Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Basic income, not tied benefits, for Australia’s First Nations

Could a basic income finally bring an end to Australia’s paternalistic treatment of First Nations peoples? An interview with Elise Klein, an academic and activist in Australia.

Elise Klein
7 October 2019
Kimberly Fitzroy River, Australia.
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Robin Hutton/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-nd)

Elise Klein is a researcher and activist in Australia. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery caught up with her at the 19th Global Basic Income Congress in Hyderabad, India, to chat about her new research into the effects of Australian welfare policy on First Nations people.

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: What is the current thinking on basic income in Australia?

Elise Klein: Australia has a long history of activism around basic income, but its current prospects are a bit grim. There is an extraordinary focus on punitive welfare in Australian politics, almost a desperation to continue making benefits conditional at any cost. Given that, the proposition of a basic income that would be unconditional seems rather far away.

White Australia has been set up on the idea that, to be a productive member of society, you have to work. If you're not working, then you are punished through the welfare system. How harsh that system has been has changed over time, but recently there’s been an extraordinary shift towards being more restrictive. The state has put all sorts of conditions on what people have to do to receive income support, as well as on what people can do once they’ve been given the money. It’s a two-pronged approach with conditionality on both sides.

You've done a lot of work with First Nations people and have been openly critical of some of the welfare policies targeting them. This is especially true of the cashless debit card programme championed by Andrew Forrest, the Australian mining magnate, which you’ve singled out elsewhere as a prime example of Australia’s punitive approach to welfare. Could you explain why welfare is of special concern with regard to First Nations people, and why you single out the card for criticism?

A lot of Australia’s welfare programmes primarily target First Nations people. Australia is a settler colonial society. Sovereignty was never ceded and has never been given back. This is an ongoing struggle, and welfare is now being used as a weapon in neo-assimilationist attempts by the settler state.

Andrew Forrest is a billionaire who made his money by mining stolen Aboriginal land. A few years ago, he was tasked by the then prime minister, Tony Abbott, to review the government’s Aboriginal training and employment programmes. His magnum opus, the 2014 Forrest Review, came with a whole set of policy recommendations. One that I've looked at in detail is what he originally called the healthy welfare card.

The healthy welfare card is centred around the idea of controlling how welfare payments are spent. Now, the state had already tried this, and the subsequent evaluation showed that quarantining people’s money and allowing them to use it only on certain goods didn’t achieve anything. But instead of taking that evaluation and saying, "okay, this is not a good idea," Forrest decided to ramp it up. He suggested increasing the proportion that is quarantined and also proposed a national rollout.

The government didn't call it the healthy welfare card. They called it the cashless debit card, and they first trialled it in predominantly First Nations areas. I've looked at one of those trial sites in the East Kimberly, and it's been an absolute disaster.

Even on the indicators where the government says that it has worked, it actually hasn't. They say that domestic violence decreased, but the opposite is true. They said that it was financially empowering, but it was actually disempowering. People reported not being able to feed or buy essential goods for their kids. It has really fractured the community, but the government continues to roll it out. Forrest has played a big role in lobbying the government and lobbying other areas to take on the cashless debit card. It’s not just predominantly in First Nations communities anymore, but also in poor white communities across the country.

One of the big arguments for basic income is that it increases people's freedom. It sounds like what we’re seeing in Australia, both with the cashless debit card and with welfare policy in relation to First Nations people more broadly, is actually the opposite – a radical decrease in what is already constrained freedom.

Mm-hmm. A lot of First Nations people say that this has been a long story. Some of the people that spoke to me about the cashless debit card in Kimberley call it the white card, although it’s actually grey. They called it that because, for them, it's a symbol of how settler colonial intervention continues. People said to me, "It's like going back to the ration days." It’s a strange situation. Australian society is starting to recognise some of the historical violence, but cannot see how that continues today with something like the cashless debit card.

Why do you think that basic income would be different when it comes to supporting First Nations people?

Basic income would challenge the Australian settler state’s obsession with work. Its unconditional element would completely revolutionise the deeply held belief that you've got to do something for the money. In its place, a basic income would introduce the idea of a rightful share. A dividend for all people.

For First Nations people I think this is a very important idea. As I said before, sovereignty was never ceded, and there's an ongoing battle for that sovereignty to be honoured. Unconditional basic income has an emancipatory element that acknowledges rather than rejects self-determination, so it could be a small step in the right direction. That said, only First Nations people themselves could make that decision.

So in your view basic income has the potential to be more emancipatory than current welfare policy. However, you’d argue that any attempt to advocate for one must include the participation of First Nations people, so that it is not yet another top down imposition on this population.

That would be absolutely key.

That said, there was a period in the 1970s where there was a programme called the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP). This was implemented in regional and remote parts of the country, and it involved giving First Nations people and community organisations a lump sum for doing work. What exactly work entailed was defined very, very broadly and in some places the programme was only loosely monitored. The result was that everyone ended up getting the payment regardless of whether they turned up for work. My colleague John Altman and I have written about this programme as a sort of basic income.

The CDEP was a very powerful and important social policy in some of these remote communities, where there was no or only a very limited labour market to speak of, because it provided an economic base. Poverty went through the roof in these communities when the programme was replaced with these more punitive, work for the doll schemes. People do talk about those CDEP days as being really important, and there's memory and recognition there of the importance of economic security.

So, there are some little glimmers of possibility and hope that programmes can be done well in Australia, despite its terrible history. Moving forward though, it has to be about honouring people's sovereignty.

This feature on universal basic income was financially supported by a grant from Humanity United.

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