Bankstown wary of ‘Stronger Futures’


 Originally published in Tracker Magazine. 

Aunty Noelene Holten and her daughter Kerry Holten in the centre of Bankstown.

NATIONAL: Compulsory income management is being extended into five disadvantaged centres around the country, who are ill-prepared to deal with it, writes AMY McQUIRE*.

Aunty Noelene Holten grew up on Burnt Bridge mission, two kilometres north of Kempsey.

To this day, she still remembers what life was like under a mission manager, and the extent to which her existence was controlled by the government.

She remembers the times when women didn’t touch alcohol, and the men would have it smuggled in despite the threat of penalty. She remembers how her family’s money was always controlled.

Aunty Noelene thought she had left that life behind. She has called the south-western Sydney suburb of Bankstown home since the 80s, and has been on the local council’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Board for the past 11 years.

But when news reached her that the federal government planned to inject a form of compulsory income management into Bankstown – based on the racially discriminatory Northern Territory intervention – she immediately drew parallels with the old days.

“I said to the old girls, you know what this means?,” Aunty Noelene told Tracker. “That’s going back to those mission days. Rations are being served. It really upset me when it was mentioned.

“… Even when I first heard of what was happening in the NT (under the intervention), I said to one of my kids ‘You know, they’re going through the same thing that happened to us when we were on those missions.’”

The federal government’s plans to roll out a form of income management to five disadvantaged communities across the country is contained in the three bills in the Stronger Futures package, legislation currently sitting before federal parliament.

Those five communities include Bankstown, Rockhampton (QLD), Logan (QLD), Playford (SA) and Shepparton (VIC).
Expanding the controversial scheme to the rest of the country was intended to make the NT intervention comply with the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA).

Income management has already been extended to non-Indigenous and Indigenous welfare recipients in the NT, although it still overwhelmingly affects Aboriginal Territorians. At the time of press, the Stronger Future bills were before the Senate.

The new income management differs from the NT model in the sense it does not automatically cover all welfare recipients in the designated communities.

State and territory agencies have the power to refer individuals to the scheme.

Under the measures, half of a person’s welfare payments would be quarantined for essential items like food and other necessities. In some instances up to 100 percent could be quarantined, under the minister’s discretion.

People who sign up voluntarily will receive a $250 bonus paid into their BasicsCard if they stay on the scheme for more than six months. The trial will cost $96.9 million over four years.

Aunty Noelene says her community has received little information about the proposal.

She doesn’t understand how the government can target one suburb in the sprawling city, and questions whether people will be able to use their BasicsCard outside of Bankstown. The community, she says, also has a lot of questions.

“There is not even a sign in the Centrelink office about the BasicsCard,” Aunty Noelene says. “I really hope this legislation doesn’t go through. It would really hurt. I really feel for the younger generation mostly, who won’t understand it.”

Maree O’Halloran is President of the National Welfare Rights Network, which is steadfastly opposed to the extension of compulsory income management.

The NWRN is concerned that communities haven’t been warned about the proposals. If the bills pass, income management will be introduced in those five communities by July 1st.

“We share the community’s concerns that government officials have been slow in informing local residents in Bankstown about the start date of income management, which is rapidly approaching,” Ms O’Halloran toldTracker.

“… The bottom line is that up to 1,000 people in Bankstown, and maybe more, could be placed on this policy, which essentially will interfere with where they shop and how they choose to manage their meagre Centrelink payments.

“The problem as we see it is that we haven’t seen any evidence that pensioners and unemployed people in Bankstown can’t manage their finances, and are spending their money recklessly.

“In fact, the main problem that people are telling us is that their pensions and allowances are simply not enough to meet the rising costs of food, rent and electricity.”

Just who will fall into the category of “vulnerable” also concerns the NWRN.

“The indicators of vulnerability are quite broad, so our concerns are that people who need the assistance offered by Centrelink, or need the services of a social worker, perhaps because of homelessness, or domestic violence, won’t seek the support they need for fear of being marked for income management.”

The NWRN says that child protection income management will not solve the problem, because most cases of child abuse and neglect were not due to financial vulnerability, but rather mental illness or substance abuse on behalf of one or both parents.

The NWRN’s submission to the Senate inquiry probing Stronger Futures raised concerns that the “vulnerable” category already seemed racially discriminatory.

Currently in the NT there are 179 ‘vulnerable’ welfare recipients and around 98 percent are Indigenous, says NWRN.

“Officially (the government) claims that income management ‘is non-discriminatory and operates within the bounds of the RDA’. But analysis of the exemptions data strongly suggests that at its core, the exemptions policy appears to be discriminatory in its application,” the body says.

In relation to the suburb-based income management in the five areas, if a person wants to apply for an exemption, they must first prove to Centrelink that they are not still vulnerable, or that leaving income management would not place them back in a vulnerable position.

There are also concerns surrounding transparency over the referrals process. Because it is not Centrelink that has control over referrals, rather state and territory agencies, people will not be able to go through the usual process of review.

“It removes access to independent review and appeal systems and it creates different categories of rights for people depending on how they got to be income managed,” Ms O’Halloran says.

The other problem is the fact if you are referred to income management, you still stay on it even if you move from a place like Bankstown.

“It will really surprise people to know that with income management in these five new locations, people may be tracked if they move out of one of the designated income management areas if Centrelink decides they are still vulnerable,” Ms O’Halloran says.

“That is impractical and expensive. There are also logistical problems.”

It is also still not clear how people will use their BasicsCards outside of the targeted communities if they want to shop outside of the big supermarkets like Coles, Woolworths and IGA that have signed onto the card.

Residents in Bankstown will be unlikely to be able to use them in places like op shops and other stores that do not have the proper set-up.

Ms O’Halloran says it has already been shown in the Territory that compulsory income management has been a “massive” waste of resources.

She says while Aboriginal Territorians value the extra services provided by Centrelink, it shouldn’t take an intervention to get investment.

“So far the bill for the intervention is [over $2 billion]. Meanwhile we have people waiting for an hour on the phone just to talk to Centrelink. Income management has been a funding hole that’s been soaking up all the resources.”

But with the legislation likely to pass, Ms O’Halloran says it is vital the government helps inform the people of Bankstown and the four other communities about their legal rights.

Welfare Rights workers currently in the Northern Territory also need continued funds to deal with issues around income management, she said.

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