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Shaw, Danny --- "Myths and Facts about Aborigines and Social Security" [1999] IndigLawB 26; (1999) 4(19) Indigenous Law Bulletin 20

Myths and Facts about Aborigines and Social Security

by Danny Shaw

There is a general misconception in the community that Indigenous Australians are eligible for 'special' Social Security payments which are not available to non-Indigenous Australians and that these payments are paid at a higher rate than other Social Security payments. These misconceptions are often created and fuelled by reports in the mainstream media. The reality is a different story.

The history of Social Security payments for Indigenous Australians (illustrated in time line below) shows that rather than having any special privileges, Indigenous Australians have been excluded from receiving Social Security payments that are readily available to non-Indigenous Australians. In fact, it is only since 1966 that Indigenous Australians have enjoyed equal rights to Social Security payments.

Indigenous Australians may now be eligible for the same Social Security payments as non-Indigenous Australians. However, a recent study shows that they continue to suffer from discrimination with regard to their Social Security entitlements and rights. Publication of the study, conducted by Will Sanders from the Centre for Aboriginal and Economic Policy Research, Australia National University, is currently being finalised. The study compared the percentage of Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians who are 'breached' by the Department of Social Security. 'Breaches' are imposed when a New Start Allowance (NSA) or Youth Allowance (YA) recipient fails to meet the obligations required under the Social Security Act 1991 (Cth) in order to continue to qualify for payment. Such obligations may include satisfaction of the 'activity test'. For instance, NSA recipients are subject to an activity test that requires them to look for and accept suitable paid work as a well as attend interviews with Centrelink on request.

Breaches incur severe penalties. The penalties have varied over the years. Under the current legislation, a breach may result in the reduction of a recipient’s allowance by up to 24% for 26 weeks, or the imposition of an eight week non-payment period.

The study showed that about 19.4% of non-Indigenous Australians in receipt of NSA/YA had breaches imposed on them in the two years up to March 1998. For Indigenous Australians, this rate increases to 33.1%. The reasons for the higher rate of breaches and penalties are many. Higher illiteracy levels among Indigenous Australians means that they are less likely to comprehend and respond to Centrelink letters. Centrelink workers do not adequately consult with Indigenous liaison staff when interviewing or making decisions about Indigenous clients. Less quantifiable is the level of personal or individual prejudice of Centrelink staff and decision-makers hold against Indigenous Australians.

The study suggested that Indigenous Australians are much less likely to lodge appeals with the Social Security Appeals Tribunal against adverse decisions by Centrelink than non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians may account for 3% of the total number of people in receipt of NSA/YA, but according to AAT figures, the number of appeals lodged by them is 1/3 of 1% (0.3%). To put that in perspective: of the 3,421 appeals lodged with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in 1995-1997, only three were lodged by Indigenous Australians; of the 23,416 appeals lodged with the Social Security Appeals Tribunal in the same period, sixty-two were lodged by Indigenous Australians.

That Indigenous Australians still don't get a fair go in the Social Security system cannot be denied. However, to direct the blame solely at Centrelink or one or two particular agencies will not help to rectify the problem. Community Welfare agencies also have a role to play. In the words of Linda Burney, Chairwoman of the NSW State Reconciliation Committee ‘systems have to change to accommodate our cultural differences and take account of our circumstances’.

Timeline: History of Social Security Payments for Indigenous Australians

1908 Introduction of the Age and Invalid Pensioners Act. Aboriginal "natives" were excluded.

1912 Aborigines excluded from the new Maternity Allowance.

1941 New Child Endowment only payable to Aborigines who were not 'nomadic'.

1942 Social Security pensions and benefits became payable to Aborigines, only if exempt from State protection laws. Very few were exempt.

1943 Unemployment and Sickness Benefit introduced. Access by Aborigines severely restricted.

1959 Amendment of the Social Services Act to remove Aboriginal disqualification, except for those considered 'nomadic' and 'primitive', where a small part of the payment was made to the individual and the balance paid to non-Aboriginal authorities.

1966 All specific references to Aborigines were removed from the Act.

1968 The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs directed the speeding up of the process of paying full pensions and benefits to Aborigines. Unemployment Benefit was rarely paid at this time to Aboriginal people living on reserves and missions unless they were willing to leave to seek work elsewhere (the "work test").

1976 DSS dropped policy and service delivery guidelines requiring people to leave missions to receive Unemployment Benefit. By the late 1970's, Aboriginal people started to get all Social Security payments in their own right.

1976 With Aboriginal unemployment rate at 50%, a long term solution was seen as the creation of employment in Aboriginal communities with a 'realistic' application of the Unemployment Benefit works test.

1977 May The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs announced the launch of the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), under which participating communities could have Social Security and Department of Aboriginal Affairs funds directed to the community, in return for individuals undertaking paid work on community projects subsidised by the scheme.

1983 National review of the CDEP.

1987 Expansion of CDEP into non-discrete communities, removal of the term 'remote' and introduction of individual voluntarism.

1991 Some attempts to halt expansion of CDEP. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended expansion of CDEP, while recognising criticisms of scheme.

1991 Nov Amendments to the Social Security Act introduced barring people involved in Commonwealth funded labour programs being eligible for unemployment benefits.

1992 ATSIC census of CDEP participants in a response to the concerns over 'double dipping' of CDEP and unemployment payments. Incidence of double-dipping was less then 1%, but approximately 13% of CDEP participants were not receiving their full Social Security entitlements, mainly Health Care cards and Family Payment.

1994 Review identified disadvantages experienced by CDEP participants who forgo DSS payments. It also recommended that income security issues related to CDEP be pursued further.

1995 Feb New Interdepartmental Committee on CDEP established.

1995 May Race Discrimination Commissioner announced inquiry into alleged discrimination against CDEP participants.

1997 Government Review of CDEP - Spicer Report

1997 Discussion paper produced

1998 Whole of Government response to Spicer report

Danny Shaw is Publications Officer at Welfare Rights Centre in Sydney. Welfare Rights Centre is an independent community legal centre specialising in social security.

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