Below is an article I submitted to South Sydney Herald, and that ended up published as a guest editorial in the October edition.
It was initially going to focus on how income management could effect residents in south Sydney, especially given the high concentration of disadvantage in parts of that community. However, during my research I realised that there would be significant impacts on tenancy rights coming out of the Bankstown trial, that I hadn’t seen raised elsewhere. So that’s where the focus went.
Welfare quarantining threatens tenant rights for South Sydney residents
The spread of income management to communities across Australia, including Bankstown in Sydney’s South West, looks set to have real impacts on the lives of residents of Redfern and Waterloo. Recent evidence shows that the impact of income management is on the balance a negative one, with implications for the dignity, and an erosion of tenancy rights, for our community.
Income management was first implemented by the Howard Government in Aboriginal communities in NT in 2007. From the outset the discriminatory nature of the policy was acknowledged by an exemption from the Anti-Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth). Under the Labor Government, the exemption from the Anti-Discrimination Act was dropped. As part of a new focus to extend the policy to the broader community, five trial sites, including Bankstown, will be implemented from 2012. Up to 70% of a recipients income may be controlled by the State in this program.
The Government claims that income management is a budgeting tool to help people to meet ongoing needs for themselves and for their family. This Orwellian turn of phrase distorts the coercive nature of the program, and the significant changes that income management will bear on the relationship between the Government, service providers and the community.
A recent report on the experience of NT residents under income management has again shown that reducing a person’s agency has negative impacts on their dignity and well-being. The survey by the Equality Rights Alliance spoke to more than 180 women currently living under income management, and over-whelmingly the respondents reported that the basics card had not changed their spending patterns; they do not feel safer because of the program; and that the Basics Card impacts negatively on the respect that they receive from other people.
With a lack of evidence on positive outcomes from income management, and clear statements about the negative impacts of the policy’s implementation, it is unclear what ideology is driving the push to expand the program.
As the trials are introduced to metropolitan Sydney, changes are being made to the program that promise to transform the relationship between Government agencies and the community. By explicitly stating that State housing providers will be empowered to refer tenants into income management for late rent payments, a message has been sent to public housing residents that they are set to lose tenant rights enjoyed by the general community, and face inordinate punishment when struggling to meet a rising cost of living. This gives powers to social housing providers far beyond those available to private landlords, and comes at a time when utility bills, rent (including public housing rents) and other basic costs are outstripping the incomes of those at the lower end of the income scale.
It is unclear whether these powers are extended to community housing providers.
The NT experience has shown that sole parents and aged pensioners caring for grand-children will be the most vulnerable to be referred into the income management program, and therefore the most likely to experience the loss of tenancy rights.
The Australian Government is about to embark on a trial of income management in Bankstown, and that the Minister responsible has been shown to, at best, ignore the evidence of policy failure; and at worst to distort the findings. This represents a threat not only to the welfare but also the dignity of the Redfern / Waterloo community. The high number of social housing residents in this community makes the distorted relationship between Housing bureaucracies and tenants even more of a risk.