“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
Martin Luther King said that, and the phrase has likely been ringing in the ears of Aboriginal Australians for at least the last seven years.
Savvy Aboriginal observers have been watching, waiting for white Australians to finally cotton on to the fact that when Aboriginal people’s basic human rights were suspended under the Northern Territory intervention, it was only a matter of time before whitefellas would start copping it as well.
Over the weekend, it finally happened. On Sunday afternoon, The Guardian reported that the Abbott Government is poised for a wide-scale roll out of ‘welfare quarantining’, a policy which sees people on government benefits issued a ‘BasicsCard’, which then controls how they spend up to 70 per cent of their welfare entitlements.
People targeted will be those ‘identified’ by government as ‘the leaners’, to borrow a phrase from Treasurer Joe Hockey.
Cue the outrage from across the land at yet another Abbott Government assault on the people who can least afford it.
Australians should be angry that an administration which professes the principle of ‘small government’ should be intruding so deeply into the lives of individuals. But they should also know that a healthy dose of that outrage should be directed somewhere other than the Liberals. I’ll get to that part in a minute.
The welfare quarantining rot began under the Howard government in 2007, when it was launched as a key plank part of the emergency measures of the Northern Territory intervention.
Government thinking of the day was that Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory – and by ‘Aboriginal people I mean ALL Aboriginal people –are so corrupt and dysfunctional that they waste their welfare entitlements on booze and drugs, at the expense of their children.
So the BasicsCard was rushed out to more than 73 Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory. Every single Aboriginal person in those communities who received welfare payments was forced onto the card, regardless of whether or not they actually had children. Think pensioners, for example. And war veterans.
And here’s where it all falls apart. It’s a well-known feature of isolated Aboriginal communities that they’re a long way from anywhere, and so they rely on their local community store for basic supplies.
The BasicsCard was new, untested technology, and with its inevitable bugs and outright failures in the early days, it ensured that thousands of people couldn’t properly access half of their fortnightly welfare payments.
And that’s how the numerous reports of widespread starvation among men, women and children on Aboriginal communities across the Territory came about.
The introduction of the BasicsCard also helped to make appalling levels of poverty even worse.
As Aboriginal people found their BasicsCards wouldn’t work, they were forced to head to larger centres to find food, with all the resultant additional costs that brings. And out bush, in case you’ve never been, petrol can cost more than $2 a litre. And communities are often hundreds and hundreds of kilometres form anywhere.
So Aboriginal people were spending more and more on transport, and less and less on the basics of life, which the Liberals said was the reason for the introduction of the card in the first place.
Many Aboriginal people, of course, couldn’t afford to get home. And that’s how even greater levels of overcrowding and homeless came about in larger urbanized towns, and why so many of the Aboriginal communities emptied after the intervention.
None of this, of course, factors in the shame associated with being forced onto a BasicsCard, particularly as a black person in a predominantly white urban centre like Alice Springs.
Frustrated with the problems associated with the technology, larger supermarkets such as Woolworths began creating separate lines… multiple lanes for the whites, and a single lane for the blacks.
Of course, non Aboriginal Australians can relax a little. Starvation, poverty and shame would never be wrought on non-Aboriginal communities. That is the sole preserve of the First Australians.
The BasicsCard technology is now well-established, and outlets are popping up around the country, courtesy of more than half a billion dollars of federal government investment into a white bureaucratic black hole, on a technology designed to intervene in the lives and spending habits of a tiny proportion of the Australian community.
Which brings us to the outrage part.
It’s the Liberals who fluffed the introduction of the BasicsCard, and it’s the Liberals who are again looking at expanding it nationally, beyond Aboriginal people in the Territory and a handful of ‘trial sites’ around the country.
But it was, the Labor Party – to borrow from another Hockey phrase – who did the “heavy lifting” in readying the BasicsCard for its national implementation.
The overwhelming majority of money spent expanding the BasicsCard was blown by Labor, and it was done during a period when Labor was leading its own quiet assault on welfare, such as their slashing of the single parents pension.
And it was Labor that started the welfare quarantining trials sites, in communities in WA, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. It’s worth briefly examining why.
In Opposition, Labor supported the passage of the Northern Territory intervention legislations through parliament, while at the same time howling in protest at some of its provisions, including the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the racially discriminatory nature of the BasicsCard.
In Government, Labor not only vastly expanded the BasicsCard, but fended off increasing interest from the United Nations about our racist policies by re-instating the RDA, and then announcing welfare quarantining would be ‘expanded’ to the broader Australian community.
That’s how the trial sites came about – it was, in part, Labor’s way of skirting around the provisions of the RDA. A comparative handful of non-Aboriginal Australians were targeted in the trials, compared to the 15,000 plus Aboriginal people still forcibly subjected to it in the Territory.
But in truth, Labor has long-intended to subject the poorest people in the nation – those on welfare – to greater government control. It was just growing international condemnation of Australia’s racism that forced their hand.
In short, the Liberals’ planned expansion of welfare quarantining has been well and truly brought to you by Labor.
Which leaves us all where? Well, comprehensively wedged.
Not only do both major parties support the policy, but the vast majority of our nation have sat silently while this outrage was wrought on Aboriginal people. Indeed, a poll in the early days of the NT intervention revealed that almost two-thirds of Australians thought the policy – with all its human rights abusing provisions – was a good idea.
It looks more than a little hollow now to start screaming and shouting about one of the most invasive of those provisions – welfare quarantining.
So maybe the lesson in all this is that next time you see a large body of Aboriginal people objecting to the latest ‘radical experiment’ from government, more of us should take a closer interest.
If not because you believe in respecting the basic human rights of the nation’s most vulnerable people, the then maybe because sooner or later, government will inevitably train its sights on the rest of us.
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