The story goes that Che Guevara, after a year of exhausting fighting in the jungles of the Congo, where he had been trying to spark socialist revolution, packed up the whole effort after a Congolese revolutionary accused him of playing Tarzan, a white hero swinging into save the poor blacks.
Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, Fortescue minerals supremo, makes an unlikely Che Guevara. But he appears to have caught more than a touch of Tarzan syndrome after years of offering his assistance to Aboriginal people. Forrest is currently barnstorming around Canberra and Sydney, spruiking the cashless welfare card, with a film of chaos on the streets at night in some Aboriginal communities. Anyone suggesting the cashless card isn’t a magic cure to social ills is getting a serve — such as the Greens, whom Forrest has called “the party for paedophiles”.
This isn’t new. Forrest — let’s drop this cutesy “Twiggy” stuff — first came to prominence in indigenous affairs, swinging in on a vine, to announce that he would create 50,000 jobs in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, and thus create a firm employment base for Aboriginal people across remote territories. The 50,000 jobs promise was being made at the same time as hundreds of Aboriginal-held jobs were being destroyed by the Intervention, and its Labor-implemented aftermath, during which white managers took over what had been local roles. Trumpeted endlessly in News Corp, the 50,000 jobs have now disappeared.
Somewhere along the way, Forrest appears to have decided that a major problem is not an absence of opportunity to work, but an absence of will among Aboriginal people, created by a combination of substance abuse and welfare dependency. So he has swung round hard to a campaign of behavioural micromanagement, using cashless welfare cards.
The cashless cards are currently being trialed in Ceduna and the East Kimberley. They sequester 80% of a user’s welfare income on the card, making it impossible to use it for anything other than food and other basics, and usable only in high-priced local community stores.
The government has hailed the trials as a great success, with minister Alan Tudge — yes, him again — pointing to a commissioned report that says that a third of those subject to the card had drunk or gambled less than they would otherwise have. But as Elise Klein has made clear in The Conversation, the government has cherry-picked the report it itself commissioned. Firstly, the report doesn’t establish that those who reduced their consumption of such were problem consumers. Secondly, 49% of those surveyed said the card had made their lives worse, and 20% said it had made their children’s lives worse.
To the surprise of no one, the Indue cashless card roll-out and application has been beset with the same problems attending that other Tudge-led triumph, Centrelink debt “recovery”. The card was introduced into societies with problems of educational levels and low digital literacy, but it required a complicated set-up, via card or app. Like all such systems, it gives merchants the power to rip off customers. It interrupts patterns of sharing and co-operation, and, in the name of developing autonomy and responsibility, it teaches Aboriginal kids whose families use it that actual money is not for them.
The situation is made worse because it is used in conjunction with the cruel and useless Community Development Programme (CDP) work-for-the-dole scheme applied to Aboriginal people. This is a scheme that works off the same fantasy as Forrest’s 50,000 jobs promise did — that the remote North and West could work as a functioning full-employment capitalist society if the will was there, on both sides. Consequently, the CDP is a series of largely pointless busy-work, busy-training schemes for jobs that will never be there. Its conditions are worse than they are for non-remote work-for-the-dole schemes (i.e., de facto white work-for-the-dole schemes), and participants are breached relentlessly, on the slightest excuse. The harshness of the CDP regime is dictated by the ideology underlying it — that Aboriginal people must be socially and psychologically re-engineered, and once they have been remade thus, the jobs will flow, and communities will become prosperous and autonomous.
There’s a case for forms of income management, under community permission and control. But given the tepid positive results, and the very negative ones reported, the best next step would presumably be the Senate committee inquiry into the workings of the card, as proposed by the Greens.
It’s this suggestion that appears to have Forrest calling them a party supporting paedos, as he takes his fillum on a roadshow to the PM, and to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, to try and persuade her to adopt the card across NSW.
Tarzan swinging in on a vine again — and denouncing all the other people he accuses of swinging in with their own solutions. Is regional and remote-area community welfare best served by this ad-hoc process? Surely, if Forrest wants the best possible results, he will want the best possible process of assessing the results to date. After all, recent engagements with Aboriginal people haven’t gone so well — such as Native Title negotiations at Roebourne in the Pilbara, where a Fortescue deal with a splinter group would have seen $4 million in native title royalties on a project with a potential $200 million yield. That was overturned by the court, but not before the negotiations tore the community apart. Maybe Tarzan should keep swinging right on through to somewhere else, this time around.