Sunday, August 12, 2012

Place-Based Income Management in Australia: from the outback to the 'burbs

"This is our Hurricane Katrina," declared Australian Prime Minister John Howard in launching the Northern Territory Emergency Response back in 2007. The NTER, or "the Intervention" as it has come to be known, was an extraordinary set of measures implemented by the Howard Government in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, (notionally) in response to a report into protection from child abuse in the Northern Territory called The Little Children Are Sacred.

Howard's analogy with Katrina was illuminating. I think he meant it to suggest that Australia ought to be shamed by the extent of Aboriginal disadvantage and abuse revealed in the report, just as the United States was shamed by the levels of entrenched racialised disadvantage revealed by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

But the analogy goes further. As with Katrina, the situation in the Northern Territory did indeed demand a response. But the question was: what kind of response? And of course, the answer to that question is shaped by competing understandings of the nature of the problem to be solved.

As folks like Naomi Klein, Jamie Peck, and Kevin Fox Gotham have shown, the disaster that unfolded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's storm surge has been compounded by a surge of neoliberalisation in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast of hurricane-like proportions.

In Australia, something similar is happening through the Intervention.

At the time, the Howard Government made a distinction between ideology and what it called 'practical action' to address Aboriginal disadvantage. When Howard was asked on ABC TV's Lateline program whether the Intervention was a blow against self-determination, he replied:
Well, some may see it that way, but is that more important than fixing the problem? I mean, see this has been the problem with so many of the approaches in the past to Indigenous affairs, that doctrines and notions have been given greater prominence than outcomes and solutions.
So convinced of this was Howard that he was even prepared to ignore a significant part of the very first recommendations of the Little Children Are Sacred report which kicked off the whole affair. That recommendation stated:
That Aboriginal child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory be designated as an issue of urgent national significance by both the Australian and Northern Territory Governments, and both governments immediately establish a collaborative partnership, with a Memorandum of Understanding to specifically address the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse. It is critical that both governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.
A range of NTER measures are worthy of critical scutiny ... but right now I want to focus on one of the key measures: income management.

Place-based Income Management

One of the most contentious elements of the Intervention has been the introduction of income management for social security recipients. 50% of the welfare payments in designated Northern Territory Communities were quarantined, so that they could only be spent on certain goods in certain shops.

Map of Aboriginal Land and Community Living Areas subject to the Intervention measures, from Yu Report 2008

The initial application of income management to welfare recipients in designated Aboriginal communities by the Howard Government required a suspension of the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act. This is legally permissible for 'special measures' which are for the benefit of the targeted group. Of course, the notion that income management constituted a special measure which was for the benefit of Aboriginal people was vigorously contested.

The Labor Party supported the NTER legislation in Parliament in 2005, and continued to support the Intervention when elected in 2007, albeit in modified form. It commissioned a review of the measures associated with the Intervention in 2008. After extensive research and consultation, that review noted that while some welfare recipients identified some benefits of income management, the compulsory imposition of income management on all Aboriginal people in identified communities was widely opposed as both punitive and discriminatory. It recommended that income management become voluntary, unless triggered by specific circumstances (such as lack of school attendance or an identified risk of child abuse).

Labor rejected the recommendation that income management be voluntary, keeping it compulsory. In doing so, it continued the punitive nature of Howard's initial response. To address the concern that compulsory income management associated with the Intervention was discriminatory, Labor decided to impose income management on non-indigenous welfare recipients as well.


So, from July this year, under the new income management is being trialled in five suburban locations around the country: Bankstown (NSW), Logan and Rockhampton (Qld), Playford (SA), and Greater Shepparton (Vic). Compulsory income management has also been in operation in Perth and the Kimberley (WA) since 2008, specifically for those referred by child-protection authorities (as of 29 May this year, there were 158 people in Perth and 74 in the Kimberley on income management, as reported to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee).

In these new areas, there are three ways you can end up on income management: voluntarily; through referral by a child-support/protection agency; by being designated as 'vulnerable' by a Centrelink social worker.

A poster at Kmart notifying customers that the BasicsCard, used by those social security recipients on income management, can be used for certain purchases. These posters are now popping up in Sydney at various locations in Bankstown and beyond (this picture was taken at Ashfield Mall).

As Eva Cox has noted in the Journal of Indigenous Policy, the introduction of income management represents a major shift in welfare provision and social citizenship in Australia: "The post-war welfare system assumed that those who met criteria for payments had the same rights to spend their money as others had, so controlling expenditure is a big change." She goes on to argue that "the basis for quarantining 50 per cent of welfare income was a widespread assumption about Indigenous incompetence as parents, money managers and job seekers. It is hard to find other explanations for the failure, presumably by public servants, politicians and even Cabinet members, to accept counter arguments and evidence."

In other words, the desperate situation of some Aboriginal communities was understood by Howard and the supporters of the Intervention to be in large part a product of lack of individual and communal capacity, bred by entrenched welfare-dependence in those communities.

With the geographical extension of income management beyond the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth seems to be suggesting that the 'disadvantage' and 'vulnerability' concentrated in these particular places is a similarly a product of individual and communal incapacity there too. Introducing Labor's Stronger Future in the Northern Territory 2011 Bills into the Lower House, MP Stephen Playford said:
"Income support will be provided to families who are without jobs or who are relying on welfare support, but at the same time we will be delivering what we now call 'tough love'. That is to ensure that the adults in those families to whom the government is providing income support are doing everything within their power to ensure that their kids go to school and that there kids have every opportunity in life - opportunities that perhaps their parents did not have - to get a fine education and to ensure that they are able to participate in the workforce and in the wider community." (Legislative Assembly, 27 Feb 2012, p. 1792)

The costs of income management are extraordinary. The Government anticipates approximately 1000 people in each of the five areas ending up on voluntary or compulsory income management. In its submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Stronger Futures legislation which extended income management, the Welfare Rights Centre (the peak body for community legal centres across Australia) noted that the cost of putting an individual on income management could be used to increase their payment by $45-50 per week. As Gerard Thomas noted dryly in his verbal evidence to the Committee, "Coincidentally, that is the figure that community organisations are saying we need to increase the Newstart payment by. So it is really an issue of priorities." Indeed.

One important question is whether the extension of income management to these urban areas will impact upon whether people decide to access a range of important services services. A range of non-government organisations (such as church agencies, community-based housing services, etc) who provide community services can refer people to the Department of Human Services as  'vulnerable' people who require income management. While only the Department can make a formal assessment for 'vulnerability', some critics are worried that people will avoid accessing services if they fear being referred to the Department for income management.

A second important question concerns the extent of income management, and the potential 'creep' of these measures beyond the current criteria and geography. At a Senate Estimates hearing, Cassandra Goldie raised a series of concerns about income management on behalf of the Australian Council of Social Services. She said in part:
"there is a real sense of deep concern about the perceived breadth of application of this in light of the way this legislation is being framed, that we are certainly not narrowing and targeting here, we are opening it up in quite an enabling way to set criteria, to set up triggers and for this to be operating through  whole lot of social services that are government agencies. So, rather than [income management] being seen as highly exceptional, very targeted for particular cases, we are laying the groundwork for this becoming something that is widespread. We really feel that this is the time to draw the line in the sand" (Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, 6 March 2012)
Along with the potential breadth of the criteria used to put someone on income management, some suspect the Government has plans to continue to extend income management beyond the places where it currently applies. A quick look over the list of shops which accept the BasicsCard used for income management reveals concentrations in a range of places beyond the five 'trial' areas set out in the Stronger Futures legislation, such as Ballina and Byron Bay on the north coast of New South Wales. Combine this with the fact that the legislation gives the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs power to declare new areas for income management without need for Parliamentary debate, and it is not hard to see where all this is headed.

Of course, it's possible I'm being paranoid about this. Certainly, the Government will need to sign up shops all over the country even if it does not extend income management beyond the five trial areas, because the legislation also states that if a person on income management leaves a designated area (temporarily or permanently), they will still be subject to income management wherever they end up.So it will be necessary for shops all over the country to accept the BasicsCard in order for such people to be able to access half their income. (Large national retailers like Coles, Woolworths and Kmart have signed up to accept the BasicsCard.)

It will be interesting to monitor the extension of income management, and the kinds of politics that might unfold. In Bankstown, a wide range of community organisations banded together to oppose income management under the slogan "Income Management -- Not in Bankstown, Not Anywhere!". One of the difficulties for opponents of the Intervention has been the invisibility of its implementation and impact on remote Aboriginal communities -- perhaps the extension of some of its measures to urban areas will see new geographies of solidarity emerge?

Rally in Bankstown against Income Management, October 2011: Photo source:

Coda: The Intervention continues....

Meanwhile, back in the Territory, in July of this year the five-year  'emergency' laws were set to expire. The Labor Government's Stronger Futures legislation extends many of the Intervention measures for a further 10 years, including income management. It was made law when it passed the Senate on June 29. The Government refused to have this legislation scrutinised by the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights.  While all new legislation is now expected to be examined by this Committee for its human rights impacts, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin said she did not need to comply with this, because the Stronger Futures legislation was first introduced to Parliament before this requirement for scrutiny was made mandatory. Enough said.


  1. I think the Australia got Aboriginal disadvantage.every one is responsibility for this.

    Management Jobs

  2. Hi Kurt,
    I'm enjoying checking in with your blog!
    You might be interested in a book that Jamie Peck is co-authoring, due out sometime in the near future. It's about the global proliferation of similar conditionally-tied welfare payments programmes, and the emergent 'common sense' around their use. No publisher details yet, but this paper provides an indication of where he's going with it -

    All the best,
    Tom Baker

    Centre for Urban & Regional Studies
    University of Newcastle