Support for Cape York Welfare Reform trial

Release Date: 
9 December 2013

PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: I rise to speak on one particular aspect of the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013—that is, the continuing income management as part of the Cape York Welfare Reform trial, which is a cost of $4.2 million over two years. This is one measure among a number of measures. I have a particular interest in this measure for two reasons. Firstly, I was intricately involved in helping to design the Cape York Welfare Reform trial as deputy director of Noel Pearson's Cape York Institute. I was there for several years when this was being designed and I helped to oversee the design. So I have a deep interest in seeing it progress and being implemented.

Secondly, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister my responsibilities now include Indigenous affairs. We are looking at all of the reform measures that have been implemented in Indigenous communities and assessing what has been working and what has not. For those who do not know, the Cape York Welfare Reform trial consists of a number of components, but the flagship component of the trial is the Families Responsibilities Commission. This consists of a number of parts. To start with, it consists of welfare payments being conditional upon a number of measures being met. If someone were to receive welfare payments in the four trial communities in Cape York where the Families Responsibilities Commission is in operation, they must send their child to school, they must look after their public house if they have one, they must keep their children free from neglect and they must remain free from trouble with the police.

If a person breaches one of those conditions, they will then be triggered to the Families Responsibilities Commission. David Glasgow, a retired magistrate, is chair of the commission. It also has local elders who sit alongside him. If, for example, a person has not sent their child to school, they can call that individual in front of the commission and those elders and the chairman can ask a person to improve their behaviours in that area. They can send that person off to get assistance for one or two things and, if that still does not work, they have the ability to income manage that person's welfare payments if they still are not doing the right thing having received a couple of warnings. This very innovative model is specifically aimed to address issues in such as school attendance and, importantly, to restore some Indigenous authority so that local elders can stand up and take responsibility for things going on in their communities. That has occurred through the Families Responsibilities Commission. This core component in the bill allows for the continuation of income management for a further two years.

We can assess the Cape York Welfare Reform trial by looking at the evaluation report from 2012. That report, which is a lengthy document, is quite instructive. The executive summary concludes by saying:

… the evaluation after only three years of the trial of welfare reform points to a level of progress that has rarely been evident in previous reform programs in Queensland’s remote Indigenous communities.

It is quite a powerful summation of how the welfare reform trial has been progressing. When they examine particular measures—for example, school attendance—they point to how a school such as Aurukun, which had one of the lowest school attendance rates in Queensland, has had considerable improvement. Indeed its school attendance rose from 46.1 per cent in the first term of 2008 to over 70 per cent in 2012. I believe it is now up to 76 per cent. They still have a long way to go to get school attendance up to 95 per cent but it shows a substantial improvement. The evaluation report puts that down to the operation of the Families Responsibilities Commission, which is the core flagship measure in the welfare reform trial.

It is worth noting that the then member for Longman and minister for Indigenous affairs Mal Brough was critical in getting the welfare reform trial up and running from the Commonwealth perspective. He should be thanked for his work. Also, successive Labor and Liberal Queensland governments supported the trial, as did the Labor government under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. The welfare reform trial in the cape is not without problems. The evaluation report goes through some of those issues and where progress has been made. Many people refer to the fact that it has been an expensive trial. Nevertheless, on the basis of the evaluation, the trials have been successful and there are many areas worth continuing at least for a couple of years. A recommendation in this bill is to continue income management support mechanisms which support the operations of the Families Responsibilities Commission. Passing this measure will enable the operation of the Families Responsibilities Commission to continue for another two years. I think that is a very worthwhile initiative.