Sep 20, 2010

Business as usual under Labor’s ‘new’ income management

Implementation of income management reforms has just meant one more round of racist, humiliating interaction with government bureaucracy for communities suffering under the intervention, writes Paddy Gibson.

The new system of income management designed by the federal Labor government has been progressively rolling out across the Northern Territory since the start of August. The new system is allegedly "non-discriminatory", applying to all welfare recipients across the NT and potentially Australia. It is also supposed to soften the grip of income management on "prescribed" NT Aboriginal communities. On paper, people on aged and disability pensions are now exempt. Implementation of these reforms, however, has just meant one more round of racist, humiliating interaction with government bureaucracy for communities suffering under the intervention. Centrelink is doing all it can to keep Aboriginal people on the system. Last Friday, September 17, I went into Centrelink with some elderly women from Ilparpa town camp on the southern fringe of Alice Springs. These women have long complained about the BasicsCard making it harder for them to access their pension and deeply resent their lives being taken over by the NT intervention. Centrelink has been telling Aboriginal organisations in Alice Springs that 70% of Aboriginal pensioners in Tennant Creek and the Barkly region have "volunteered" to stay on the new income management system. After our experiences on Friday, I’m genuinely amazed that 30% managed to escape. Over the next four years, $350 million is being spent on income management in the NT alone. A reasonable slice of this must be being spent on marketing. Alice Springs Centrelink is full of advertisements promising good health, pride and happiness for those on the BasicsCard.


May, who is 76, asked me to come and sit in at her interview with the Centrelink officer. Fluent in several Aboriginal languages, she speaks only broken English. The man behind the counter was friendly. "How can I help you today, May?" "BasicsCard." "You want to check your balance on your BasicsCard?" "No, the BasicsCard is no good. I want to stop." "Oh, your BasicsCard isn’t working. No worries I’ll get you a new one." There are so many problems with BasicsCards not working that Centrelink hands replacements out like lollies. He came back with a shiny new card, gave May a form to sign (which she did) and got her to punch her preferred pin number into the computer. "OK, that’s it today then?" I said, "excuse me, but isn’t there a new system operating? Perhaps you could get an interpreter to explain to May what her rights are if she wants to come off the BasicsCard?" “Look I’m just not doing that any more. Only two of the 30 or so people I asked actually came off, because if they stay on they get a bonus." He was referring to a $250 "incentive" payment that pensioners will get every six months if they decide to sign up for "voluntary income management". The Ilparpa women had heard this payment was being offered to other people and dismissed it as a "bribe". But it’s a lot of money for any struggling family. There was no Warlpiri interpreter available, so May talked straight for herself. "I want cash. BasicsCard is rubbish. I am a non-drinker and I don’t gamble, I’m a Christian woman." This began a 15 minute tug of war, with the Centrelink officer pulling out several stops to try and convince May to stay on the card. He turned around his computer to show May the list of "essential items" she could spend her BasicsCard on. "I get paid wages, but I have to buy clothes and food too. See, it’s no different. It’s like we’re all on income management really." "I want cash," she kept insisting. "I’ve worked with communities for 25 years," he was talking to me now. "People come under a lot of pressure to hand their money over to their family." May said, "I can look after my money. I don’t give it out. I need cash." He tried one last angle, "well if you come off the system, we won’t be able to pay your rent anymore." Before income management, many Aboriginal people had their rent deducted directly from Centrelink under a voluntary system called Centrepay. Apparently, this is no longer an option. Asking questions, we found out that you can arrange direct deduction by talking with NT Housing. But Centrelink will not assist to make these arrangements -- unless you stay on the BasicsCard. Worn down by the argument, the Centrelink staffer did not actually know how to take May off the system. It took three staff crowded around his computer for another 15 minutes before everything was sorted. One was a supervisor, who asked the Centrelink officer if he was sure May wasn’t "vulnerable". Pensioners assessed by front-line Centrelink staff as being "vulnerable to financial exploitation" can be kept on the new system against their will. Racist assumptions about Aboriginal people being unable to look after their money continue to underpin income management. Two other Ilparpa pensioners were not as lucky as May with their negotiations and are still on the card. I interviewed Biddy when we got back to Ilparpa camp. Biddy is very elderly and can’t walk without a frame because of a recent operation on her leg. When you went to Centrelink today, what did you tell them? I told them I want to cancel that BasicsCard. I want cash. But they said, 'no, no, no, no'. The lady told me, 'we can’t cancel this BasicsCard'. Why did she say that? She said it’s because of the bonus. And also the rent. What did she say about the bonus? That it’s $250 every six months. But did you want the bonus, or did you want to get cash? No, I wanted cash. I don’t like the BasicsCard. Why didn’t she listen to you? Because I’m a cripple person. I’ll try again next week. I also accompanied Lydia during her Centrelink interview. She has serious hearing problems and struggles to understand English. We were told that she had "volunteered" for income management at a previous appointment on September 1. Once you "volunteer" you can’t come off for at least 13 weeks. Despite having no recollection of her "decision", Lydia now has to go through a formal appeals process to be taken off the BasicsCard. The appeal is being processed in Tasmania. The Centrelink officer was most apologetic. After checking Lydia’s record, it was revealed she was actually the officer who had "volunteered" Lydia two weeks previous. On Saturday, I saw my friend Donald at a service station and explained the ordeal to him. He receives a disability pension and lives at another town camp. Donald is very confident and fluent in English. But he, too, had to argue hard with Centrelink to be taken off the BasicsCard: "They kept telling me it was good for me. That I was doing really well with my finances since being on the card. They’ve got no idea. I’ve had that much trouble with bills since they took control. "I can speak up for myself. But the others, they’ve got no chance."

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11 thoughts on “Business as usual under Labor’s ‘new’ income management

  1. Darren Gilchrist

    Shame Australia. Shame.

  2. Lorna

    So I gather you would all prefer for them to be given “food stamps” in stead. clearly people of all races and colour who have a history of mismanagement of tax payer funded income should have their income “managed”. If you don’t like it, how about earning your own money for a change.

  3. Robert

    If it’s so good for people, let’s run a pilot programme for for the public service – starting with Centrelink NT offices

  4. Jon Altman

    Lorna, I am not sure that you read Paddy’s story properly, these three people are pensioners who according to Australian law are now allowed to control their own pension income in the Northern Territory. Despite a number of inducements to stay on BasicsCard they seem to want to exercise a choice to exit income management and manage their own pension income like other Australians do. I think that Paddy’s observations are very important because they show an institutional reluctance to allow the new income management laws to work in new ways. This may just be ‘path dependency’ but it may also reflect unintended institutional barriers to return to the old system. Next time Minister Macklin’s office issues a media release on how many pensioners have chosen to remain with income management and the Basics Card re-read this story, Paddy has done us all a service with an alternate narrative (not the only one) from community.

  5. huffnpuff

    bloody disgraceful , not every body waste their money ,

    this so un fair to all in concern

    the goverment is using your land for nucular waste ,

    have the leased this land from the traditional land owners

    the goverment just gave the Aslyum Seekers $100,000.00 dollars in compensation and their was 50 of them, that received this money in the last 2 years.

    and the goverment make these people the aboriginal people have a basic card to live from ,

    shame shame shame on the goverment

  6. Mr Squid

    jenny macklin. a howard racist to the last.

  7. Liz45

    @LORNA – I’m a pensioner. I’m entitled to a single aged pension. I live in a NSW Dept of Housing unit. I can nominate to have my rent deducted each fortnight. I’m a non-indigenous woman. May should have the same rights as me – if not, I want to know why, and when they’re going to stop this blatant racist behaviour. The patronising, paternalistic crap dished out by the bloke at Centrelink is a bloody disgrace, and any fair minded person who agrees with him is encouraging racism. It must stop! May is entitled to manage her pension as I manage mine. Centrelink could conduct courses for those people who may have difficulties budgeting, as they’ve done before, and stopped in other cases even though it was popular. The difference is, it is voluntary!

    What this govt and Howard before them is doing, is bringing back the bully beef, tea, sugar and flour rations of last century. Sometimes the tea and sugar was mixed up when they got it. We have given an indertaking in recent times, that we’ll abide by the UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. If we don’t intend to do it in practice, we should stand up and say so, instead of grand standing publicly, and then putting racist and patronising practices into action. It’s disgusting and demeaning, and should stop!

    What a bloody insult for the bloke at Centrelink to imply that he and May were the same. I bet he gets heaps more than a lousy $701 per fortnight???

  8. Denial_skeptic

    @Lorna, do the mathematics and tell me how hard done by you are personally by those that receive welfare. If you are in a position to criticise people having their income managed for them, you have not been sufficiently marginalised to understand how much of a violation it is. Also, one could argue, by your logic, that the government should step in and allow only those that can afford private health care to smoke cigarettes: $1094.4 million of medical costs were attributable to tobacco related illness in 99-98. Where do you want to draw the line at Government intervention? Stop projecting onto and demonising people that do not deserve it. Be consistent and show some informed discussion instead of trolling with blanket condemnations (my two cents).

  9. Liz45

    @DENIAL_SKEPTIC – Good for you. It makes me really mad. Racism is the greatest cause of ill health in my view. Fancy spending every day of your life while being demeaned and insulted. Parents have to see their kids bashed up and demoralised by racist taunts. No wonder their life expectancy is much lower than non-indigenous people. Lorna should stop listening to shock jocks, reading msm and educate herself. She could start with ABS, Black Deaths in Custody report, Bringing them Home report on the Stolen Generations, and read some books! Might enlighten her!

    Jenny Macklin is a disgrace and a huge disappointment! How depressing! I had hopes……..I can only imagine how demoralised aboriginal people must feel! Such high hopes, and more of the same!
    I understand there’s money in the NT courtesy of the Fed Govt.-Brand new 4 Whell drive Toyotas and homes for govt beaurecrats-not much for the ‘ordinary’ people though!

  10. Elan

    On Crikey at least, there is a fair degree of understanding and compassion.

    The Lorna’s of this country are in abundance. At least she had the guts to post an opposing view.
    Such folk have no perception of any system/decision/situation ….until they are affected.

    It is simply-‘we pay you; we own you’. Not a one with this view would sit quietly in the same circumstances,-though of course they will deny it.

    You are disgusted by this my fellow posters???-then get involved. An SA fiercely Independent, MP Nick Xenophon (and fighter for the downtrodden…….) voted WITH the Government.

    I took him on at a public forum-and had a coffee with him a few days later to discuss IM. (I have worked with Nick when he was a State MP. I know him).

    It was a good catch-up on many levels;-but not on IM. I was astonished and hugely disappointed at the rationale he had used to justify his decision. It was abundantly clear that this ‘independent’ had accepted advice from those who were promoting IM….ONLY. His own Hansard speech to the House referred to the ‘many approaches I have received imploring me NOT to support this Bill’ (not verbatim).

    (Just over 90 submissions were received by Government on the extension of the scheme. From private citizens;-and from organisations like Anglicare/Red Cross etc., in other words highly experienced-and in many cases; ‘coal-face’ involved bodies.

    88…..88! were against this vile programme. They were all ignored).

    These submissions mattered little to those who were hell-bent in finding an easy solution to societal problems in many of these communities.

    God Forbid they they spend money on targeted assistance schemes. The Lorna’s of this world are only too happy to have massive amounts of taxpayer funds spent on this programme.

    Somebody stop me!

    If nothing is done about this-make no mistake the Salvo’s catch cry of ‘down every street, knock on every door’ WILL happen to someone close to you.

    Governments do not want more control as such, (just my opinion). What they want is easy options. What they seek at State/Federal level is (ironically) money saving programmes.

    They want to squander money on what they see as important. (Like a new Sports Stadium-SA).

    That a compassionate independent MP chose to take advice of Noel Pearson’s view of Indigenous peoples’ ‘victimhood’ stance; is an outrage.

    Mr Pearson is hardly ‘playmate of the month’ in MOST indigenous communities. And it is NOT because he tells the truth,-it is because he promotes his view of the truth-which needless to say was most appealing to the Howard Government-and now their facsimile!

    Posting here is great. But if you want to do something about this;-start protesting NOW!

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