Task force recommends social security changes
DSS commissioned a report from the Remote Area Task Force in 1986. They recommended changes to support a more regular income flow to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customers and to recognise cultural practices.
Aboriginal clients need improved access to the departmental services provided by Social Security, but they first need to be more aware of what Social Security is all about ...
Aboriginal people were eligible for most government payments by the 1980s. However, getting payments to people in remote communities remained a challenge.
These excerpts are from a 1986 Department of Social Security (DSS) Remote Area Task Force report that made recommendations for change.
Report driven by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities
Joe Flick led the report. A Kamilaroi man, Flick was Assistant Director of DSS Aboriginal Services, Northern Territory.
Aboriginal Liaison Officers (ALOs) from Kununurra, Mount Isa, Port Lincoln and Alice Springs worked with Flick. They held discussions in Coober Pedy, Ceduna, Alice Springs and Thursday Island while preparing the report.
Recommendations to support regular income flow
A focus of the report was the challenges Aboriginal people faced getting regular income support.
Suggestions to promote a regular income flow included:
having communities all lodge their forms on the same day of the payment cycle
making payments weekly instead of fortnightly.
Aboriginal cultural practices not accounted for in the Social Services Act
The report found that ‘cultural ties and Aboriginal law [were] not taken into account in determining their eligibility for certain benefits’. This disadvantaged Aboriginal people.
The report found issues coding birthdates for Aboriginal people who only knew their birth year.
It also found that payments failed to account for kinship arrangements and the family structures common in Aboriginal communities. For instance, Aboriginal people tasked with full-time care of children they had not officially adopted, such as grandparent carers, couldn’t get Supporting Parents Benefit.
It further found Aboriginal people attending cultural ceremonies couldn’t get Unemployment Benefit while away from work.
The report recommended that the government prioritise developing policy that recognised Aboriginal ways of life. It further recommended more DSS staff for Darwin and Alice Springs, and for DSS to publicise its work in Aboriginal communities. It also suggested extra communication, such as a national video about ALO community visits and education videos for non-Indigenous staff.
Areas of success
The report praised the Community Agent Program (CAP) for having agents ‘on the spot’ in remote communities. These agents were able to answer questions and raise awareness of DSS payments. It recommended expanding the CAP trial to more locations.
The report found that the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) was popular in the Torres Strait Islands. Participants reported that ‘... it’s breaking away from a welfare system to enable us to be more self-reliant’. It recommended informing CDEP communities better about their social security requirements.
The report demonstrates the valuable contribution of DSS Aboriginal staff researchers to social services policy. Staff used their cultural and community knowledge, research skills and experience to argue for change.
Chairperson of the Remote Area Task Force, Joe Flick, appeared in a DSS video made in 1988 about ALOs, as was recommended in the report.
DSS created the North Australia Development Unit in 1988, which published significant recommendations to improve Aboriginal people’s access to social security.
Permissions to include excerpts from this report were granted by Joe Flick, Maria Atkins, James Webb, and the children of Sonny Ah Sam through Marnie Ah Sam.
One person’s name was withheld from the excerpt as they could not be consulted with.
Flick J, Ah Sam S, Atkins M, and Webb J (1986) Report to the Minister for Social Security on departmental services to remote areas of Northern Australia, Remote Area Taskforce, Department of Social Security, Australian Government.