Racism as usual under Labor’s ‘new’ Income Management system

[Aboriginal News] from Les Malezer

Racism as usual under Labor’s ‘new’ Income Management system

By Paddy Gibson

Last Friday, September 17, I went into Centrelink with some elderly ladies from Ilparpa town camp on the southern fringe of Alice Springs.

The Ilparpa ladies have been staunch opponents of the Intervention since it began in 2007 and marched at the front of numerous protest rallies.

May, who is 76 years old, asked me to come and sit in at her interview with the Centrelink officer. Fluent in a number of Aboriginal languages, she speaks only broken English.

The man behind the counter was friendly.

“How can I help you today May?”


“You want to check your balance on your BasicsCard?”

“No, the BasicsCard is no good. I want to stop.”

“Oh your BasicsCard isn’t working. No worries I’ll get you a new one”.

There are so many problems with BasicsCards not working that Centrelink hand replacements out like lollies.

He came back with a shiny new card, gave May a form to sign (which she did) and got her to punch her preferred pin number into the computer.

“OK that’s it today then?”

I said, “Excuse me, but isn’t there a new system operating? Perhaps you could get an interpreter to explain to May what her rights are if she wants to come off the BasicsCard?”

“Look I’m just not doing that any more. Only two of the 30 or so people I asked actually came off, because if they stay on they get a bonus.”

He was referring to a $250 ‘incentive’ payment that pensioners will get every 6 months if they decide to sign up for ‘Voluntary Income Management’. The Ilparpa ladies had heard this payment was being offered to other people and dismissed it as a ‘bribe’. But it’s a lot of money for any struggling family.

There was no Warlpiri interpreter available, so May talked straight for herself.

“I want cash. BasicsCard is rubbish. I am a non-drinker and I don’t gamble, I’m a Christian woman.”

This began a 15 minute tug of war, with the Centrelink officer pulling out a number of stops to try and convince May to stay on the card.

He turned around his computer to show May the list of ‘essential items’ she could spend her BasicsCard on.

“I get paid wages, but I have to buy clothes and food too. See, it’s no different. It’s like we’re all on Income Management really.”

“I want cash,” she kept insisting.

“I’ve worked with communities for 25 years,” he was talking to me now. “People come under a lot of pressure to hand their money over to their family.”

May said, “I can look after my money. I don’t give it out. I need cash.”

He tried one last angle, “Well if you come off the system, we won’t be able to pay your rent anymore.”

Before Income Management, many Aboriginal people had their rent deducted directly from Centrelink under a voluntary system called ‘Centrepay’. Apparently this is no longer an option.

Asking questions, we found out that you can arrange direct deduction by talking with NT Housing. But Centrelink will not assist to make these arrangements – unless you stay on the BasicsCard.

Worn down by the argument, the Centrelink staffer did not actually know how to take May off the system. It took three staff crowded around his computer for another 15 minutes before everything was sorted.

One was a supervisor, who asked the Centrelink officer if he was sure May wasn’t ‘vulnerable’.

Pensioners assessed as being ‘vulnerable’ to ‘financial exploitation’ by frontline Centrelink staff can be kept on the new system against their will. Racist assumptions about Aboriginal people being unable to look after their money continue to underpin Income Management.

Two other Ilparpa pensioners were not as lucky as May with their negotiations and are still on the card.

I interviewed Biddy when we got back to Ilparpa camp. Biddy is very elderly and can’t walk without a frame.

When you went to Centrelink today, what did you tell them?

I told them I want to cancel that BasicsCard. I want cash. But they said, ‘No, no, no, no’. The lady told me, ‘We can’t cancel this BasicsCard’.

Why did she say that?

She said it’s because of the bonus. And also the rent.

What did she say about the bonus?

That it’s $250 every six months.

But did you want the bonus, or did you want to get cash?

No I wanted cash. I don’t like the BasicsCard.

Why didn’t she listen to you?

Because I’m a cripple person. I’ll try again next week.

I also accompanied Lydia during her Centrelink interview. She has serious hearing problems and struggles to understand English. We were told that she had ‘volunteered’ for Income Management at a previous appointment on September 1.

Once you ‘volunteer’ you can’t come off for at least 13 weeks. Despite having no recollection of her ‘decision’, Lydia now has to go through a formal appeals process to be taken off the BasicsCard. The appeal is being processed in Tasmania.

The Centrelink officer was most apologetic. After checking Lydia’s record, it was revealed she was actually the officer who had ‘volunteered’ Lydia two weeks previous.

On Saturday, I saw my friend Donald at the service station and explained the ordeal to him. He receives a disability pension and lives at another town camp. Donald is very confident and fluent in English. But he too had to argue hard with Centrelink to be taken off the BasicsCard:

“They kept telling me it was good for me. That I was doing really well with my finances since being on the card. They’ve got no idea. I’ve had that much trouble with bills since they took control”.

“I can speak up for myself. But the others, they’ve got no chance.”

Centrelink have been telling Aboriginal organisations here in Alice Springs that 70 per cent of Aboriginal pensioners in Tennant Creek and the Barkly region have actually ‘volunteered’ to stay on the new Income Management system.

After our experiences on Friday, I’m genuinely amazed that 30 per cent managed to escape.

$350 million is being spent over the next four years on Income Management in the NT alone. A reasonable slice of this must be being spent on marketing. Alice Springs Centrelink is full of advertisements promising good health, pride and happiness for those on the BasicsCard.

Labor’s new system of Income Management has been progressively rolling out across the Northern Territory since the start of August.

The new system is allegedly ‘non-discriminatory’, applying to all welfare recipients across the NT and potentially Australia.

It was also supposed to soften the grip of Income Management on ‘prescribed’ NT Aboriginal communities. On paper, people on aged and disability pensions are now exempt.

Implementation of these reforms, however, has just meant one more round of racist, humiliating interaction with government bureaucracy for communities suffering under the Intervention. Centrelink are doing all they can to keep Aboriginal people on the system.

(Paddy Gibson is a researcher at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, University of Technology, Sydney. He is currently working in Central Australia.)

One thought on “Racism as usual under Labor’s ‘new’ Income Management system

  1. Robbie Bowden says:

    Hi, I’m a whitefella and have been told that I am now eligible for income management. (yay!)

    I do have some understanding of law and responded to the Centrelink letter called a Notice of Decision. That basically means that if you do not dispute in the correct legal manner, it is taken that you have consented to the income management regime. I faxed back a Notice of Objection to Consent.

    The Social Security (Administration ) Act 1999, (notice year of Act) cannot be beaten.

    It has to go to higher laws, the Constitution. You need a copy of The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth by Quick and Garran. Available from http://upmart.biz/

    Section 51. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government with respect to:-

    ss.163. “With Other Countries and Among the States.”

    Limits of The Commerce Power-…..cannot invade the domain occupied by the internal trade and commerce of a state.

    Control of Domestic Commerce of States- The control of the trade and commerce, which begins and ends in a state, and which does not cross its limits, is reserved exclusively to the State; it is beyond Federal control, and the right of regulating it. In each state, belongs to state alone.

    Sec.99 The Commonwealth shall not, by any law or regulation of trade, commerce, or revenue, give preference to one State or any part thereof over another State or any part thereof.

    ss.412 “the Commonwealth Shall Not”
    This prohibition is directed not only against the Parliament of the Commonwealth, but against the Commonwealth itself-in which word is included every department of the public service of the Commonwealth. ( this means Centrelink)

    ss.414 “Give Preference”
    The object of this prohibition is to prevent favortism and partiality in commercial and other kindred regulations. As any law which gives a preference is in contravention of this section will be unconstitutional, and therefore void,… A preference is a discrimination considered in relation to the PERSON or State in whose favour such discrimination is……..;in the case of the Commonwealth, every preference whatever is forbidden by the Constitution itself, irrespective of injustice or unreasonableness.

    It is clear that the Indigenous population of the NT have been discriminated and Indigenous people interstate have been prefernced. Now all NT social security recipients, who meet the terms under Sec. 3B Social Security ( Administration) Act 1999, will be discriminated against while interstate recipients will be prefernced. That breaches Sec.99 My income is used for trade and commerce.

    The income Management Regime does not meet Sec. 51…….laws for peace, order and good government. Statistics show that the income management regime is having a dire effect rather than a positive effect. I manage my money quite well and it is BAD government to intervene on unrelated terms other than I have a problem with managing my money. It is my right to receive entirety of my payment in my nominated bank account. The government may have the right to create laws regarding the management of my income, but I also have the right not to consent to unconstitutional laws as they are invalid and void. You do not have my consent in the decision to manage my income.

    Find out tomorrow if it goes anywhere.

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