March 2019

The Nation Reviewed

Tuckshop intervention

By Russell Marks

How did buying lunch in a Northern Territory school get so complicated?

Nancy lives in a modest brick-veneer house in the Northern Territory town of Katherine. She pays rent to the Department of Housing in Darwin, and receives parenting payments from the Department of Human Services in Canberra.

Today it’s well over 35 degrees in the shade, which is where Nancy sits with her family because it’s cooler than inside: the cardboard box containing the replacement air conditioner sits tantalisingly nearby, awaiting installation. Nancy speaks English far better than I speak Djambarrpuyngu, which is her language, and her mother-in-law helps to join our conversation together.

Nancy and her six children haven’t been in this house long. Two years ago they were homeless, staying with family when they could while Nancy was trying to keep away from a violent ex-partner. Ongoing “family humbug” (when extended family members make demands driven by their own poverty) and intermittent electricity (which makes it difficult to power a fridge) led Nancy to sign up to have her kids’ meals at school paid for through Centrelink’s Centrepay system. The idea is that a proportion of a person’s social security income is diverted directly to their child’s school, to pay for food at breakfast, recess or lunch – or all three.

For the first time in a long time, Nancy and her children enjoyed stability. Then, a family member took his own life in the house they were staying in. The kids came home from school and found him. Nancy took her children back to her home community to recover – if that’s possible – while she and her sisters prepared for the funeral. The kids weren’t going to school.

But Centrelink kept sending Nancy’s parenting payments to the school: more than $50 every day (because that’s the amount the school required she commit to), so that her four school-aged children could be fed.

Before long the school was holding well over $2000 to feed Nancy’s children, who were living – and eating – three hours’ drive from Katherine. The date set for the funeral was fast approaching. Nancy’s family was pressuring her to pay for a headstone. The housing department was also waiting for a new bond, because it had found Nancy and her family a new house. But Nancy couldn’t amass lump sums. Her social security was tied up in income management, as is the case for everyone who receives parenting payments in the Northern Territory: a legacy of the federal government intervention. When she learnt about the money the school was holding, she was keen to use it.

The school couldn’t let her have it. Even though funerals, rental bonds and school uniforms are among the ever-expanding list of “approved activities” for Centrepay (which began as a way of managing utility bills), the school’s contract with the DHS precluded it from using the lunch money for anything other than its School Nutrition and Healthy Eating program. The school can only release unspent lunch money back to the DHS when Centrelink authorises it to do so – and that will only happen when a child is unenrolled.

Parents who sign up to the nutrition program in community schools outside Katherine face even tougher rules. Those “projects” are run under the auspices of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS), which from 2014 has promised more flexible delivery of services to remote communities. The IAS “Operational Framework” for school nutrition programs makes it very clear that “unspent parental contributions are to be utilised for food for the students and the student’s community” – for example, by increasing the number or quality of meals being served. In other words, parents who don’t tell Centrelink to stop payments will be subsidising other kids’ food. That happens at some Katherine schools too (though not at the one Nancy’s kids go to).

Had Nancy simply told Centrelink to stop the payments as soon as she left Katherine, the problem would never have arisen. And there was an appeal process she could have accessed. But bureaucratic reviews aren’t high on anyone’s list of priorities when they’re funeral planning. She didn’t have a phone. She wasn’t in town to visit Centrelink. Every week, more than $250 went to the school – and, when combined with the Centrepay deductions made on behalf of another 50-odd students, it earned the school significant interest.

Somewhere between Katherine and the community, between the school and Centrelink, the purpose of the Centrepay deductions was being lost. The school knew the children weren’t attending, but it wasn’t doing anything about stopping their food payments coming in.

On paper, the school nutrition programs are premium public policy. They feed children food with nutritional value (at least since the Northern Territory government began enforcing a strict nutrition policy some years ago). They encourage attendance by replacing the traditional stick – the threat of a welfare referral for any parent who sends a child to school without food – with a metaphorical and literal carrot. They even provide food-preparation jobs for Aboriginal staff in community schools. But parents who over-contribute from their meagre incomes find themselves in a federalist mire, stuck between Territory and Commonwealth departments and their ministers, who don’t mind dishing out the “personal responsibility” rhetoric. Parents end up in conflict with schools, which often – probably rightly – say their hands are tied by Centrelink’s rules.

According to both schools’ and Centrelink’s policy documents, responsibility – for lunch arrangements, notifying of absences and managing Centrepay deductions – lies squarely with the parents. But income management paternalistically assumes people can’t manage the basics, and simultaneously expects them to have their heads around some very complicated structures. “It’s a fraught system,” one Katherine principal openly admits. Philosophically, it’s a dog’s breakfast.

The nutrition programs are set up for people experiencing poverty to the point that they can’t afford regular electricity, yet they often charge much more than a middle-class parent would pay to feed a kid for a week. A loaf of bread, some cold meat, salad items, some fruit and a box of muesli bars comes to about $25 at a supermarket. Macfarlane Primary School, with 93 per cent of its enrolment being Aboriginal (yet named after a politician who was once chair of Katherine’s Rights for Whites committee), charges $65 every week to feed a single child.

School attendance is one of the nutrition programs’ stated aims, but there can be other consequences. A social worker in Katherine tells of a client who had come into town from Lajamanu – a seven-hour drive – and enrolled her kids in school, but then had to wait another nine days before the school would let the children attend because that’s when her next fortnightly Centrelink payment was due. Hilda, another Katherine mother, would love to pack lunches for her kids. Homelessness and family violence have seen her and her children living in a hostel for the past year. That costs her more than $500 every week, which is practically her entire income. She can’t afford a school nutrition program. Luckily the hostel provides its own packed lunches – except when it runs out of ingredients, which Hilda says happens regularly. Hilda knows that if her kids turn up to school three days in a row with no packed lunch and no Centrepay, the school reports her to child welfare. “Sometimes I keep them home when they can’t take packed lunch,” she says. “They don’t want to stay home. They like school.”

It’s difficult to know how many parents are in Hilda’s or Nancy’s situations, perhaps with large balances held by schools to which they can’t get access. The schools say actual conflicts over those balances are very rare. But nobody knows for sure. There’s no public reporting of how much money schools are “holding” for nutrition programs. Each primary school in Katherine has a different nutrition program charging different contributions in different ways. And schools in remote communities work differently again.

Nancy eventually stopped her parental contributions while her children were away. Now she’s returned to Katherine, and the children have returned to school, the school’s business manager confirms refunds aren’t possible unless the children are unenrolled – the very definition of a perverse incentive. Nor is it possible to use the money for uniforms or student excursions. “The parents need to understand, that money is for their kids’ food,” she insists.

Nancy shifts in her chair to accommodate the infant on her left breast. I’ve just relayed what the business manager told me, and she wants to point out the obvious irony. In part because of all the money locked away at her children’s school, sometimes she runs out of money by the weekend. “And I can’t feed them kids.”

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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