• The Morrison government is looking to continue to roll out the cashless debit card. (Finance & Mortgage Solutions)Source: Finance & Mortgage Solutions
Opinion: More than a decade after the start of the Intervention, the policy of income management continues to fail First Nations communities, writes Rachel Siewert, Greens senator for Western Australia.
Rachel Siewert

20 Oct 2020 - 4:58 PM  UPDATED 20 Oct 2020 - 4:58 PM

People have probably heard me say this before but I’ll never forget when the Howard government announced its Northern Territory Intervention; a group of senior First Nations women from central Australia happened to be visiting Canberra. I will always remember them sitting in my office with tears streaming down their faces as they explained how they felt about it.

In 2007, the Howard government overrode the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 in order to introduce the Northern Territory Intervention. This facilitated the introduction of compulsory income management via the Basics Card which undermined the fundamental rights of First Nations peoples. The Intervention and income management were subsequently extended by the Gillard government.

I still feel a deep sense of anger and sadness at the years of anguish the Intervention has caused First Nations peoples in the Northern Territory. We should be ashamed of the many missed opportunities to address the disadvantage and injustice still suffered by First Nations peoples because our governments have wasted money on ineffective and punitive measures.

Compulsory income management, introduced as part of the initial $587 million package, quarantined 50 per cent of an individual’s income support payment onto the Basics Card in prescribed communities.

Reflecting on the effectiveness of the Basics Card, the Evaluating New Income Management in the Northern Territory: Final Evaluation Report found that compulsory income management didn’t met its objectives:

“The evaluation data does not provide evidence of income management having improved the outcomes that it was intending to have an impact upon. Indeed, rather than promoting independence and the building of skills and capabilities, New Income Management in the Northern Territory appears to have encouraged increasing dependence upon the welfare system. Across most of the evaluation criteria, we find that income management has not achieved its objectives. We have looked here at the evidence against the criteria of better outcomes, improved capabilities and appropriate targeting. Again, we report that evidence for the program having achieved its goals is absent.”

More than a decade after the start of the Intervention, the policy of income management continues to fail First Nations communities.

Despite no evidence that the Basics Card has worked, Andrew Forrest’s 2014 report Creating Parity - the Forrest review recommended a ‘Cashless Debit Card’ to “assist individual responsibility by eliminating spending on alcohol and gambling.”

In response to the report, trials of the Cashless Debit Card were subsequently supported by both major parties and we now have four trial sites with Ceduna and the East Kimberley which started in 2016, the Goldfields 2018, and Hinkler in 2019. The majority of these trials are clearly targeted at First Nations peoples.

When auditing the Cashless Debit Card trial sites, the Australian National Audit Office found that “it is difficult to conclude whether there had been a reduction in social harm.”

Despite this, these trials have been extended year after year. There is now legislation before the Federal Parliament to make these trials permanent and to expand the Cashless Debit Card to the Northern Territory.

It’s pretty infuriating to think that the government has adopted such a significant social policy when all the available evidence tells us that income management didn’t work during the Intervention and hasn’t been demonstrated to be working in the current trials. Evaluations to date have been heavily criticised by experts and the data in the depths of the reports don’t substantiate the government’s claims.

This new legislation has been introduced in the absence of the much promised second impact evaluation which was due to be published in late 2019. The Bill has also been developed without proper consultation and co-design with First Nations peoples.

These top-down policies have now essentially been entrenched based on ideology and to my knowledge, Australia remains the only place in the world that forces income management of this nature onto First Nations peoples or the broader community. While the Labor Party has now apparently changed it view – make no mistake they played an active part in entrenching this approach. They could have stopped it in 2012, they could and should have opposed the new Cashless Debit Card when it was first introduced.

We need to examine the attitudes underpinning income management that have been so complicit in entrenching a policy that is so clearly failing on its intended objectives.

The truth of the matter is that people on low incomes, including First Nations peoples, are blamed for a system that has been stacked against them from the beginning.

One of the problems I see is the paternalistic desire from governments, advisors and the business community to “fix” First Nations communities. The way the government creates parity and fixes things is by making more top down decisions and ‘doing to’ First Nations peoples.

Alcohol, addiction, and gambling which the government claims to be addressing with compulsory income management are issues that people are grappling within all parts of our community, no matter their location or socioeconomic status. Many First Nations peoples are also contending with the intersection of intergenerational trauma.

There is a continuing failure to address the structural inequalities faced by First Nations people or to acknowledge that the stealing of land and children, displacement, and racism have had lifelong consequences on First Nations communities.

Rather than tell the truth about the foundations of this country and the ongoing contemporary consequences of violence and dispossession, they push the blame and punitive measures onto communities.

Taking control of peoples’ finances from them, putting them on a card that demonises, and punishes them doesn’t work.

If the card is so great, then the government should make it optional so that people can decide if income management is right for them. This card should be scrapped.

- Rachel Siewert has been a Greens senator for Western Australia for 15 years. She is the spokesperson for Family and Community Services and the former spokesperson on First Nations issues.