Income quarantining has become part of life for welfare recipients in the NT. Originally it was part of the Federal Intervention, rolled out by Howard and his pet bulldog Mal Brough in 2007. Its aim was to prevent welfare money being spent on alcohol and cigarettes, rather than food, and on preventing ‘humbugging’ (demands for money from family members). It worked by quarantining 50 percent of a person’s welfare payment into a barter card, which could only be used at selected shops.
There were complaints and protests about the intervention and the notion of welfare quarantining to no effect. Soon stories began to circulate: a local community shop, where the profits went back into the community forced to close down because it couldn’t become an authorised barter card business. Indigenous people having to charter light planes, or get a taxi hundreds of kilometres, simply to shop. People arriving at checkouts with a trolley full of food only to find the barter card system had failed and they couldn’t buy anything, meaning days stuck in town trying to sort it out. The film NT Intervention: Katherine highlights just some of these issues.
There was hope with the election of the ALP and Kevin Rudd’s apology that things might change, that the intervention might be wound back. Yet the ALP persisted with the intervention and income quarantining – which had always been a Liberal Party dream – and it’s now ALP policy.
The Indigenous Affairs minister, Jenny Macklin, trumpeted the success of income quarantining with no more evidence than her gut feeling, pointedly ignoring the results of a study by the respected Menzies School of Health that showed there’d been no increase in the consumption of healthy food by people whose welfare had been quarantined.
In fact, she was so hypnotised by her own hype that she announced from June 2010 income management would extend to all welfare recipients in the NT. This was a strategic decision to counter accusations of racial discrimination that were levelled at the Liberal party, when it was in power, and Labor, when it declined to roll back the intervention. Labor didn’t want to be seen to be endorsing a policy that quarantined only the income of Indigenous welfare recipients. Heavens above, that’d be racist! And the ALP’s not a racist party – after all, Kevin Rudd apologised to all Indigenous people for their treatment at the hands of the white invaders. It was far better to quarantine the income of all welfare recipients in the NT than make income quarantining voluntarily.
And so income quarantining became reality in the NT, with no fanfare and not much in the way of protest. Tony Abbott, now that his party’s plan had been stolen by Labor, took a leap to the extreme right (which was the only place he could go as Labor had been goose-stepping to the right for years) and proposed the abolishment of the unemployment benefits for people living in areas of high employment and mooted forcing people to move to areas of high employment to find work.
The rhetoric around income management has always been about ‘helping’ people on benefits feed and look after themselves, as if being on the dole is a disease that impairs your ability to manage your income and look after yourself. The question to ask is, who is it really helping?
When income management was only targeted at Indigenous people, the local community shops lost out and the larger supermarkets gained. This trend continues, especially in the Darwin area and other places with a thriving local produce market scene.
As the barter card can only be used at selected supermarkets (noticeably the big two), and shops, people are forced to buy their ‘fresh food’ at authorised barter card businesses. This rules out the local markets, which operate on a strictly cash basis. Most of the ‘fresh food’ at the supermarkets in Darwin has been trucked in from Brisbane or other Southern destinations. It’s been sprayed with all manner of concoctions to help it survive the long haul in darkened refrigerator trucks and is sold at extraordinarily high prices. In Darwin, bananas (from QLD) were $12 per kilo at the local supermarket and $5 at Rapid Creek Market (locally grown).
The local farmers grow foods that suit the tropical climate: okra, snake-beans, winged beans, sour sops, jackfruit, Ceylon Spinach, etc. The big two supermarkets don’t sell these foods. They sell food grown down south: apples, broccoli, carrots, pears, etc, all highly priced. Incidentally, when buying food from the local markets as opposed to the supermarket, a consumer can cut their food bill by half.
By forcing welfare recipients to use a barter card the government is forcing people on a low income to spend more money to buy less food of lower quality. It’s hard to see how this is going to help anyone, aside from the supermarkets. What’s even more ironic is that the government has been whinging about the food wars between the two major supermarket chains – cut price milk and bread sending producers to the wall while the supermarkets rub their hands in glee. All income quarantining and the barter card is doing is pouring cash into the bulging pockets of Coles and Woolworths, cash taken from local farmers that ensures people on welfare eat less food of worse quality.
Once income quarantining is rolled out across the country, the revenue of the major supermarket chains will increase by, potentially, hundreds of thousands of dollars. The plethora of local markets and farmer’s markets, which have sprung up over the years to give people good quality food at good prices, will suffer, as will consumers.
It’s hard to see why the Labor government is so keen to reward the major supermarket chains, who have done nothing to justify such largesse, on the basis of an unsuccessful policy. One has to wonder if there have been some hefty donations going Labor’s way from these supermarket giants over the past few years.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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