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.