of failing to tackle indigenous housing is fundamentally dishonest. The Commonwealth and States have agreed that this should be a State responsibility and the Commonwealth has given the States a bucketful of Commonwealth money to enable them to discharge that responsibility. One can certainly argue that the Commonwealth should be putting in even more money given the shortfall in indigenous housing provision, but you can also argue that the states should be putting in just as much extra from their own burgeoning GST coffers. Carr is just blame-shifting and playing the usual political games, instead of looking honestly for solutions to very difficult problems.

    On the central issue of the post, I don’t agree with the thrust of your LP post at all. I think a measure of GENUINE mutual responsibility will be essential to any viable solution to these endemic problems of indigenous disadvantage, although I agree that “mutual obligation” has mostly been employed in Australian and elsewhere as a spurious justification for cutting government spending by blaming welfare recipients for their own predicament. However, the fact that the concept is capable of misuse doesn’t mean it lacks intrinsic merit. In indigenous society, where so much of the suffering is directly inflicted by the actions of Aboriginal people themselves, GENUINE mutual obligation strategies are essential because mere spending programs without such strategies just won’t address those behavioural root causes. Brough’s proposals, however problematic, at least begin to explore the behavioural root causes. if we take Andrew Bartlett’s advice (as we should), we would be using the opportunity to brainstorm more viable ideas to address the behavioural problems and the funding shortfall as well. Carr makes no attempt to do this, nor does your blog post, and that’s very sad.

  18. Ken,

    I very consciously ignored Brough’s reference to indigenous communities as his presentation of the idea is quite non-specific – indigenous communities are merely cited as one area where his quite general proposal might be applied.

    In that generalised context I think your criticisms based on the assumption that I’m referring to indigenous communities might need to be revisited ;)

  19. Patrick says:

    Makes bugger-all difference, GT, unless you mean that the problems of ‘white trash’ are somehow forced on them whilst those accepting that those of indigenous peoples aren’t. Which only emphasises that your grasp of the issues is as lame as Ken suggests.

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