• Healthy Welfare Card, dubbed "The White Card". (Supplied)Source: Supplied
The people of Kununurra face an ethical dilemma: is reducing the access to harmful substances for the most vulnerable a conscientious decision, or a violation of basic freedoms?
Craig Quartermaine

10 Oct 2016 - 1:11 PM  UPDATED 11 Oct 2016 - 10:21 AM

The horrors of substance abuse are undeniable in the East Kimberley, where alcohol related violence and suicide rates are among the highest in the country.

In response, the Federal Government implemented a cashless debit card system in Kununurra and Wyndham that restricts residents receiving welfare payments from being able to purchase certain products, particularly alcohol.

Similar trials and schemes have been rolled out in the past. A notable example was the Northern Territory’s Basics Card system, which caused division within the community, with Warmun residents rejecting the proposed trial. 

Kimberly residents have also had a mixed reception to the new system.

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Kununurra resident Beverley Walley leads a local group opposing the trial. She argues the measure implies “telling the Indigenous person how to spend their money.”

Ms Walley was one of the key organisers of a community gathering in March at Kununurra’s White Gum Park. She believes the restriction of funds will be unfavourable and worsen the community’s current situation. “It’s going to cause more problems and issues with families,” she says.

Ian Trust, CEO of The Wunan Aboriginal Corporation, one of the region’s biggest employers, is one of the trial’s biggest supporters. His decision to support the cashless debit card system is a result of the frustration of battling substance the abuse within the community.

Mr Trust told NITV: “We keep telling people if there is a better way to try and bring about change, then please come and tell us. We’ve been trying for the last 50 years.”

Despite the potential ‘benefits’ that come with the card, some argue the measure is a simplistic blanket approach to solve a complicated issue, in an area where one size does not fit all.

Gailene Chulung, a carer receiving benefits to look after her mother, has now been placed on “The White Card”, as locals call it. Ms Chulung is just one of a dozen people who spoke to NITV about being on the card, as few individuals are willing to speak openly about it. Ms Chulung says the system has caused a lot of stress to members of the community who now find themselves restricted under new the system.

She told NITV that the first three months on the card have been harrowing. She has now resorted to borrowing money from her elderly mother to complete some already personally stressful tasks, like sending her incarcerated son money for toiletries.

The emotional toll for people who’ve been placed on the cashless debit card is obvious for people who feel unprepared to tackle the system’s parameters, and for those who believe they shouldn’t have been put in the system in the first place.

Ms Chulung says that since the start of the trial she doesn’t feel motivated “to get up in the morning anymore. I’m living on my payday”.

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Leaders from across the Kimberley joined together at the Kimberley Futures meeting earlier this year in Kununurra to discuss the importance of talking action, whilst maintaining inclusion.

Renowned Foetal Alcohol Syndrome researcher June Oscar is one of many leaders advocating for communities to be better supported and informed about the new systems being implemented. She feels if people remain informed, the anxiety around measures like a cashless debit card can be averted.

“We can avoid the negative feelings and impacts by engaging with people and saying to them, ‘we’re in a crisis. It is complex now, and what are your thoughts about this?’” Ms Oscar says.

Nolan Hunter from the Kimberley Land Council believes that one of the problems is that authorities failed to uphold the basic human rights of those in the Kimberley. He says they should have held free information sessions beforehand, and should have obtained informed consent prior to starting the trial, as prescribed by the United Nations.

Speaking about measures like the cashless debit card trial, Mr Hunter added “people (should) have sufficient information and sufficient time to consider and properly know and be fully informed before they make a decision.”

So, do the ends of the cashless debit card justify the means? By that gauge, with the 6-month trial now completed, the success of this strategy will be measured by how much alcohol related health and social issues have been reduced, compared to the isolation some may feel being placed on this card.

As the leaders of this community repeatedly state, there is no easy solution.

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