Debates about the provision of welfare over the past decade have been founded upon an increasing concern with the responsibilities of welfare recipients. In Australia, as elsewhere, the emphasis has been on recipients’ responsibility to rise above their circumstances (no matter how constraining) in order to ‘give something back’ to society. This practice of ‘responsibilisation’ has recently been extended to parents and residents of certain remote Northern Territory and Far North Queensland communities, in response to an inquiry into the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse (Northern Territory Government 2007). Parents and community members have an enforceable obligation to control and civilise their own conduct as well as that of their children (see Yeend & Dow 2007).

The approach to welfare reform in Indigenous communities introduced by the former Howard Government is punitive and paternalistic. Aboriginal parents and community members are subject to a new income management regime in cases of child neglect or by reason of geographical location. Indeed, in seventy-three designated Northern Territory communities the reforms are obligatory and indiscriminately applied to all residents (Altman 2007, p. 311). Income management diverts all or part of a person’s hitherto inalienable benefit payments to a special account for the provision of priority needs. Worryingly, specific details about the circumstances that trigger subjection to income management—for those who do not inhabit prescribed NT communities—and the precise meaning of priority needs are not spelt out in legislation. The bill also eschews the principle of antidiscrimination (Yeend & Dow 2007, pp. 7, 4).

Influential Indigenous leader Noel Pearson (2000) has long supported this kind of intervention as part of a broader solution to community dysfunction, child abuse and neglect. Indeed, the legislation implements Cape York welfare reform trials that extend income management and other measures to specified Far North Queensland communities based on recommendations put forward by Pearson and the Cape York Institute (2007). Pearson’s support for welfare reform is, however, grounded in albeit a contested positive alternative vision of reciprocal responsibility, economic development and selfdetermination. Broadly bipartisan support indicates that the latest welfare reform measures are likely to have a significant effect on the future of Indigenous citizenship. While the Howard Government has recently been replaced by a more progressive Labor government, the new government remains committed to the changes in their current form until a review scheduled for mid-2008. The review, as well as the more collaborative approach of the current government, renders careful critical analysis and public scrutiny of Indigenous welfare reform an urgent and productive task.

Drawing on the work of Emmanuel Levinas (1969), this paper questions the normative assumptions underpinning these changes. Negatively, I question two frameworks for thinking about responsibility that inform Indigenous welfare reform; namely, protection and mutual obligation. Positively, I argue for an alternative approach to welfare reform that both foregrounds a sense of responsibility for the other and sustains alterity.


Published in Full, Northern Territory Intervention, Listening, Levinas


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