29 August, 2008

A heavy week in social policy...

Wow…big week for social policy and you must tune in if you are going to keep in touch with the policy that WILL severely affect the most disadvantaged in our communities. First, we have new laws emerging around abortion. I won’t comment, but you MUST read Danielle’s blog two below from this entry.

Then, Western Australia proposed new prostitution laws. In April, The West Australian parliament passed a controversial bill which decriminalised brothels and gave prostitutes basic working rights including superannuation and workers compensation. The bill led to the regulation of brothels and escort agencies in WA, where prostitution is legal but running a brothel is not. Nor is living off the earnings of prostitution. Opposition police spokesman Rob Johnson at the time commented that the bill would result in; "a massive escalation of what I would call "mini brothels" operating in residential streets." Well, he was right. This week more amendments to prostitution laws were added. Under the new laws, up to two prostitutes will be allowed to work in any suburban home. However opponents claim those operators would be impossible to police because no prostitute working in a suburban area would come forward for the mandatory planning approvals. Mary-Anne Kenworthy says the Act allows people to set up small, more profitable, brothels in residential areas. "By allowing two girls to work together with the councils not able to turn it down, they've allowed this big gap where anyone can go and rent houses and apartments and rent them to working girls just for a rental fee," she said. Essentially, we may see a massive increase of prostitution that is unregulated, unprotected and spread throughout suburban areas.

And in the same week, a dramatic policy initiative was floated in the area of school truancy by the Federal government. Deputy leader Julia Gillard outlined the details of the Government's legislation to strip parents of welfare payments if they fail to attend school. If passed, the bill would place school authorities responsible for monitoring attendance and notifying Centrelink. Gillard stated, "We cannot have an education revolution and give every Australian child a world education if they are not going to school. We will not be able to improve literacy and numeracy and improve the Year 12 retention rate if kids aren't turning up to classes.” This is true..."there's about 20,000 children not enrolled (in school) and if children are not in the system they've got no chance in life.” (Maxine McKew)

I have blogged before about the correlation between school absence and long-term negative outcomes on employment and poverty. However, I want to find a policy that helps the situation, not one that will only further exacerbate disadvantage. The general public tend to support initiatives of breaching payments for poor mandated attendance, as demonstrated in the mutual obligation unemployment policies of the last decade. I fear that most people will agree with Liberal backbencher Don Randall who states that, "If people are squandering their money and taking it down the pub and the TAB and the local casino, we've got a right to make sure the taxpayers' money is spent properly." The statement may be true (though it is incredibly narrow minded and unhelpful) but it fails to deal with any problem related to truancy! What is the correlation between pension money and kids attending school?! You think the parents are in charge of the kids not attending? You think threatening their payments is going to suddenly give them authority over their thirteen year old son who refuses to go to school? As Senator Rachel Siewert states, "Where is the evidence base that this punitive approach will actually work? Income management is a very blunt and ineffective tool to address the complex problem of children who are being failed by our education system and do not want to be at school".

So what will work? She states that “the Rudd Government needs to be looking at the social, economic and educational problems that contribute to truancy problems, rather than rely on penalizing measures such as welfare quarantining and suspension. The real factors behind poor school attendance are the failures of the education system in some regions to deliver appropriate early childhood and primary education, and provide educational and social support services for disadvantaged families,"

So, not only will the policy not work, it is also yet another blow for the Indigenous community who, I imagine, are tired of being policed and regulated with welfare initiatives that are both patronizing, patriarchal and ineffective. The truancy program will be initially trialled at just eight sites involving about 3000 children from the start of 2009. Six of the sites will be in the Northern Territory. Another will be in Western Australia with a final site to be determined.

So how do we know this policy won’t work. Well, firstly, I use my common sense. I work with kids who don’t want to attend school. The main reasons for their absence? Major family breakdown and disadvantage means that school is not a high priority, and would not become a high priority just because the government says so. Another reason is the lack of resources schools have for dealing with students who are severely behind academically. Get them in school if you like…but once they are there, what are you going to do with them? Imagine a class full of 12 year-old kids with major issues of disadvantage and a range of academic skill as low as grade one!

But mostly I know it won’t work because it has been done before. The UK have already trialed all of these initiatives and more, and the rate of truancy has remained steady at around 0.7%. In 2002 the department was set the target of cutting unauthorised absence by 10% - some 5,000 pupils - within two years, but by 2003-04 the rate was unchanged at 0.72%. Pupils absent from school each day could fill 816 primary schools and 252 secondaries. The conclusion there, and the suggestion here comes from UK politician Phil Willis who states, "they have tried threatening, they have tried jailing and, instead of getting better, the situation is getting worse. The time has come to turn the policy on its head and look at why children are truanting." Really? Focusing on the problem? Ingenious!

Anyway, I know it was a big read, but we have to stay informed if we are going to curb the tide of injustice. Imagine how much influence we could have if we altered policy before it was passed into law rather than waiting and spending our energies rectifying the devastating impacts on our people. No more ambulance at the bottom of the cliff! We must start to learn how to build the fence! Get informed and get active.

Till next week,


Vanessa said...

I think you're totally right. There is no way that these new measures are going to work. Look at the non pay period for people who breach their conditions (i.e. people on Newstart who don't attend Jobnetwork appointments) The Government thinks that punishing people is going to deter them from not breaching the conditions of a contract they are forced into signing. I mean, the nation doesn't have any other income support agency they can turn to if they aren't satisfied with Centrelink is there?

It's going to force the already disadvantaged families into further poverty, and therefore putting greater strain on welfare agencies (like The Salvation Army). I don't see how this can be in any way a positive move by the government. I truly believe Early Intervention is the key- maybe that's what we should be pouring our energy into?

armybarmy said...

the question really is how do we get kids into school... the answer could be creative and fun - could we create learning environments that celebrate kids gifts and skills - could we beef up inner-city school budgets for music and art programs... could we turn the schools into family centers of learning and fun (OASIS runs some great new models in the UK)... but alas, no, the only option we can think of is to penalize already disadvantaged people... I think it smacks of small mindedness and we could really use a bit of imagination... let the dreams role.