Rations on the Cards


Post-apology, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has asked us to "embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed," asserting that the mistakes of Indigenous policy of the past won’t be repeated. His Government, however, is persisting in the ill thought-out and ideologically driven Northern Territory Intervention – despite a promise to pursue evidence-based policy.

The NT Intervention is racially discriminatory, which is why the previous government had to exempt it from the Racial Discrimination Act. It takes away Aboriginal land and quarantines people’s money without cause, forcing them to use ‘ration’ cards. Hasn’t this approach already failed? Aren’t we simply repeating the mistakes of the past?

The quarantining of income support is particularly hurting Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal people speak of their deep shame of having this system inflicted on them, and how this feels like a return to the ration days when their parents and grandparents got their rations in sugar bags.

It is important that broader Australia understand what impact this quarantining is having, and questions what it will achieve. Is this really an appropriate approach in the 21st century?

This policy is indiscriminate. It applies to everyone living in a ‘proscribed’ community – irrespective of whether they have kids, or how well they manage their money. Pensioners, who had worked all their adult lives paying taxes, are now having their pensions quarantined and some do not now have the money for medicines and taxis to the clinic. Quarantined money is given out as Store Value Cards and in some centres as a ‘gift’ card (or as it is becoming known the ‘ration card’) for Coles or Woolworths. People travelling in from remote communities to attend the Centrelink office in Alice Springs, Darwin or Katherine have been forced to queue all day.

The ration cards have been creating chaos and confusion. People drive in from their remote community, collect their cards, then return home – only to find they cannot use the cards at their town store, and have spent all the money they had on petrol. Community stores and other small businesses (like second-hand shops) are suffering and shutting down.

To add insult to injury those quarantined are apparently being offered no financial support, advice or counselling. There is no point in taking away people’s ability to control their own money without then offering them any opportunity to learn and demonstrate financial management skills. When people get a job or the quarantining ends they are going to be left with less money skills and are more likely to get themselves in trouble.

Many people in central Australia were already part of the voluntary Centre Pay scheme to set aside some of their income for bills and food – which ran successfully for three decades prior to the Intervention. In fact, there is a wealth of success stories of community development programs in northern Australia that we can learn from. A key factor in their success is the way in which they engage with and empower the community. For many the main problem has been that they were never properly resourced to address the problems and needs they were targeting, or were pilot programs whose funding ran out just as they started to really deliver.

While the resources put into the NT Intervention have the potential to turn around lives on remote communities, more needs to be done to ensure money is spent wisely on the things that actually make a difference. To date far more money has been spent on implementing the failing welfare quarantining system than has been put into the priority areas of child protection, health and education.

The $72 million spent on the poorly targeted quarantining of welfare payments is clearly wrong headed. By comparison only $7 million has been spent on family-based programs and $14.9 million on child health.

More of these resources need to be focused on delivering basic health services, protecting children at risk and on fixing existing houses and building safe new homes for the future.

Has our Government really resolved to learn from the mistakes of the past, or will we see another awful chapter written right before our eyes? Will a future prime minister be moved to offer a national apology to the victims of the Northern Territory Intervention?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.