'First they came for the Aboriginal people…' — new plan to extend 'welfare quarantining' to all

December 2, 2009

On November 25, the federal Labor government tabled legislation in parliament to allow the extension of the policy of "welfare quarantining" to unemployed people and single parents throughout the country regardless of ethnic background.

Under the draconian and demonstrably unsuccessful policy —half of a person's welfare payments are replaced by a "Basics card", which can be spent only on particular commodities at particular shops. At present, it applies to Indigenous people in Northern Territory communities prescribed under the former Coalition government's Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) legislation (the "NT intervention").

The intervention was started in 2007, and has continued largely unchanged since Labor came to power.

Welfare quarantining, or "income management", was one of the reasons why the introduction of the NTER necessitated the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA).

The government is committed to maintaining the intervention — although it has changed the name to "Closing the Gap NT". But Labor also had made an election promise to restore the RDA.

The Aboriginal affairs department recently completed a series of "consultations" with Aboriginal communities affected by the intervention. For welfare quarantining to be consistent with the RDA, the government needed to prove that the discriminatory measures — quarantining welfare payments of only Aboriginal people — were in the interests of, and with the approval of, those people.

The consultations were characterised by secrecy, spin, one-way conversations and leading questions. Yet they were still unable to produce the desired results.

Aboriginal people did not, and would not, say they supported the compulsory quarantining of Aboriginal welfare payments regardless of individual circumstance.

So instead, the government announced it would extend the policy to all welfare recipients in the NT from July 2010, and nationally from late 2011. It intends to bypass the RDA by extending the basis of discrimination beyond race.

Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin told ABC radio's November 23 PM: "There was a range of views on income management. Some people were strongly supportive of it, other people not so supportive, but the majority certainly take the view that it has delivered benefits particularly to children and to the elderly with more money being spent on food."

However, a report on the consultation process by former Chief Justice of the Family Court Alastair Nicholson, and Larissa Behrendt, Alison Vivian, Nicole Watson and Michele Harris of the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, suggested otherwise.

The report, titled Will they be heard?, was launched by former prime minister Malcolm Fraser on November 23, the same day Macklin released her "feedback" report from the consultations.

Nicholson told PM there was "strong opposition amongst the people to income management".

He said the consultation process "didn't give the people a choice at all. What it said was, well you can either keep the present compulsory system, or we'll introduce a system where individuals can apply to Centrelink to be excused from it.

"And of course that was met with a fair degree of derision by most of the people that I heard speaking about it because they said that the chances of them being able to persuade some official in Centrelink that they were responsible financial managers was negligible."

The introduction to Will they be heard? described the consultations in Utopia, Bagot and Ampilatwatja (the only three that were filmed): "The government is not offering any choice. It is simply telling the people what it proposes to do. The consultation is nothing more than going through the motions in order to achieve a predetermined end."

On November 26, the Australian Greens put a motion in the federal Senate calling on the government to make available transcripts of the more than 500 other meetings that formed the consultation process. Labor and Coalition senators combined to vote down the motion.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said: "The Government is claiming there is support for continuing the use of discriminatory measures, which is not consistent with the findings of the independent review [Will they be heard?].

"It is essential that the government make the transcripts of these meetings publicly available so that we can see what the community really said in the meetings and whether the government's claims can be validated."

The Stop the Intervention Committee in Sydney (STICS) told the November 26 National Indigenous Times: "Income quarantining has been a disaster for 'prescribed communities'. The government's own statistics show that reports of domestic violence are up 61%, substance abuse is up 77% and 13% more infants have been hospitalised for malnutrition"

Behrendt told a November 26 protest organised by STICS the intervention had also created worse outcomes in school attendance and child health.

Macklin has waxed lyrical about the supposed benefits and popularity of welfare quarantining, but by extending it to non-Indigenous welfare recipients she confirms the conclusion of the Will They be Heard report: "The process is insufficient to qualify as indicating consent by Aboriginal people to special measures for the purposes of the Racial Discrimination Act."

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.