Halal meat and beef noodle soup are not essential items
Selected Centrelink clients in the Sydney suburb of Bankstown will have their income managed by the Government with the help of the BasicsCard, writes Min-Zhui Lee.
The Federal Government’s BasicsCard has just come to a suburb 20km west of Sydney — Bankstown. The suburb is home to almost 200,000 people, a third of whom are from non-English speaking backgrounds.
On July 1, the Federal Government introduced its income management program to five suburban centres in Australia: Logan and Rockhampton in Queensland, Shepparton in Victoria, Playford in South Australia, and Bankstown, NSW.
It’s a $117.5 million trial rolled out over five years, and 20,000 welfare recipients will have 50 to 70 per cent of their social security payments quarantined onto a PIN-protected BasicsCard. The card can only be used to buy ‘priority items’ at approved stores, such as Woolworths.
He also said Bankstown was chosen because of its high unemployment rate, the number of people reliant on Centrelink as their main source of income, and the length of time spent on benefits.
Rebecca Kay is unconvinced. In her polka dot chiffon top, high-waisted skirt, and a silky cream-coloured hijab, she is every bit the self-confessed fashionista. But she’s also a stay-at-home mother of four, a local Independent candidate, and an outraged anti-income management activist.
“We’re becoming a nanny state,” she says. “No one knew it was coming. No one. It was sneaky, the way the Government went about it; they weren’t upfront or honest.”
Kay watches her four-year-old daughter slurping a melted ice chocolate, and shakes her head. “I think they chose Bankstown because our high migrant population makes us an easy target. They thought they could spring it in here and we would just take it and no one would question it.”
She hits the table with a clenched fist. “They were so wrong.”
More than two months after the introduction of income management to Bankstown, there are only four residents on the BasicsCard. Hardly the 4,000 per area the Government intended — just four.
It’s a small but substantial victory for Randa Kattan. She’s the brains behind the ‘Say no to [the] Government’s income management: Not in Bankstown, not anywhere’ campaign. The campaign is backed by a national coalition of 65 (and counting) community, welfare and religious bodies.
Kattan sits between stacks of documents at her mahogany desk. She is busy and her peachy pink acrylic nails drum the keyboard like jackhammers.
“I’m passionate about a lot of stuff,” she says, her heavily kohl-lined eyes bright, dancing.
“But it’s the sense of injustice that made me so passionate about this.
“Income management targets people and punishes them — it is bad policy in that respect. It treats people like children, as if they don’t know how to deal with their own lives. It’s about controlling people and blaming them for the ills of society,” she says.
Income management has always been a controversial part of the Australian Government’s welfare reform agenda. Those opposed to it, like Kay and Kattan, say that the policy not only punitively micro-manages the lives of the vulnerable, it also stigmatises the disadvantaged.
The new scheme is a hybrid of income management elements from the Howard Government’s 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response, and the voluntary version running in Western Australia. Essentially, those referred by child protection authorities or deemed ‘financially vulnerable’ by Centrelink, that is, two or more weeks behind in public housing rent, will be forced onto the BasicsCard. The rest are volunteers.
The Government has budgeted $117.5 million for the programme. There are five trial sites, meaning $23.5 million is spent on operating the system in each area. It will be running for five years to a total of $4.7 million per year.
Kattan has done the maths, and she’s appalled. “If we are serious about long-term joblessness for example, then different strategies need to be employed, like case management,” she says.
“Instead of spending millions on administering a rubbish system, we could spend it on creating greater opportunities for people in Bankstown. The answer is not quarantining people’s measly money.”
Meanwhile, Federal Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA), Jenny Macklin, remains a firm believer that it is money well spent, after saying in a 2010 press conference that reactions from those under the WA scheme have been “very positive.”
But more and more cracks are showing in the policy.
Senior researcher Paddy Gibson from the UTS Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning has spent years investigating the effects of income management in the NT. He says it is not a quick fix to “complex social problems” and the justifications behind its operation are questionable.
In May this year, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library published a document titled: Is income management working?
After 23 pages, it concluded that there was an “absence of adequate data related to the effectiveness or otherwise of income management.”
Then, in June, FaHCSIA released the Closing the Gap in the NT Monitoring Report, which showed a decline in school attendance, increases in domestic violence and alcohol-related incidents, and a 67 per cent surge in Indigenous incarceration since the implementation of the BasicsCard.
That same month, the acting Commonwealth Ombudsman, Alison Larkins, was critical of Centrelink decision-making in relation to income management, and urged an overhaul of the system.
Two weeks after the Bankstown trial commenced, the matter was finally given the political spotlight. “It was a massive achievement,” says Kattan, smiling. “The annual NSW Labor State Conference passed a resolution calling on the Federal Government to stop the imposition of compulsory Income Management in any community.”
NSW Labor recommended a revision of Gillard’s Stronger Futures legislation and repeal of current provisions in the Social Security Act that facilitate income management.
The Bankstown BasicsCard is now in its third month, and Kattan says the campaign against it is still “really strong.”
“It’s just going to have to go away. The Government has to change its tactics. I don’t see it happening anytime soon, but I’m hopeful.”