Howard's 18th Amendment

According to today’s press:

Mr Howard said the Government’s intention was to “introduce widespread alcohol restrictions on Northern Territory Aboriginal land for six months”.

The government is clearly right in noting that alcohol is a major contributor to Indigenous disadvantage. But I’m not sure that banning it is the best policy response. An alternative would be to allow local communities to set their own alcohol taxes. We made a proposal along these lines in Imagining Australia.

A major cause of health and violence problems in Indigenous communities is excessive consumption of alcohol. At present the only way community leaders can deal with the problem is to ban alcohol. While some communities have chosen this path, gaining support for prohibition is often difficult, and once implemented, prohibition is hard to enforce. We believe that Indigenous leaders should be given an alternative for dealing with this problem, in the form of the power to tax alcohol in their communities, with the revenues returned to the local bodies themselves. Armed with an additional power to control alcohol consumption, some communities may find taxation to be more effective than an outright ban, and may choose to devote the additional revenue to after-school sports, community policing or other programs to strengthen community bonds.

Of course, you can regard alcohol bans as a form of tax, in which the tax rate is the cost of getting a ute, driving to the next town, buying alcohol there, and bringing it back while avoiding the authorities. The difference is that under the Imagining Australia proposal, the local community gets the extra revenue.

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15 Responses to Howard's 18th Amendment

  1. Kevin Cox says:

    Excellent idea Andrew. You can make it even better by distributing the money to parents who send their kids to school or who buy food. (not subsidising the food but giving incentives after people have done something).

  2. backroom girl says:

    But Andrew, if one of the problems is that people are spending the money they get for their children’s benefit on grog (or other substances, or gambling), increasing the price of alcohol probably would only make that worse, wouldn’t it?

    While I don’t agree with the proposal to quarantine half of the welfare payment for all parents on the affected communities (if indeed the Government ends up going this far), it seems to me that you do need some policy of this kind for people who apparently aren’t capable of making consumption decisions to meet their own children’s needs. (That applies to some parents outside of indigenous communities as well, of course.)

    If you see the family tax benefit as the children’s money, rather than the parents’ money, I think it is easier to let go of the idea that you are infringing parental rights and support policy of this kind. And as far as the alcohol bans go, I believe that this is what responsible people in many of the affected communities want anyway.

  3. backroom girl says:

    I think there is some evidence that where parents have less money to spend on grog, they do consume less. I understand that one of the outcomes of the Family Income Management program operating in some of the Cape York communities was that overall alcohol consumption (and related problems such as family violence) went down as an indirect effect of money being diverted into savings programs. So you might see that happen as a result of some welfare money being quarantined to be spent on food and other essentials.

    I think the problem they found in Cape York was that, predictably, the people most in need of cutting down their alcohol consumption were the ones least likely to participate in any such program on a voluntary basis.

  4. backroom girl says:

    Kevin – I don’t agree that the money should go from the ‘bad’ parents to the ‘good’ parents. The whole point of this is to try and improve the outcomes for the children of the bad parents, which is why I think you need policies that are more closely targeted to that end.

  5. Ed says:

    My question is, what happens after the six-month ban is lifted? I think the Government should focus more on the underlying problems – unemployment, housing, health care – than symptoms or enablers like alcohol.

  6. harry clarke says:

    I wonder if local communities could manage a tax effectively.

    I support the ban. It will reduce availability – not eliminate it – improve health and reduce the sexual abuse.

  7. Kevin Cox says:

    I did not say give money to good parents. I said give the money to parents who do the right thing by their children. If the parents are drunk but their kids go to school then they will get some money back to spend on more grog. If their kids show no sign of sexual abuse then the parents get another bonus.

    What we do is to let the parents decide what they want to do but we pay them if they “do the right thing” as well as charge them if they do the wrong thing. Also don’t let us decide what is “the right thing”. Let the community itself decide and then let us help them implement the decision.

    Also the money collected from grog could apply to EVERYONE in Australia and EVERYONE who does the right thing by their kids could be the recipients of the money.

    We need a system that does not discriminate and where people and communities are given control. You do this by giving control over money to communities and wherever possible to individuals not by funding “emergency relief”. This announced policy is almost guaranteed to fail – but it will not become obvious until after the next election. It will fail because it works on punishment. Everyone knows that you have more chance of changing behaviour by positive reinforcement, giving people control over their own lives and only as a last resort do you use punishment.

  8. backroom girl says:

    Sorry Kevin, my misunderstanding. You were just saying that it might be important to make some money conditional on certain behaviours or outcomes – I agree. But I don’t see that it makes much difference if you portray the system as rewarding good behaviour or punishing bad – it’s pretty much the same outcome. But my other point was that, where parents don’t have the capacity or the will to do the right thing, you still need some mechanism for making sure that the children’s basic needs are met and that they live in a relatively safe environment.

  9. Verdurous says:

    I thought these announcements were some sort of satire before I realised they were for real.

    Bring in the army ! says Howard. Frightening loss of autonomy for these people. Fine if they impose alcohol bans on their own communities (as many do), but for government to selectively impose on these communities is appalling. Particularly given the bans follow them even if they move interstate from what I have read. Helping children at risk is very important but compulsory physical examinations for everyone under 16 is likely to yield many false positives and false negatives.

    His approach is extremely paternalistic, will do harm as well as some good, is based on politics not rational thought, and treats the end result of social, cultural, environmental and economic breakdown rather than the root causes.

  10. Kevin Cox says:

    backroom girl it makes a big difference as it gives people a degree of choice and it gets double value from any tax – once when you collect it and once when you get it. It also stops people thinking of it as a “handout” as they get it for an action on their part.

    In terms of children’s basic needs this has to be a responsibility of the local community (the village) and not some remote government. The whole idea is to get people to take responsibility themselves and to feel valued for their contribution and recognition. People in the end have to take responsibility but they have to be given the resources. Government grants and handouts need to be restructured so they are less paternalistic and not seen as charity but as a right. I would even go further and allow the people paying the tax to have a say in where the money is spent and not leave it to some official. I have watched people deciding how to spend other people’s money – often your taxes – and frankly it is
    often unedifying.

  11. Panadawn says:

    Surely increasing local taxes would just mean they spend their money on alcohol faster, and then prostitute their children more often to get alcohol once the money is gone?

    We are not talking about ‘rational investors’ here, Andrew. They dont stop and think about where their dollars are better spent based one expense vs. utility.

  12. STROP says:

    For anyone interested in the report that lead to JWHs policy announcement on the NT, Ozpolitics has a link to it under the heading :

    Simon Jackman » Federal takeover of Northern Territory Aboriginal affairs: not a wedge…?

  13. STROP says:

    On JWHs recently announced ‘radical’ policy to address Indigenous issues in the NT, the component that says 50% of income support provided by the State (Centrelink payments) must be spent on food and other essentials is long overdue.

    I would apply the same ‘rule’ to all recipients of Parenting Payment Partnered, Parenting Payment Single (until it is fazed out in x years when all people currently eligible for PPS will be put on Newstart Allowance like any other ‘jobseeker’), Family Tax Benefit (Part A and B), along with people who receive child maintenance through CSA.

    How you would enforce this approach in practical terms is another issue, and raises a number of ethical questions, as demonstrated by the current Centrelink approach to some people who cop an 8 week non payment period for non compliance with Centrelinks ‘ participation’ requirements. Some people who cop this 8 week non payment period qualify for “Financial Case Management”.

    That is, the equivalent of what the person would normally be paid in cash into a bank account is doled out to the person in the form of (a) direct payments to real estate agents for rent {for example) or ‘gift card’ types of credit cards a person takes to the supermarket with restrictions on what can be bought with these cards (Cigarrettes and alcohol, for example, are not acceptable purchases using this system).

    Problems with this ‘alternative’ arrangement include (a) the significant cost to the State in outsourcing and administrating this policy (b) the question of who decides what is ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’ for the family head to spend the money on and on what grounds and (c) the fact that imposing an 8 week non payment period or a period during which you are subject to ‘Financial Case Management’ only serves to exacerbate the problems people on low income, subsistence poverty are already dealing with.

    Again, I see the ethical and practical goal is to ‘force’ welfare recipients among Indigenous communities to ensure that at least 50% of the money they receive from the State actually directly benefits their children and is spent on providing for their essential needs instead of, for example, spending the money on alcohol or cigarrettes or drugs or whatever. However, how it is going to be put into practice and by whom is going to be ‘interesting’ – particularly in an context where demands for ’self-determination’ still dominates the discourse of Indigenous rights activists.

    Regarding the banning of alcohol, pornography and other measures I hold my tongue- the stench of the “Stolen Generation” still wafts down from rural QLD to Brisbane and beyond. I hope Malcolm Brough is as fair dinkum about bringing about radical change as he appears to be in public; I am wary of his approach, but at least someone is rekindling debates about this vexing issue. Good for you, Mr. Brough.

  14. Kevin Cox says:

    Following on the theme of a mechanism on how communities can get control of resources to help themselves and on how the funds could be distributed here is a “market based approach” where a market is defined as being a place where many people with resources get to choose from a variety of sellers (or people who want your resources).

    You will notice it does not prescribe what is to be done

  15. backroom girl says:

    STROP – I agree with you that unfortunately some people need compulsory controls over their family tax benefits to ensure that the money is used as it is intended for the benefit of the children. However, the problem with the Government proposal is that it apparently intends to apply this measure across the board to all parents in the communities in question. I’m with Noel Pearson in saying that this is totally inappropriate. Most parents are doing a fine job of looking after their children as best they can – in Kevin’s terms, they are rewarded by receiving financial assistance from the rest of the community to ensure that their children have a minimum standard of living that they might not otherwise be able to provide by their own efforts.

    It is only the minority who have proven that they have other ‘consumption priorities’ (great little economic euphemism, that) that come before the welfare of their children and these people need a more authoritarian approach, but hopefully only until they show that they are willing to, and capable of, taking back the responsibility of looking after their kids.

    The other thing that is worth mentioning in this discussion is that some indigenous communities are already making money out of the sale of grog, where community bodies own and operate alcohol outlets. So if it was a simple as all that, those communities should be doing better than others, but I don’t believe this to be the case, especially since the community leaders have a vested financial interest in maintaining or even increasing current levels of alcohol consumption.

    By the way, if anyone would like to hear what Noel Pearson has to say, rather than read his latest essay – tune in to his Big Ideas lecture that was broadcast on the ABC (Radio National) last night

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