‘No jab, no pay’ was passed with little mainstream controversy. ‘No school, no pay’ probably will not be afforded the same ease. The measure, proposed by mining billionaire Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, is aimed at encouraging welfare-dependent parents to send their kids to school, by withholding their Family Tax Benefit A and childcare payments if they don’t.
In justifying his idea, he told news.com.au: “If you don’t immunise your child, your child has a distinct chance of being okay, but if you don’t educate your child, if you don’t send your child to school — particularly if your child is your daughter — you are allowing her to be set adrift in a sea of uncertainty, a sea of vulnerability.”
Forrest is seeking to stop the “soft racism” that allows vulnerable, largely Indigenous children to be less educated than their more advantaged, non-Indigenous peers. He has said that Canberra’s school attendance target is 95 per cent, whereas Darwin, which has a much higher Indigenous population, has a target of only 72 per cent.
In 2015, according to ABS statistics, the overall attendance rate for Indigenous students nationally was 83.7 per cent, compared with 93.1 per cent for non-Indigenous students. In the same year, the proportion of Indigenous children attending preschool was lower than the national average. In the Northern Territory, the preschool enrolment gap was the largest, at 14.4 percentage points.
Not everyone agrees with Forrest’s reasoning. The chief executive of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), Gerry Moore, is opposed to ‘no school, no pay’.
“Policies like this that are intended to punish have historically created more challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities than positive outcomes,” Moore argued. “We need to address the underlying causes, such as poverty, lack of access to quality early-childhood programs and the lack of cultural competence in the education system. Withholding payments from vulnerable families will simply create more strain on families, ultimately further disadvantaging children in need.”
The shadow minister for human services, Jenny Macklin, refused to take a side, simply noting that “Labor supports efforts to … improve school attendance, but they must be driven and supported by the community.”
Forrest probably won’t be dissuaded by critics. Raised in a partially Indigenous community in the Pilbara, he has long-campaigned for Indigenous empowerment through various initiatives. His recent proposal of a ‘healthy welfare card’ is being trialled in several remote communities. The healthy welfare card was born out of his 2014 Creating Parity report, which produced recommendations aimed at reducing the ‘huge disparity’ in employment between Indigenous and other Australians. The card allows only 20 per cent of an individual’s welfare payments to be received in cash. This is intended to curb rates of drug, alcohol and gambling addictions by limiting people’s spending in these areas.
The South Australian Department of Consumer and Business Services has been contacted for statistics on the efficacy (or lack thereof) of this program, but has not responded.Do you have an idea for a story?
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