Commentary by Emma Purdy
As soon as Peter Inverway began to speak, I wanted someone to tell him he didn't have to continue. His discomfort was obvious, his diverted eyes and barely audible mumble revealing his true feelings - that he'd rather be anywhere else.
For the first time in his life, Inverway had left his Aboriginal community in Gurindji in the Northern Territory, travelling first to Darwin before Sydney and Melbourne in an attempt to raise awareness about the disastrous effects of the Intervention.
He stopped to take a deep breath, noticeably trying not to let his nerves get the better of him. "I'm from Kalkaringi in the Northern Territory," he began, reading from short prepared sentences without looking up. "I live in a house with 15 other people. The rent is $210 per week. There's not enough room for all of us."
Inverway's acute embarrassment was palpable, despite the fact barely twenty people had turned up to the public meeting in Melbourne's Trades Hall on 11 June 2010. As I waited to hear his story, I felt almost ashamed to be one of the "watchers", humbled such a proud man felt compelled to do something so clearly against his nature after his community's plight had been overlooked by mainstream society for a full three years.
We were told how the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) work-for-the-dole scheme, which employed thousands of Aboriginal people, was abolished and partially reinstalled with special measures in the form of income management. Inverway worked on the new scheme, which quarantines 50 per cent of Aboriginal people's wages on a "BasicsCard" that can only be used to buy "priority items" in a handful of government approved retailers.
While work hours under the CDEP scheme are supposed to be capped at 16 per week, Inverway said many were working way beyond the limit, meaning his hourly wage in cash was just $3.70, well below the minimum wage.
"I work about 40 hours a week," he said, "Monday to Friday. I get about $200 a week." He described how thousands of people previously employed under the original scheme were unemployed. "People are walking around with nothing to do. We need real jobs, not ration cards. We need education. We need trade unions. The people in parliament need to come to the Northern Territory and see what's going on up there."
That never happened. Another two years on, those same "special measures" introduced in June 2007, ostensibly to improve life and massive overcrowding in Aboriginal communities, remain in place. What's more, despite no evidence of welfare quarantining benefiting prescribed communities, the Racial Discrimination Act was further suspended to extend compulsory welfare quarantining around the country as of this month.
In a five-year trial, the government will quarantine 50-70 per cent of welfare payments to up to 20,000 people deemed "financially vulnerable" or who have been referred by child protection authorities in five local government areas across Australia, including Bankstown in New South Wales, Greater Shepparton in Victoria, Logan and Rockhampton in Queensland, and Playford in South Australia.
With the entire Northern Territory declared an income management area, the government further categorised certain groups of welfare recipients to be quarantined, being "disengaged youth", "long-term welfare recipients" and "vulnerable welfare recipients".
This effectively means the Territory's poorest residents, largely comprising Aboriginal people, become even poorer. The BasicsCard can only be used in hub towns where the government wants Aboriginal communities to move to. Some remote communities are a three-hour drive from the nearest hub town, costing on average $120 in petrol for the journey - money people literally do not have.
Coinciding with Inverway's earlier talk in Darwin, a rally was held protesting exploitative working conditions and compounded unemployment resulting directly from the Intervention. People at the protest said they could barely afford to feed their families, saying difficulties caused by income quarantining led to greater poverty and social dislocation. Some described having to leave groceries behind due to not knowing the balance available on their card, only discoverable by calling CentreLink.
In response to the demonstration, Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, called for a departmental inquiry and for proper wages to be paid for hours worked over the 16 hour minimum stipulated under CDEP, saying she was "shocked" that people were being exploited under the new arrangements.
This was despite a national day of action against the Intervention four months previously on 13 February 2010, when thousands objected to the abolition of the CDEP for forcing Indigenous people in the Territory out of work. The government's own six-month progress report had also found that contrary to income management's purported aim to protect women and children's health, reports of domestic violence had increased by 61 percentage points, substance abuse by 77 percentage points and infant hospitalisation for malnutrition by 13 percentage points.
Moreover, a health impact assessment of the Intervention's measures released in March 2010 by the Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association found that income management actually worsened health outcomes, with feelings of powerlessness and humiliation having long-term mental health impacts. It found many measures could lead to "profound" long-term damage in children and that any potential benefits to physical health were largely outweighed by negative impacts to psychological health, social wellbeing and cultural integrity.
Aboriginal activist Barbara Shaw from Mt Nancy Town Camp in Alice Springs said the Intervention is harming children. "I was sitting with my parents the night that Minister Mal Brough and John Howard announced on national television the need for intervention to 'save women and children.' This hasn't saved women and children," she said, adding "Them taking away parents' control means the situation for children has gotten worse. More children are drinking now and smoking drugs because they don't listen to their parents anymore."
With Aboriginal people stripped of control over their lands, visitors no longer need a permit to enter communities, meaning drugs and alcohol are more easily smuggled in than before the Intervention. In addition, communities have been told they won't receive urgently needed housing unless they sign five to 40-year leases over their land.
Shaw described the Intervention laws as giving courts "the power to do whatever they want", criticising the compulsory acquisition of land as a condition to improve housing standards for Aboriginal people. "People have been threatened they will lose their lands altogether, so they're forced to sign 40-year leases just to have some control," she said.
Marisol Salinas of the Melbourne Anti-Intervention Collective similarly criticised: "The Intervention is all wrong. If people aren't involved in the process they can't have self-determination." She believes the policies are not only ineffective but are causing further problems in prescribed communities.
"Quarantining pay and taking away rights is giving people a reason to be racist. Macklin needs to wake up and realise it's not working. Anytime I hear her speak, she talks about the Intervention like it's a good thing. She needs to go there, into the communities and see that it's not working."
However, despite repeated concerns from prescribed communities over the past five years, Labor's Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill and the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill were passed through the Senate last Thursday. Not only will this continue the Intervention's policies for another 10 years, it also gives Macklin broader powers to expand compulsory income management.
Under the new legislation, parents' welfare payments may be cut for three months if their children don't attend school for five days in one term. The move is seen by many as an attack on Aboriginal culture, with many schoolchildren now unable to go out bush with their parents during the dry season due to the more punitive measures.
With people like Inverway and Shaw struggling against such conditions of hardship and division imposed on their communities, many resent the paternalistic policies as an attempt to take over Aboriginal people's lives in order to assimilate remote community residents into "hub towns".
A study for the Journal of Indigenous Policy on income management described feelings of disempowerment, indignity, resentment and anger amongst prescribed community members who said they felt "hurt, humiliated and confused" by the lack of consultation in the way the Intervention was implemented.
In particular, many reported feeling stigma and embarrassment when using the BasicsCard, with some shops segregating people into different queues under an apartheid-like system. The loss of autonomy in deciding what to buy was also viewed as degrading and shameful by implying Aboriginal people are unable to manage their lives.
Many Indigenous people were thus incensed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Closing the Gap speech last year, which urged them to take more "personal responsibility" and for "changes in behaviour".
In this year's speech delivered on 15 February, Gillard mentioned "respect" in various forms 17 times, declaring that all Australians would decide "...bound together as individuals and a nation by shared symbols of respect and practical action, listening to each other properly, what the best evidence tells us about what will make the greatest difference."
Clearly, contrary to this specious rhetoric, Gillard isn't listening at all. Until their voices are heard and their communities adequately consulted, the Intervention's failure for Aboriginal people is a surety. The only thing that remains uncertain is the full extent of the damage.