Labor Government Rolling out the 'Rations Card'

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert speaks with Mark Robinson about the 'Basics Card' roll-out

Download RETURN TO THE RATION DAYS by Paddy Gibson (2009) pdf

Welfare quarantining and the NT struggle for justice

Jay Fletcher Green Left June 20, 2010

The federal government’s income management scheme has been disastrous for Aboriginal people in the NT trying to survive on low incomes.
Source: Green Left - Online
Photo: Peter Boyle

The federal Labor government plans to extend welfare quarantining across the Northern Territory.

The law reforms are designed to circumvent the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act, suspended in 2007 when quarantining was first imposed on Aboriginal people as part of the NT intervention. After 12 months, the policy may be rolled out across the country

Legislation that was debated in parliament last week, and supported by Coalition opposition leader Tony Abbott, gives the community services minister the authority to deem specific areas and communities “disadvantaged”. Welfare recipients living in the area and receiving certain Centrelink payments could then be forced onto income management.

Individuals can apply for exemptions, but need to prove that they meet specific criteria.

The federal government's income management scheme has been disastrous for Aboriginal people in the NT trying to survive on low incomes. Half their welfare payment is put on a Basics Card that can only be spent on certain items in certain stores.

The Australian Human Rights Commission said community services and Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin’s new laws will continue to deny the full protections of the Racial Discrimination Act to Aboriginal people.

Meanwhile, more than 500 Aboriginal shire workers on the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) in NT communities face uncertain futures. The federal government committed to fund their employment — supposedly as a transition to “real jobs” — until the end of this financial year, while the territory government has said it can’t guarantee funding beyond December 31.

Paddy Gibson from the Intervention Rollback Action Group said Labor's plans were hypocritical: “The government has $352 million to spend on income management over the next four years in the NT — but is refusing to release a measly $8 million to guarantee 500 jobs in remote NT shires.”

Peter Inverway is a construction worker from Kalkarindji in the NT. He is currently working on a government project to convert an old power station into an arts and crafts centre so that local people can do their artwork.

CDEP, under which Inverway is employed, has been restructured by the federal Labor government to a work-for-the-dole model.

Inverway, along with other Aboriginal workers, only receives the equivalent of Newstart Centrelink payments for the work he does. Half of his payment is quarantined on the Basics Card, because Inverway is from one of the 73 communities “prescribed” under the NT intervention.

It means he works for more than 24 hours a week at a rate of about $3.70 an hour. Food and specified essentials can be purchased with the Basics Card, on which Inverway receives $85 a week in credit. At the end of the program, he'll receive qualifications only equivalent to work-for-the-dole.

Unemployment under the NT intervention is growing drastically. It is the reason Inverway must work for near-slave wages, despite contracted non-Aboriginal workers in the NT earning 10 or more times as much.

Inverway visited Darwin, Sydney and Melbourne over June 2-15 to raise awareness about the terrible working conditions the government was forcing Aboriginal people into, and the fight for jobs with justice. He told Green Left Weekly what living under welfare quarantining means for him.

I've visited the union mobs, talking to them about the intervention and what's happening in the Northern Territory. I was telling them stories about me getting paid $4 an hour to work 30 hours a week, and seeing money like only $150 or $200 cash. The rest is on a Basics Card.

With a Basics Card, you don't have cash, so you have to go and do your shopping in Woolies or the supermarkets in the NT.

I've had the Basics Card for the last three years. I can't get any cigarettes with my Basics Card, or alcohol or anything like that. I can't get cash out from the ATM. It's only a ration card.

I can't use it in other states, only in the NT. I went to Western Australia to visit my family, and a store manger told me, “you don't use it here you must go back to the territory”. It’s terrible.

If we don't work, they will cut off our Centrelink payments.

I argued with them and asked, “how come it's only for Aboriginal people right across the NT and not the whitefellas?”. I was told it's going to happen to everyone, but just not yet.

So we've been living on the Basics Card for longer. It's not fair. It's racial discrimination.

And now there are no jobs available in the communities because of the intervention.

Nothing has changed for the better. They put $672 million into Indigenous housing right across NT. But there's nothing that has happened in my community, and I've heard that in other communities, too, nothing has been happening and there's no new houses.

We've got 12 houses there [in Kalkarindji], that are from the ’60s, built by the NT government or the local government back in the ’60s. Those houses, they are just no good. They've got cracks all over the place and you can see decay in the walls.

And all those houses, they have three bedrooms, but 16 or 17 people living in them.

I've visited unions in Darwin and Sydney, and they've showed me photos from the ’60s when my people from the Wave Hill walk-off came here [to Sydney] to talk about the rations.

The union workers were shocked that I was being made to work for this rations card.

Some stores in the Northern Territory, they don't accept the Basics Card. The only stores that accept it are Woolies and Coles, and only some stores in communities. There's a shop in my community, but the price has gone up, it's too dear. It's about five or six hours drive to Katherine, which is expensive too because of fuel. We can’t use the Basics Card to buy fuel.

We need to fight this thing. We need real jobs, and we need proper wages, real wages. We need money in our hands, not on this plastic thing.

The most racist people in Australia are in the parliament. They say Aboriginal people don't know how to spend their money responsibly, but they deny Aboriginal people the right to real jobs.

Back in 1966, my people made history. They walked off from Wave Hill station, to a place called Daguragu (Wattie Creek), because they never got money in their hand. Only tea, sugar, flour and a bit of tobacco, that's all. That was for working hard on stock camps.

In 1975, then Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam gave the old man [Lingiari] the soil, and said “this is your land”. Forty-four years after they first walked off, I’ve come here to talk about the same thing again.

Why do we need to fight government after government, generation after generation?