Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Paternalism is no answer to disadvantage



In the supermarkets, cafes, and shops in my city neighbourhood, I am part of a demographic that spends its money on all manner of consumer items, often with little thought. While many of us may budget, our choice as to how we fill our baskets is ours alone. This choice is not, however, available to all Australians.

Basics CardThe Northern Territory Intervention saw the rollout of income management. Under the Basics Card scheme, welfare recipients in certain NT communities are given a card that limits the ways in which they can spend their money. They are able to use it only at approved outlets, and for approved purchases.

There is an ostensible logic behind income management. The assumption is that poverty in families living in the targeted communities arises from them spending all their welfare money on alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling instead of food and essentials. Further, income management aims to minimise the anti-social behaviour that some claim arises from expenditure on alcohol and gambling, by preventing spending on those items.

Yet such assumptions are flawed. It is the lack of job opportunities in remote communities, and not a desire to fund a life of leisure, that is a prime reason for seeking access to welfare payments. Those who are addicted to alcohol or gambling will find other ways of feeding their addiction if their funds are cut off.

In its original formulation, income management affected only Aboriginal people, in the NT and in other locations on Cape York, as part of a program there. These communities are easy targets: remote locations, large numbers of welfare recipients, few retail opportunities, and populations seen as 'other' by the mainstream and the political class. The stereotyping of residents of these communities supports the logic of income management, with little need to consider dignity and humanity.

There are complex reasons for the behaviours government seeks to modify through income management. Consider, for example, the ongoing lived legacy of dispossession, of profound family disruption through removals and stolen generations, of paternalism in all its guises, including stolen wages and rations. Redirection of welfare payments is not a solution to the complex needs of individuals and communities. It is a replication of the paternalistic policies that contributed to those problems in the first place.

Many have objected to income management, but they have been ignored in favour of the voices of those well connected to power, such as Andrew Forrest. Although proponents of the scheme claim it has cut violence in participating communities, there is other evidence to show a rise in crime. Despite this, the government proclaims the success of the program. Following further trials in WA communities and an 'independent review', income management is now to be rolled out more broadly across WA. The review though has been roundly critiqued, leaving doubt over government claims of success.

While income management may have started in Aboriginal communities, government is likely to roll it out more widely. It is part of a broader attack on welfare recipients including the recently-mooted urine testing of Centrelink clients. The purported aim of this new measure is to divert addicts to appropriate treatment. But as with income management, the underlying rationale is more ideological, invoking so-called 'mutual responsibility'. However, this is a significant misnomer.


"Human dignity is asserted through various means, including self-determination — being in a position to exercise decisions about one's own life free from government interference."


The role of government is to protect the people. Theoretically, the people give up a modicum of their personal sovereignty to government to empower it to pass and enforce laws that will enhance our lives through community. It is government's duty to serve the people. People do not serve government.

Welfare is a redistributive mechanism that serves as a safety net for those who are otherwise without. That redistribution supports the dignity of the individual within our community. Human dignity is asserted through various means, including self-determination — being in a position to exercise decisions about one's own life free from government interference.

In tying conditions to payments government is denying the self-determination of welfare recipients, counter to the very purpose of welfare. Further, it does so disingenuously identifying 'appropriate' income expenditure as the solution to difficult problems whose genesis lies elsewhere.

Solutions in these communities are difficult to see. I do believe that everyone wishes to see an improvement in the lives of those who are suffering. The reality is though, that income management is not that solution. And the so-called evidence supporting its expansion is not helping a clear-eyed view.



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

The Senate is currently inquiring into the Cashless Debit Card Bill that will expand the program. The closing date for submission is 29 September 2017. The reporting date is 13 November 2017.

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, income management, Aboriginal Australians



submit a comment

Existing comments

You state, Kate, that "The assumption is that poverty in families living in the targeted communities arises from them spending all their welfare money on alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling instead of food and essentials." Missing in your assumption is the view that sometimes the rights of children [and women] are subjugated to the demands of those who drink excessively and require funding (male/female/in many different families, whether on welfare or not). In the eyes of some policy-makers and many Australians, their rights need greater protection because they are more vulnerable. I understand that your viewpoint is informed by a social justice perspective but the old chestnut remains: "Some laws that protect civil liberties are a threat to society". The use of the word 'all' in the phrase 'all their welfare money' is also questionable, perhaps even over-stated - 'most'?, 'half'?, ' 'a good deal of'? etc.

Peter | 26 September 2017  

You raise a number of valid questions about the civil liberties of welfare recipients. Having worked in Mt Druitt NSW, an area with the highest urban Aboriginal population in the country and a high incidence of welfare dependence (Aboriginals not being the majority of welfare dependants by a long shot and Mt Druitt having quite high employment participation) I think the problems of welfare dependence are quite deep seated and not suited to solution by restrictive or punitive measures applied across the board. Working with the long term unemployed there is quite challenging. Someone like Andrew Forrest is extremely wealthy and powerful. He has at least one mixed report from an Aboriginal who worked for him to negotiate mining leases with native title holders. Despite his obvious access to world movers and shakers with the End Slavery campaign, I think we should take some of what he says about Aboriginal poverty and disadvantage with a grain of salt. There is no easy 'one size fits all' solution to Aboriginal and other poverty and disadvantage. We need smaller, specifically targeted programs.

Edward Fido | 27 September 2017  

Thoughtful article. Grateful for some educated comment on this subject. Personally could not have fed my children healthy food in 70s if this card had been in control. Never entered Coles or Woolies in all of those years;too expensive. Went to market for food and spent lots of time saving so that other needs could be met. The disempowerment aspect is huge. My confidence then came from my very coping ability. This card will defeat many on low incomes.

Chris Egginton | 27 September 2017  

Thank you Kate for a much needed discussion on this disastrous policy. Peter: On August 28th Professor Gillian Triggs, the immediate past President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, condemned the disastrous NT Intervention and its measures including the basic card. Triggs spoke of the overreach of executive powers, distortion of truth –“FALSEHOODS”- used by Government to roll out questionable policy. The stereotyping and lies used and use of emotive terms by MPs and others - rather than looking fully at evidence- was discussed at the launch of a statement in which over 200 Eminent Australians called for an end to the NT Intervention and its discriminatory ongoing measures. These paternalistic measures are NOT helping and have failed miserably, as Prof. Jon Altman later pointed out. Triggs mentioned Tony Abbotts opinion piece (of that same morning) promoting further income management roll out in the Pilbara -which has since been rejected there. Triggs is concerned at the continued falsehoods used by Government and policy that is FAILING. It is very worth listening to her (and other speakers) from 7 minutes in to the links, and reading the Eminent Australians statement. Links to video, audio & statement at http://www.concernedaustralians.com.au/

George | 27 September 2017  

The basics card and the manner of its implementation around Australia poses critical issues for our understanding of an egalitarian social democracy. There is at heart very little ideology in this. There is blinding clarity about the wretched social and economic conditions of specific populations who are not managing to meet their responsibilities and who are neglecting those who should expect nurture, care and loving developmental support from parents. But what do we get from federal ministers in 2017? The basics card. What else could be done in order to meet reasonable social objectives from parents? Plenty. And it has been done with quiet achievement in other varied locations. Exhibit 1: 10-15 years ago, the Qld government designed a family income management scheme which was opt-in for people in remote communities who were struggling with the social problems well described by Kate. They were led by a recently retired magistrate - in a localized project which gathered community support and, over 6-12 months produced strongly positive results - with explicit recognition and respect expressed from various quarters in those communities. This was community development at its best. It built on trust and self confidence. Need I say more?.

Wayne Sanderson | 27 September 2017  

Like you, Kate, I would dearly love, "to see an improvement in the lives of those who are suffering." But like you I'm also extremely uncomfortable with income management and I appreciated your comment Edward that," the problems of welfare dependence are quite deep seated and not suited to solution by restrictive or punitive measures applied across the board." We need to find a way forward to improving lives but I feel we need to begin by seeking the insights of Aboriginal people themselves and those whom they believe have their best interests at heart.

robert van zetten | 27 September 2017  

The Catholic principle of subsidiarity would suggest that remote communities of a different character to the norm of an Australian community (because of the ethnicity of its residents, the lack of diversity or economic competition between commercial suppliers of goods and services to the residents, the higher cost of living in remote areas, etc.) should be stakeholders in the process of working out what solutions are appropriate for their circumstances.

Roy Chen Yee | 29 September 2017  

Hullo George: You wrote: "Peter: On August 28th Professor Gillian Triggs, the immediate past President of the Australian Human Rights Commission." I was aware of this and I am also of the view that during her time as HR Commissioner she stood up for the rights of so many marginalised people and was pilloried by the likes of Tony Abbott and treated almost with contempt by MP McDonald. I was particularly unimpressed with the fact that ex-National Anthony's firm has the contract for the cashless welfare card. He is not the first ex-National MP to go into lobbying, mining etc. Tim Fisher, in contrast, set a decent example of life after politics. Nevertheless I still hold to the view I expressed and believe that the rights of the less powerful in these situations - the women and children - need greater priority. Quite a number of Aboriginal women's voices also promote the view that I, as a sideliner, expressed.

Peter | 02 October 2017  

Chris Egginton has got it in a nutshell. Does this not seem an iniquitous scheme for funneling the money of the 'less wealthy' (that's us) into Woolworths and their ilk? Heaven forbid the less wealthy should learn to manage their own money, perhaps even be educated about tricky gambling systems in maths classes in schools. Reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.

jill | 27 October 2017  

Similar Articles

What is identity politics really?

  • Ruby Hamad
  • 04 October 2017

The confusion around the term 'identity politics', and its frequent misuse across the political spectrum, sees it regarded with suspicion and contempt, as both conservatives and the traditional left use it as a slur to dismiss any discussions of racism and sexism.


The increasing relevance of our Asian Australian cohorts

  • Tseen Khoo and Jen Kwok
  • 02 October 2017

Our national population is more diverse than ever, particularly when it comes to those of Asian Australian heritage. Just how diverse is something we need to examine more closely if we are to develop a more inclusive, welcoming society.