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Paternalism is no answer to disadvantage

  • 26 September 2017


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.

The 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