The unjust quarantining of Aboriginal people's Centrelink benefits, enforced as part of the federal government's Northern Territory intervention, has been labelled by some as the intervention's most destructive element.
Protests against the quarantining, targeting Centrelink, have gained momentum around the country. For several months, activists have been marking the 13th or 14th of each month with actions outside local offices.
The policy requires that Centrelink convert 50% of all welfare payments to Indigenous people in NT communities into food vouchers, which can only be used at selected stores — Woolworths, Coles and K-Mart. The scheme is now being introduced in parts of Queensland and Western Australia, and is also being considered by the New South Wales and South Australian state governments.
In Sydney, 50 people gathered in front of Redfern Centrelink on July 14 at a picket organised by the Sydney Aboriginal Rights Coalition. ARC activist Pat Eatock told the gathering of the continuing expansion of the quarantining measures.
Environment minister Peter Garrett has already mentioned the Sydney suburb of La Perouse as being a further candidate for welfare quarantining. If that went ahead, Eatock said, "Redfern would be next". Quarantining takes money away from genuine community-based solutions and imposes unfair limits of Aboriginal people's ability to support themselves, she said.
The WA ARC also picketed Centrelink in suburban Cannington. The WA government has asked the federal government to target Cannington, which has a large Aboriginal population, for income quarantining. On July 17, the state and federal governments announced a "trial" that will tie parents' welfare payments to their children's school attendace, according to WA's Sunday Times website.
In November, 1408 people in eight communities were affected by welfare quarantining. By June this year, one year after the intervention was announced, this had grown to 13,309 people in 52 communities, with Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin promising "full coverage" soon.
Jim McIlroy reports from Brisbane that a July 14 picket outside the electoral office of PM Kevin Rudd demanded an end to the entire intervention, not just the welfare quarantining. The protest called for the repeal of the intervention legislation, the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act (which was suspended in order to allow the intervention) and better funding for infrastructure and community controlled services.
Aboriginal leader Sam Watson told the protest that "Aboriginal people want to control their own land. The whole Northern Territory intervention is a corrupt and rotten process. It's about stripping away Indigenous rights fought for over many decades.
"We call on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, our local MP, to return our rights and our land", he said. Watson presented an open letter to the PM to his office staff. [See page 6.]