Experimenting with People’s Lives: Jobs, income management, inequality in the Northern Territory

Experimenting with People’s Lives: Jobs, income management, inequality in the Northern Territory

By Adrianne Walters, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, focusing on health and economic rights and supporting First Nations peoples’ fight for self-determination and equality.

Social security is a vital safety net that most people in Australia will turn to at some point in their lives. For many people who are full-time carers, or who are sick or aged, or locked out of an employment market that doesn’t have enough jobs for everyone, social security is indispensable to survival.

In this context, the 2019 federal election offered two very different futures for remote communities in the Northern Territory. The Coalition committed to continuing and expanding two hallmark economic policies: its remote work-for-the-dole program and income quarantining through the cashless debit card. Labor said it would abolish the former and stop the expansion of the latter, while establishing regional assemblies for First Nations involvement in decision-making.

Self-determination and participation in decision-making are fundamental rights that all governments, whatever their stripes, owe to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That the majority of people in the Northern Territory voted against a Morrison government makes it all the more important for the government to take a step back from its two fraught economic policies and listen to what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities want.

Double-speak: Creating Parity

We all need money to feed, house and clothe ourselves and our families. In remote Australia, the scarcity of jobs, together with the failure of politicians and economists to value unpaid care and cultural work, means that many people are reliant on woefully low social-security payments from an increasingly mean and lean system.

Rather than address the structural realities of economic inequality, reforms to social-security laws in recent years have demonised and blamed individuals, with remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities targeted for controlling and experimental programs.

Two such experiments, the remote work-for-the-dole program (known as the Community Development Program (CDP)) and the cashless debit card, formed part of the Abbott government’s response to the 2014 report of mining magnate Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest. The report, Creating Parity, applied a narrow neoliberal binary to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: they were either succeeding by being in paid employment or failing on welfare.

The report was roundly criticised for, among other things, ‘blending 1961 assimilation policy ideas with 21st century neoliberalism’—in the words of Jon Altman of the ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research—and for being riddled with empirical errors. Despite this, the report’s recommendations were taken seriously by the government, which subsequently introduced the CDP across remote Australia and cashless-debit-card trials.

Remote work for the dole

The CDP was introduced in remote communities without their consent or consultation on 1 July 2015, replacing the former Remote Jobs and Communities Program. Its centrepiece is a work-for-the-dole program that forces Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote communities to work more hours than people in the urban work-for-the-dole program—up to 760 hours more per year—to receive the same basic social-security payment.

People deemed non-compliant with the onerous obligations placed on them have their payments reduced or even stopped for up to eight weeks at a time. Hunger, mental health problems, survival crime and family violence have been reported as increasing during the time the CDP has been in place.

This exploitative and unimaginative program has stifled opportunities for job creation and positive remote community projects. Rather than being employed and paid a fair wage, participants have reported having to do plumbing and labouring work for a Newstart payment that is under half the national minimum wage.

Reforms in March 2019 introduced more flexibility, which has allowed some communities to try to better adapt the program to their needs. However, the government has ignored the ideas of Aboriginal organisations, including a detailed proposal by Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory for a program centred on waged work and Aboriginal community control. The government still insists on compliance with a myopic work-for-the-dole program.

Compulsory income quarantining

In the Northern Territory the injustice and denial of autonomy imposed on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through the CDP came on the back of nearly a decade of compulsory income quarantining through income management.

People on income management in the Northern Territory have at least 50 per cent of their payment quarantined and can only spend that money on ‘priority needs’, like food, housing and health. A portion of that money can be put onto a ‘Basicscard’, which is essentially an EFTPOS card that cannot be used to withdraw cash, buy alcohol or cigarettes, or shop at non-approved merchants. For most, income management is compulsory.

The policy has discriminatory foundations, having originated under the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response, which suspended racial-discrimination laws so that discriminatory laws and policies could be imposed on Aboriginal people.

Most people are forcibly income managed because they are classified as a ‘long-term welfare-payment recipient’—meaning that they have spent more than fifty-two weeks receiving social-security payments over two years. There are so few jobs in remote communities that most people can’t escape income management regardless of how well they manage their money or how many work-for-the-dole hours they do. The message is clear: if you are on social security for more than a year, you can’t be trusted to manage money.

Income management has been in place in the Northern Territory for twelve years. Given its racist beginnings, it is unsurprising that 82 per cent of the 22,000 people subject to it are Aboriginal.

Australia’s own parliamentary committee on human rights has consistently raised concerns about the extent to which income quarantining interferes in private and family life and disproportionately impacts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The human rights and economic costs of this policy experiment appear to have achieved little.

In 2014, around the same time Forrest published his report, I attended a briefing on the results of an independent four-year evaluation of income management. I came away deeply saddened. People had grown used to income management. But on important measures of child health, school attendance, alcohol and tobacco use, alcohol-related harm, and imprisonment, the report concluded that there had ‘been very little progress in addressing many of the substantial disadvantages faced by many people in the Northern Territory’ and ‘no evidence of changes in aggregate outcomes that can plausibly be linked to income management’ (Bray et al, Evaluating New Income Management in the Northern Territory: Final Evaluation Report, University of NSW). Income management was costing enormous amounts of money—money that could have been spent on exciting Aboriginal community–driven projects—without helping communities tackle the social and economic challenges they faced in any meaningful way.

Rather than working with Aboriginal people on meaningful reform, the Morrison government has signalled an intention to ‘improve’ this paternalistic policy by replacing income management and its Basicscard with the more technologically advanced cashless debit card. This is a move that promises significant administrative efficiency gains for the government and significant disruption for the thousands of people who have been on income management for twelve years.

The technological advances of the cashless debit card allow the government to expand the coercive policy of income quarantining at a lower cost. These technological developments have been aided by the research and advocacy of the Minderoo Foundation—a charity founded by Forrest with his wife. Generation One, a campaign of the Minderoo Foundation, has been working with the financial, technology and retail industries ‘to progress development on the technology which powers the CDC’ (Minderoo Foundation, Annual Report 2018).

The cashless debit card, administered by a private institution called Indue, can be used in more places than the Basicscard. However, in the first three remote trial sites for the card, where 80 per cent of a person’s income is quarantined, no reliable evidence has emerged to justify the ongoing incursion on human rights. An independent evaluation of the East Kimberley and Ceduna trials was described as unreliable by the Australian National Audit Office (The Implementation and Performance of the Cashless Debit Card Trial, Auditor General Report No 1, 2018–19).

Leading Aboriginal organisations in the Northern Territory have said that they found out about the government’s intention to roll out the cashless debit card for the first time along with the rest of the nation on Budget night. The failure to listen to Aboriginal people and to acknowledge the many ways in which people contribute to the well-being of their families and communities appears set to continue.

Time to listen to communities

The Northern Territory is a unique jurisdiction: a relatively high proportion of the population lives in remote areas and most are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. Traditional cultural values and practices run strong in remote communities and are a source of strength and pride. Sustaining this requires continuous effort—effort that goes unrecognised by the settler government in Canberra. Also overlooked is the value of the extraordinary care work undertaken mainly by women, raising children and caring for the sick and elderly.

As noted above, NT communities were offered starkly different futures by Labor and the Coalition. That the majority of Territorians supported Labor should give the Morrison government cause to rethink its plans. Aboriginal organisations have repeatedly pushed against the paternalism of top-down compulsory income quarantining and work-for-the-dole schemes, and asked that they be listened to and treated as equal partners in deciding what they need to live their best lives.

The appointment of Ken Wyatt as minister for Indigenous affairs is reason to hope that the government is more interested in listening to remote communities. Regardless, the Morrison government as a whole has a duty to engage deeply and transparently with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

What I didn’t appreciate at that 2014 income-management briefing was just how settled the idea had become within government of an ‘unworthy’ poor over whom it is acceptable to use the social-security system as an instrument of control. What I understand now is that, in many ways, the targeting of Aboriginal people for income quarantining and work for the dole is merely a modern reiteration of the missions and rations policies of the past.

The views of one man with immense power have turned into government policies that have drastically altered the lives of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, causing pain and hardship for many. The government must stop blindly following his lead while ignoring the ideas of First Nations peoples. It should give the platform to these communities and put their views front and centre in the design of the policies and programs that affect their lives.

This article originally appeared in Arena magazine.