Australia might be out of the Rugby World Cup, but we’re world-class performers in concocting humiliations with which to subject our poor.
Measly assistance payments, impenetrable bureaucracies, media and political ridicule, impossible caveats and conditions, flawed debt recovery systems, drug testing
– each of these serve to heap suffering upon suffering.
The cashless debit card, better known now as simply the “Indue card”, is a particularly nasty evolution. Originally called the “Healthy Welfare Card” and proposed by billionaire mining magnate Twiggy Forrest
in his 2014 review into Indigenous employment, the card was supported by both major parties and passed into law in 2015.
The card quarantines 80 per cent of support payments, preventing them from being used for things like alcohol and gambling. Originally trialled in Indigenous communities in South and Western Australia, the card has since been rolled out to encompass more of Australia’s marginalised and disenfranchised.
Half of the participants in the initial trial said their lives were worse
than before the trials, while four in five participants reported none of the positive outcomes the trial was meant to deliver. ACOSS says the card creates stigma and shame
with users reporting that “their lives are more stressful
and finances more precarious”.
Scott Morrison has naturally hailed the card’s positive impacts, and sees it as something that will be used by all welfare recipients
across the country.
Punishing the undeserving
We’re a rich country – the richest
, by some measures – with uninterrupted economic growth stretching back almost three decades. The average Australian now knows a level of wealth and privilege that was unfathomable even 20 years ago.
And yet three million of us
live below the poverty line. How can this be? How can the economy be so awash with money and yet so little of it finds its way to those who need it the most?
And why would we do that? Because capitalism is a zero sum game which means that for some to have a lot, others must have a little. And because it suits the interests of corporations, and by extension the government, to have an immiserated class of desperate people to serve as a cautionary tale of what can happen when you fail to play by the rules.
Work hard, be thankful you have a job, obey the law, or you too could end up like this.
The poor are also a useful political tool. Both Labor and the LNP can and do make electoral hay from persecuting “dole bludgers”, “drug addicts” and people who make “bad choices”. This is the same kind of dehumanising that has been so effective over two decades of asylum seeker policy.
They are undeserving. Not real Australians. Not us.
As a nation we accept this othering because we have absorbed the neoliberal logic that only those who create wealth are worthwhile. And yet because we are also ashamed of our inhumanity we have to fool ourselves into believing that these ritual humiliations are deserved.
Which is precisely how, in a country where enjoying a drink and having a punt are regarded as birthrights embedded in our ANZAC mythology, we are capable of swallowing this line from the prime minister: “It’s not unreasonable for the taxpayer to say: ‘Well, I’m happy to give you the support. But I’m not going to have you spend it on drugs or gambling.’”
The kicker with all of this is that the company that manages the cashless debit card program, Indue, pulls in $10,000 per card
, almost as much as the amount a person on Newstart receives in a year.
Worse yet, it has strong ties to the LNP. Larry Anthony is a former Howard government minister and current president
of the National Party. He’s also a former director of Indue, and now owns a lobbying firm
which counts Indue among its clients (although Anthony himself hasn’t been registered as a lobbyist since 2015
, when he became Nationals president).
Make of all of that what you will, but here’s what it looks like to me: a group of elites leveraging the torment of the poor to extract wealth from the public and make a profit.
If that isn’t a good reason to march on Canberra then I don’t know what is.
There’s a lot of really good reporting on Australia’s poverty crisis. Gay Alcorn’s piece from April
is a rewarding and detailed read although it glosses over structural factors, while another Guardian
story explores how AI and algorithms are punishing the poor
around the world.