The real impact of the welfare 'quarantine'

Issue 

As the quarantining of Indigenous welfare payments (50% of individual welfare benefits being received as gift cards for certain shops) rolls out across the Northern Territory, its alleged benefits need to be weighed against the possible cultural and economic consequences.

The end results may well be opposite to those desired. Quarantining could make it harder to access services, increase the cost of food provision, constrain saving patterns and exacerbate the conflicts it intends to curtail.

The recent federal election featured large in remote Aboriginal communities. In between conversations about kin, hunting and weather patterns, there was much discussion about the "new laws for Aboriginal people" — a collective reference to the various aspects of the "emergency intervention" launched by the government of former Prime Minister John Howard.

In a remote homeland in which English is the second, third or fourth language, where there is no television and only intermittent short-wave radio reception, information about the intervention filtered through with varying degrees of specificity. People in the homeland learned that the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme "might finish up", that there would be "new Balanda [white] bosses" in Aboriginal communities and that "Centrelink money" was going to change. They also heard that "the new laws" would only be for Yolngu (Aboriginal people), not Balanda.

People expressed anger that the new laws were "only pointed at Yolngu" and that "they [the government] were trying to take control of Yolngu country and Yolngu lives", and frustration about the uncertainty surrounding the impending changes. Everyone in the community discussed how they would "fire John Howard" at the next election, and so, they thought, "stop those new laws".

The election results demonstrate that it was not just this one small Aboriginal community that turned out to "fire John Howard" on election day. There was an unprecedented swing against the Coalition government in Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory and Queensland. (In the 20 Aboriginal booths surveyed by the National Indigenous Times, the ALP routinely picked up over 85% of the primary vote, and over 90% after preferences). However, they were not so successful in "stopping those new laws". In the past four weeks, "the new laws" and "the new government" have again featured large in daily conversation of the community.

Again, without access to media, let alone media in their own language, people have heard that "they keeping some of those new laws for Yolngu", and, more specifically, that they "only gonna get half their Centrelink money — the other half will only be djorra [paper] for ngatha [food] at only lurrkun [few] shops". We were asked whether this new law was only for Yolngu, and I confirmed that it wasn't going to affect white people, only Yolngu. Feelings of anger and frustration have again resurfaced. The most common response has been "This is rubbish! Mongrels!", with one senior woman asking kin rhetorically "Why they just pointing at Yolngu, like threatening us? They think we're stupid we can't use our 'rown money? We're not playing cards or drinking grog! We're sitting down quietly on our 'rown country doing the work and looking after our kids! We're not monkeys!"

Aside from the fundamental issues of discrimination and infringement on basic rights, the new welfare arrangements may interrupt patterns of financial management with serious cultural and economic consequences. As kin and scholars we fear the new quarantined welfare arrangements impede the culturally appropriate financial management system developed in some homelands.

First, the quarantine system will constrain the flexible processes devised by remote communities to obtain food and goods. On account of their remote location, the cost of transport and the small payments welfare recipients receive, access to shops is always a communal and opportunistic (ad)venture. In the dry season when the roads are passable shopping trips are dependent upon a number of factors. There must be a functional, registered vehicle in the community, which is not common given the cost of buying and maintaining vehicles on such a low income. There must be someone in the community with a current drivers license, which is more likely, but still uncommon for both economic and cultural reasons.

In addition, there must be enough "surplus" cash to pay for the 280km round trip to the nearest town. In the wet season, during the five months the roads are impassable, shopping trips cost the $700-plus return plane trip to the nearest town, either Galiwin'ku or Nhulunbuy.

People must be opportunistic and shopping trips are only made possible through cooperative and communal financial management, articulated through kinship relations. If people learn of kin driving in from town to a nearby homeland they rally around the phone, check bank accounts, transfer whole sums between accounts over the phone, and quickly act to secure the delivery of food and goods. Those who have money in their bank accounts willingly "blow it up" on food and goods for the community. When the delivery arrives, bags and cardboard boxes are set down on the veranda to be redistributed according to need.

A similar impromptu financial rallying takes place when service planes fly in from Galiwin'ku. Whole sums are transferred over the phone to kin on the island with time enough that they can drive the food and goods down to the airport hanger to hitch a ride on the plane. Alternatively, if a close kinsperson from the community flies to town to attend a health appointment or CDEP meeting, for which the transport is provided, it is common practice that kin give them their bankcards to "hold" for the trip. Once in town they are in contact over the phone relaying what they and others in the community require.

If neither of these options is possible, community members pool all their money and pay for a plane to the nearest town. Given the cost of flights, there is always the possibility that they won't have enough money left over for the food they made the trip for, or the return flight home. In these cases people fall effortlessly into the safety net of kin who similarly rally around phones, fires and verandas to garner cash or phone transfers in order to ensure the passage of the shoppers back home, or at the least, that they are well cared for until a return flight can be secured.

In this geographic, economic and cultural context, money and bank accounts are not exclusive to individuals but cooperatively shared among close kin. These dynamics are both a reflection of the reciprocal nature of Aboriginal kin relations and the need to take advantage of often infrequent opportunities as they arise.

There is little time or desire to be overly measured or uncooperative. It is most often the case that each shopping opportunity, one or two people "blow up" their money on food and goods for many more households than their own, "zeroing out" their bank accounts until the following fortnight in the shared interest of close kin. Such open-handedness never leaves individuals vulnerable or wanting however, for the same open-handedness is reciprocated in turn.

This shared financial management is a flexible system that is able to adapt to circumstance and opportunity. Quarantining half of welfare payments and introducing a currency that cannot be remotely transferred or exchanged as money will impose undue constraints that will inevitably reduce flexibility. It will reduce the ability of kin to "pool" money impromptu, which is the way transport, shopping and goods are afforded by isolated communities on low income. That is, the way most shopping trips are made possible.

Second, the new quarantining measures cut through the cultural roles assigned in the community according to age, gender and ability. The new measures expect that individuals purchase food for themselves and their immediate households, while in practice the purchase of food is a responsibility taken on by women as distinct and exclusive from the provision of other services.

So, for example, while men rarely purchase and prepare food, their bank accounts are used to buy and maintain vehicles and other large service goods —— boats, lawn mowers and the like, which are essential to community functioning. Men's accounts are often left untouched to "sav'im up" for several weeks, after which a purchase is made. Alternatively, the community may make a large purchase on incremental payments, which are deducted weekly from men's accounts. So while men "blow up" their money on large goods and assets for others, they remain well fed through the provision of close kin.

While women will no doubt still "blow up" their money and vouchers on food to fulfil their responsibilities, men will still be expected to buy and maintain expensive goods on half the income. The other half, as food vouchers, will undoubtedly be handed over as "women's business" (perhaps with the expectation that women will hand over the little cash they have in return). The consequences of reshaping people's ability to fulfil cultural roles is unpredictable, though no doubt cause for frustration and friction.

The economic consequences will be such that the services men provide through their expenditure patterns will be heavily constrained. That is, the quarantine will limit the purchase and maintenance of vehicles and other important assets, possibly putting further constraints on people's mobility and, more importantly accessibility to shops.

The prevailing financial system is a solution remote people have developed to adapt to their geographical, economic and cultural context. It is flexible enough to adapt to circumstance and opportunity. It complements culturally appropriate kinship reciprocity and gender roles. Most importantly, it is their own. Aboriginal people neither need nor deserve restrictions imposed on their welfare payments. To think that quarantining payments and issuing food vouchers will somehow lead to more "effective" financial management is to misunderstand their socio-cultural context and radically underestimate them as a people. In their own words, it is to "treat them like monkeys".

[Bree Blakeman is a PhD student at the Australian National University's School of Archaeology and Anthropology. Dr Nanni Concu is a research fellow at the University of Queensland's School of Economics. They are currently living in an Aboriginal homeland in North-East Arnhem Land.]