September 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Green Card

By Kathy Marks
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Income Management in Bankstown

Brick-red coat buttoned up tightly against the wind whistling down Meredith Street, Pam Batkin grabs an armful of leaflets and accosts a woman exiting the Bankstown Centrelink office. “Did they talk to you about income management?” she asks, for the umpteenth time that day. “It’s supposed to help people manage their money, but we don’t think it’s a very good idea.”

To most Australians, income management – also known as ‘welfare quarantining’ – is associated with Alice Springs and the remote Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory. Lately, though, this contentious form of social engineering has migrated from the desert into the suburbs, with local government areas such as Bankstown, a disadvantaged slab of south-western Sydney, among the most recent targets.

Bankstown, one of Australia’s most ethnically diverse spots, is among the five trial sites where, since 1 July, some welfare recipients have had 50–70% of their benefits ring-fenced onto a ‘BasicsCard’. It is also where opposition to the program has been most vocal, with community organisations, trade unions and church groups waging a campaign of resistance.

In July, a two-week “vigil” was staged outside Centrelink by volunteers including Batkin, the executive officer of Woodville Community Services. Leaflets had been printed in Arabic, Vietnamese and Mandarin – but Batkin could only shrug apologetically at the slender young Ethiopian who asked her, hopefully: “Amharic?” “I think they speak something like seventy languages in Bankstown,” she sighed. (In fact it’s 127, with Arabic second after English, thanks to the large Lebanese population.)

The aim of income management, introduced initially as part of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, aka the federal intervention, is to ensure that children are properly fed, clothed and housed. But since the BasicsCard can only be used on essentials, such as groceries and medicine, and expressly not to buy alcohol, cigarettes or lottery tickets, there is a belief it can also help address addiction-related social problems. Opponents say the quarantining of welfare is too blunt an instrument for that purpose. They also claim it makes life harder for people who are already struggling, and they object to the expense – over the next four years it will cost $117.5 million to administer in Bankstown, Shepparton (Victoria), Playford (South Australia) and Logan and Rockhampton (Queensland).

Whether it works is not yet clear. Proponents cite a survey in Western Australia, where it has been trialled in the Kimberley and dozens of Perth suburbs, in which 60% of those questioned thought it had “made their life better”. However, a recent report for the Parliamentary Library highlighted “an absence of adequate data related to the effectiveness or otherwise of income management”. If this latest trial is judged a success, the program is likely to be extended to other districts, although Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, maintains it will not be implemented nationwide. So far, it has spread with minimal public debate – which sociologist Eva Cox attributes to the fact that “since [it] started as a targeted Aboriginal program, other sectors of the population assumed it had nothing to do with ‘people like us’.”

In Bankstown, three categories of people are in Macklin’s sights: those deemed by Centrelink to be financially “vulnerable” – who are behind with the rent, for instance, and in danger of losing their public housing; those referred by a child protection officer because their children are considered neglected or at risk; and those who volunteer. Multiculturalism, though, adds another dimension to the debate. A hop across the railway line from Centrelink is Chapel Road South, packed with halal butchers, Korean greengrocers, Vietnamese bakeries and fishmongers, Lebanese sweet shops, noodle and pho bars and herbal pharmacies. There are women haggling over durians and bundles of bok choy, schoolchildren munching on sticks of fresh sugarcane, and barbecued chickens dangling in the window of the Big Hong Kong Garden restaurant. Outside a cafe near the Love and Unity African Hairdressing Salon, three stubble-chinned men slap cards on the table while arguing loudly in Arabic.

If your income is quarantined, you can’t shop on Chapel Road South, at least not with a BasicsCard. Coles, Woolworths and other large chains dominate the list of 83 Bankstown businesses approved to accept the card, with the only ‘ethnic’ shops being two Asian groceries.

Shanna Langdon, who runs a micro-credit project at the Metro Migrant Resource Centre, says: “It contributes to social exclusion, because you can’t shop where your community shops. These are people who already feel isolated, who might have come here as refugees, and it’s cutting them off from a way of connecting back to their culture.” The stigma associated with the bright green card is another concern. “When people use this special card, everyone sees them just like second-class citizens,” says Angela Zhang, a community worker with Asian Women at Work, referring to the experiences of some cardholders in the Northern Territory. “They feel shame, like they put something here” – she taps her forehead – “saying you can’t manage money, you’re stupid, you use drugs or you got some problem.”

The five trial locations were chosen because of their high levels of unemployment and long-term welfare dependency. In Bankstown, however, many are convinced the area’s notoriety played a part. “We were an easy target – we already had a tarnished reputation,” insists Randa Kattan, head of the Arab Council Australia, spearing a piece of grilled haloumi in a shopping centre cafe. Kattan ticks off the gang rapes, the Cronulla riots and the drive-by shootings, all involving Lebanese locals. Now, she says, thanks to income management – and thanks to the deputy mayor, Allan Winterbottom, who recently blamed the jobless rate (11.7% in some areas) on one particular nationality’s “cultural traits” – prejudices are being reinforced. As another local puts it: “They knew people would say, ‘Yeah, there’s a lot of Lebs there, and they’re rorting the system.’”

Cynics suggest that, rather than to single out any one group, welfare quarantining is being implemented in non-Aboriginal areas to dispel the whiff of racial bias. For her part, Macklin says she has “seen how helpful income management has been for families in other parts of the country”. Her spokesman adds: “We’re extending it to other areas because we think it works.”

Kathy Marks
Kathy Marks is the Sydney-based Asia–Pacific correspondent for the Independent. She is the author of Lost Paradise: From Mutiny on the Bounty to a Modern-Day Legacy of Sexual Mayhem, the Dark Secrets of Pitcairn Island Revealed. @kathymarksoz

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