When the government controls what you can buy
Eastern Delights shop at Centro Bankstown. 05 August 2011. Photo by Simon Alekna. Photo: simon alekna spa
One morning, over four years ago, I walked from NSW Parliament to Martin Place to join hundreds of people standing in the drizzle mesmerised by an outdoor broadcast of Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generation.
It was impossible not to be moved by Rudd’s big hearted speech which sought to remove a "stain from the soul of Australia".
He told a compelling story of the ‘coming of the welfare men’ to an Aboriginal community outside of Tennant Creek.
They rounded up children and put them on the back of trucks, stealing them from their families all in the name of ‘protection’.
Mr Rudd talked of leaving this history and looking to a future where all Australians were truly equal.
Since that special day the Labor government has taken a step backwards when it comes to black and white relations.
It has hitched its wagon to Howard’s Northern Territory Intervention and is now extending one aspect of the intervention – the ‘BasicsCard’ - to Sydney’s South West suburb of Bankstown and four other places around the nation.
Just picture it. You are already out of work - struggling to pay your rent, feed and look after your kids, manage your mental illness. Then the government decides to force you to accept a ‘BasicsCard’, a kind of credit card which holds up to 70 per cent of your Centrelink payments which no longer flow into your bank account.
You have to queue separately in a handful of large supermarkets to do your shopping and you are only allowed to buy certain items using the card.
For over five years some Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory have been forced to face this kind of indignity. They report that having the ‘BasicsCard’ is like a punishment. They talk of feeling acutely embarrassed and stigmatised. And that the card makes them feel like a second class citizen.
Maybe at a pinch you could justify the indignity if you knew it could improve your life. But in the Northern Territory researchers found it to be no silver bullet. In fact they find it hard to identify any positive impacts.
For instance there has been no change to the sale of fresh fruit and veggies, soft drink or tobacco in ten stores surveyed across the Northern Territory. Of 180 women who had lived with income management 79 per cent wanted to exit the system, 85 per cent had not altered what they purchased and 74 per cent felt discriminated against.
Compulsory income management has also been found to have ‘profound’ long-term negative impacts on people’s psychological and social well-being and their cultural integrity. And the whole futile exercise is expensive. Best estimates suggest it costs $4,100 a year for every person on income management. This is about a third of the Newstart allowance unemployed people receive.
I have visited Bankstown a number of times to talk to residents about the pilot. This community is understandably offended that they have been targeted for the trial, without consultation and over 50 community organisations – unions, church, migrant and women’s groups - have formed a coalition to block it.
One of the campaigners I’ve met is Aboriginal elder Margaret Goneis, Chair of the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee. Margaret explained to me that many people in her community, particularly the elderly, are fearful of losing their independence under the new scheme. They have worked hard over the years to manage their pension in a responsible way for themselves and their families and are rightfully concerned.
The local Muslim Women's Association told me Muslim women often don’t shop at the big shopping centres – they visit the cheaper little shops along the shopping strip and are worried they would not be able to use a ‘BasicsCard’ there. Many said they felt the trial was basically racist and feared they would be humiliated if they were singled out and had their money micromanaged.
The local coalition fighting the trial has received wonderful support from the PSA union. Members are refusing to refer potential candidates for income management in Bankstown to Centrelink. As a result only a handful of people are enrolled in the pilot, all joining voluntarily.
We have learnt in recent decades that people drowning in a myriad of social problems, entrenched over generations, won’t benefit from this top down paternalistic ‘solution’ reminiscent of a less enlightened era.
The collective wisdom is that what people in a tough spot need most is trained workers who can help them get a job, manage their bills, gain an education or improve their parenting. The federal government needs to a deep breath, look at the evidence, and drop income management. So that in decades to come a future Australian Prime Minister is not again forced to apologise for a regressive program, built on a house of straw, and imposed on vulnerable people.