Welfare quarantining similar to schemes operating in the Northern Territory and Western Australia will be introduced to targeted suburbs across the country from July next year, a plan opposed by local community leaders in Sydney’s Bankstown, where a lack of consultation and engagement has left many feeling frustrated and stigmatised.
The scheme, termed ‘income management’ by the Federal Government, is based primarily on the Western Australian model that has been in place since 2008. Participants — some who volunteer, others who are compulsorily signed up — have between 50 and 70 per cent of their welfare payments locked into a ‘Basics Card’ that can only be used to purchase necessities, like food, rent, medical care and utilities.
New Matilda has published extensively on the inherent flaws of the scheme as it has grown over time. For example:
- Income management does little to improve nutrition, with sales of fresh food in the NT failing to rise under the scheme.
- Benefits to participants’ physical health through quarantining are often counteracted by the psychological costs of stigmatisation and dysfunction.
- Welfare recipients and the long-term unemployed who would otherwise be placed on the system have problems that stem primarily from debt, financial insecurity, mental illness and family breakdown, rather than reckless spending on alcohol, drugs or cigarettes, which constitutes around 4 per cent of their budget.
- The studies used to justify the expansion of the scheme have been widely criticised for their selective nature and lack of quantitative research. One study in particular relied primarily on telephone surveys of NT store owners’ perceptions of fruit and vegetable sales rather than hard data.
Also, because of the way the criteria for being subject to income management are structured, the most vulnerable are more likely to be locked into the system. For instance, Tracker reported recently that women suffering domestic violence who attend Centrelink for a crisis payment in order to escape an abuse relationship are often put on income management because they fall under the category of ‘vulnerable recipient’.
Add to the criticisms then, that local communities in outer-suburban areas have had little input into whether the scheme is appropriate to their areas, or how it will be implemented.
Randa Kattan, the Executive Director of the Arab Council of Australia, represents a large constituency of Australians of Lebanese descent in Sydney’s Bankstown, where, along with Vietnamese Australians, they form one of the largest and most concentrated ethnic enclaves in the country. Yesterday she held a forum for the "Not in Bankstown, Not Anywhere" campaign, of which she is an organiser, with other community leaders.
"When I’m on talkback radio within the community with SBS or others, the callers consistently say the same thing: "Because it is Bankstown, because it is highly populated by the Arab community — Lebanese people — and because of the reputation Bankstown has gained over the years due to the negative media feedback. People feel targeted." Kattan told New Matilda.
The first time she heard of the proposed implementation of income management was the day after the budget was announced in May, when the Sydney Morning Herald rang her for an interview on the topic. Jason Clare, the Federal Member for Blaxland, subsequently invited Kattan and others to a "round table" meeting with Minister for Social Inclusion Tanya Plibersek.
"When I was there, I said… this has totally wiped out all the good stuff that’s going on. If you want us to be engaged, then you need to have liaison officers inside the community," Kattan says.
According to Kattan, Plibersek told the meeting that consultation with the community prior to announcing the scheme was impossible because of the requirement for secrecy around the budget release.
The lack of community consultation on the matter is a parallel with the experience of Indigenous Australians living under the scheme in the Northern Territory.
Barbara Shaw, an Indigenous activist visiting Bankstown as part of the campaign, told New Matilda the experience in Bankstown had its similarities.
"There’s not a lot of engagement, especially when it comes to government policy. People hear the announcement and that’s it," she said.
She has been visiting local Centrelink facilities in Bankstown, and says people aren’t aware the changes are coming, and that welfare recipients aren’t aware they’ll be put on the system.
Shaw also questions whether the community needs it. "Bankstown looks nothing like Alice Springs — there’s no camps here — and I can’t see any drinking or violence on the streets here. It doesn’t look like a disadvantaged community."
One of the consistent criticisms of income management is the way it stigmatises the Indigenous community. Both Kattan and Shaw say that the rollout of the scheme will have a similar effect on ethnic and migrant communities. "It’s highly derogatory, highly patronising – all of it," Kattan says.
Shaw also claimed that aside from the ethnic community, Aboriginal people living in Redfern, being relocated to Bankstown, will be hit with the scheme.
"They expect Aboriginal people to get off the welfare system and stop relying on welfare, but when we work for the dole, we’re really working for income management," she said.
The press release on the subject from Jenny Macklin, Minister for Families, Housing, Communities and Indigenous Affairs, stresses how important it is for Bankstown’s residents to understand the overwhelming voluntary takeup of the scheme based on the WA model. Monetary incentives are offered to those voluntarily staying on the scheme for six months or longer, but participants must pre-commit to a six or twelve month period.
"They can’t just get off it. If it’s voluntary, why get people to stay on it? Their answer: It’s a logistical nightmare. My answer is the whole thing’s a logistical nightmare." Kattan said.