Last month marked the fifth anniversary of the bipartisan Northern Territory Intervention. Over the last five years the Intervention has not improved living conditions for Aboriginal people, as was claimed. Instead it has been used to implement a raft of regressive pro-business policies which heap misery ordinary Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike.
In particular the Intervention has been used as the thin end of the wedge to roll out so-called ‘income management’ amongst the aboriginal population. Income management, other wise known as welfare quarantining, is the syphoning off of between 50% and 100% of benefits to become credits on a special ‘basics card’.
By Kirk Leonard, Socialist Party
These cards can only be used to purchase prescribed goods, like clothing and food, from specific major retailers. Far from addressing the real issues of poverty and a lack of services faced by Aboriginal communities, this paternal policy has only worsened the situation.
Welfare quarantining has meant that people in remote communities have had to travel enormous distances to the closest retailers (usually Woolworths or Coles) who accept the basics card. In some instances people have been forced to sleep overnight outside supermarkets, waiting for a return bus in the morning or after their next payment, in order to buy basic grocery items.
The underlying motive behind the Intervention is to make remote Aboriginal communities unviable and force them off their mineral rich land. Concentrated urban populations are much easier for big business to exploit for cheap labour than far flung town camps in the bush.
In July 2007 the Socialist Party warned “The military-police deployment in the Northern Territory is being used as a testing ground and if successful similar plans to wind back rights will be implemented against other oppressed layers of society.”
Since then the Labor government has moved through several phases of expanding welfare quarantine measures to encompass other sections of the population. In the process they have made clear their intentions to roll out these measures nationally.
Labor’s 2012 federal budget set aside $21 million to implement compulsory welfare quarantine ‘pilots’ in five towns and suburbs across Australia. They are Bankstown in New South Wales, Shepparton in Victoria, Playford in South Australia and Logan and Rockhampton, both in Queensland.
Two categories of welfare recipients will be forced onto quarantining. The first category is ‘vulnerable people’. These are people facing family violence, are two weeks behind in their rent or who have had to seek emergency income help because their payments are too low. The second category is people referred to Centrelink by state based child protection agencies.
Welfare quarantining is a clear case of blaming victims for their circumstances. There is no evidence that this approach has any benefits. Even the government’s own ‘independent’ advisors on the issue have stated this. Many of the periodic reports on the ‘progress’ of the Northern Territory Intervention have actually seen a deterioration in key areas like school attendance, health statistics and violence. Indigenous suicide rates doubled in the Northern Territory in the four years to October 2011.
By further penalising recipients of already poverty-level welfare, even more pressure is brought to bear on them to take any job at any pay just to avoid the restrictions. Because wage levels are determined by the lowest rate in the market, this puts downward pressure on everyone’s wages as people compete for jobs.
Big business benefits enormously from having a ready reserve of desperate, downtrodden cheap labour to use as a battering ram against the wages and conditions of other more organised sections of the working class.
In late August the CEO of ANZ bank, Mike Smith, argued that welfare payments should be cut in order to force people to move to where the mining bosses were demanding workers. Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton, who represents the interests of the mining industry, has also recently argued for cuts to the safety net to force people to accept whatever terms the mining magnates offer.
Instead of letting the profit hungry mining magnates dictate who does what work and where they do it, the mining companies and banks should be brought into democratic public ownership. The enormous profits could then be shared amongst the population and local plans could be drawn up about how to re-invest the wealth into socially useful projects.
The problems faced across Australia in areas with low socio-economic ratings, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, are the product of long term poverty due to a lack of properly funded public services.
Individuals’ spending choices of their meagre welfare payments are not to blame for systemic social ills. In Aboriginal communities the severe problems that exist flow from over two hundred years of abuse, neglect and various attempts at forced and violent assimilation.
In order to overcome the issues found in areas with a low socio-economic level, we need to increase funding for services like women’s refuges, drug and alcohol counselling, education and health services.
This funding needs to be under the control of local communities who know best what services are required and how to deliver them. A public works program, particularly in remote Northern Territory, is also needed to build the housing and social infrastructure the Intervention has failed to deliver. Such a program could also provide decent, well paid jobs for local people.
Rather than big-business and their political representatives dictating terms for their own benefit we need a democratic socialist approach to end the misery in the communities who are facing the latest round of welfare quarantine roll out.