Costello's welfare

Age: December 6 2005

By Peter Costello

DURING a recent visit to Aurukun in Cape York, I had the opportunity to talk to elders — grandparents — who told me of their despair about the behaviour of some of the younger members in their tiny community. It would be fair to say that the elders were at their wits' end as they recounted heart-rending stories of the township's youth growing up without strong parental models and guidance.

Despite the heroic efforts of teachers, school attendance can be sporadic. The town's petrol bowsers were locked in a cage to minimise petrol sniffing. While the community was far from affluent, it seemed some parents had money for the wrong things but never enough for the right things: good diet, good nutrition, good hygiene.

A well-documented aspect of Australian society is that indigenous Australians enjoy a lower quality of life measured against almost every available yardstick. Life expectancy is about 17 years lower than the rest of Australian society and infant mortality two to three times the national average. The completion rate at school is less than half the rest of the country. Unemployment is worse, imprisonment more likely.

But the problem is not money. Welfare support for indigenous communities has grown over the past decade, from $1.7 billion to $3.1 billion a year. Many of the grandparents at Aurukun have higher levels of literacy than their children and grandchildren.

As one explained to me, they were made to go to the mission school. There was no choice. This requirement was supported and reinforced by the mission leaders, by their parents, by the community. But with the introduction of welfare payments in the 1970s, parental authority began breaking down. The influence of the mission declined. Substance abuse became more prevalent. Educational standards slipped. Many of these elders have assumed the parental role. This time by necessity.

As the care and responsibility of parents has diminished, the older people have again assumed the role of primary care-giver. It has become the grandparents' job to ensure children are housed, fed, schooled and clothed. One elder claimed that parental responsibility had broken down to such an extent that parents now expected grandparents to assume this role. They cited high unemployment and alcoholism among this generation as other signs that discipline and responsibility had fallen by the wayside.

The elders in Aurukun expressed a desire for the Government to redirect income support away from the negligent parents who, they claimed, misused it, to those in the community who would use it responsibly for the care and nurture of children. At one level, this would take away support for families, but in a more significant way, it would reinforce family responsibility.

Clearly if welfare, or passive welfare as some have labelled it, is encouraging the breakdown of the family, it is time to intervene and stop it. Family payments should be directed where possible to those members of the family who are prepared to be the primary support carers.

Of course, this principle should apply to the non-indigenous community as well. Sadly, in white society there are many cases where grandparents are being asked to step in to assume primary care of children because parents are unable, or unfit, to cope with the nurture of children.

Family support that is ultimately for children should be delivered through the most responsible adult. It is also time we had a look at income support payments more generally. When income support provides food, shelter, education and opportunity it supports family life. Where it becomes an example to children of reward without effort, it undermines family life. Income support that is regarded as temporary assistance during interrupted work or interruptions to the availability for work is an important support. If it becomes a way of life, it has a demoralising effect on the parents that is passed on with damaging effect to children.

The good news is that there are positive signs emerging in indigenous communities. Indigenous leadership across Cape York has sought to work to re-instil a sense of personal responsibility and reduced dependency on income support. Parents are being encouraged to save for their children's education, to take the initiative to find work or start businesses and, most of all, to avoid welfare dependency.

I was struck by observations, from indigenous leaders, that a key to dealing with unemployment, poor health outcomes and low education achievement was to reaffirm the importance of the family, encourage parental responsibility and authority, promote strong values of work and reward for effort, with these moral guidelines supported by broad community endorsement.

In some respects, these are new ideas. In some respects these are very old ideas. These values and these approaches could be usefully applied in indigenous communities. They could be usefully applied in white communities as well. The work ethic, responsibility for individual behaviour, respect for authority, are all values that we need to instil in young people.

And where do these values come from? Most values are passed on to the young people through their family. There is no more important institution. After all, this is the institution that introduces children to the world, to values, to character.

Peter Costello is federal Treasurer. This is an extract from his article on family policy in the latest edition of the Liberal journal Looking Forward.