Martin Oliver is a freelance journalist with an interest in social justice.
In the run-up to the 2007 election, John Howard was behind in the polls. Experienced in pulling off stunts, in June he responded in a dramatic and unexpected fashion to decades of inaction on Aboriginal welfare with what is known as the Northern Territory intervention. Ostensibly a response to a report titled Little Children are Sacred that highlighted child abuse in Aboriginal communities, there were reasons to suspect a different agenda. In particular: the intervention only implemented two out of 97 recommendations in the report; hundreds of pages of complex legislation had been prepared within eight days of the report coming out, and the possibility that the legislation had been drafted in advance was strengthened by the fact that it contained virtually no mention of the words 'child' or 'children'; and the legislation involved compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land and ended Community Development Employment Projects, some of which have however since been reinstated.
An aspect of the intervention that has proven to be one of the most controversial is income management, an anodyne term for quarantining 50-100% of Centrelink payments, insuring that they are spent on essentials such as housing, food and clothing, and not on alcohol, gambling and pornography. Another stated goal is to protect vulnerable people from financial exploitation. While the response has sometimes been mixed, opposition from many of those forcibly enrolled into the program shows no sign of dissipating.
The system generally involves a swipe card known as a Basics Card, which is accepted by a limited number of outlets. Among female users surveyed, 74% felt discriminated against by people who saw the card, and 53% found shopping with the card difficult. Determining the balance of the card requires organising a phone call to Centrelink or an online enquiry to avoid the humiliation of not having sufficient funds. . There are also difficulties and delays caused by inevitable computer glitches.
History shows that once a government has acquired a particular coercive power, it never relinquishes it except in the face of overwhelming public protest. Having gained government, Labor continued with the intervention and while the original legislation exempted it from the Racial Discrimination Act, there was no protection in 2010 against condemnation by the UN, whose observer found the intervention to be both racially discriminatory and to infringe Aboriginal rights. A solution was found: extend income management throughout the Northern Territory, and later to metropolitan Perth, the Kimberley and Cape York.
In a sign that the government is now seeking to extend income management nationwide, July 1 will see the start of five new trials, specifically in Bankstown (NSW), Logan (QLD), Rockhampton (QLD), Playford (SA), and Greater Shepparton (Victoria.) Applying to people labelled as 'at risk', it will affect somewhere between 50-70% of benefits. Unsurprisingly, the response to this non-consensual violation of personal autonomy has not been gushing. A total of 54 groups have voiced an objection to the Blacktown trial, and the bodies that oppose income management read like a Who's Who of the Australian welfare, social justice, legal and human rights sectors.
Individuals on income management are effectively encouraged to shop for food at Woolworths, Coles (Wesfarmers) or Bi-Lo (Wesfarmers.) Patronising independent retailers and wholefood stores that do not accept the card is possible, but cumbersome and time-consuming. As this Basics Card bypass option requires the use of credit card facilities, it rules out farmers' markets, which are widely considered to be the cheapest and freshest source of produce.
Options for house wares and clothes extend largely to new purchases at Target, Kmart, Best & Less, Rockmans and Big W, nearly all of which are again owned by either Wesfarmers or Woolworths. Low income-earners who save money by buying at op shops seem to be out of luck. Wesfarmers-owned Kmart Tyre and Auto has carved up most of the income management automotive sector, while Caltex Woolworths heavily dominates the fuel market.
Where introduced, income management inevitably stands to undermine local economies. According to the National Association of Independent Retailers, about 45 cents from every dollar spent in a locally owned shop stays in the local area, as opposed to 13 cents per dollar spent in the large chains.
Perhaps the $4,400 per person per year that these programs cost to run could be better spent elsewhere. The Federal Government has recently signalled an interest in cutting red tape; maybe it could start by not tying up the lives of the vulnerable, including some women fleeing domestic violence, in unnecessary and onerous complexity and bureaucracy, paternalistically micro-managing their lives as if they were small children.
The upcoming trials are part of the government's Building Australia's Future Workforce package. Is the aim here to boost workforce participation by making life intolerable for some of the unemployed?