A Choice Between 'Sit-Down' Money and Rations?


The Town Camps around Alice Springs will begin the transition to ‘income management’ on Monday as part of the Northern Territory Intervention. According to an Alice Springs social worker, Intervention staff admitted in a meeting on Wednesday that they are working to a 12 month plan, regardless of who wins government on Saturday.

Eight Centrelink staff have two weeks to speak individually to the several thousand welfare recipients in Alice’s Town Camps before the payment quarantines come into play on 12 December. It’s expected each interview will take at least half an hour and residents will have to make their own way across town to the Tangentyere Council building where the staff are temporarily based.

Even without taking into account missed meetings and administrative hurdles, it’s another one of those ambitious exercises that the Intervention is becoming known for.

Residents will be asked to nominate the shop at which they want half of their payments quarantined each fortnight. Unlike in remote communities, where there is often only one community store to buy food from, Town Camp residents are being encouraged to choose between the three big chainstores in Alice: Coles, Woolworths or Kmart.

It’s expected the stores will issue fortnightly vouchers that specify they are not to be used for alcohol, cigarettes, pornography or gambling, but it’s unclear how these will be distributed. If residents want to travel out of Alice Springs, they will have to make an appointment to see Centrelink staff and arrange to have their money quarantined elsewhere for the fortnight in which they’re travelling.

It is the blanket nature of the quarantining that has caused the most protest, the local source said.

‘Even people who might have a problem with alcohol, or whatever, usually have it together enough to request this stuff anyway,’ he said. ‘After a case worker has sat down with them, most of those people agree it is a good idea to put some money away for food, and so relatives can’t humbug them.’

‘The problem actually is that there are not enough case workers.’

‘The Intervention is supposed to be about getting people away from welfare dependency,’ the source said, and likened the measure to the days when Indigenous people received rations.

Meanwhile, payment quarantining is already taking its toll in the communities outside of Alice Springs. One community store has shut up shop and another one will lose its manager next year as a result of the extra work required under the new system. Community store owners are expected to keep a hard-copy record of every cent of quarantined money that comes in and goes out.

Ken Porter closed his store at Wallace Rockhole, 120 kilometres west of Alice Springs, two weeks ago, leaving the community temporarily without a functioning supermarket. Porter says business was already hard enough in the community of less than 150 people, and that the Intervention was ‘the icing on the cake’.

‘Turnover was not that great,’ says Porter. ‘I kept it going because the community needed it, but some weeks it actually cost me money.’ He says he had approached the local council for help but they had declined.

Kathy Abbott from Wallace Rockhole Council says the store has since been reopened by Outback Stores, an Indigenous Business Australia initiative. ‘That’s all I can tell you at this stage’, she said.

‘Outback Stores will receive a lot more [Government] assistance than I would,’ says Porter.

Further west in Hermmansburg, manager of the Ntaria supermarket, Charlie Fletcher, was an initial supporter of the Intervention, but has changed his mind since witnessing the haste with which it was designed and implemented.

‘About 18 months ago I sat down and wrote a letter to Mal Brough [about the problems in Aboriginal communities],’ he says. ‘Now I’m not silly enough to think that he read it, but it got it off my chest and at least it shows now that I’m not against the Intervention per se because virtually everything that I put in that letter is now being addressed in a round about way.’

But Fletcher disagrees with the discriminatory aspects of the Intervention, and is planning to get out of the business as a result.

‘I give an example of one woman here and there are a lot of people like this,’ he says. ‘She doesn’t drink, she doesn’t smoke, she goes to church every Sunday, she hasn’t been in any trouble with the police, and she comes in here every time her grandkids get a cheque and makes sure it’s put in the safe. She’s 65 years old and all of a sudden the Government is saying, ‘sorry old lady, you’re no good. You’re hopeless at looking after your money and your life and we’re going to make it a lot better for you.’ Now she’s got to 65 years old, she’s tried to live a good life, she’s tried to do the right thing, and all she’s got in return is a kick in the backside.’

‘[As a store-manager], the logistics of it are also horrible,’ says Fletcher. ‘We actually said we couldn’t do it. It’s not that we won’t do it irrespective of whether we think it’s a good idea or not it’s that we couldn’t do it. Everyone here works 12 days out of every 14, and we’ve just got no spare time.’

A Government-contracted accountant has since been working with the store to implement an automated system.

Residents of Hermmansburg have already cast their votes in the Federal seat of Lingiari – they had their day last Saturday. The choice was between long-time incumbent ALP Member Warren Snowdon, and Country Liberal Party candidate Adam Giles, whose campaign slogan is ‘no more sit-down money’.

‘There was a massive, massive turn up on voting day. I’ve never seen anything like it,’ says Fletcher, who has lived in the community for 12 years.

‘Now I don’t know how they voted of course, but I’m just wondering whether [the Intervention has]galvanised them into action.’

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