Australia: Failed ‘welfare quarantine’ measures to be extended

Attacks first tested on Aboriginal population now implemented on all

Welfare quarantine measures, introduced as part of the racist “Northern Territory Intervention”, are now to be spread to other parts of Australia. These measures will stigmatise up to 20,000 people, forcing them to shop at “government approved” shops, purchase only “priority items”, and face the prospect being segregated into separate queues under an apartheid-style system.

The Socialist Party opposed the introduction of welfare quarantining when it was imposed on Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory (NT) as part of the horrendously racist ‘intervention’. (see previous article on Now we oppose the expansion of this discriminatory policy. We warned that the NT would be used as a “testing ground” before these attacks were spread to other areas of Australia.

Welfare recipients deemed to be “financially vulnerable” will have 50 – 70% of their income quarantined onto a “basics card”. This is despite the negative effects these measures have had in the NT. The government has made the decision to expand the policy before an evaluation of the NT programme. It will be implemented in selected regions before being rolled out across the country.

The decision of who is subjected to welfare quarantining, or in the government’s sanitised language “income management”, is in the hands of Centrelink, the Australian government’s welfare agency. Researchers in the NT have criticised the selection process, noting that judgements have been “heavily influenced by prejudice”.

The scheme will have a negative impact on those subjected to this discriminatory policy but be a boon for big business. This is because the process for getting government approval as a retailer for the scheme is arduous and out of reach for all but the major supermarkets. As a result, basics card holders will be forced to shop at one of the two major supermarket chains, losing access to small retailers that sell traditional foods or items in bulk.

In one of the most damning aspects of the scheme, people on the basics card have been forced to line up in separate queues, conjuring up the image of South Africa’s apartheid regime.

In addition to the blatant discrimination and humiliation of this scheme, it has, unsurprisingly, not resulted in any positive outcomes. Many people have been forced to travel long distances to find stores that accept the BasicsCard. For some this has meant a choice between living in third world conditions in their own country, or abandoning their homelands just to survive.

In a further sign welfare quarantining does not work, a damning report from last year detailed that almost all areas of social well being such as child malnutrition, health and violence had gone backwards under the NT Intervention.

This is unsurprising as the main driver of social problems, such as alcoholism and violence, is inequality and poverty, i.e. a lack of jobs with decent pay, and lack of access to services and other basic infrastructure. Quarantining a portion of already insultingly low welfare payments does nothing to address this.

We must demand that the government provide a decent level of assistance to people out of work rather than attack people on welfare. We should also demand a programme of public works in order to create jobs in areas such as social services and renewable energy, to give just two examples. This would require the taking into democratic public ownership the main pillars of the economy.

In the final analysis the only way to undermine the social ills created by the capitalist system is to fight for a democratic socialist future.

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September 2011