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National security and income management of Indigenous Australians

Posted By and on January 22, 2021 @ 06:00

The wellbeing and security of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples, especially those in regional and remote communities, has long been stymied by wrong-headed assumptions and policies. In recent years, the consensus view of national security is that its definition should be expanded beyond military threats to include other threats to human security such as disease, poverty, and food and energy insecurity. There are national security implications that flow from successive failures in Indigenous affairs that are more significant than generally recognised. Putting self-determination at the heart of policy is a national security issue.

The 1967 change to the constitution meant the Commonwealth could make valid laws for the Aboriginal people, but rarely has it legislated without the states’ collaboration. Prejudice and negative assumptions about worthiness actually determine outcomes for First Nations people, rather than equality or equity.

The questions for policymakers are: why are so many Indigenous Australians on social welfare schemes, and why have these schemes been allowed to become lifetime settings that have diminished options and opportunities for First Nations peoples over many generations? How do policy settings focused on institutional dependency and dysfunction, control, penalties and authority contribute to other social problems we hear about too often, like domestic violence, suicide and children in out-of-home care? Social policy has a major impact on the multifaceted encounters a person has with the public-sector system.

The government’s enthusiasm for what is known as a cashless debit card, a regime to control the behaviour of people on public-sector welfare support, is an apt demonstration. With the debit card, 80% of welfare is quarantined, accessible only via a debit card that can’t be used to buy alcohol, gambling products and some gift cards or to withdraw cash.

It is not a voluntary program. The scheme has an ideological and punitive mindset behind it to micromanage the behaviours of people deemed worthless, without effective wraparound services or an objective or fair pathway to exit. People are doomed to remain incapable of handling their own affairs; they are forever stigmatised.

The efficacy of the cashless debit card is not supported by on-the-ground evidence. In most of the trial sites where the card has been rolled out, First Nations people are disproportionately affected and are not transitioning to personal self-management. In the last sittings of parliament before the summer break, the government won an extension of this bankrupt policy for another two years.

Managing the incomes of First Nations peoples is backward-thinking policy. It will do nothing to close any gaps between Indigenous Australians and other Australians. Nor will it help a new relationship to emerge between government and First Nations. It serves only to deny First Nations peoples the right to manage their own affairs and to highlight their entrapped colonial status. This is as it was prior to federation and as it has been in the 120 years since—except for the brief period when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was in existence, before it was pre-emptively axed in 2005 by the Howard government.

Policies as they affect First Nations peoples and drive self-determination need to reflect their aspirations and needs. In addition to the core demands set by the Uluru Statement from the Heart [1](a constitutionally recognised voice to the parliament; truth-telling; a Makarrata, or agreement-making, process; and treaty-making), First Nations have identified other policy priorities. These include the importance of child and maternal health, education at all levels from early childhood to post-school, employment and training opportunities, decent and appropriate housing, transport and communications infrastructure, and commercial opportunities. Good public policy needs to be informed by the knowledge, expertise and expressed desires of First Nations peoples, their diversity and the need for them to be partners in decision-making.

Opportunities to develop small businesses are there to be realised—there is no reason why First Nations should continue to rely on middlemen or constant governmental oversight. First Nations companies should be running the businesses and enjoying the returns; procurement policies need readjustments to facilitate communal as well as individual acquisition of wealth.

Government social policies need review and refreshment to diminish welfare dependency. A good start for remote and regional communities would be to aggregate the outlays in existing social policy programs and, with some top-up, redeploy them to a reinvigorated CDEP (Community Development Employment Project).

A new CDEP model would respect community autonomy and self-determination. Communities would define ‘work’ within social, cultural and economic parameters and develop pathways to sustainable and productive enterprises. They would have access to flexible vocational training and business development opportunities adapted to the specific needs of their populations.

Critical to the better administration of First Nations affairs is regional autonomy. A revived CDEP would make service providers accountable to regional authorities, which would have access to financial and other data for strategic planning and accountability purposes. The opposition’s 2019 policy manifesto, which revolved around regional assemblies, would be a good start to local decision-making and place-based solutions for community development.

Current policies have failed and will continue to do so if not changed. The Abbott government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy [2] was a high point of centralised administration. Its continuation demonstrates a lack of appetite for real, enduring reform. It runs counter to the government’s intentions to work with the peak Aboriginal organisations on closing the gap, and fails to understand or address demands for self-determination.



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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/national-security-and-income-management-of-indigenous-australians/

URLs in this post:

[1] Uluru Statement from the Heart : https://ulurustatement.org/

[2] Indigenous Advancement Strategy: https://www.indigenous.gov.au/indigenous-advancement-strategy

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