Living in Australia's social credit dystopia



For some time, media in the liberal west have been looking on aghast at the apparent dystopian reality of surveillance happening in China through its 'social credit score'. Reports describe a government-run system that processes individuals' data — the data that we all produce through our online lives, and through ubiquitous CCTV.

CCTV surveillance security dome camera in city center (Credit: EyeOfPaul / Getty)Using this data as a proxy of people's activities, the program apparently awards each person a 'score' based on whether their activities are socially approved or not. This score can apparently affect access to employment, transport and public benefits, and in doing so, seeks to engineer social behaviour.

Despite some concerning examples of the social credit score in action, the program is not due to be rolled out until mid 2020. Presently, versions of it are being trialled in various locations. And these are apparently not the panopticon version portrayed in the Western media but are often public 'blacklists' of the 'worst offenders' in various regulatory agencies.

This is not to say that surveillance and censorship do not occur in China. But the response in the west assumes that this method of state control is already entrenched. And our obsession with the potential for human rights abuses in China masks the fact that we here in Australia are experiencing our own social credit score.

It is not news that the Australian government is relentless in its pursuit of those on social security payments. The robodebt program is evidence of that. But there are other concerning pointers to an active government agenda of social control.

One of these is the roll out of the Indue card. Trialled in Indigenous communities as a means of controlling spending — limiting it to the 'basics' — the card is being rolled out to other communities also. Ostensibly to stop spending on alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling, it also limits recipients' ability to pay for goods by cash and limits where recipients can spend. 

A second is the control over activities by mothers receiving parenting payments through the 'Parents Next' program. The overwhelming majority of recipients are women, and there is a significant proportion of those who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Australians. To continue to qualify for the payment, recipients must verify weekly that they have undertaken nominated activities with their children. Failure to do so without receiving an exemption results in losing their payment.


"The programs are couched in terms of mutual obligation, namely that the recipient has a duty to government to receive its munificence. It is, in fact, the responsibility of government to provide for the people."


A third is the drug testing of social security recipients. Wrapped up as concern about addiction, the proposed program will place anyone testing positive on income management for two years. If they get a second positive result, they will be referred to a doctor for treatment options and will be required to undergo drug treatment as part of their job plan. The legislation to implement the program is currently before the Senate. An inquiry has heard extensive testimony debunking the proposal including from medical specialists.

A fourth, and latest, pointer is the suggestion by Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, that climate change protesters should have their welfare payments cut. He also suggested mandatory jail sentences for protesters and encouraged members of the public to take photos of protesters and to 'name and shame' them. Employment Minister Michaelia Cash has agreed reportedly saying: 'Protesting is not, and never will be, an exemption from a welfare recipient's mutual obligation to look for a job.'

All of these programs smack of benevolent paternalism that judge morality of social security recipients, and the message is clear. Drug use is personal failure; cigarettes, alcohol and gambling are weakness; single mothers are bad mothers; protesters are lazy and unproductive members of society. The solution? Government is everybody's long-suffering father, here to instruct a wayward public in proper civic behaviour by offering correctives to immoral behaviour.

The programs are also couched in terms of mutual obligation, namely that the recipient has a duty to government to receive its munificence. It is, in fact, the responsibility of government to provide for the people.

And even if one accepts some degree of accountability for payments, these programs beg the question of just how far government can reach into our lives to control how we live. If a person meets reporting requirements for Newstart, what right does government have to inquire further? So what if recipients spend their time volunteering, lying in bed, or engaging in peaceful protest? What possible value is there to anyone in interfering with the parenting decisions of parents receiving social security — on pain of losing payment?

If government is concerned for citizens' wellbeing, then it should properly resource services — drug and alcohol support, parenting support, subsidised childcare, financial counselling, education, and so on. Instead, it is generating a system of social credit: rewarding those who toe the line and punishing those whose 'score' falls below that of the 'good citizen'. We need not look overseas for such a dystopia. It exists in our own backyard.



Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Main image: Credit EyeOfPaul / Getty

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, robodebt, Centrelink, data



submit a comment

Existing comments

"The programs are also couched in terms of mutual obligation, namely that the recipient has a duty to government to receive its munificence. It is, in fact, the responsibility of government to provide for the people." Yes, yes, yes [table banging]. The government is our employee! The fundamental right and ability of us regulars to be able to self-determine is brought into question by these self-righteous horrorshows time and time again. It's traumatising (except of course for those amongst it who welcome it because they think it won't affect them and they love the endorphin hit of sanctimony they get from thinking of how much better they are than all the lazy dole bludgers). If we hadn't already been disabused of our social fabric and the knowledge of our ability to live in harmony with nature long ago, we would be instantly alert to the authoritarian whiff. We'd be constantly marching in the streets about these three areas alone. So sick of this "authoritarians rising to the top" era. Luckily there is evidence everywhere we've reached peak alienation and people are beginning to band together, regrow our communities, form co-ops, start new local currencies, all the things that strengthen the grassrootd, from where all the good stuff comes ??
Sue Stevenson | 08 October 2019

What should be done about deliberate abuse of the system? This country is the world master at abusing welfare from the "top" wealthy corporate level via the political perk level all the way down to the "bottom" poorest level in society. Surely societal governance has an obligation to do something about abuse of welfare services paid for by those who pay tax from earnings to support the system and its recipients?
john frawley | 08 October 2019

The whole issue of social control by Conservative Governments has become a real issue in recent decades . Terms like "Unauthorised boat arrivals" (Refugees), "Dole Bulgers" ( social security beneficiaries) etc are stock in trade to attack the less well off or underprivileged in our society. It seems the Government feels that if due to circumstances beyond your control you are not dealt life's best cards, then it is all your fault and you should pay for it or even be penalised for your misfortune. I think this was known as the "Protestant Ethic" . Certainly Scott Morrison and his cronies seem to believe this mantra. What it ignores is the credo among the well heeled that if you have plenty of wealth then it is OK to fudge your Tax Return. The ATO will not touch you or your big companies because unlike the "little man", you can use expensive Tax Agents and Lawyers to fight the ATO . The experience of a ATO audit of our small family business many years ago taught me a huge lesson-and very financially painful since I did not have the big guns to fight for our rights!
Gavin A. O'Brien | 09 October 2019

I think I get what Kate is saying; even if you hate dole bludgers you should be frightened to see the infrastructure that is being put in place to catch them out. And you should. It wasn't long ago that the same infrastructure was "to catch terrorists and paedophiles and keep us safe." Then it metastasized into "And other crimes." Now you can be turned back at any Australian airport at the discretion of the ATO if You have an outstanding debt. Also no surprise that courtesy of Indue's good fortune, many benefits card holders will be paying a fortune. Not that Indue has any affiliation with our current administration - they were a way better payment provider than anyone else in the field. Does any of this sound familiar China haters? Pot - meet kettle.
Steve | 12 October 2019

Those that Governed us in the Welfare Systems are, from my experience and many, many other Forgotten Australians that were locked away in their establishments/asylums, not in any position to dictate to us what they believe is so righteous.
Mary Adams | 13 October 2019

Benevolent ? I do not see this as benevolent, more like righteous excuses for increasing control over those whom society has recognized as in need of care and support.
Johanna Blows | 07 December 2019


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up