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The management of Australians through welfare is nothing new. Today’s cashless card is merely the result of what was already tested on our indigenous population.
Income management isn’t new in Australia. What is new is the current government’s ideological push to enforce neoliberal policies on an unsuspecting populace. In 2007, Professor Helen Hughes wrote Lands of Shame: Aboriginal and Torres Strait “homelands” in transition.
A few months before it was published, Hughes gave it to the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination (OIPC). The Minister for Indigenous Affairs was Mal Brough.
The book was published by the conservative think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies, and its final chapter reads like a blueprint for what occurred in the Northern Territory in June 2007. It calls for the closure of Indigenous communities in the NT, a health audit of all children, the appointment of administrators, private homeownership and the abolition of communal title customary law, the permit system and Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP). The book was also highly critical of policies relating to self-determination and land rights, branding them failed socialist experiments.
The use of a book, research or reports produced by a think tank or foundation for government policies isn’t a new tactic. The Ronald Reagan policies from the 1980s were mostly from the Heritage Foundation, which has been heavily financed for years by the conservative elite and the likes of the Koch brothers.
Before we go any further, I need to provide some background and a timeline of events. The Howard government received many detailed reports about the escalating violence in Indigenous communities, but they were never actioned. With thanks to Chris Graham, Crikey and Michael Brull, for their succinct research over the last decade relating to the Intervention.
So many reports, not enough action
Indigenous academic, Boni Robertson, completed many detailed reports throughout the 1990s. In 1999, a shocking report about Indigenous violence was released by Doctor Paul Memmott. The report was suppressed by the media and the public by the Justice Minister, Amanda Vanstone, for 18 months. By the time that the media got wind of it, it was old news and nobody really cared.
All of these reports and inquiries warned of the numerous problems in Indigenous communities. The causes of family violence stem from a failure of government to provide adequate services, education and housing infrastructure. It is also a failure from both sides of the political spectrum to acknowledge Indigenous culture and the relationship our Indigenous peoples have with the land. Neo-colonialism is still a problem in Australia, despite the fact that Indigenous Australians are the oldest known civilisation on earth. They’ve hundreds of languages and their map of Australia is made up of many nations, not a handful of states. Wanting them to assimilate into a monolingual, mono-cultural society is one thing; the reality is another.
The Intervention relied heavily on shock tactics. The NTER was a $587 million package of measures, and laws regarding human rights had to be changed or suspended to get the new legislation through.
In 2002, the Central Aboriginal Congress prepared a paper showing how the number of Indigenous women being treated for domestic assault had more than doubled since 1999. A year later Howard staged a “roundtable summit” of Indigenous leaders to address family violence. This achieved nothing.
An election was approaching in 2006, and for the government and the media, Indigenous violence was a popular topic. At one point, ABC Lateline had filed 17 stories about it in just eight nights. Crown Prosecutor Nanette Rogers was on the show in May that year and spoke of her experience with violence against children, including sexual violence in remote communities. What Rogers spoke about was exactly what Dr Memmott had detailed in his suppressed report, seven years earlier.
The media heats up
Minister Brough appeared on Lateline the next day and told the host, Tony Jones: “Everybody in those communities knows who runs the paedophile rings.”
Jones’ response: “You just said something that astonishes me. You said paedophile rings. What evidence is there of that?”
Brough said that there was “considerable evidence” but provided none. Claire Martin, the NT’s Labor Chief Minister, called on him to provide evidence of the allegation; still, he said nothing. Five weeks later on June the 21st 2006, Lateline had an anonymous male, former youth worker on their program. He backed up what Brough said: “It’s true. I’ve been told by a number of people of men getting young girls and keeping them as sex slaves.”
The youth worker claimed that he was once based in Mutitjulu, working in a joint community project for the NT and federal governments.
The Mutitjulu community are the legal custodians of Uluru.
His identity was hidden with his face shadowed and his voice digitised, and he cried as he detailed how he’d made repeated statements and reports to police about sexual violence in Mutitjulu. He said that he’d withdrawn the reports after being threatened by men in the community, and that he feared for his life. He also said that young Indigenous children were being held against their will and that other kids were being given petrol to sniff in exchange for sex with senior indigenous men.
The next day, Martin announced that her NT government would hold a major inquiry into violence against children in Indigenous communities. Also on that day, Brough finally responded to calls for evidence of his accusations. He released a press statement, saying that information had been passed onto NT police, and that he’d been advised that “for legal and confidentiality reasons, I am unable to disclose detail.”
Questions asked too late, the damage is done
A few weeks later, the National Indigenous Times reported that the youth worker crying about his experience in Mutitjulu on Lateline wasn’t a youth worker at all. He was actually Gregory Andrews, an assistant secretary at the OIPC, and an adviser to Brough. He advised Brough about violence and sexual abuse in remote communities. Later it was revealed in parliament that Andrews had never made a single report to the police about women or children. He also misled a federal senate inquiry into petrol sniffing in 2006 and lied about living in Mutitjulu – he had never even set foot there.
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All of Andrews’ allegations were thoroughly investigated and dismissed by the NT police, and the Australian Crime Commission spent 18 months and millions of dollars and also concluded that there was no organised paedophilia in Indigenous communities.
Martin’s inquiry reported back to her in August 2006. The inquiry’s final report, Little Children are Sacred, was handed to the NT government, in April 2007. It was impressive and was more than 300-pages-long, with 91 recommendations. The authors, Pat Anderson and Rex Wild, didn’t have an easy job, but they said that they were: “…impressed with the willingness of people to discuss the issue of child sexual abuse, even though it was acknowledged as a difficult subject to talk about. At many meetings, both men and women expressed a desire to continue discussions about this issue and what they could do in their community about it. It was a frequent comment that up until now, nobody had come to sit down and talk to them about these types of issues. It would seem both timely and appropriate to build on this goodwill, enthusiasm and energy by a continued engagement in dialogue and assisting communities to develop their own child safety and protection plans.”
But before the Martin government could respond to the report and without any consultation with her, or even his own cabinet, Howard, along with Brough, used the report as a catalyst to launch the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), or the Intervention.
The Intervention relied heavily on shock tactics. Naomi Klein has covered these extensively in her book about disaster capitalism. A multi-pronged, speedy attack is favoured as this helps to create a cover to introduce unsavoury or neoliberal policies. The Intervention ticks all of the boxes.
The NT and the Australian Federal Police were sent into remote Indigenous communities, and the army and business managers were installed into Indigenous communities. Signs were put up declaring bans on pornography and alcohol in towns. It was framed as a “national emergency” and while everyone was distracted, and with a Senate majority, the federal government was free to pursue its agenda. The NTER was a $587 million package of measures, and laws regarding human rights had to be changed or suspended to get the new legislation through. These included the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, Native Title Act 1993(Cth), Northern Territory Self-Government Act and related legislation, Social Security Act 1991 and the Income Tax Assessment Act 1993.
As a result of the new legislation, regulations were introduced to ban access to alcohol, tobacco, pornographic material and gambling services. The land was compulsorily acquired by the government in 70 Indigenous communities to ensure that there were no interruptions by traditional owners, and an income management scheme was introduced – the BasicsCard, which was actually born out of an Indigenous innovation.
The FOODCard was introduced by the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation (ALPA) in 2004, the idea came about after community consultations. The main differences between the two cards are that one had community consultations, while the other did not. The terms and conditions for the FOODCard are available in Yolngu Matha and English, for example, while the BasicsCard is in English only.
The other key difference is that the ALPA one is voluntary and you can set for yourself how much money to quarantine, whereas the government one is compulsory, and quarantines 50%-80% of income. The FOODCard was rolled out in 2007, but by then the BasicsCard had taken over.
The government waited a month until it introduced its last measure, abolishing the CDEP (Community Development Employment Projects) program, one of the programs that were working. It allowed communities to pool all of their unemployment benefits together; this was then paid out as a direct wage for local jobs within the community, or within the CDEP organisations.
Participants were counted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as employed, even though the funds originated from unemployment benefits. A form of self-government, and a good solution for unemployment that empowered many communities, especially remote ones.
Communities were also sent pamphlets from Centrelink, explaining that they now had to do something in return for their Centrelink money. The pamphlet also said that they had to call them with their contact details, or their payments might be stopped.
The BasicsCard can also make life harder for those already living in poverty, in that you’re restricted from buying second-hand items with cash… It also means that things like how you pay your electricity bills are decided by Centrelink, so no more payment plans. That’s what income management is, it’s not about just being put on a card as such.
Dr David Scrimgeour told the Public Health Association of Australia conference in September of that year: “Most of the recommendations (…) have been implemented by the Commonwealth Government in the NT under the guise of protecting children, despite the fact that the recommendations are not based on evidence, but on neo-liberal ideology.”
He also said that the Centre for Independent Studies, the think tank that published Helen Hughes’ book, received “significant support from large corporations, particularly mining companies, and has close links with the Government and the media, particularly the Murdoch-owned newspaper The Australian.”
Reports ignored or used as political tools
So what does income management look like in the NT ten years after the Intervention? The authors of the Little Children are Sacred report have both said that the report’s recommendations were ignored and that it was used as a political tool to push for an Intervention. Wild said this year that:
“One of the threshold items of the report is that community consultation is needed to be able to best implement the report and that clearly didn’t happen.”
Since the Intervention, report after report gets written about socio-economic disadvantage and the negative aspects felt by those on income management, only to be ignored. They all have a common theme, that there is no evidence of value behind income management programs, and that they didn’t change behaviours. Is it the government’s place to modify human behaviour with financial measures?
There is one report though that has been listened to; commissioned by the Abbott government and reviewed by mining billionaire, Andrew Forrest, it was released in 2014: Creating Parity – The Forrest Review. Forrest and his Minderoo Foundation want a new card called the “Healthy Welfare Card” to replace the BasicsCard. It would apply to all working-age Australians – around 2.5 million Australians, if you exempt pensioners and veterans. This is consistent with Abbott’s view in his book, Battlelines.
Following the BasicsCard money
The BasicsCard started out as store cards from merchants such as Coles and Woolworths, by direct deduction of funds set up by a merchant, or by Centrelink making a credit card or cheque payment. This was too cumbersome, so in 2008 the federal government started the process of procurement for an open tender of the card. Five tender applications were received and the winner was Indue Ltd.
Indue started out as Creditlink; it changed its name in 2006 a year after former Liberal National Party MP, Larry Anthony, became chairman of its board. Anthony was the chairman of Indue until 2013, and he’s been the Federal President of the National Party since 2015. Indue’s win was publicly announced in December 2009. The original contract was worth just over $11 million for three years. It ballooned out to over $25 million.
I’ve gone through the tenders and contracts relating to the card. There are 13 in total to date. Out of those, seven of the contracts are limited, so none of the finer details are available for the public.
Open Tender, Contract Total: $31,138,574.50 million
Limited Tender, Contract Total: $29,064,436.16 million
Cashless welfare card cost blow-out
The “cashless welfare card” trials were originally slated to cost taxpayers $18.9 million.
According to the government tender, the original contract for Indue was worth $7,859,509 (media reports round it up to $8 million). It’s now at $13,035,581.16 million.
That’s just the Indue part. If we add the remaining $10.9 million for the other contracts involved in the income management program, we get a total of $23,935,581.16.
There are 1,850 participants in the trial which began last year, so the cost of the card works out to be $12,938.15 per person.
Using the maximum Newstart allowance of a single person as an example, which is $535.60 per fortnight, they would receive $13,925.60 for the year. Add the Indue layer and the total is $26,863.75 per person.
A lot of money provided by taxpayers for behaviour change, and of course a nice profit for Indue, especially if it rolls out to millions of Australians. The millions of dollars flying about without any oversight, and the political connections, are a grave cause for concern.
Income management rolls out nationally
In 2012, the Gillard government extended income management nationally, and for another 10 years. In the House of Representatives during the debate about the “Stronger Futures Legislation”, Senator Nigel Scullion, Country Liberal Party member, said this:
“There is a fundamental thread through most of the feedback we get when we talk about consultation. When we get to most communities any observer would say that Aboriginal people more generally hate the Intervention. They do not like it, it invades their rights and they feel discriminated against.”
He still voted with the Gillard government. NTER was renamed Stronger Futures. He went on to become the leader of the Nationals in the Senate and Minister for Indigenous Affairs in 2013, and he still holds these positions.
Since the Intervention, the model has expanded from remote communities in the NT to the Kimberley region and Perth in WA, Cape York, all of the NT and selected areas of “disadvantage”. The areas that are deemed as disadvantaged are Logan in Queensland, Bankstown in New South Wales, Shepparton in Victoria and Playford in South Australia.
Trial sites, and another report
The three-part Orima Report is being used by the government, to not only extend draconian, income management measures but also to quantify its success. Social and political researcher, Eva Cox, sums up the report perfectly in a Facebook post on The Say NO Seven page:
“The whole data set of interviews, quantitative and qualitative, are very poorly designed and not likely to be valid data collection instruments. I’d fail any of my research students that produced such dubious instruments.”
The reports include a lot of spin, asking respondents for their “perceptions” at times, and includes retrospective responses for questionnaires. The Say No Seven page has been following all three of the reports closely, and crunched the numbers at the start of this month, when the final Orima report was released. An example can be found on page 46:
“At Wave 2, as was the case in Wave 1, around four-in-ten non-participants (on average across the two Trial sites) perceived that there had been a reduction in drinking in their community since the CDCT commenced.”
This approach means that the reader focuses on the minority of responses, rather than the majority of responses. Six-in-ten not perceiving any reduction in drinking around town. It reads a lot differently than the latter.
Other places rumoured to be put on the card trial are Hervey Bay and Bundaberg in Queensland. One peaceful rally against the card in Hervey Bay involved armed police, with protest organiser Kathryn Wilkes saying: “There were eight of us women aged between 40 and 60 … We were very peaceful. They’re afraid of a bunch of sick women on the (disability support pension). If you pushed me over I’d end up in the hospital. Most of us couldn’t fight our way out of a paper bag.”
This heavy-handed approach is all too familiar.
Star chambers and regrets
Which leads me to the anonymous, paid community panels that determine whether those put on income management should be able to access more cash from their bank accounts. Meddling in communities like this isn’t new, it’s been happening in Indigenous ones for years. Turning communities against one another is surely not the role of the government. It also allows them to neatly deflect any accountability for the program.
The BasicsCard can also make life harder for those already living in poverty, in that you’re restricted from buying second-hand items with cash, or something cheap online. It also means that things like how you pay your electricity bills, for example, are decided by Centrelink, so no more payment plans. That’s what income management is, it’s not about just being put on a card as such.
Two sites were chosen to trial the BasicsCard card for one year in 2016: one in Ceduna South Australia, and one in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. The trials were extended indefinitely this year, before the trials had even finished, and before the final Orima report was released just this month.
Punishing those looking for work as though they’re criminals, with drug-testing, isn’t Australian. Work-for-the-dole is pointless when there aren’t any jobs to be found in the first place. All these measures are creating is a subclass of stigmatised Australians. At a time when many countries are talking about universal-basic-income or UBI, we’re still caught up in “dole-bludger” discussions.
One of four Indigenous leaders from WA that originally supported the scheme has since withdrawn his support for the card. Lawford Benning, chair of the MG Corporation, says he feels “used” by the Human Services minister, Alan Tudge. He met regularly with Tudge ahead of the introduction of the card, and helped drum up support for it. He said that services that were promised in return were not provided until seven months later and that what was finally offered was no good.
“I’m not running away from the fact that I was supporting this. But now I’m disappointed and I owe it to my people to speak up,” Benning said. “Every person I’ve spoken with said they don’t want this thing here.”
When Benning heard that the card was going to be permanent and about the rollout of the card at other sites:
“I said ‘hang on, it sounds like you’re trying to get a rubber stamp on something already underway, in an attempt to legitimise something the community doesn’t support.’”
“I said to him ‘your minister isn’t showing respect to us’. Prior to introducing the card, Tudge was flying here every second weekend to meet with us. As soon as we signed up, we’ve never seen him again.”
Take a drug-test or no welfare for new recipients
The latest legislation currently before the parliament involves a two-year drug-testing trial for 5,000 people in Bankstown (NSW), Logan (Queensland) and Mandurah (Western Australia). If it passes, new recipients of the Newstart and Youth Allowance have to agree to be tested in order to receive their allowances. If they refuse a random drug test, their payments will be cancelled. If they test positive they will be placed on the BasicsCard program, with 20% of their allowance made available in cash. 25 days later they get tested again and if they test positively again, they will be referred to a privately-contracted medical professional.
There is no evidence that mandatory drug-testing will work on civilians despite what Social Services minister, Christian Porter says. This ABC fact-check puts that to rest.
“Experts say that, rather than lots of evidence, there is no evidence, here or overseas, to show that mandatory testing will help unemployed drug addicts receive treatment and find jobs.”
The City of Mandurah has accused the Turnbull government of using dodgy data to justify being chosen for the drug-testing trial. City chief executive, Mark Newman wrote:
“One statistic used is that there has been an increase in people having temporary incapacity exemptions due to a drug dependency diagnosis rose by 300% from June 2015 to 2016… The number of people concerned was a rise from 5 to 20 out of a total number of 4,199 people in Mandurah on either Newstart or Youth Allowance benefits as at March 2017.”
The standard that you walk past is the standard that you accept
To summarise, this is about neo-liberal paternalism, and human rights being exploited for financial gain under the guise of philanthropy. The Intervention, and other recent punitive measures (including robo-debt) imposed on us wouldn’t fly if we had a charter of human rights. We need one desperately. Indigenous Australians need a treaty, the right to self-determine, and a proper voice in politics, similar to what New Zealand has. Because if we don’t fight for our human rights, we won’t recognise this country in a few years’ time.
Statistics-wise, Indigenous incarceration is sky-high, Indigenous youth suicide rates have risen by 500% since 2007-2011.
All that these measures are creating is a subclass of stigmatised Australians. At a time when many countries are talking about universal-basic-income or UBI, we’re still caught up in “dole-bludger” discussions. The reality is there is less paid work out there, and that this trend will continue.
Punishing our most vulnerable and those looking for work as though they’re criminals, with drug-testing, just isn’t Australian. We don’t need to follow America with a welfare system that’s littered with “food stamp” programs, and other neo-liberal ideologies. I believe the abolished CDEP is also a model worth looking at again, and not just for Indigenous employment. Work-for-the-dole is just labour exploitation, and most of it is pointless when there aren’t any jobs to be found in the first place.
And on a final note, remember the fake youth worker? He’s still been around as a public servant, and even landed a cushy job with the Abbott government in 2014 as the country’s first “Threatened Species Commissioner”.