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If your income was quarantined

Andrew Hamilton |  24 June 2010

Basics CardIf we look at income quarantining as an ethical and not as a political question, it raises many questions. To answer them we would need to look beyond its effectiveness in preventing excessive expenditure on socially undesirable goods like alcohol and pornography. We would need to consider its effect on the dignity of the human beings involved. This means looking at many areas of their lives, not simply at the way in which they spend their money.

We can see what is involved if we imagine for a moment that we receive a letter in the post saying that we, as the citizens of our age cohort in our particular suburb, will have our taxation rebates or pensions quarantined. Our likely responses to this news suggest questions we ought to ask about the current legislation.

I imagine few of us would be overjoyed to be told that our quarantining will ensure that some pensioners will be unable to drink their pensions away, and that some other taxpayers will be unable to wallow in a sty of porn movies.

Most of us would be annoyed that the government had selectively restricted our freedom to spend our money as we please, to shop where we please, and to name the priorities of our own lives for a supposed higher good. We would believe our responsibility for shaping our lives was being infringed, and with it our human dignity.

We might also be annoyed because this selective income quarantining identified us as members of a group of people which was considered socially unreliable. We would feel ashamed to present our specially embargoed card at the supermarket check-out. We would feel the appraising gaze of friends from other suburbs as they learned where we came from.

And when we read the tabloid stories of the inevitable monsters from our group who drowned in drink and pullulated in porn, our respect for ourselves, a basic element of human dignity, would be under siege. We would be more likely to take to drink.

Some of us might also resent the good fortune of others who escaped quarantining and might suspect the government had an animus against our group. Our trust in the things that connected us to society would be eroded, and we would feel increasingly alienated. Connection, an important part of human dignity, would be threatened both by others who looked on us with suspicion and contempt, and also by ourselves as we became increasingly isolated.

If that were our reaction to imposed income quarantining, why should we expect the long term unemployed and youth to be differently affected? Particularly if their belief in their own dignity, their capacity to live fully and to connect with others may already be tenuous because of their life experience.

So at first reading the state will inflict significant damage to the human dignity of many of its citizens simply because they belong to groups some of whose members are believed to spend wastefully. And because this legislation will affect their self respect, it will exacerbate the problem it is designed to address.

These are telling arguments.But they are not conclusive. Faced with a virulent and lethal disease, a government might rightfully demand that the members of particular groups genetically at risk be inoculated, despite the infringement on freedom and the prejudice against them this might entail. But in judging whether the legislation were justified, we would want to know that the necessity was great, that the group at risk was targeted as narrowly as possible, that the inoculation would be effective and that the good social consequences would outweigh the bad.

In the case of income quarantining, this case has not been made well. We do not know how many long term unemployed and youth spend their money irresponsibly. We have been given only skimpy evidence of the effects of income quarantining in the Northern Territory. It is based on the opinions of program managers about the response of the communities. This is useful knowledge. But should we give it more weight than we would give to the judgment of a hospital administrator about the attitudes of patients to the care they receive? And reflection suggests that the legislation will diminish, not encourage responsibility.

Given the inherent damage done to the human dignity of those included in this scheme and the slightness of the justification for it, it cannot be said to be ethically justifiable. It is politically expedient because it is applied to groups whom we do not regard as people like us. But because it panders to that perception, it is hard to see how it can be effective.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.



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Submitted comments

Thanks Andrew Hamilton for so clearly and effectively stating the case against this ill-conceived policy. While many Indigenous and other Australians might benefit from assistance with income management, the arbitrary and categorical imposition of 'quarantining' is not justified. The damage this policy does to people's dignity and identity is not justified by the fact that some success stories can be cited. It is disheartening that the Minister and Government refuse to acknowledge the detriments and insist on pursuing, indeed expanding, this harsh, and flawed policy.

Myrna Tonkinson 24 June 2010

Dear Andrew,
I really apprecite that you pu this into a new perspective. Thanks

jean Sietzema-Dickson 24 June 2010

Dear Andrew, You have a very kind heart, but on this I think you protest too much. Quarantining should be only done under extreme conditions, but in Australia at the moment, extreme conditions do exist in some specific areas. It is always a matter on rights versus responsibility, especially in terms of the interaction of individuals and the State. And the use of my tax dollars!

eugene 24 June 2010

Thank you Andrew. You have verbalised many of my thoughts and feelings on this matter. We have to get the balance right between building up and pulling down. People's dignity and self respect have to be part of the equation.

Sr Mary Trainor rsm 24 June 2010

Maybe it's because I live in Oregon, USA, not Australia, that I don't understand what is meant by "income quaranteeing".

Here, before an adult's income & assets can be commandeered against their wishes, a formal process of judicial determination that they need a legal guardianship, based on their severe inability to care for themselves, has to be done first on an individual basis. Isn't there something similar protecting your people??


The income you speak of is a gift from a generous and wealthy society to ensure our citizens can have a level of dignity by providing the basic essentials of life. I see no difficulty in ensuring those basic necessities are met by imposing limited restrictions. There is no dignity given by allowing those who for whatever reason are not capable of wise use of the gift.

Patrick Egan 25 June 2010

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