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Dr Muriel Newman

Australian Welfare Reform

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Last year, Dr Sue Gordon, West Australia’s first Aboriginal Magistrate and Chair of the National Indigenous Council, gave a speech at a child abuse conference in Wellington. In her speech she highlighted some of the appalling statistics relating to the abuse of Aboriginal children. These included the fact that in 2004-05, 4,887 Indigenous children under the age of 17 were abused, a rate 3.6 times higher than non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous children are also six times more likely to be on care and protection orders than other Australian children.

Dr Gordon said, “While this is not a new or emerging problem, for too long silence has surrounded the prevalence of abuse and neglect that Indigenous children are subjected to, often under the false assumption that violence is culturally ingrained in our Indigenous heritage. In order to protect our children, it is vital that we bring this issue into the open and ask the hard questions”.

These are also hard questions for New Zealand. Our statistics show that the rate of abuse of Maori children has grown rapidly over the last few years to the point where it is now double that of non-Maori. With Maori comprising just 24% of the children under the age of 17, these figures mean that Maori children are six times more likely to be abused than non-Maori.

Maori children are also six times more likely to be fatally abused than non-Maori, according to a report produced by the Department of Child Youth and Family last year. (To read the report, click here)

In her speech, Dr Gordon asked, “Why are Indigenous children at greater risk of becoming victims of child abuse than other Australian children? Why have we put our children at risk and allowed this to become an epidemic in our communities?”

These are very important questions for us to answer. Why is it that Maori children have become so much more vulnerable to abuse than non-Maori?

The CYF report sheds some light on this by identifying the significant danger to children of living in non-traditional families. “Children living in households with an adult unrelated to them were almost 50 times as likely to die of an inflicted injury as children living in households with two biological parents. Parents who are co-habiting are more likely to commit child homicide than married parents”.

The report explains, “Mori children are more exposed to the risk of fatal child maltreatment associated with having a stepparent, as Mori children are twice as likely as New Zealand European and other children to be raised in a blended family”.

The report highlights a number of other key factors that seriously exacerbate the risks of abuse for Maori children. These include sole parenthood, being a teenage parent, low educational attainment, benefit dependency, chronic alcohol and drug abuse, and violence.

Many of these are also factors which plague Aboriginal communities. In an article in the Australian, “Vale hope in outback hellhole”, Noel Pearson, the director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, describes life in an Aboriginal community:

“It was after 2am and I could hear loud music booming from several stereos in various parts of what I would have called a village in my youth, but which more accurately answers to the description of an outback ghetto today.

“The music emanated from houses known as party houses, where numbers of men and women congregate to binge drink, share marijuana, often out of what are called bucket bongs, laughing, shouting, singing and dancing and seeking sexual partners – consensual and otherwise. By midnight the bonhomie of the early evening descends into tension, as various bingers develop dark moods, vent anger, resentment and suspicions at those to whom they earlier professed love”.

He goes on to explain:

“This Friday night was the third night in a row of parties, beginning on Wednesday evening following the receipt of Benefit payments, which continued at a lower gear over the next day and got back into top gear on Thursday night following the receipt of work-for-the-dole payments. As I drove around the streets at 3am, I passed by drunks stumbling from one party house to another. I passed groups of young teenage girls walking around or sitting on the kerbside. For too many of them, sexual activity begins young at Hope Vale, very young. Who knows the circumstances of their first experience, but the incidences of abuse that come to light are only the tip of the iceberg of sexual assault, unlawful intercourse with minors, and incest.” (To read the article click here)

Just over a month ago Noel Pearson published a report “Hand Out to Hand Up” in which he set out a plan of action to eliminate the giving out of ‘unconditional’ welfare to unemployed Aborigines. He believes that welfare money given freely without any reciprocal obligations to use it in the way it was intended – to feed the children, pay the rent and keep the home and family functioning properly – is the root cause of the crisis in Aboriginal communities. He has called ‘unconditional welfare’ a poison that fuels a cauldron of booze, drugs, sex and gambling. His plan is to replace it with welfare that is conditional on responsible behaviour: ensuring children are not abused, that they attend school, that drug and alcohol abuse are eliminated, and that the rent is paid and the house maintained.

His plan was that if a family breached the conditions of their welfare contract, then a local agency of a new Families Responsibility Commission would take over some – or all – of their welfare budget and manage it for them. His report also recommended that the unemployed be required to move around to find work and that families be encouraged into home ownership. (To read the report, click here)

Shortly after Noel Pearson’s report was published, another, which had been commissioned by the Northern Territory Government – the Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse by Pat Anderson and Rex Wild QC – was released, confirming the child abuse crisis in remote Aboriginal communities. (To read the report, click here)

This latest report became the catalyst for Prime Minister John Howard to launch a national emergency response to protect Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. At the core of the changes being introduced is the replacement of unconditional welfare for dysfunctional families.

Professor Peter Saunders, social research director at the Centre for Independent Studies and this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, in his article “Conditional welfare makes sense”, puts it this way:

“The plan is that any parent who allows their child to play truant from school, or who spends their family payments on alcohol, drugs and gambling rather than putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their children’s heads, will have 50 per cent of their payments withheld by Centrelink. This money will then be spent on ensuring their rent is paid and that their children’s food and medical expenses are covered.

“The Government intends to take over key responsibilities from parents whose lives are too disorganised to provide adequately for their children. The message is that if you don’t organise your life and your finances to ensure your children are properly cared for, the Government will come and hold your hand until you are responsible enough to make your own decisions again”. (To read the article, click here )

In a speech outlining his initiative “To stabilise and protect” Prime Minister John Howard explained:

“Without urgent action to restore social order, the nightmare will go on – more grog, more violence, more pornography and more sexual abuse – as the generation we’re supposed to save sinks further into the abyss. Even worse, believing that what is happening to them is normal. There comes a point where the obligations of national governments take over. Action cannot be delayed by concerns that it’s not ‘culturally appropriate’. No culture – and certainly no indigenous culture – believes child abuse is appropriate. This is not an Aboriginal problem or a Northern Territory problem. It’s an Australian problem that calls for national leadership” (To read the speech click here)

The new controls will apply to all dysfunctional welfare households in Australia – indigenous and non-indigenous. Those controls include: compulsory health checks on all at-risk children, enforcing attendance at school by linking income support to school attendance, and quarantining of 50 per cent of welfare payments to ensure that funds meant to be used for children’s welfare are actually used for that purpose.

Clearly this is something our government must now consider. It is also clear that the prevent system is failing, and any responsible government would not stand by and allow that to continue.

The poll this week asks: Should the welfare reform proposed by the Howard government in Australia be adopted in New Zealand? Go to

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