The philosophy of the cashless welfare card is the perfect marriage of neoliberal ideology and evangelical Christianity, both of which pathologise, criminalise and individualise poverty as a lifestyle choice.
The concept of the Cashless Debit Card, known as the “Indue” card after the company that oversees its administration, was brought to us by the obsessive efforts of mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest who decided that the solution to what he perceived as the “welfare dependency” of Indigenous Australians was income management. The Australian government agreed with him and in 2014 legislation to implement the card in selected communities for a trial period passed federal parliament.
The stated purpose of the card was to prevent Centrelink recipients spending money on drugs, alcohol and gambling. However, whether you engage in those activities or not is irrelevant: if you live in a trial site, eighty per cent of your government payment is quarantined and you are permitted access to only twenty per cent of your money as cash.
There are now four trial sites: Ceduna in South Australia, East Kimberley, the West Australian towns of Kununurra and Wyndham, and most recently, the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay region of Queensland.
The so-called “trials” are now entering their fourth year, and in 2018 were extended into June 2021, despite there being little satisfactory data available on their success. While the trials now include non-Indigenous groups, they are still the majority of cardholders.
In 2019 the LNP government decided to extend the Indue card to every person already on income management in the Northern Territory from January 2020, by moving those already using the marginally less onerous BasicsCard onto Indue. There is considerable chatter on social media that the government’s endgame is to extend the card to aged pensioners and veterans, as well as everyone on Newstart, and that the roll-out will be national. Legislation is already in place for this roll-out.
Indue receives some $10,000 per annum per person from the government, for what is claimed to be “administrative costs.”
The demeaning assumption by the privileged that people living in poverty are incapable of managing meagre government handouts and so must be infantalised, is but one aspect of this class war. Another paternalistic assumption is that anyone in receipt of government assistance is a “welfare cheat” or a “dole bludger,” and their spending habits must, therefore, be surveilled and controlled in an effort to protect “worthy” taxpayers from exploitation.
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a visit to the Yalata community, described the card as an exercise in “practical love”, a variation on the concept of “hard love” once advocated as a means of dealing with people addicted to substances.
The implication that the poor are morally inadequate while the wealthy are, solely by virtue of their wealth, morally superior, nicely intersects with the beliefs of Pentecostal Christian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s prosperity theology, which understands God’s love and favour to be primarily expressed in wealth and material comforts. If you are poor, God doesn’t love you, and you haven’t loved him enough either.
The philosophy of the Indue card is the perfect marriage of neoliberal ideology and evangelical Christianity, both of which pathologise, criminalise and individualise poverty as a lifestyle choice, with nary a thought for underlying structural causes. Poverty becomes a question of character, rather than a consequence of capitalist social organisation.
The card is stigmatising. Whenever you produce it to buy food, for example, everyone who sees it is aware that you’re being managed as if you have a problem with gambling, alcohol or drug consumption, all addictions that are concealable if you’re middle or upper class, but highly visible if you’re poor and receiving income support. The card is punitive. It is intended to be, at the very least, a powerful and humiliating reproach to people who receive government assistance.
The shame it evokes only demonises Centrelink recipients.
If the card is rolled out to everyone on income assistance, the division of society into the comfortable worthy and undeserving unworthy will be stark. It is a profoundly troubling backward step to a time when poverty was widely held to be a moral failing.
At the same time, Indue receives some $10,000 per annum per person from the government, for what is claimed to be “administrative costs.” Were the card to be rolled out to every recipient of Centrelink assistance, including all pensioners and veterans, Indue earnings would be considerable, and the cost to the government equally considerable. It is reasonable to question whether these funds could not be better spent in disadvantaged communities, rather than channelled to Indue Ltd and its shareholders.
Then there are the National Party connections with the company. Former National Party MP and Party President, Larry Anthony, was deputy chairman of Indue until 2013.
Nationals MPs are pushing for the widespread roll-out of the card, as are Liberals. The ALP appears, at first blush, to be more reluctant to both continue and broaden the card’s distribution, however, we are fast approaching the point where it is becoming necessary for Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese to clarify his party’s stance on the issue.