Big Brother meets Nanny State or necessary child protection measure?

Federal family Services Minster, Mal Brough, has floated a proposal to allow government to require parents, who are found to be failing to provide for their children, to have part of their welfare payment compulsorily quarantined so it is spent on rent, electricity and food for the children.

The Minister says it “is a debate we must have” and “it is a debate that I want to pursue in the both public arena but also within government.”

One positive aspect of the Minister’s statements is the opportunity for a public debate on children’s welfare and what we can do to improve in that area.

Given the record of Governments of all political persuasions over a long period, it is hard not to see this ‘debate’ panning out as just another attempt to score cheap political points off welfare recipients and indigenous people. However, if debate around the Minister’s idea can be used to genuinely examine what effective measures can be taken to reduce serious neglect and abuse of children, it will be worthwhile.

This post is an attempt to do that. Some of my thoughts about the proposal are below, but I would be interested in the views of readers.

Rather than paraphrase the Minister’s comments, the full transcript of his interview on Channel 9’s Sunday program about this matter can be found by clicking on this link.

The key reason why I am interested in the views of others on this issue, rather than just condemn the idea out of hand, is the recognition – based on a number of reports released in the past year or two – that there are too many children who are being subjected to serious neglect and abuse. We have an obligation to consider what we can do that might reduce that, no matter how confronting or radical a proposal may seem.

Having said that, I find it hard to see how such a compulsory system could work fairly or consistently. In particular, it would be very unfair, divisive and dangerous to only subject welfare recipients to this approach. In his interview, the Minister mentions “taxpayer money” a couple of times, but that is not the issue. The issue is children being at risk from parental failure – whether they are misapplying income from welfare payments or other sources is irrelevant.

If the government believes it is necessary for them to, in effect, dictate to a parent how they spend part of their money to reduce harm to children, they should be prepared to do this to anyone in the community.

Having people voluntarily agree to have some of the income direct debited each payday to cover essentials has been done for a long time to help people who have trouble budgeting, managing money or controlling their spending, and wherever this can actually help it should be encouraged. But the Minister himself says, “the people that we need to help the most are more than likely not going to work on this on a voluntary basis because of their own personal needs in the form of alcoholism or gambling habits.”

The Minister’s comment also reflects the reality that people who are so affected by these sorts of issues that they can’t get it together to buy food for the kids, pay electricity bills, etc, are likely to have deeper underlying problems they need help with, rather than just money management. That may help a bit, but it is unlikely to be all that is needed to be done to reduce the risk faced by the children in that situation.

People agreeing to have part of their income set aside is no big deal, but doing something like this compulsorily is a very big step. I suspect some people don’t realise quite how dramatic a shift a policy like this would cause in our culture and social attitudes. One only has to look at the continuing controversy caused by the Child Support Agency’s ability to automatically deduct money from people’s pay. I think what Minister Brough is suggesting would be far more confronting for many people affected by it.

It would also reflect a significant philosophical shift from individual parental responsibility to an acceptance of greater government intervention and oversight of parenting. Given the number of children enduring serious neglect or abuse at present, some may argue we could hardly do worse. I agree there are many people who are not doing well at meeting their minimum responsibilities as parents, but I’m not sure that adopting a culture of having the government doing more to fill the gaps will actually improve things in the majority of cases.

If something is likely to improve the overall situation for more children, then it should be looked at, although with a serious eye to all the flow on social consequences. When children suffer from serious neglect or abuse, it not only harms the child, it often causes a problem for the wider society for decades to come – (and for those who only care about economics, it also causes significant costs).

So my own view at the moment is that I can’t see this sort of thing working safely or effectively, but I remain hopeful the Minister is genuine about exploring ways to take a national approach on improving the situation for children at risk, and some other ideas could also be explored.

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  1. There is a fundamental difference between the Government dictating how people can spend the Government’s money, and the Government dictating how people can spend their own money.

    That is why it is not valid to compare the Government’s proposal that welfare-derived spending could be controlled, to your hypothetical proposal that non-welfare-derived spending could be controlled.

    One other current proposal for helping children at risk hasn’t yet been mentioned here: the removal of at-risk children from abuive parents in Aboriginal communities. Is that because the fact that Aboriginal elders are demanding such a policy, is embarrassing to “stolen generation” believers?

  2. Sorry Andrew, but I think the issue of taxpayer money is very significant. These benefits are not only paid to parents personally but the quantum is calculated on number of dependent children and that money is, in effect, given to the parents on trust. If the parents abuse that trust and misappropriate the funds then it makes perfect sense to redirect the money to those it is intended to benefit.

    Also your reference to ‘rich’ people abusing their kids is rather disingenuous in this context and trivialises the reality of those kids surving in marginalised circumstances.

  3. Andrew. You said:

    “If the government believes it is necessary for them to, in effect, dictate to a parent how they spend part of their money to reduce harm to children, they should be prepared to do this to anyone in the community”

    Does that include Government departments that are failing in their duty of care and are totally incompetant and use lack of money as an excuse to justify the neglect of the needs of children that they are supposed to protect?

    Would the people then be able to take the money from the Government so as to ensure that it is not wasted and it is spent on protecting and meeting the needs of the children?

  4. I wouldn’t have thought the democrats had any problem with the government increasing its control over citizens, they support almost every whacky effort there is to regualte society – as long as a seat at the politbure is reserved for them of course. I think this part of your argumentis a sidetrack to keep Ep and Geoff happy.

    However – I do tend to agree with the geenral view that this is not a very good idea – mainly for reason of practicality, workability and as individual cases need individual solutions. Theer is raerly any universal benefit from blanket policy approaches. This one falls down from
    1.economic – its impossible for the giovernment to ever implement any universal system that doesnt have a negative cost benefit.
    2. Social – universal application would, in my view, casue unnecessary stigmatisaiotn and “lessening of peraosnl respoisnbility” for the vast bulk or welafre recipients who may be poor, who may make a blue, and blow there weeks “pay” evevry now and then but in the main get by.

    I do belive that if, as a matter of socil policy, we have welfare system for supporting those less well off, we should enable people to access that wiht as much dignity as possible.

    The issue of child abuse is, I think they refer to it on this blog as a bit of a strawman, possible to garner support for the idea. Obviously there are poepl who neglect their families and kids, thre are well established processess to deal wiht that.

    As a formwer Child Welfare Officer I was involved in many cases where parents eihter voluntaroily, as part of a case contract wiht their supervisong offiefr, or as part of a court process under neglect proceedings, were ordered to be subjst to syuch undertakings.

    Its nothing particually new and as someone righlty pointed out the udnerlying issues of neglect / child abuse are far more complex that wasting money. Although any good caseworker would be adderssing these sort of practicalaqiteis as part of any ongoing case manegemtn plan.

    Theer may well be a case for a greaetr capaciyt to adminsitratively enable this sort of approach at the case maangeemnt level, ratehr than by way of ocurt order – thats is more by way of adminsitrative ordwer than voluntray – however the down side is the potential then for never ending appeals and complaints, best l;eave it to the magistrates.

    So i tend to think this sounds like a good idea fro the government to attract support from the general populace, who have no real idea what child abuse ios all about.

    As for the silly contribution at #4 – well what can one say.

  5. How do you target the parents that are neglecting their children?
    How do they come to the attention of the authorities? Do you assess every welfare recipient for their budgeting, parental abilities? How do you ensure that these people do not have debts – the same as more financially able citizens.

    I think you’ll find that the marginalised, poorly educated and disadvantaged people will be over represented here. These people are usually already known to the authorities, community and families and nothing is done about them now.

    Surely we can come up with a better way to support at risk children? Like proper funding of welfare and social support – if the well to do stopped trying to minimise their tax and paid their fair share, we might have a bit more for the poor and needy. Yes, it is a responsibility of good citizens to look after those less fortunate in life, not blame, label and accuse so that they do not feel guilty about selfishly doing nothing.

    Let’s just think about sterilising all stupid, irresponsible people before they can breed – save even the wealthy from future pain!

  6. Ken my contribution was not silly. The Government wants to control the people and make them responsible but that is never going to work until they take responsbility themselves first.

    Saying do as I say but not as I do doesn’t cut it. If they expect the community to take responsibility for the money that they receive on welfare then the Government should lead by example and take responsbility and be accountable for the money that they receive from tax payers.

    At the moment child abuse is out of control and the process they have set up to deal with complaints does not work for the majority. Most of the complaints, just like criminals, are about repeat offenders. The system is so busy spending money covering up the fact that they have been incompetant, that they actully dont have enough resources left to help the children. Its a waste of money and our children deserve better.

    Accountability and responsibility needs to start at the top.

  7. Ken,
    I agree that the system would probably be too unwieldy to administer but that would probably be my main objection. However, I don’t have your experience in child protection issues.

    The eugenics argument is just as disingenuous as the ‘rich abuser’ one – it’s a rhetorical argument stopper. I’m unsure of Brough’s real motives but at least he is prompting debate on allocation of public funds.

  8. Sorry Andrew – jolanda Please try to limit comments to things you have even a pasing kniowldeg of. Or limit comments to an opinion rather than an assertion of factual knowldege

  9. Ken, I have researched child protection and the Ombudsmans reports in relation to child protection issues. I have also made formal allegations of child abuse and neglect causing psychological harm to relevant agencies and authorities and I have seen what they do and how they deal with complaints and I am not the only one who has issues with the neglect and mismanagement in the system. So many children are being neglected and abused because people just want to protect their own reputation.

    I am talking facts.

  10. I am currently ambivalent about the proposal. First I must say when we refer to government’s money, we refer to taxpayers money, which is the public’s money – its usually disingenuous to say otherwise.

    Is this a general recognition that irresponsible parenting leads to the breakdown of social mores?

    I think there’s something somewhere on LP about that.

  11. Jane, well maybe he could look at the all the middle class and corporate welfare – the non means tested rebates and family tax benefits that are offered today. Take some from the greedy and assist the needy.

  12. Jane, well maybe he could look at the all the middle class and corporate welfare – the non means tested rebates and family tax benefits that are offered today. Take some from the greedy and give more to the departments that assist the needy.

    I still think there is more than a little of the “dog whistle” in the minister’s proposal, this government never tiring of a new idea to divide the Australian population. Is there anything that they need to get off the front pages at present?

  13. Sorry Jane, I seem to have had a computer problem, or more accurately, operator error.

  14. Dogs aer barking all over the place Deborah. The “welfaer ‘ to which you refer mey well be debatalbe in its necessity – I wouldn’t disagree – especially seeing I cant get my nose into that trough at all – however it is miniscule and a smokesceeen compared to the more that $60b that goes on to the general welfare distribution.

    Perhpas even an attempt at reverse divisiness

  15. Firstly, welfare money does not belong to the government, it belongs to the person who owns the bank account that it was put into, the law is quite clear on this.

    secondly there are many people with lots of money who neglect their children. Many neglect their children in order to make money. While they might have shiney clothes and be obese, they are non-the -less neglected and society will pay for the problem of affluent neglect in the long run.

    Neglect, rich or poor, is about relationships and responsibility not financial accounting. Budgeting is just part of a whole range of sensible things to replace the neglectful situation. But without some basic healing of relationships, budgeting restrictions will not work. Either the sneaky will find a way around them or the children will be removed from their families causing more social disintegration and damaged personalities for us all to deal with.

    When people neglect their kids and drink or gamble the money away, it is not evil but a sense of hopelessness and depression. If there is not enough money to do the right thing (as on the dole) then in desparation you get drunk and adopt a “to hell with it all” attitude.
    Then, when people sober up,they feel terribly guilty about what they have done, adding to stresses and tensions and increasing the likelyhood of the same escapist thing happeneing on next payday.

    I have no problenm at all with direct deductions to pay basics, I do it myself because it is convenient and I don’t have to stress about whether I can afford it or not.

    I am sure that if the present, working, centrelink deduction system was advertised as a positive service offered to welfare clients (rather than as a punishment as it is discussed now) then many people would sign up voluntarily.

    Welfare services should be offered in the spirit of a helping hand, not a punch in the face. A helping hand is the best way to rectify problems. A punch in the face just causes more anxiety, grief and social problems in the long run.

    I suspect it would be much more cost effective, and just straight out effective, to have a supportive promotional campaign to help targeted families rather than a high profile punitive campaign like at present, which seems more to do with posturing for the next election than concern for children.

  16. If you don’t like it there is always an alternative – get a job and support yourself.

  17. People caught in alcoholism, drug addiction and gambling (which is the focus of this discussion) do not just wake up one day and say “I am going to work today”. It is a bit more complicated than that. However a bit more complicated strategy that leads people into work is a much better option than punitive welfare.

  18. I wonder how many of the writers have actually ever been in the system and tried to survive on the pittance that is the welfare benefit.

    It’s interesting that millionaires can get nearly $4,000 per year back in the cash churning process so that the mum can stay home while single mums have nearly 60% of extra income taken from them – how on earth do you feed and clothe a child these days on about $100 per week? It’s just not possible anymore.

    The problem with the proposal is the racism involved – it is only directed at the poor aboriginal community as if white folks don’t neglect their kids.

    When my disabled son was a kid I lived in this funny little street with 14 houses occupied mostly by single mothers. Every pension day 5 of the mums and their older children would collect their pension money and go to the bingo hall where they would lose almost all of it on bingo and scratchies, trying to get a few extra bucks.

    By the Friday they would have to go to welfare to get food vouchers, then during the next two weeks they would alternate between the salvos, St Vinnies, Anglicare and so on. They were never refused because they had small kids to feed – this went on for the 5.5 years I lived in that street.

    To supplement their incomes three of the mums were dealing drugs and stealing from the bosses, one almost got murdered one night. Not long after I escaped from that hell hole.

    Those women stayed and kept right on playing the merry go round and every time the cash looking liked drying up the daughters had more babies.

    Not one of them was an aborigine.

    By contrast I would go to school full time and then care for two aborginal children for several hours after school to get some extra cash while their hard working single mum went to college to become a teacher. She succeeded and is highly regarded these days.

    The white kids were always dressed out of rag bags or shop lifting trips while the aboriginal kids had beautifully crafted clothes made by their mum.

    That is my problem with the whole question – it is judging the many like young Alison and her beautiful, smart kids by the very few who screw up.

    I forgot to say that the 5 year old son of the aboriginal woman was in school with my son. Their teacher was racist to the core and cruelly informed me that Robbie was “stupid” and would never catch up.

    Within a week of doing their spelling with them after school I knew she was lying, I complained to the principal and this grade one teacher was sacked for racism.

    As she should have been in a school with 40 different nationalities.

  19. Same old, same old. Same old tactic they’ve been using for years. Something awkward like AWB, problems over Papuan refugees and Indonesia, and/or Kovco comes up and the response is to generate either fear or downward envy.

  20. Andrew.

    I appreciate you raising this issue and again some interesting responses but how many really understand the struggle that welfare recipients are experiencing? With you posting this subject, it is good to see you taking a interest in the plan being proposed by the Families Minister, Mal Brough and even today, Minister Cobb has entered the debate but is targeting those who access the maternity allowance.

    Have had a quick read through the responses posted sofar, I do agree that there are bad parents that abuse their children and everyone is under some sort of pressure these days. But then again; how many Australians really take a interest in various issues that are appearing on the scene and the rot that is originating from all governments?

    With the Federal Budget to be handed down, week tonight, perhaps Minister Brough and Cobb are testing the waters. It is far too easy to stick the boot in those Australians who through no fault of their own have to access the safety net provided under the Social Security Act or the Family Assistance legislation.

    Whilst I’m very critical of government, perhaps some people who provide their opinions to this forum and other news outlets, should do their homework and come up with some constructive suggestings.

    I would mention that I’m a member of a online group which has been set up for those Australians who have a disability and even their needs continue to be ignored but it is a eye-opener.

    Don’t we have in place, government agencies that employ social workers who are qualified to handle child abuse and other issues. Don’t our hospitals employ social workers. Don’t our various charities provide an ever-increasing service to those who seek out their assistance.

    The plan of Minister, Mal Brough, has come in for some talkback responses-commentary but as far as I’m concerned, its Big Brother.
    Commenting further on this plan, I would like to mention to those who read this subject and those who have shared their thoughts; has anyone heard from the Minister for Human Services whose department controls Centrelink.

    With the odds firming on a smartcard for both health and welfare; how much extra work will be placed on Centrelink when according to the last Annual Report for that agency has seen a decrease in staffing. I doubt that the goverment will increase staffing levels when over the 11 years that the Howard Government has been in, public service numbers have declined. Does anyone remember when in the first term, the government took a knife to the public service and thousands of jobs lost?

    Although there is more that I could provide, I wait with interest to see if anyone challenges what I’ve posted.

    Keep posting the issues Andrew.

  21. David

    I believe that rather than focusing on taking welfare off Indigenous and welfare recipients, they could consider investing in infrastructure and education for the indigenous communities. They could find this money by eliminating middle class welfare.

    I had a discussion with my neighbour about this on the weekend. She told me she had bought some Clinique face cream with her last Centrelink payment. We both felt that perhaps a lot of Family Tax A and B could go to more needy communities.

  22. this govt will do anything to get its (howards) way.
    this retoric is all about getting the new card accepted buy the ppl
    all the ho har and threats and promoses will all disapere when the card is introduced.
    look back at aust resent history and see who really made posotive changes to help our own ppl .
    it wasent the bunch that is in control now.
    and i would not expect that to change untill they have been replaced.

  23. I think it is important to address our culture of responsibility. We are all a part of this community.
    Donna at 23 suggests investing in infrastruture and education for indigenous communities. This hits the nail on the head for me. Though I feel we need to do it across the board – not just for indigenous communities.

    Ask most teachers and head teachers / principals (across Australia) about how much time they are forced to spend dealing with the results of neglect and abuse. Ask any school how often they are called on to feed kids who have arrived with no food. Ask schools how their days are filled with managing the behaviour of children who experience abuse in their homes. Perhaps more support for childrens welfare in schools is the key. This means more buildings, staff and money – community responsibility for the future citizens. A culture of care. Building a sense of community around the school. But we can’t expect schools to manage this without more financial support.

    Schools are places to educate and care for kids. Spend money here. Work on the reality that kids don’t leave home behind when they come to school. Specially developed social programs that assist kids understand what is happening at home and learn to manage in the reality that is their family. This is where Govt can have a positive role.

    Broad answers are needed to a big social community problem. Most kids stay with their families despite some neglect or abuse. The reality is that most (if not all) families have some abuse – be it physical, emotional, verbal etc. Small hip pocket policies won’t do a thing to change the culture of abuse. That hip nerve may win votes, but when poked, it does not create a caring family life. Nor does it empower kids to survive in a family where there is abuse or neglect.

    We need broad, researched, powerful approaches aimed at the kids to change a culture of violence and abuse. Changes that will filter down to the children of today’s future families.

  24. And further on the truancy issue – that is how can the schools help kids if they are not there? The school my kids attend has had great success by sending teachers on home visits. Building links and bonds with families. Helping the teachers to see the bigger picture of why kids are late or not attending. Staff have been able to offer support where they can. The school has even restructured the timetable to make it easiter for late comers not miss out on full classes in literacy and numeracy held later in the day. There are solutions, we need to realise that we have to make changes to make them succesful…

  25. I think it should be for all people waisting money not just aboriginal.

    It is tax payers money given so that children can be fed if their parents are not working to feed them.

    Its not for Bingo either

  26. Some welfare recipients are better money managers than others, just like the general populous I suppose.

    I don’t think we should police how every cent is spent. Recipients still need to have a good quality of life … if at all possible given the frugal lifestyle they’re already forced to live.

    If they manage to put a few bucks aside to go to the movies every now or then, or to bingo, or whatever, it’s not indicative that they’re neglecting their kids. They’re just doing what everyone else does – keeping connected to their community.

  27. Something that has been forgotten by Costello and Brough is that if the kids don’t go to school the sky won’t fall in.

    If they are denied money they starve.

  28. Kids don’t buy food ( well not young kids) … I can sort of understand how the electricity bills might get paid if you direct debit, but food on the table? I don’t think you can force it – I strongly believe that a broader approach is needed … Andrew, I am interested in your thoughts on possible solutions?

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