Disturbing evidence on the birth weights of our Territory babies is reason enough to say no to Cahless Debit Card

10 November 2019

My people are already on the BasicsCard and income management. What more can we have on top of us? We are poor at the momentalways were poor.

The passionate yet wearied voices of the women from the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Womens Council silenced the Senators at the inquiry table.

My people are struggling to find food every day. To go with this new system, usually they go into our lands and consult with every community in our remote area in the NPY region, and also in the Territory. We're just struggling poor people on this earth. We don't need more cards on our back.

Nungita (Margaret) Smith is the Vice Chair of the NPY Womens Council, one of 23,000 Territorians on the BasicsCard, and she made it very clear the women of the NPY region do not want to be forced across to the Cashless Debit Card (CDC).

Her story is just one of over 90 submissions and witnesses who gave evidence to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs inquiry into the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management and Cashless Welfare) Bill 2019. This Bill, if passed, will see the rollout of the CDC into the NT from April 2020.

The Northern Territory is not considered a trial site and has no end date set for the CDC, yet 23,000 Territorians will be forced on it automatically because they are on the BasicsCard. Labor Senators this week tabled a dissenting report arguing against the Bill.

The BasicsCard was imposed as an income management measure under the Northern Territory Intervention in 2007. Twelve years later there has been no evidence to show any success of the BasicsCard.

As explained by academic, Dr Rob Bray in his evidence to the Senate Inquiry:

We draw not just upon our evaluation of new income management in the Northern Territory but also the work of others, including Deloitte's evaluation of place based income management. These studies have consistently found that broadly imposed income management has not resulted in improvements, including in terms of reduced substance abuse, more effective financial management and reduced gambling, or in outcomes for children.

One of the most disturbing pieces of evidence to the Senate Inquiry came from the Territorys Menzies School of Health Research population study into low birth rates in the 73 affected areas of the NT Intervention.

Professor Sven Silburn, formerly Professor of Child Development and Education at Menzies, provided evidence to the Senate Inquiry on his research. The earlier during pregnancy the mother was exposed to income management or income management was introduced, the stronger that effect appeared to be on birth weight, Professor Silburn told the Inquiry.

According to his research there was an average reduction in birth weights of 100 grams and a 30 per cent increase in the likelihood of a child being born with low birth weight for those who have been exposed to compulsory income management in utero.

Our interest in birth weight and our focus on birth weight is because birth weight is known to be such a strong predictor and outcome of disadvantage, and it's for that reason that it's one of the main outcome indicators of the Closing the Gap strategy, Professor Silburn said.

We were able to rule out other possible explanations. We could see no increase in drinking or smoking during pregnancy in these women who were pregnant during this time. We didn't see any particular changes in rates of stillbirths of babies that would otherwise have died with reduced birth weight, and we did not see any change in mobility of people in and out of the communities or in the age and health characteristics of the mothers who had babies during the study period.

That then leaves us with really trying to work out or to explain how it is we've got this unexplained effect, and the two leading possible explanations are, firstly, maternal undernutrition and, secondly, the effect of exposure to chronic or traumatic stress.

So, while the BasicsCard was intended to enable a greater proportion of the parent's social welfare being spent on family essentials such as food, its implementation didn't really take account of just how different Aboriginal communities are in the Northern Territorythat the Northern Territory in comparison with other jurisdictions has a much higher number of outstations, very small communities and these town camps. And the living circumstances in those communities can vary enormously. We know that it's not uncommon for there to be more than one family sharing a house and for houses to accommodate visitors who are in town or staying.

The Arnhemland Progress Associations (ALPA) Liam Flanagan also outlined financial consequences to local banking, such as the impact on the Traditional Credit Union (TCU).

TCU have had to change their banking model because, over the period of time that the BasicsCard has been in there, their member base has declined. They used to have quite a significant member base, but, with mandatory income management coming in, when people only have 50 per cent of their banking they choose to use a bigger bank with a cheaper rate, or whatever it is, whereas when it was 100 per cent they could use TCU.

The Bill is due to be debated in the Federal Parliament in late this month.

First published in the Sunday Territorian on Sunday 10 November 2019.