Australia: Labor to strip welfare from parents of truant children

Punishing the poor

By Laura Tiernan
4 September 2008

In what amounts to a declaration of war on the right to welfare, Labor’s Minister for Education Julia Gillard presented a new bill to federal parliament last week that will strip benefits from parents whose children truant from school. Payments can be cut for 13 weeks or cancelled entirely if parents fail to provide a “reasonable excuse” for their child’s non-attendance.

Defending his government’s new welfare penalties, which surpass even the punitive welfare quarantine imposed by the former Howard government in the Northern Territory, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared it was time to take “a hard-line approach”.

The Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (Schooling Requirements) Bill 2008 will apply across six Northern Territory Aboriginal communities and to Cannington, a largely non-indigenous working class suburb in Perth’s south-east, starting from January 2009. “If the trials are successful,” Gillard told parliament, “the legislation will allow for the national rollout of the policy”.

Initially, the measures will affect some 3,300 children. Schools will be asked to provide student attendance information to Centrelink. When truancy is identified and where parents fail to take “reasonable steps” to ensure their child’s attendance, all benefits will be cut, leaving families without money for food, bills, transport or housing.

Welfare organisations, indigenous welfare experts and school principals have universally condemned the legislation. “Income management is a blunt instrument to address the complex reasons that children may not be attending school,” ACOSS President Lin Hatfield Dodds said.

Hatfield Dodds cited a lack of basic education and support services, poor quality education programs, bullying, insecure housing and health problems as some of the factors that lead to truancy. “Suspension of income support payments is a harsh penalty which itself poses a serious threat to family and child wellbeing. Many of the families affected by these proposals are already living on low incomes and the suspension of payments will increase hardship and poverty.”

Right-wing ideologues praise Rudd

Rudd’s new welfare penalty regime has received enthusiastic backing from the Murdoch press. On Monday August 25 the government’s legislative agenda was announced via a front page “exclusive” in the tabloid Daily Telegraph. The use of the tabloid press to unveil right-wing populist measures was a stock-standard procedure of the Howard government, used to demonise a range of targets, including “dole cheats”, refugees and Muslims.

Rudd told the Telegraph: “The kid who is away for days on end without a medical certificate or without any other reasonable presentation of grounds, those measures [the withholding of welfare] will kick in. It is part of our approach to mutual responsibility and we think it is an important way to go because it’s those kids who miss out from regular school attendance who are going to be the most vulnerable across the entire country.”

The Rudd government’s professions of concern for truant children are a sham. Gillard has declared that “we cannot have an education revolution and give every Australian child a world-class education if they are not going to school.” Yet throughout the Northern Territory, including those areas where the welfare penalties will be trialled, there is a chronic lack of basic infrastructure. In indigenous communities in the NT 94 percent have no preschool; 56 percent have no secondary school and 27 percent have a primary school that is more than 27 kms away.

As with the Howard government’s NT “emergency response” legislation (a military-police operation across 73 communities launched on the pretext of protecting indigenous children from sexual abuse) the most impoverished members of society are being vilified in pursuit of a thoroughly regressive agenda.

This agenda was spelt out in a column last Wednesday by right-wing Murdoch columnist Janet Albrechtsen headlined “Tough Love is now Bipartisan”. Albrechtsen responded to Rudd’s new policy announcement with unconcealed glee. The Labor prime minister’s plan deserved “unequivocal praise” and showed “courageous leadership”.

What Albrechtsen found so courageous were the right-wing nostrums of “individual responsibility” underpinning the Rudd government’s welfare penalties. “Sadly, so many on the Left remain cemented to past policies predicated on the role of the state rather than the power of individuals.... They prefer to point the finger of blame at anyone except parents. Blame the system. Blame the schools, they say.”

In other words, government has no responsibility to counteract the brutal inequalities engendered by the operations of the profit system. Instead, individuals—in this case impoverished Aboriginal parents and welfare recipients—are to blame for the myriad health, nutritional, housing and education problems produced by systemic oppression and neglect.

Albrechtsen argues that Labor is uniquely positioned to prosecute pro-market solutions, including the abolition of welfare, which Howard faced difficulty implementing: “The importance of the Rudd Government finally confronting the unprogressive consequences of the so-called progressive mindset cannot be underestimated. The Howard government was always going to be attacked by so-called progressives as launching a right-wing ideological crusade in its efforts to encourage greater personal responsibility.

“The Rudd Labor Government can, depending on the strength of its conviction, bring many of these critics to a quiet halt.”

Punishing the poor

According to Albrechtsen, the threat of welfare penalties for parents of truanting children is an “an idea that crosses the political divide for the simple reason that it works, whereas past policies of passive welfare have failed.”

In fact, international research has shown that policies linking welfare payments to school attendance have no positive effect on school truancy or retention rates. A report published last month by Professor Larissa Behrendt and Ruth McCausland at the University of Technology Sydney, surveyed US research demonstrating “such programs spend disproportionate resources monitoring attendance rather than confronting the underlying problems associated with poverty.”

The Schooling Requirements Bill is part of Rudd Labor’s efforts to criminalise the poor. In 2003 the Blair government’s Anti-Social Behaviour bill opened the way for draconian sanctions including £100 fines and jail terms for parents whose children truanted. Similar laws, providing for fines of up to $10,000 and/or prison terms, are being introduced this month by the Iemma Labor government in Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales.

A report in last week’s British Telegraph revealed that: “Record numbers of parents have been hauled before the courts for failing to curb wayward children, with prosecutions soaring from 986 to 3,713 between 2005 and 2007. But despite the hard line, the number of school days lost because of unauthorised absence over the same period soared by two million to 11.8 million.”

Matthew Bienstock, who runs a program called Supporting Children in Primary Schools (SCIPS) on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is one of several welfare experts who have spoken out publicly against the Rudd government’s welfare penalties. “Truancy is most often just one symptom of what is happening in the home environment”.

Domestic violence, substance abuse and mental or physical illness may all contribute to a range of learning barriers in young people, explained Bienstock. These included aggressive behaviour, sadness and depression, poor concentration and disengagement. “Issues of non-attendance are really issues of disadvantage,” he stressed. “Rather than working to fix this, the government is taking a big stick approach, punishing people for the disadvantage they are experiencing.”

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