When the government controls what you can buy

Eastern Delights shop at Centro Bankstown. 05 August 2011. Photo by Simon Alekna.

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.

Lee Rhiannon is a Greens Senator for NSW and spokesperson for women. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook or visit her website.




  • I am in two minds about welfare quarantining via BasicsCard. On the one hand, it does help ensure that welfare recipients do not spend their money on booze or drugs. (Which, it must be said, is not an unwarranted concern in the most dysfunctional communities.) However, quarantining also further infantilises and disempowers welfare receipients already alienated for the mainstream society. How are we ever going to get people work-ready when we cannot even trust them to spend their welfare stipend responsibly? And how will they learn to budget, etc, when a plastic card is basically doing that for them?

    It is a genuinely difficult issue.

    Date and time
    January 21, 2013, 11:22AM
    • The thing is, people don't abuse drugs or alcohol because the money happens to be there to spend on them. They do it for deep-seated, complicated reasons that don't just go away if the money does. Basically, it's a need, and they'll find another way to fill it. Women will turn to prostitution, people will rob houses and other people, people will beg. This is already the case, everywhere, for people who can't afford their habit. Why punish them further? Why punsih other welfare recipients who aren't addicted to anything?

      Date and time
      January 22, 2013, 1:20PM
  • Lee, Fantastic article and this is a real insight to where both the major political parties are going in Australia. They really are looking to punish the vulnerable indigenous community and attack welfare from all angles. What they need to be doing is attacking the rich and powerful in the Australian community and looking at how they can get the right amount of taxation from them to create a better Australia. We need to be going after the foreign owned multi nationals.

    Date and time
    January 22, 2013, 9:03AM
    • So people on welfare feel embarrased spending money they haven't earned? Good. Welfare should not be a long term solution so the more people can be encouraged to get off it the better. If these people feel so bad, get a job and pay your own bills like the rest of us, then you can shop wherever you please.

      Date and time
      January 22, 2013, 3:53PM
      • Perhaps the Senator should talk to NT MP Bess Price who is quoted as saying "income management was "saving lives" in the Territory, women and children felt safer "in some places" and Alice Springs town camps were being transformed. A transformation was also occurring in indigenous leadership, with new voices replacing old-style "whingeing" activists "who have done nothing for their communities", but lived in a fantasy world of human rights campaigns."

        Date and time
        January 23, 2013, 3:03PM
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