Take a leaf from Kiwi book on obligations for those on welfare

Earlier this week, Social Services Minister Christian Porter outlined the Australian Priority Investment Approach to Welfare. The idea is that the government should track the lives of welfare recipients more closely and intervene in ways that forestall them remaining on welfare. This is sensible.

It is clear, for example, that many young people dependent on welfare are the children of parents who were dependent on welfare. ­

I agree with the minister, who wants to move beyond the ideology of inequality to an investment approach. He should beware, however, the new approach is not mere managerialism.

The Coalition fell for that in recent years in Aboriginal affairs with practical reconciliation. The government needs a values approach. These values are embedded in tough obligations to behave responsibly. The new cashless debit card for beneficiaries is a good start.

The investment approach is borrowed from the National Party government of New Zealand, undertaken in 2011. What the Australian government seems a little coy about is that underpinning the New Zealand investment approach were tough obligations.

In addition to better tracking and data matching, the New Zealand government made extensive changes to the benefit system.

The key change was that where parents had additional children while receiving a benefit, their availability for work would be based on the age of their previous youngest child, once their newborn turned one year old.

Before that change, parents on a benefit could defer their availability for work until the youngest subsequent child was six. That rule increased the likelihood that at-risk families were locked into long-term benefit dependence.

The approach allows the system to respond to real-world situations; for example, where children are moved between households to avoid work.

The New Zealand government was not shy about the racial and ethnic dimensions of the problem. It targeted Maori and Pacific families in poor communities. The new rules established reciprocal obligations that were compulsory for beneficiaries to continue receiving government assistance.

A parent with a youngest child under five years of age has to undertake activities that help them prepare for work. A parent with a youngest child aged five to 13 has to be available and looking for part-time work. A parent with a youngest child aged 14 or older has to be looking for full-time work.

The New Zealand government had found there was a significant number of sole-parent beneficiaries who gave birth to additional children while on a benefit. The new rules are designed explicitly to stop this occurrence.

As I have made clear on previous occasions, each year in Australia 60,000 children are born to women while they are on a benefit. The main categories of benefit were New­start Allowance, Parenting Payment and Youth Allowance. The New Zealand government also implemented financial assistance to women on the benefit to access long-acting reversible contraception, “assisting them to decide whether and when to have children”. The take-up of this offer has been miserable.

In Australia, I know of one state government that is about to introduce as policy “discussions about contraception” for women who have come to the attention of the child protection regime. Informally, this has been happening for years. Slowly, it is dawning on policymakers that people on benefits, for whatever reasons, make poor decisions that keep them on benefits.

Politicians should be beating a drum on values. It is bad to have a child while on a benefit. Just say it and the taxpayer will reward you.

The New Zealand government introduced a further suite of reforms in 2013. In essence these reforms increased the obligations placed on beneficiaries; in particular, to support children, a wider set of obligations on beneficiaries — such as having their children attend early childhood education from the age of three and attend school from age five, and having the children enrolled in primary healthcare and health services — were implemented.

The New Zealand government used actuarial methods to quantify and make transparent the long-term costs of the benefit system and to guide investment towards improving employment.

It has access to personal information on educational qualifications, convictions, drug test results, enrolment information for schools, information from GPs and public health organisations.

Powerful data will be brought to bear, but none of this works without tough obligations.

We await the Australian government’s tough obligations.

Gary Johns is author of No Contraception, No Dole.