Members of the Aboriginal community, faith-based groups, unionists, welfare activists, and others gathered at the State Administration Centre in Adelaide on September 9 to oppose a proposal to expand income management in South Australia.
Labor Premier Jay Weatherill has announced he would “offer the broadest possible support” to all 27 of billionaire Andrew Forrest's recommendations in his Indigenous Employment and Training Review. This would include Forrest's controversial proposal to dramatically expand income management to all working-age Centrelink clients, or 2.5 million people.
The colourful, lively protest was organised by SIMPla — Stop Income Management in Playford — and the Anti-Poverty Network SA.
SIMPla campaigns against the income management program that has operated in Adelaide's northern suburbs since 2012. The Anti-Poverty Network is an alliance of job-seekers, students, sole parents, disability and age pensioners and others fighting the federal Coalition government's brutal attacks on Centrelink clients. Protesters held giant BasicsCards with Forrest and Weatherill's names on them.
Mining magnate Forrest has called for income management to apply to everyone on income support payments, except age pensioners and veterans, and for 100% of payments to be "managed". The current arrangement is 50-70%.
The Australian Council of Social Service says this move would “take our nation back to the 1930s when unemployed people did not get cash benefits and had to work on the roads or beg for charity to survive”.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has ruled out expanding income management to all working-age Centrelink clients, but has not ruled out further expansions of the policy.
Forrest's wide-ranging 256-page report covers many areas, including welfare reform, housing policy, health programs and childhood development. It extends far beyond the narrow focus that was assigned to him when he was commissioned by the Abbott government to produce the report last year.
Most of his proposals, he makes clear, are meant to apply to the entire country. It is less clear to what extent this is a rhetorical device to defuse accusations of racism, or a reflection of Forrest's ambitious view of himself as a social thinker and reformer.
Weatherill's blanket endorsement of Forrest's entire report puts him at odds with federal Labor, which has refused to fully back Forrest's review and said the income management proposal was "a bridge too far". Not even the Abbott government has completely supported Forrest's recommendations.
There could be broader factors behind Weatherill's decision, like the need to find some common ground with Abbott to help secure funding for state government transport and infrastructure projects, or perhaps a desire to curry favour with Forrest, whose company, Fortescue Metals Group, is not active in South Australia.
Speakers at the protest included Dignity for Disability Party MLC Kelly Vincent, Education Union SA member Michael Williss, and Aboriginal activist and former Centrelink worker Janette Milera.
Milera resigned after the implementation of income management and other punitive, racist policies in the Northern Territory as part of the intervention in 2007.
Vincent criticised Forrest’s proposal to further tighten access to the Disability Support Payment, which already has strict eligibility criteria.
Williss read out a resolution endorsed by the union's executive, criticising Weatherill's hasty and misguided support for Forrest's proposal. One of Forrest's suggestions is to link Family Tax Benefit payments and school attendance, with attendance levels below 90% leading to financial penalties for parents.
This proposal will not only punish already struggling low-income families, but fails to address the many serious underlying issues behind truancy in remote Aboriginal communities, and may damage the critical relationships between schools and parents.
Policies that rely on using fear or threats to change behaviour, like cutting or suspending payments, do not work.
Multiple speakers said Weatherill's decision to consult with Aboriginal communities after State Cabinet decided to back Forrest's reforms is reminiscent of consultations during the NT intervention, when decisions were made, and then affected communities consulted, rather than the other way round.
It is well-known that the best programs, those that improve the wellbeing of vulnerable people, are those designed and implemented by local communities, in partnership with governments.