Women trying to flee DV held back by income management

Rudi Maxwell |

A Senate inquiry has been told mandatory income management discriminates against Indigenous people.
A Senate inquiry has been told mandatory income management discriminates against Indigenous people.

Women trying to escape domestic violence are being undermined by compulsory income management, a Senate inquiry has heard.

While the Albanese government fulfilled an election promise to abolish the controversial cashless debit card in 2022, more than 22,000 people remain on compulsory income management, where Centrelink quarantines social security payments so they cannot buy unauthorised items or withdraw cash.

The Senate community affairs references committee is reviewing legislation surrounding the Social Service department’s Enhanced Income Management regime and held a public hearing on Monday.

Economic Justice Australia senior adviser Linda Forbes says compulsory income management undermines women attempting to escape domestic and family violence by limiting their access to money. 

Thelma Schwartz, Queensland Family Violence Prevention Legal Service principal legal officer, said compulsory income management flies in the face of the national partnership on closing the gap, which has been signed by all states and territories and the Commonwealth.

“When our clients present to us, they present with a multiplicity of problems,” she said.

“The primary driver is to get out of that house, to get to safety, to get to a shelter, the last thing they need is to have issues with the department in relation to a Centrelink payment.”

Ms Schwartz says some women sign up to voluntary income management as a means to stop controlling measures of a perpetrator.

“That is a self-determined decision made by a woman with support of a family violence prevention legal service, who is leaving a relationship,” she said.

Cassandra Goldie, Australian Council of Social Services chief executive, says mandatory income management discriminates against First Nations people, interferes with the rights to social security, privacy and non-discrimination.

Australian Council of Social Service CEO, Dr Cassandra Goldie
Cassandra Goldie says compulsory income management adds a layer of control in people’s lives. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

“Why are we subjecting people who are long-term unemployed to this very stigmatising and paternalistic policy that particularly now, but has always done so, grossly discriminates against First Nations people?” she asked.

Compulsory income management wasn’t about financial counselling and had become a further layer of control in people’s lives, she said.

“And in many cases, we believe operating as a form of abuse, because it is harming people with the extent of the intervention in people’s lives.

“We would strongly urge the committee to take a very fresh approach to how how social security should be designed to support the experience of people experiencing family and domestic violence, including in the context of First Nations communities.”

Shelley Bielefeld has been researching compulsory income management since it was first imposed on Aboriginal people in the NT by the Howard Government in 2007, as part of the intervention.

During recent field trips to the NT some people said it felt like they were being subjected to continuing patterns of control and surveillance first ushered in through the intervention and it took away their choice and self-determination.

There were also concerns about access to technology.

“I therefore recommend … that all forms of compulsory income management are brought to an end,” Dr Bielefeld said.

The report is due to be tabled on February 8.

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