Indigenous women: Welfare quarantine a disaster

March 1, 2008

Barbara Shaw, a resident of the Mount Nancy town camp near Alice Springs and a member of the National Aboriginal Alliance, told Green Left Weekly on February 29 that the racist intervention into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities launched by the former Howard government "has been very negative for our people and undermined many of our own ways of dealing with issues".

The intervention — which imposes a series of punitive measures on Aboriginal communities and places them under federal government control — includes the welfare "quarantine" system, which converts 50% of welfare payments to Aboriginal residents of targeted communities into gift cards for certain stores. This system "has been a disaster for people and we are worse off", Shaw said.

"People now have to line up every day at Centrelink offices to collect their vouchers", she told GLW. The cards can only be used at certain stores — big corporate chains like Woolworths and Coles that are often hundreds of kilometres away, so more money is spent on transport than food.

"I live with my husband and four daughters", Shaw said, "and I share my money and food with my family. The new quarantining system has made us poorer. I cannot bulk shop anymore and have to spend more money on less food. This system is undermining our collective way of living where we help each other out.

"The situation over Christmas was very bad. Many communities have a tradition of 'chuck in, chuck in', where people put money into a pot and buy a cow, for instance, for the older people. We can't do that anymore. Many of the grandparents also couldn't buy any presents for the grandchildren."

Shaw also described how some 500 people travelled up to 400 kilometres to the Katherine Centrelink office before Christmas to collect their vouchers, only to be told there were none left.

"The intervention inferred that all Aboriginal mothers neglect their children, which is plainly wrong", Shaw said. She explained that there had been "no consultation with the mothers at all about the [mandatory] children's health checks and what would work best in the interest of the children. People started to get scared."

"We used to have some very good women's programs and centres in our communities where women talked and learned about alcohol issues, domestic violence, child care etc", Shaw explained. "These programs were run by our people and disappeared with the Howard government's first term in office. The new government has not said anything about reintroducing these programs."

Federal Labor supported the intervention legislation when it was proposed by the Howard government last June, however the ALP announced on November 23 — just before the federal election — that it would review the intervention and work on an evidence-based approach.

After Labor PM Kevin Rudd made the historic apology to the stolen generations on February 13, there was some hope among many Aboriginal activists and supporters that it may herald a new beginning for Aboriginal Australia and a break with the paternalistic and racist policies of the Howard government.

However on February 25, federal Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin announced that the government would not abolish the welfare quarantine system, but would extend it to more communities in the NT — affecting an additional 500 people — and introduce a similar system to some remote communities in Western Australia.

Macklin indicated in a February 28 interview on ABC Online that the intervention may be extended to all areas across Australia. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh introduced legislation on February 26 to begin welfare quarantine policies in some parts of Cape York.

Shaw told GLW that in a meeting with Macklin, the minister said the ALP government would make some changes, including the restoration of the Community Development and Employment Scheme (CDEP) and the permit system, which allows Aboriginal townships some control over who enters their communities. However what Labor implemented "is not the same permit system", Shaw explained. "The communities don't have control over everybody who can come in now, such as media".

On February 12, 2000 Aboriginal activists and supporters mobilised at federal parliament to demand an end to the NT intervention and in particular the policy of welfare quarantine.

Mitch, an Aboriginal activist from Alice Springs, said in a February 7 statement — as she and other central Australian Aboriginal community leaders began their bus trip to join the events in Canberra — that "Kevin Rudd has said his apology will contain an affirmation never to repeat past wrongs, but this is precisely what his government is doing rolling out Howard's intervention. He is continuing the genocidal policy of the stolen generations and the Howard years."

"We are back to 'flour, tea and tobacco days', being forced to work and jump through hoops for ration vouchers", Mitch said, pointing out that "Centrelink is not providing proper services for remote communities so there has been a mass exodus of our young people. My brothers have been forced into town to look for work."

"People should set up committees against the intervention where they live, if there aren't any groups there yet", Shaw urged. The intervention "is not working for us and it won't be working for other people. It is important that we work together against the intervention."

"We are also planning to have protests on the 13th of every month against aspects of the intervention. In March the protests will be at Centrelink offices."

[For more information on the protests, phone Barbara Shaw on 0401 291 166.]

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