New research questions spending restrictions on Australian Aborigines

By the Working Group for Aboriginal Rights  and Diet Simon


The Australian leader in indigenous and tropical health research, the Darwin-based Menzies School of Health Research, has found that the government imposition on Aborigines in the Northern Territory to spend half of their welfare benefits in a "socially responsible way" may not be leading to healthier food and drink purchases, and may be having no effect on tobacco sales.

As part of a federal government intervention in the Northern Territory, half of the benefits paid to Aborigines are frozen to force them to pay for  essentials such as food, clothing and rent and to stop them spending on alcohol, tobacco, pornography or gambling.


The Medical Journal of Australia quotes from a study by the Menzies school: "Income management independent of the government stimulus payment

[of AUD 1,000 per child in late 2008] appears to have had no beneficial effect on tobacco and cigarette sales, soft drink or fruit and vegetable sales. ... The government’s aim in introducing income management is to ensure that people receiving welfare payments use this money in a government-prescribed “socially responsible” way, and in a way that makes money available to “feed, clothe, house and provide for the education of their children”. Our findings suggest that income management may not be associated with healthier food and drink purchases, and may be having no effect on tobacco sales."


The Menzies research has also found that the welfare quarantining fails to prompt healtheir purchases. "Menzies’ researchers examined store sales data from 10 remote Indigenous communities from the 18 months before the legislation was introduced and for 18 months after it was brought in."

The Sydney Morning Herald, one of Australia's leading newspapers, picked up the Menzies finding that the spending restrictions "failed to lead to healthy purchases because fruit and vegetables were too expensive, forcing residents to opt for cheaper calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods".


The Canberra Times cited the Menzies finding that ''over time, [indigenous] people adjusted and found alternative means to purchase restricted items. These findings do not support official government reports of improved health food and drink purchases in association with income management".

The nationwide public broadcaster, Australian Broadcasting Corporationreported that "The Federal Government is determined to expand the program which limits how Indigenous people in remote communities spend their welfare payments."

The National Indigenous Radio Service concluded from the Menzies study that "the Federal Intervention is doing more harm than good in the Northern Territory".

Chennai, India-based Medindia quoted from the Menzies study: "The findings challenge a central tenet of income management – that people’s spending habits will be modified in a positive way with mandatory restrictions on expenditure alone. Dr Brimblecombe said it was unlikely that mandatory management of people’s income would lead to purchasing of more fruit and vegetables when issues of availability, quality, affordability and home storage remained key issues."

TV Channel 9 News quoted the Menzies researcher, Dr. Julie Brimblecombe, as saying "monitoring showed that within six months of the move to income management, tobacco, soft drink and confectionary sales had returned at least to historic sales levels".

The Australian Greens called on the federal government to abandon its plans to extend income management, saying the approach is flawed. "The latest
research by the Menzies School of Health Research showing that income management hasn't modified purchasing behaviour should be well and truly ringing the government's alarm bells," said Senator Rachel Siewert, Australian Greens spokesperson on community services. "Not only is there no hard evidence that income quarantining is working, but there is now compelling evidence that income quarantining has a negative effect on people."

She told "Efficient Farming" that the study proves income management has failed. "We think it causes more harm than good. It doesn't address the underlying causes of disadvantage and we believe it should be scrapped by the government. Welfare recipients will be shocked when they hear
about plans to roll out compulsory income management across the country."

over time indigenous people adjusted and found alternative ways to purchase restricted items.

The government has requested the health and indigenous affairs departments prepare a report on the options available. "The report will consider options to encourage store owners and managers to reduce the sales of these products and discourage consumers in remote communities from buying them," Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and Indigenous Health Minister Warren Snowdon said.


On her ministerial website Macklin says the federal government is requesting an urgent report from key departments on policy options to help reduce the consumption of high sugar drinks in remote communities, where they contribute up to 27 per cent of the total sugar available.

But Macklin argued to various media organisations that the government's own research showed that quarantining had been a success and there was evidence that diet was improving in indigenous communities.

She cited a study done last year on 66 stores - "not the 10 stores of this study, but 66 stores across the Northern Territory" -  which had found that more than two-thirds of the store owners did see an increase in the amount of fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products and meat products being purchased.

The co-authors of the Menzies study, Dr Brimblecombe and associate rofessor, David Thomas, accused Macklin of twisting the truth on income management. "We are concerned that indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin has responded to our study by highlighting the results of the government’s evaluation. She has told journalists that the government intends to press ahead with plans to roll out income management more broadly, and has appeared to dismiss our findings."

Responses to Macklin by other commentators:

"Minister Macklin’s response to the latest evidence that Income Management doesn’t work, from the newly released Menzies Health Centre study, is only the latest example of anti-evidence based decisions in the welfare system. Jumbunna, the UTS Indigenous research unit, released a report last week summarising the earlier evidence for and against the proposed changes."

 Does Macklin's office have no shame? 

“Macklin’s office really has no shame!” My correspondent* was commenting on the response from Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin to a study published today in the Medical Journal of Australia showing that the federal government’s income management policy is not making an impact on tobacco
and healthy food sales in remote community shops in the NT."

"I have carefully read the Brimblecombe et al. piece in MJA ‘Impact of income management on store sales in the Northern Territory’ and find it the most comprehensive and scholarly quantitative research available  to date on the food and tobacco expenditure impacts of income quarantining before and after the Intervention. ...It is quite inappropriate to compare this research undertaken by academic experts at arms-length from government from research undertaken by federal bureaucrats or their paid consultants."

Peter O’Mara, President, Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association (AIDA) in an editorial in The Medical Journal of Australia: "The introduction of the
Northern Territory intervention (NTER) and, in particular, the lack of community consultation, was a cause for deep concern. In response, AIDA chose to undertake a health impact assessment to give voice to affected communities and, as doctors, to facilitate discussion with policymakers and program leaders on ways to improve the NTER and reduce negative impacts on health and wellbeing. ... The health impact assessment findings speak for themselves and show that the intervention does more harm than good."

The Medical Journal of Australia also carried an article relating the Northern Territory intervention and cannabis use in remote Indigenous communities.  "While there may have been some substitution of cannabis for alcohol following introduction of the NTER restrictions and Alcohol Management Plans, it seems clear that the increase in use of cannabis cannot be attributed primarily to these interventions. The problem, regardless of the cause, needs to be addressed, but it will not be addressed simply by relaxing alcohol restrictions." - Dennis A Gray, Deputy Director, National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University of Technology.


National Indigenous Times: "The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has officially been born... but will it do anything to further the cause, asks BRIAN JOHNSTONE*. ... No real power will ever be transferred. The establishment of a compromised national representative body with no powers, no independent funding and no forward political agenda is, unfortunately, just the latest evidence that this will always be the case." Brian Johnstone, Walkley-award winning journalist and columnist at NIT

National Indigenous Times: "In Darwin, GRAHAM RING* writes that the new National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples shouldn’t be cut down before it has had a chance to grow up."

National Indigenous Times: "The formation of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples will finally give Indigenous Australians a voice in the capital, writes SHARAN BURROW*. ... From today, Indigenous Australians have a progressive and dynamic new voice." Sharan Burrow, president, Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU)

More responses to the new national indigenous body:

New Way Summit delegates unanimously reject government sponsored Rep body (31 Jan 10)

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Websites with coverage of this area:


Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
Northern Territory National Emergency Response

STICS (Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney):

IRAG (Intervention Rollback Action Group):

Intervention walk-off's Blog:

WGAR (Working Group for Aboriginal Rights):