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Issue 14: The ritual humiliation of Australia's poor

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From the editorIn this week's issue we look at the Indue card, its use as a weapon against the poor a
 

SundayFocus

October 20 · Issue #14 · View online
Your weekly wrap of national affairs, society, culture and politics, published by UnionsACT.

From the editor
In this week’s issue we look at the Indue card, its use as a weapon against the poor and why the existence of an underclass is essential to the machinery of business. There’s also a lot about neoliberalism, climate and the eerie similarities between Donald Trump and Scott Morrison.
Also, our subscriber base continues to grow, which is fantastic. The more people we have reading (and, ideally, signing up as Solidarity Subscribers) the better, so please forward this on to people who you think might like it – or even those who might not!
Enjoy the issue.
Guy Mosel, Editor

The ritual humiliation of Australia's poor
by Guy Mosel
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.
Forrest, who’s not averse to using his vast wealth to harm the interests of ordinary Australians, even used his own money to promote the card.
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?
The answer is simple: we have poverty because we choose to have poverty.
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.’”
Monetising misery
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.
Read more
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.
Elsewhere, Eve Vincent and Michele Madigan both give powerful on-the-ground accounts of the impacts of welfare quarantining.
In other news...
Ensuring inequity The anti-union Ensuring Integrity Bill (top marks for double-speak there, folks) hangs in the balance with only the senate crossbench standing in the way. ACTU president Michele O'Neil said that the bill would have direct implications on public health and workplace safety by preventing unions from doing important work like asbestos inspections. “There is no ensuring integrity bill for the companies who continue to breach the ban on importing asbestos,” she said.
Donald-lite Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees reflects on the way Scott Morrison echoes Donald Trump’s rhetoric on “nationalism, patriotism, the treason of traitors and the irrelevance of international treaties”.
Hell no, they won’t go As debate rages about Extinction Rebellion’s tactics, and governments erode freedoms in response, Clive Hamilton argues that provoking outrage is entirely the point.
Slow going Australia’s fixed broadband speed continues to be somewhere between bloody awful and shithouse, with the latest Ookla rankings putting us at 61 out of 175 ranked countries. Meanwhile, Malcolm Turnbull, under whom the build was botched, continues to pontificate from the cheap seats about Snowy 2.0.
What climate crisis? The talk after last week’s fourth debate between the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates was Bernie’s roaring return to form post-heart attack and Biden’s inexorable collapse, but one thing was overlooked by many: there was not one single question about climate change.
Coming up this week
Senate estimates Expect lots of the usual estimates theatrics this week, including the government copping a grilling on how much they’re paying professional cue-card reader Scott Cam to tell people how good vocational training is. Thursday may be particularly fiery with Senators Ruston and Canavan due to appear.
Longreads
Goodbye to all that: the end of neoliberalism?
Most wealth isn’t the result of hard work. It has been accumulated by being idle and unproductive.
Imagining a world without prisons
For your bookshelf
The Golden Country: Australia's Changing Identity, by Tim Watts
The Laundromat, by Jake Bernstein
How Labour Built Neoliberalism, by Elizabeth Humphrys
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