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What do Ceduna and the other trial sites for the Healthy Welfare Card have in common? All are country towns with a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents. Wikimedia Commons/Nachoman-au, CC BY-SA

Healthy Welfare Card begins here … where next?

Given the high profile of Indigenous disadvantage, is it a coincidence that certain welfare reforms first appear in Indigenous communities before being mainstreamed?

Under income management, a portion of a welfare payment is restricted in how it can be spent rather than being paid directly in cash. The Commonwealth first introduced compulsory income management to 73 remote Indigenous communities under the Northern Territory Intervention in 2007.

In 2010, income management was extended to non-Indigenous welfare recipients in the territory. More than 90% of recipients, however, were still Indigenous.

In 2012, the government began rolling out trials to depressed regional centres across Australia, including Bankstown, Shepparton, Logan, Playford and Rockhampton. The difference was that income management was now subject to referrals, instead of compulsory. Indigenous recipients were now in the minority – more than 80% were non-Indigenous.

Universal policy was Forrest Review goal

The Creating Parity review recommended that income management smartcards be applied to most welfare recipients. Commonwealth, CC BY

If the Coalition government implements the recommendations of its Forrest Review, aimed at “creating parity” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, the same trajectory may be proposed for the cashless smartcard called the Healthy Welfare Card.

Although the review explicitly focused on Indigenous disadvantage, Andrew Forrest was uninhibited in making his recommendations apply to all “vulnerable” Australians.

As with the BasicsCard used for compulsory income management in NT Aboriginal communities from 2008, Forrest recommended that Healthy Welfare Cards be mandatory for all unemployed persons, carers, single parents and people with disabilities.

Essentially, that would be everyone except veterans and aged pensioners. Alert to the implications for the rest of Australia, the Australian Council of Social Service immediately opposed the move.

The parliamentary secretary responsible for implementing the policy, Alan Tudge, has said that trial sites were:

… selected on the basis of high levels of welfare dependence, where gambling, alcohol and illegal drug abuse are causing unacceptable levels of harm and there is an openness to participate from within the community.

It went unsaid that this involved sites with high numbers of Indigenous people, along with sufficient leadership and public support to back the trials.

Trials involve a certain kind of town

The locations first mooted for the card rollout – Kununurra, Moree and Ceduna – are country towns with freehold title, with Indigenous populations roughly one-quarter to one-third of the total. These towns face serious social problems, in addition to those related to welfare reform, which demand a coordinated government response.

After community objections emerged, Moree was dropped. It was replaced with Halls Creek, also a rural town, but with a population that is about 75% Indigenous. After divisions emerged it too was dropped.

Interestingly, the government appears to be choosing trial sites from the small pool of towns (roughly 50 in number) with a mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous population (25-75% Indigenous). The vast majority of towns in Australia are either overwhelmingly Indigenous (more than 75%) or overwhelmingly non-Indigenous (less than 25% Indigenous).

This week the government announced that the third trial site would be Wyndham. Again, it’s a rural town where the Indigenous population is just over 50%.

If the Healthy Welfare Card is an Indigenous reform, why target these mixed country towns instead of Indigenous communities? We can think of two explanations.

First, the government must apply the reform equally to non-Indigenous welfare recipients to avoid accusations of targeting Indigenous people and facing charges of racial discrimination. Even in Ceduna, where only 25% of the population is Indigenous, Indigenous people still constitute an estimated 72% of welfare recipients. In his submission to a Senate inquiry into the trial, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda warned:

In view of these percentages, the trial may have a disproportionate impact upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in these locations.

The second explanation is that the Healthy Welfare Card is not an Indigenous reform at all, but intended for all Australians. On this view, the government is using the tragic circumstances of Indigenous disadvantage to legitimise a universal reform not otherwise palatable to the public.

The mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in Kununurra and the other towns selected for the welfare card trials is uncommon in Australia. AAP/Kim Christian

Would the same public approval exist for trials in a non-Indigenous “population of high levels of welfare dependence” with “gambling, alcohol and illegal drug abuse” problems? Are the only people who fit this profile Indigenous?

Why not apply the trials as an extension to income management trials (Bankstown, Shepparton, Logan, Playford or Rockhampton), which already include a large number of non-Indigenous welfare recipients?

So where is this policy headed?

In understanding the battlefield of Indigenous affairs, it always helps to look backwards. When the Howard government launched the NT Intervention in mid-2007, it suspended the Racial Discrimination Act. That removed the possibility of a legal rights challenge.

Only after income management was applied equally to all unemployed citizens in the territory did the Rudd-Gillard government reinstate the act in 2010. This then allowed the spread of “race-neutral” income management to other parts of Australia.

Suspending the act required a huge political alignment. This was largely legitimated by the crisis of child abuse in the Northern Territory, including claims of paedophile rings, which were later discredited. It would be very difficult for any government to achieve such moralistic bipartisan support again.

So does the government need a work-around by seeking out trial sites that are mixed rural towns with significant Indigenous populations?

The government is walking a fine line here. It must not be seen to single out Indigenous people, but, at the same time, it invokes the crisis of Indigenous disadvantage to legitimate the reform.

Is the Healthy Welfare Card an Indigenous reform or a universal reform in disguise? Let’s call it what it is.

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