Guest post on welfare quarantining

With the problems of indigenous Australia at the forefront of national attention, it’s time to look again at the Howard government’s Intervention policy, and try to assess what has worked or is likely to and what has not. Already the Rudd government has reinstated the permit system – whatever the merits of the system its abolition was an ideologically-motivated piece of mischief in a package that was supposed to be about protecting children. Another difficult issue is the extent to which individual and community benefits should be conditional on requirements that might be imposed by the government or negotiated with community leaders. One particular aspect of this is the policy of quarantining some portion of welfare benefits in a manner similar to the US policy of giving aid through food stamp. I’ve attached a piece by Bree Blakeman and Nanni Concu, who are currently living in an Aboriginal homeland in East Arnhem Land, which raises a number of problems with this policy. I found it very thought-provoking and I hope that it will help to inform the debate.

The contradictory effects of Quarantining Indigenous Welfare Payments

As the quarantining of Indigenous welfare payments rolls out across the Northern Territory, its alleged benefits need to be weighted against the possible cultural and economic consequences. The end results may well be opposite to those desired. Quarantining could make it harder to access services, increase the cost of food provision, constrain saving patterns, and in turn, exacerbate the conflicts it intends to curtail.

The recent Federal election featured large in remote Aboriginal communities. In between conversations about kin, hunting and weather patterns there was much discussion about the ‘new laws for Aboriginal people’ – a collective reference to the various aspects of the Howard government’s ‘Emergency Intervention’.

In a remote Homeland in which English is the second, third or fourth language, where there is no television and only intermittent short wave radio reception, information about the Intervention filtered through with varying degrees of specificity. People in the Homeland learned that ‘CDEP might finish up’, that there would be ‘new Balanda [white] bosses’ in Aboriginal communities and that ‘Centrelink money’ was going to change. They also heard that ‘the new laws’ would only be for Yolngu (Aboriginal People), not Balanda (white people). People expressed anger that the new laws were ‘only pointed at Yolngu’, that ‘they [the government] were trying to take control of Yolngu country and Yolngu lives’, and frustration about the uncertainty surrounding the impending changes. Everyone in the community discussed how they would ‘fire John Howard’ at the next election, and so they thought, ‘stop those new laws’.

The election results demonstrate that it was not just this one small Aboriginal community that turned out to ‘fire John Howard’ on election day. There was an unprecedented swing against the Coalition government in Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory and Queensland. (In the 20 Aboriginal booths surveyed by the National Indigenous Times, the ALP routinely picked up more than 85 percent of the primary vote, and more than 90 percent after preferences). However, they were not so successful in ‘stopping those new laws’. In the past four weeks ‘the new laws’ and ‘the new government – that ALP’, have again featured large in daily conversation of the community.

Again, without access to media, let alone media in their own language, people have heard that ‘they keeping some of those new laws for Yolngu’, and, more specifically, that they ‘only gonna get half their Centrelink money – the other half will only be djorra [paper] for ngatha [food] at only lurrkun [few] shops’. We were asked whether this new law was only for Yolngu [Aboriginal people], and I confirmed that it wasn’t going to affect white people, only Yolngu. Feelings of anger and frustration have again resurfaced. The most common response has been ‘this is rubbish! Mongrels!’ with one senior woman asking kin rhetorically ‘why they just pointing at Yolngu, like threatening us? They think we’re stupid we can’t use our ‘rown money? We’re not playing cards or drinking grog! We’re sitting down quietly on our ‘rown country doing the work and looking after our kids! We’re not monkeys!’

Aside from these fundamental issues of discrimination and infringement on basic rights, the new welfare arrangements may interrupt patterns of financial management with serious cultural and economic consequences. As kin and scholars we fear the new quarantined welfare arrangements impede the culturally appropriate financial management system developed in some Homelands.

First, the quarantine system will constrain the flexible processes devised by remote communities to obtain food and goods. On account of their remote location, the cost of transport, and the low pay welfare recipients receive, access to shops is always a communal and opportunistic (ad)venture. In the dry season when the roads are passable shopping trips are dependent upon a number of factors. There must be a functional, registered vehicle in the community, which is not common given the cost of buying and maintaining vehicles on such a low income. There must be someone in the community with a current drivers license, which is more likely, but still uncommon for both economic and cultural reasons. In addition, there must be enough ‘surplus’ cash to pay for the 280km round trip to the nearest town. In the wet season, during the five months the roads are impassable, shopping trips cost the $700+ return plane trip to the nearest town, either Galiwin’ku or Nhulunbuy.

People must be opportunistic and shopping trips are only made possible through cooperative and communal financial management, articulated through kinship relations. If people learn of kin driving in from town to a nearby Homeland they rally around the phone, check bank accounts, transfer whole sums between accounts over the phone, and quickly act to secure the delivery of food and goods. Those who have money in their bank accounts willingly ‘blow it up’ on food and goods for the community. When the delivery arrives, bags and cardboard boxes are set down on the veranda to be redistributed according to need. A similar impromptu financial rallying takes place when service planes fly in from Galiwin’ku. Whole sums are transferred over the phone to kin on the island with time enough that they can drive the food and goods down to the airport hanger to hitch a ride on the plane. Alternatively, if a close kinsperson from the community flies to town to attend a health appointment or CDEP meeting, for which the transport is provided, it is common practice that kin give them their bankcards to ‘hold’ for the trip. Once in town they are in contact over the phone relaying what they and others in the community require. If neither of these options is possible, community members pool all their money and pay for a plane to the nearest town. Given the cost of flights there is always the possibility that they won’t have enough money left over for the food they made the trip for, or the return flight home. In these cases people fall effortlessly into the safety net of kin who similarly rally around phones, fires and verandas to garner cash or phone transfers in order to ensure the passage of the shoppers back home, or at the least, that they are well cared for until a return flight can be secured.

In this geographic, economic and cultural context, money and bank accounts are not exclusive to individuals but cooperatively shared among close kin. These dynamics are both a reflection of the reciprocal nature of Aboriginal kin relations and the need to take advantage of often infrequent opportunities as they arise. There is little time or desire to be overly measured or uncooperative. It is most often the case that each shopping opportunity, one or two people ‘blow up’ their money on food and goods for many more households than their own, ‘zeroing out’ their bank accounts until the following fortnight in the shared interest of close kin. Such open-handedness never leaves individuals vulnerable or wanting however, for the same open-handedness is reciprocated in turn.

This shared financial management is a flexible system that is able to adapt to circumstance and opportunity. Quarantining half of welfare payments and introducing a currency that cannot be remotely transferred or exchanged as money, will impose undue constraints that will inevitably reduce its flexibility. It will reduce the ability of kin to ‘pool’ money impromptu, which is the way transport, shopping and goods are afforded by isolated communities on low income. That is, the way most shopping trips are made possible.

Second, the new quarantining measures cut through the cultural roles assigned in the community according to age, gender and ability. The new measures expect that individuals purchase food for themselves and their immediate households, while in practice, the purchase of food is a responsibility taken on by women as distinct and exclusive from the provision of other services. So, for example, while men rarely purchase and prepare food, their bank accounts are used to buy and maintain vehicles and other large service goods – boats, lawn mowers and the like, which are essential to community functioning. Men’s accounts are often left untouched to ‘sav ‘im up’ for several weeks, after which a purchase is made. Alternatively, the community may make a large purchase on incremental payments, which are deducted weekly from men’s accounts. So while men ‘blow up’ their money on large goods and assets for others, they remain well fed through the provision of close kin.

While women will no doubt still ‘blow up’ their money and vouchers on food to fulfil their responsibilities, men will still be expected to buy and maintain expensive goods on half the income. The other half, as food vouchers, will undoubtedly handed over as ‘women’s business’ (perhaps with the expectation that women will hand over the little cash they have in return). The consequences of reshaping peoples’ ability to fulfil cultural roles is unpredictable, though no doubt cause for frustration and friction. The economic consequences will be such that the services men provide through their expenditure patterns will be heavily constrained. That is, the quarantine will limit the purchase and maintenance of vehicles and other important assets, possibly putting further constraints on people’s mobility and, more importantly accessibility to shops.

The prevailing financial system is a solution remote people have developed to adapt to their geographical, economic and cultural context. It is flexible enough to adapt to circumstance and opportunity. It complements culturally appropriate kinship reciprocity and gender roles. Most importantly, it is their own. Aboriginal people neither need nor deserve restrictions imposed of their welfare payments. To think that quarantining payments and issuing food vouchers will somehow lead to more ‘effective’ financial management is to misunderstand their socio-cultural context and radically underestimate them as a people. In their own words, it is ‘to treat them like monkeys’.

Bree Blakeman is a PhD student at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at The Australian National University. Dr. Nanni Concu is a Research Fellow at the School of Economics at the University of Queensland.

They are currently living in an Aboriginal Homeland in North East Arnhem Land.

35 thoughts on “Guest post on welfare quarantining

  1. “I can just imagine the howls of derision from some. “pay them? how much is that going to cost? all those teachers, how much is that going to cost?â€? I say, nothing compared to the trillions Australia has made from stolen Aboriginal land.”

    Salient Green, it’s probably also less than what we currently pay for alcohol and drug counselling, therapy for abused kids (the ones lucky enough to get any); jailing Aborigines and compensation for victims of violent crime.

    We can continue to pay money indefinitely to continue the current mess (not to mention the human cost) or we can invest more now so we spend less in the future.

  2. Donald Oats: Two black and white pictures from around the 1900s were of a chain gang(?) of young women, and another of aboriginal males in neck manacles. I think that they were the first aborigines I had seen in my life, at that stage. Anyway, the manacles sure made a lasting impression on me.

    Donald I’m told similar neck shackles were still being used in Queensland in the 1970’s (difficult to believe I know).

    Something for which no apology is required I’m sure. Never mind that the only crime the people in question committed was to go on strike to try to get the Queensland government to comply with the High Court’s Equal Pay ruling.

  3. “I didn’t do it, nor did any of mine, and there isn’t the connection to make it so -”

    Oh yes there is. You (and I, and the vast majority of non-indigenous Australians) have enormous and ongoing benefit from the violent theft of this resource rich and opportunity soaked land from its rightful original owners. That is the part we have to acknowledge and make reparation (of some sort) for. As previously pointed out, whatever money we spend (including any form of direct compensation) on helping the indigenous out of their situation is as nothing compared to what we have gained by their dispossession.

  4. What about those who have not been dispossessed? There are plenty of indigenous still on the land their tribe has occupied for thousands of years, without “white” Australia intruding in any way, except to provide some teachers, doctors etc.

  5. Seeker, you need to separate out the generations. White settlement was very bad for a large number of indigenous people in the 18th and 19th centuries. We murdered them, raped them and took over the lands that they lived on. But Australia was not, by any reasonable standard, a resource rich and opportunity soaked land, since those features arise necessarily from the nature of the society upon it. We continue to be outraged by living standards in indigenous communities because we recognise the superiority of modern, Western, lifestyles which are built on modern, Western, modes of social organisation. It is, of course, a bitter irony that our actions have destroyed, in part or in whole, traditional culture in many remote communities and that to assuage our guilt we want to make them more like us. With a lot of hard work on our part, future Aboriginal generations will have lives indisputably better than those they would have had had whites never come to this place. In that (admittedly hopeful and perhaps unlikely) case, further compensation would be something of a travesty.


  6. BBB, that’s partly due, but it isn’t the health stats like infant mortality etc. that bother me most about indigenous communities today (which are surely better now than they were 200 years ago), but the fact that entire communities have no dignity at all in their existence, or productive purpose to their lives. There may well have been much that was rough and brutish about their existence before white settlement, but surely it was an improvement on what passes for a standard of living among many indigenous communities today.

  7. Actually this benevolent dictator thingy has some merit in it. Two problems with it, we can’t all agree on who to anoint and since absolute power corrupts, it would be best under the circumstances to anoint two dictatorial triumvirates whereby a stalemate in direction or policy by either triumvirate can be settled by a two thirds majority within each. Then Rudd can choose one and Nelson the other, each to be charged with sole responsibility for one half of all the current resources (plus some extra communal sorry money thrown in for good measure)spent on remote aboriginal communities now. That means we can immediately dispense with all the producer groups now and pay them off and the two triumvirates can employ any of them as they wish. Then they toss a coin to see who gets first pick of the communities they’ll take responsibility for (winner picks first pick and then loser has picks 2 and 3 and then alternately in order until the last is taken. We give them 10 years to strut their stuff and watch the results so we can settle this bloody conundrum once and for all. I’m advising Nelson and he’s sensibly agreed with my choice of Howard, Brough and Pearson for our mob. Show us your mob leftys and let the devil take the hindmost. Either that or the patter of black feet.

  8. “What about those who have not been dispossessed? There are plenty of indigenous still on the land their tribe has occupied for thousands of years, without “whiteâ€? Australia intruding in any way, except to provide some teachers, doctors etc.”

    So there are plenty of parts of Australia where pastoral leases or freehold wasn’t granted over land and the local people weren’t forced into mission settlements?

    Care to point to them on a map?

  9. Seeker writes “You (and I, and the vast majority of non-indigenous Australians) have enormous and ongoing benefit from the violent theft of this resource rich and opportunity soaked land from its rightful original owners” – but this is wrong in several different respects:-

    – It wasn’t violent theft, by and large, but something more akin to fraud, if you must choose a form of dishonesty to compare it with, in that what was going to be done wasn’t made sufficiently clear in advance with no “meeting of minds” (violent resistance sometimes followed, but this was after the fact); even so, it was more like buyer’s remorse than fraud (think how settlements like Melbourne and Adelaide started with attempts to buy out the locals – with as much effect as similar attempts in Manhattan and Philadelphia, i.e. no “meeting of minds” after all, but it still stuck).

    – They weren’t owners of land in our sense at all, and it is a mistranslation of their concepts to use these terms of ours for that; the best analogy to things in our system was that they were like occupiers exercising customary rights, of the sort that quitrents were used to buy out in Europe; for them, there was nothing “resource rich and opportunity soaked” that “we” deprived them of, though they have every right to complain about anything that they were actually and in fact deprived of unjustly, e.g. hunting and foraging rights, “right to roam”, etc. (wishing “ownership” of land as such on them is itself cultural imperialism, which has backfired in the past with things like the allotment movement for US Indians – and as did misguided paternalism, come to that).

    – They generally weren’t even the original occupiers, since fossil evidence (robust types displacing earlier gracile types), art (complete obliteration of the original style in the Kimberleys) and geographical mapping of language groups (isolation of pockets) shows that later outside waves came in and sloshed about within the continent after that (think how the Scots came from Ireland, while the Irish in turn came from northern Spain/southwestern France); they are no more the “original” inhabitants than the Serbs are of Kosovo or the Jews are of Palestine (this doesn’t justify displacing them in and of itself, it just shows that this argument is vacuous; what counts is personal connection, not who “stole” it when).

    – It is anyway too remote, since I did not do it but arrived after the fact and did not even displace anything that would otherwise have been theirs (this applies even to those born here who are still living).

    – What is more, when you get specific about me, you do not know what you are talking about anyway, since my surviving slender resources came here from the UK and are not from “this resource rich and opportunity soaked land” in any case; today, separately, two aborigines and one white man begged things off me (cash twice and a cigarette once), and I made and make no distinction between them, despite being rather low on those resources myself – although, to me, it appeared that the aboriginal woman was the best off of the three.

    Some of those are not materially important in themselves but rather destroy the philosophical underpinnings of an aspect of the argument; that is, they would be quibbles about amounts due if it were separately established that anything was due, but if they were accepted, you could come in on amounts owing from other arguments, so they need to be nipped in the bud.

  10. The clever thing about the apology, in my mind, is that it is only our parliament taking responsibility for Government policies, legislation, attitudes and actions. The responsibility was not given on behalf of the ‘it was not me or my kin and kith’ brigade. It was the current government saying sorry for policies of previous parliaments and trying to do a better job in future when it comes to indigenous issues.

    Yes,there are inclusive phrases regarding the future, but the apology was not made on behalf of all non- indigenous Australians, only Governments and Parliaments.

    I personaly consider the apology was made on my behalf, but the wording has given a way out to those who do not understand the privileges they have, gained at the expense of another culture.

    I am a white fella, living in the Northern Territory and have all the white fella privileges and opportunities, and yet, all I hear is the the whiny white fella bigotry and hypocrisy, at work, at BBQs, at bars and in that wonderful literary journal, the NT News and yet outside our doors the evidence of something quite wrong confronts you every day.

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