On June 21, exactly three years since the introduction of the NT Intervention, the Labor government passed legislation that will entrench and extend John Howard’s racism.
Minister Jenny Macklin describes the new laws as “reinstating the Racial Discrimination Act” (RDA). This is a lie. For the majority of Intervention measures such as the imposition of Government Business Managers, compulsory 5-year leases and alcohol bans, the new legislation maintains race-based policy and denies redress under the RDA.
In the same way as Howard and Brough’s legislation, Macklin’s laws use the language of the RDA to claim Intervention powers are “special measures”, but do not allow the use of the RDA to challenge the measures in court.
The mainstream media has virtually ignored these facts, focusing attention specifically on income management – the quarantining of 50 per cent of welfare payments onto a BasicsCard – a measure previously restricted to “prescribed” NT Aboriginal communities.
This policy is being expanded to cover people on welfare payments across the NT. References to the 73 “prescribed” Aboriginal communities will be removed from the laws, allowing the government to claim the RDA has been re-instated, but only in so far as it applies to welfare management.
Labor says that income management is about encouraging healthy eating and child nutrition. But in May, the first independent quantitative research undertaken by the Menzies School of Health, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, utterly refutes Macklin’s claims.
It shows that income management neither increased fresh healthy food consumption, nor decreased tobacco sales. The factor that did increase food sales was the one-off government stimulus payments. When people had more money they could afford more good food.
Increasing income, not controlling it, is the key to better nutrition. Macklin attempted to discredit the Menzies research. In the face of rigorous evidence she merely reasserted her own departmental “research” – a poll of 66 government controlled store owners.
Many on the left have swallowed Macklin’s attempt to hide the racism of welfare quarantining by insisting that it is now a general attack on welfare recipients. This mistake draws energy away from the urgent task of building a movement against the Intervention, by suggesting that the real focus should now be on the extension of welfare quarantining.
For instance Greens Senator Rachel Siewert has produced an A4 brochure that features a suite of photos of non-Aboriginal people, with only one mention of the fact that Aboriginal people are currently being income managed.
An email campaign from Siewert in June encouraged voters to ring their MP and ask, “Why is it that people like me – who are doing the right thing, are good at managing their money and take good care of their children will get caught up in this scheme and treated like we’ve done something wrong?”
The implication is that it’s impossible to gain support for Aboriginal people who have lived under Intervention for three years, and the campaign will only be a success if good people “like me” are affected.
But Macklin has stressed she has no intention of seriously spreading income managing to non-indigenous welfare recipients. The new laws remain focused on discriminating against Aboriginal communities.
Under the amendments, all those in prescribed communities will remain on the system for another year. Even then, those Aboriginal old-age and disability pensioners who could be exempt will only need to be deemed “vulnerable” by Centrelink in order to be forced to continue with the BasicsCard.
The new scheme is also initially being confined to the NT, where the vast majority of the 20,000 newly income managed people will be Aboriginal. Only after 2012 and a review will Labor look at expanding the quarantine any further. The government will have the power to make any community or region subject to income management. But again, this level of government discretion will likely allow the racial discrimination to spread, with Aboriginal communities in other states being the most likely targets.
Income management remains an essential aspect of the Intervention’s vicious discrimination against Aboriginal people. That’s why the movement must utterly reject the idea that the new Intervention laws are any less racist than the old ones.