TONY BERG. To Close the Gaps, Deal with Alcohol Abuse.

For ten years our political leaders have talked about closing the gap. The harsh reality is that the gap in disadvantage suffered by indigenous Australians fails to close. Worse, there has been little discussion about why the gaps do not close despite all the money, the effort, the programs and the goodwill over the decade. Not only are the gaps obstinately immovable, but they are worse than they appear.

Key gaps such as educational achievement and jobs have hardly moved. The gap between indigenous and non-indigenous year 7 students in reading and numeracy has not changed in nine years. 74% of indigenous students reach the national minimum standard against 95% of non-indigenous students. In numeracy, it is 80% and 96%.

 Indigenous Australian employment aged 15-64 between 2006 and 2016 has hardly changed. It was 46.6% in 2016 compared with a non-indigenous employment rate of around 72%.

The statistics measure the gaps by comparing the average of the indigenous population with the average for the non-indigenous population. However, about half of the indigenous population would be considered “mainstream” as compared with the disadvantaged in the statistics. This lifts the averages for the indigenous population meaning that the gap for those who are disadvantaged is about double what is published.

If this is not shocking enough, the indigenous population has increased by about a third to 800,000 . This means that around 100,000 more are impacted by these gaps.

There are well over a thousand programs specifically addressing indigenous disadvantage. In many indigenous communities there is one service for every 5 residents. In 2012 Wilcannia had 102 funded services. Its indigenous population was 474.

We need to know why this enormous investment and effort has not shifted the dial anywhere in Australia.

A central cause is intergenerational passive welfare and alcohol, drugs and gambling. 

Noel Pearson has said: “the problems with passive welfare (are that) it is a poor substitute for participation in the real economy, psychologically, socially and economically”.

It’s not an option to eliminate welfare in Australia. We need to have a safety net for those in need. But, as Pearson and other indigenous leaders maintain, welfare brings excessive consumption of alcohol, drugs and gambling. These vices lead to massive problems both in disadvantaged indigenous and non-indigenous communities 

The Productivity Commission says “alcohol is one of the major risk factors affecting the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians…with harmful alcohol consumption responsible for a considerable burden of death, disease and injury…Alcohol–related harm is not limited to drinkers but also affects families, bystanders and the broader community. Excessive alcohol consumption contributes to workplace problems, child abuse and neglect, financial problems (poverty), family breakdown, interpersonal/domestic violence and crime…Alcohol is a significant contributor to violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities”.

During the uproar over a two-year-old girl, from Tennant Creek, being raped, an elder, Ross Jakamarra Williams, said “I’m definitely worried for the safety of the kids….the root of everything is the alcohol”.

Alcohol not only brings family violence, rape, death and a huge hospitalisation rate but appallingly, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) to increasing numbers of indigenous babies. In some areas of the Kimberley, 20-25% of babies are born with FASD, a condition condemning these children to brain damage for the rest of their life.

What distresses leaders like the Kimberley’s Ian Trust is that passive welfare and drug, alcohol and gambling addiction result in the proliferation of services to deal with these addictions. If these resources could be put into education and jobs training we might get somewhere but not while the addictions prevail.

Not taking drastic action to deal with the alcohol, drug and gambling problems means we can forget about making any progress in closing the gaps. 

Providing welfare by a “cashless card” (CDC) is partially the solution. The CDC applies to all working age recipients of welfare, indigenous and non-indigenous, other than pensioners and veterans. Twenty per cent of a person’s welfare is paid into his or her bank account and can be accessed as cash. This cash can be used for any purpose the recipient chooses. Eighty per cent can only be accessed by using the card which doesn’t allow taking cash out or the purchase of alcohol, drugs or gambling products.

The Federal Government has trialled the CDC in Ceduna and the East Kimberley with reasonable success. Alcohol and drug consumption declined, there was less gambling and alcohol related hospital presentations. Alan Tudge, then Minister for Human Services, said the card was “having an impact like few other initiatives”.

The government sought to roll out the CDC to other locations but was blocked by Labor, the Greens and the Xenophon Team in the Senate.

In July, an Australian National Audit Office performance audit of the trials found that the approach by Department of Social Security to monitoring and evaluation was inadequate and criticized certain operational aspects of the trials. So, there are some legitimate questions about the trials and evaluation. But that does not mean they were ineffective. The conclusions that alcohol and drug consumption was reduced and gambling curtailed is almost certainly correct. This backed up by other evidence such as a 12% overall reduction in poker machine revenues in the Ceduna area. It is also backed up by increased sales in supermarkets and children’s clothing stores in the areas

 Most of the criticism of the CDC revolves around the freedom for welfare recipients to spend their money as they see fit. Our freedoms are circumscribed in many areas for example, gun ownership. Yet, alcohol and drugs are killing many more people in Australia than unrestricted gun ownership ever would. Most of us accept these restrictions on our freedoms. Why not restrict the destructive use of welfare money?

 When the trial was proposed for the Goldfields region, indigenous Coolgardie Shire Councillor, Betty Logan, challenged CDC opponents to look into the eyes of the children suffering FASD, suffering from neglect and suffering from violence at home. In this context, the CDC “is an act of love”, she said.

I have looked many of these children in the eyes and I think it is already time we moved beyond trials. My act of love is to propose an Australian-wide CDC to be rolled out to all welfare recipients, indigenous and non-indigenous, except those who are pensioners or veterans. 

If we don’t, the unrestricted use of welfare money will continue to undermine programs and increase dysfunction. Continuing the way we are, means more money being spent on dealing with effects of alcohol, drug and gambling abuse. In Ian Trust’s terminology, most of the government programs are focused on pulling people out of the mouths of crocodiles. With less alcoholism, drug abuse and gambling addiction, this money can be saved to invest in more comprehensive programs targeting the education and jobs gaps.

How long before we take decisive action to deal with a scourge which is undermining so much investment, so many otherwise effective programs and so much effort in attempting to redress indigenous disadvantage?

Tony Berg is a businessman who has spent 15 years working with indigenous organisations with operations throughout Australia

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John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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