Quartermaine proposes new rations system



When I was recording oral histories with Aboriginal women in the Central Desert region, it struck me that food played a central role in their stories.

Talking about the "early days", women would describe in detail their traditional gathering and preparation of food, listing the different foods they would eat according to the season. They would also describe the wonder and often suspicion with which they first encountered "whitefella' food.

For a hunter-gather society living in such an arid, and at times inhospitable, environment as Central Australia (I've heard stories of grass being eaten during drought periods), the seemingly rich and abundant supply of food brought by the early explorers and missionaries must have been quite appealing. In some areas of Australia, and for some historical periods, amicable trading occurred between Indigenous tribes and explorers, and Indigenous people incorporated foods such as tea and sugar into their traditional diet.

What was a more common experience, though, was the use of food as a means of control. Pastoralism, with its intensive grazing and introduction of new species, quickly began to erode the fragile environment. Precious waterholes were muddied and emptied by cattle; and native fauna struggled to survive. Indigenous people who had hitherto used European food as an occasional supplement to a healthy traditional diet were forced to "come in from the bush" in search of food.

The image of the ration depot — Indigenous people waiting to have canvas bags filled with meagre supplies — is powerful. The amount of correspondence, reports and time spent by the WA Department of Native Affairs — or its counterparts in other states — on administering, legislating and documenting the distribution of rations to the Indigenous population during the first half of the 20th century is testimony to the control that the state exercised over their food supply.

Aboriginal workers in the pastoral industry were for decades denied real wages, and were instead "paid" in rations. The WA Department of Native Affairs circulated recommended daily food allowances to station managers, who were responsible for ensuring their "staff" were adequately fed. Evidence from station account books and oral histories suggests that taking government subsidies for rations then skimping on food allocations was a common profit-making practice.

Another common practice was to pay Indigenous workers in store credit. The store manager would manage each employee's account, and — as long as the account was in credit — food or other supplies would be handed over when requested, with no mention of the price or the remaining credit in the account.

The Stolen Wages Campaign in Queensland highlights the racist government policies that took place for most of last century — with Indigenous people's wages being paid into government trust accounts, held on the "worker's behalf", and then never released. It has been estimated that the state of Queensland potentially made a profit of up to $500 million from exploiting these workers.

So, whether it was rations, "credit" or "trust" accounts, Indigenous people in these rural areas had no control over things that we today take for granted; the buying of food, the right to be paid for work, and the power to spend that pay how we choose. These racist practices were struggled against by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and political pressure led to legislative changes such as the 1967 referendum and the 1968 Pastoral Industry Award, which gave Aboriginal people the right, formally at least, to equal wages.

In late October, Lionel Quartermaine, acting chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, sparked public debate when he floated the idea of a "smart-card" system. Under his system, welfare payments would be paid into a card that could be used to purchase food, clothes, and education. His justification, he said, was concern that welfare payments to families were being spent on alcohol and drugs, leaving children inadequately fed and clothed.

Speaking on ABC Radio National's The World Today on October 27, Quartermaine was careful to stress that this scheme would assist all Australian families — black and white — who are affected by issues such as domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse. However, in the context of the amount of media space given to violence, sexual assault and substance abuse in Aboriginal communities, it is difficult not to assume he is aiming it at those he should be advocating on behalf of. Certainly most of the corporate media has reported it as such, referring to the benefits for "Aboriginal children".

Quatermaine's proposal received widespread criticism. For many people, it brought up memories of the not-too-distant "mission days" and ration systems.

Barb Shaw, from Anyinginyi Congress, an Aboriginal Medical Service in Tennant Creek, told ABC Radio National's AM on November 1, "I actually remember when I was a child I was part of a line up with my parents being handed out the old bar soap, the tea and the sugar and a portion of meat, so I guess there was some connection to what is being suggested now to that, because it's like putting in a particular rule or a regulation that applies to a particular group."

Meanwhile, ATSIC's western NSW commissioner Steve Gordon insists that self-determination and community-based programs are the only way to assist and empower indigenous people. "Our proposal is to have these huge properties and take people out and educate them the proper way, not give them cards where they can just go and get socks or a bag of flour or whatever like they did in the mission days", he told the ABC.

Quartermaine raised his idea with new Indigenous affairs minister Amanda Vanstone on October 31. Vanstone rejected the idea, pointing out that it would require legislative change, and asserting that — once entitled to welfare benefits — recipients can't then be dictated to on how to spend them.

We can't take this to mean that the federal government — with such a racist track record — is taking a more progressive or compassionate approach to Indigenous Australians — just that it is aware how unpopular such a proposal would be.

To Quartermaine's credit, he identified an issue facing many Indigenous families. Reports into the welfare of people living in the South Australian Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands, for example, have found that all families are affected — directly or indirectly — by petrol sniffing and violence.

In communities of 100-200 people, the entire town can be affected by a group of people sniffing, or by an argument that turns loud and violent: children come to school the next day not having had any sleep; the store doesn't open because the store workers were injured or threatened; people go hungry, which in turn leads to further frustration and anger.

However, how can tightening the amount of control that the authorities have over these communities, solve the problem? How will widening the already apparent gap between people living in these remote communities and the wider population, address the economic, social and personal issues which lead to destructive behaviour? The "smart-card" will simply further entrench people in the poverty trap, making them even more dependent on the complex and alienating bureaucracy which already governs their lives, and lessening the chances of them ever breaking free of it.

At a time when Indigenous people are fighting to be reimbursed for lifetimes' worth of wages stolen from them by the government; when Indigenous families on remote communities are trying to survive on less than $100 a week; in a country where Indigenous households earn around $200 less than non-Indigenous households per week, any "solution" to "the Aboriginal problem" that involves imposing more control over Indigenous lives is a gross insult to those already struggling to survive, and a reminder to all of us of the importance of the fight for justice for Aboriginal people.

From Green Left Weekly, November 19, 2003.
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