Saturday, September 22, 2007

"Food cards doled out in the NT"

I just saw this article on Message Stick (on the ABC website), and I feel a bit sickened by it. Not that I haven't seen plenty of little kids looking like they could do with some more fresh food, or even adults, drunk on the streets of Katherine trying to scrape together to by something to eat (or maybe drink). The thing is that you know, even if you don't think about it, that they (Centrelink) are giving out these cards only to Aboriginal people. Doesn't that ring a little strange?

Doesn't the word paternalism (in its very worse sense...) loom ominously on the horizon- even a sense of sub-citizen status, people who are having their income spent for them- their right to choose whisked away on the back of an electoral stunt.

Why is this 'food card' issue so quiet?! Where are all the clamouring warning bells? The riots- the protesters and incensed left wing professionals? Something is seriously wrong here, and stepping back in time to methods of disempowering people as a way to 'help' them unfortunately has become the latest flavour of the month.


It reminds me of first year engineering where you are taught about 'closed systems' and learning to consider all of the influencing factors on that closed system and calculate what kind of actions would have what kinds of results. I think in science this can be very helpful, but applying this kind of methodology in human society seems simplistic and reactionary. I feel like someone has just thought: 'ok the problem is: some Aboriginal people in some communities are spending their money on things other than food- to the detriment of themselves or dependents'.

In a closed system perhaps the solution is: to restrict what these people can spend their money on, and encourage buying of food in this way. The problem is, people and human societies are not 'closed systems', they have an infinite variability of inputs, and ways of interpreting as well as spontaneous creativity. I suppose to put it bluntly- they are people- not 'systems' or equations that you can solve with a simple answer.

Someone, at some point (I'm sorry to say this to you John Howard), is going to have to go to talk with Aboriginal people in communities and say- 'whats up?', they are going to have to get deep down and dirty with trauma, death, and the scariest of all: difference. And learn about what kind of solutions might work in with different people in different places. Someone, at some point is going to have to listen.

And for that they will need an interpreter(!).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know what the gambling is like in Katherine but someone doing policy seriously needs to consider how communal wealth and cash redistribution through gambling and kinship works. There are many ways of looking at this but one of the more positive is that gambling and kinship provide social safety nets that are really important in communities like this. Gambling isn't wasting money in closed systems like this.

Speaking of dealing with trauma, I heard Prof. Godobo-Madikizela (a psychologist from South Africa) talking on "All in the Mind" this afternoon - she's in Australia talking to Aboriginal people in WA. There's a link here


6:42 pm  
Anonymous Bob Durnan said...

Sophie – I guess you must have been cut off by floods of intergalactic static to be just realising that there is a new paternalism in the room - along with Special Measures to deal with the massive social & other problems afflicting NT Aboriginal people.

Special Measures also enable temporary setting aside of Racial Discrimination provisions, if it can be argued that the measures are for the common good & wellbeing of the effected racial group. The Aust. Govt can do this legally because of the Constitutional arrangements governing Territories.

The "right to choose" does not exist under the Australian Constitution - it is a creature of liberal democratic theory - possibly exists in the aims of the Liberal Party though. It is a middle-class construct, beloved of conservative politicians and theorists. Not so popular with left theorists though, as it can be a block to egalitarian reform in difficult areas.

Anyway, the ruling about management of welfare incomes is not completely Aboriginal-specific: it applies to anybody living on scheduled Aboriginal land and receiving welfare or other government benefits as at 21st June (I think), when the Emergency was declared.

So the non-Aboriginal spouse of a woman at Finke is finding 50% of his pension ‘managed’ as well. This will also apply to people who were living there and receiving welfare entitlements on the gazetted date but who are no longer living on Aboriginal land.

The ‘management’ may eventually extend to anybody living on town camp leases and receiving welfare at that date as well.

It would be unwise and inaccurate to dismiss all this as just an electoral stunt. It is far more than that.

Countries with a totally laissez faire approach to how they allow welfare recipients to spend their money are few and far between, and an argument can be made that the quantum of empowerment existing amongst welfare recipients could be increased rather than diminished by restricting the ability of welfare-dependent family members to be zonked and causing mayhem and wastage, anaesthetised and doing nothing, or hyper-energised and causing havoc much of the time.

The problem is that people like us - as a broad group of left-liberal practitioners - have had 35 years working closely with Aboriginal people to develop theory and practice commensurate with the issues at hand, but seem to have failed singularly to develop adequate policies and remedies that in the real politik and contemporary economic/social/cultural realities contexts can assist Aboriginal people to go forward into healthier, more educated, less dependent, less dangerous, less impoverished, less disempowered lives.

Remember this when thinking about the "closed system" quandary: nobody will have to put up with management of the money that they earn from jobs, arts and crafts, or the food they gain from hunting and gathering etc, so there is in a sense a safety valve. This is the big incentive.

As to the extent of the problem, I think you would probably agree that the problem is a bit bigger than 'some Aboriginal people in some communities are spending their money on things other than food- to the detriment of themselves or dependents'.

From my experience, I would think it is safer to say that many people in probably all communities are doing this, and the scale of ‘failure to thrive’ and related child health problems would indicate that it is a very widespread problem indeed.

Think about it this way: there are structures in things; systems and logics and dynamics; and within hunter-gatherer behaviour in general and the Australian welfare system, as well as in the capitalist state and any local Aboriginal community.

When there are common problems across all Aboriginal communities, it’s possible they could be at least partly addressed by trying some of the measures being trialled at the moment.

Things could be worse: the Australian State could have continued to have sat idly by whilst it inadvertently but knowingly contributed to the genocide of Aboriginal people.

Now it is having a big go at stopping some of the rot. I don’t see how we can argue with that, at least in principle.

10:46 pm  
Blogger Franklin said...

What's the point of arguing with the Federal Task Force or anyone else for that matter, when they're not listening. This time the Government hasn't just moved the goal posts, but removed them altogether. No level playing field here, useless to train hard, no chance to score.
The military style Imposed Emergency Response with its Infantry of Bureaucrats, will no more improve the social fabric on places like Yuendumu than did the long procession of politicians and public servants we've had over the years.
As long as decision making power is held by ethnocentric xenophobes I don't hold out much hope.
Pat Turner hit the nail on the head when at a public meeting in Alice Springs she called the intervention "the last nail in the coffin of Aboriginal self-determination"
Ngula juku
Frank Baarda

7:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the response by Bob Durnan very interesting as I am currently writing a paper on both perspectives of this paritcular part of the intervention and agree the issue of where welfare payments are used is widespread and not an isolated problem. There are of course huge questions regarding accesss to reasonably priced groceries (eg those that can not get to town to shop at large supremarkets) and the provision of healthy food at community stores etc. There is also the issue of trading vouchers for money to buy cigerettes & grog and what the cost will be. i would also like to say that those of us that have been here since the false attachment to the The Little Children are Sacred report gave the Fed's their leg up have been working tireless regarding campaigning and responding to the intervention. There are many both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who have invovled in all facets of the intervention. I think for those that have just returned to the territory or are new should be mindful of this fact.

9:53 am  
Blogger Catalin said...

Not that we are a particularly good model, but "food stamps" have been part of the welfare system here in the US for as long as I can remember. They are like money (come in $1, $5, and $20 denominations), and can be spent at any store that sells food or farmer's market and can only be used for food (including junk food). Some people on welfare only qualify for foodstamps; others get foodstamps and varying amounts of cash, depending on their situation.
Nowadays, the food stamp program is transitioning to a plastic debit card type thing which is supposed to make it less embarrassing maybe and is less work for the stores (they have to send the paper food stamps into the govt to get reimbursed with cash).

Yes, it does seem paternalistic, but then again, you get out from under dad's rules by becoming independent, right? Of course, in the case of adults on welfare, it's more complicated.

Our believing that ppl need to have an education, need to live a long time, need to be healthy is also a type of paternalism, isn't it?

I don't know what the solution in the communities is (or among the chronically poor in cities there or here in the US), but everyone being on the dole certainly doesn't seem like it was leading to "self-determination" or even health and happiness.

I'd be curious to hear how ppl affected by this new policy react. In response to Claire's comment, why wouldn't the food cards become a form of currency that also gets redistributed through gambling? Or ppl may use their food cards to purchase popular non-perishable food goods that can be acquired or lost thru card games. Some ppl will always find a way around the system.

11:42 am  

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