Albanese Abolishes Cashless Welfare, Then Rebrands and Relaunches It With Plans to Expand

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Albanese Abolishes Cashless Welfare

Albanese oversaw the passing of legislation on 19 June to facilitate the holding of a referendum this year, which will decide on whether Indigenous people should be recognised in the Constitution, as well as whether a body be established to advise government on First Nations policy matters.

That was on Monday 19 June. But by the following Thursday, another bill had been passed, which enhances income management (IM), and requires those on the scheme, the overwhelming majority of whom are First Nations peoples, to have restrictions placed on how they spend their money.

The paternalistic IM scheme, or welfare quarantining as it was known, was introduced during the 2007 NT Intervention, when lies about paedophile rings were reported by the national broadcaster and saw Howard deploy the army to forcefully take control of remote Aboriginal communities.

Income management has been controversial ever since. Indeed, Albanese ran on a platform promising to abolish it if elected. And it’s exactly the type of issue one might expect an Indigenous voice to parliament would be providing government with advice on.

But instead, Labor, after having followed through on its election promise to abolish a Coalition plan to expand its privatised cashless debit card (CDC) scheme, waited three days until after the referendum was sorted, before passing laws to ensure that an enhanced IM scheme is rolled out.

Abolishing, enhancing and expanding

When Labor delivered its first piece of income management reform last July, it was spruiked as the “repeal of the cashless debit card and other measures”, while social security minister Amanda Rishworth said she was delivering on an election promise based on consultations with communities.

What this meant was the privatised CDC scheme that the Coalition had established in regional areas of Queensland and the NT would be abolished. Although the around 20,000 majority First Nations people currently on the government-run IM set up in 2007 would remain on that scheme.

And as Rishworth was setting those individuals subject to the CDC scheme free of it, the same piece of legislation inserted part 3AA into the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 (Cth), which establishes the enhanced Income Management (eIM) regime.

This is an amalgamation of the original IM regime established at the onset of the Intervention, but it’s now been updated so that the privately developed technology that applied to the CDC scheme has been incorporated into earlier IM programs so that they run in a state-of-the-art manner.

So, while the initial social services bill passed last year did serve to abolish the cashless debit card scheme, it further replaced it with the new eIM program – via both voluntary and compulsory arrangements – so it’s a state-run program that incorporates all the ease of the newest technology.

And what the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management Reform) Bill 2023 passed last Thursday has done is simply provide those people who have been on the state-run income management program for up to 15 years now, with the more streamlined eIM process.

This means that those who have long used what was known as the BasicsCard, which quarantined a portion of the money they had available to them, can retain the same bank account they’ve always had, but they’ll now be provided with a SmartCard, which incorporates features like “tap-and-go”.

No secrets here

Then Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese promised to abolish the privatised cashless welfare card run by Indue in May 2021, as he said there was no evidence that these cards were reducing social harms, while Senator Malarndirri McCarthy labelled the system “racist” and “unjust”.

But when a group of subjugated people live under the system of a larger majority, who treat them less worthy due to their race and have even taken things to the point that how they spend their money is dictated to them, racist outcomes are the norm and are hidden in plain sight.

Indentured labour

The Howard government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) in order to pass the 2007 NT Intervention laws and policies, so they could specifically target remote Aboriginal communities in the NT over long ago exposed media propagated lies about a child abuse crisis.

Another prime reason to send in the army to take control of remote communities is that the value of the resources under the ground is extraordinary and criminalising entire communities to the point that they no longer occupy their own lands was an opportune way to open up access to this wealth.

At the time of the implementation of the Intervention, the Coalition abolished the Community Development Employment Projects scheme that had been successfully employing local people within their own communities. So, thousands lost their paying jobs over night.

And instead, our elected Coalition government officials forced people on to work-for-the-dole programs and welfare quarantining, and when the subsequent Labor Rudd and Gillard governments took over the reins, they streamlined the process via the Stronger Futures legislation.

Expanding cashless welfare

Albanese has successfully abolished privatised cashless debit card welfare and rebranded it as enhanced Income Management and if you search the phrase “expanding access to the enhanced income management regime” in the newly passed 74-page bill, it comes up a total of 63 times.

The accompanying explanatory memorandum sets out that it “delivers the next stage of the government’s election commitment to reform Income Management (IM)”, with words such as “abolish” now a thing of the past, as we’re in the process of establishing a new regime in stages.

And while government focus has been on the voluntary participation of communities, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights report into this legislation found that Labor seeks to expand eIM by “introducing eligibility criteria for both compulsory and voluntary participation.”

By compulsorily subjecting an individual to the enhanced income management regime and restricting how they may spend a portion of their payment, these measures limit the rights to social security, privacy and the right to an adequate standard of living as well as.

And the measures involved in the Albanese government’s rebranded cashless welfare scheme also trigger questions around the rights to equality and non-discrimination as these laws clearly have a disproportionate adverse effect upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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