The Cashless Debit Card: An exercise in Australia’s ongoing colonisation of First Nations people

There is limited evidence of the Cashless Debit Card’s (CDC) effectiveness and mounting evidence of its harmful impacts. Nevertheless, the Federal Government has extended and expanded trials again and again since they were first announced in 2016.  

Penny Cummins 

Despite protestations otherwise, it is undeniable that the CDC scheme is a racist policy. The scheme is an extension of compulsory income management policies implemented during the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response –  the ‘Intervention’ – introduced in the last months of the Howard Government. During the Intervention, the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act was suspended in order to target First Nations people in a number of ways, including through the introduction of a BasicsCard which quarantined 50% of income support payments made to First Nations people in the Northern Territory. 

While the Rudd Labor government reinstated the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act and extended compulsory income management to non-Indigenous people, this did not spell the end of discrimination against First Nations people. Citing a 2009 policy submission made by the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory, legal academic, Shelley Bielefeld, argues that the Labor government’s modifications to income management policy amounted to a form of ‘indirect discrimination,’ as First Nations people continued to be over-represented in target categories covered by the scheme.

Significantly, the CDC itself was conceived by, of all people, mining billionaire Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, as part of his submission on Indigenous jobs and training made to the Abbott Government in 2014. As a real indication of his motivations towards First Nations people, Forest’s, Fortescue Mining Group (FMG) – currently the fourth largest iron ore mining company in the world – sought approval to destroy a series of 60 thousand-year old sacred sites in the Hamersley Range area of the Pilbara region in Western Australia. FMG also breached an agreement with traditional owners by clearing land in the Weelamurra Creek area, sacred to the Wintawari Guruma people, earlier than slated and without the presence of community elders as per the original agreement. It goes without saying that these developments speak volumes of Forrest’s complete (lack of) commitment to the welfare of First Nations people, and perhaps offers insight into his intentions in making policy recommendations for a scheme that entrenches existing inequalities between First Nations people and the rest of Australia. 

These inequalities are a stark and painful reminder that Australia’s colonisation is an ongoing project. The most recent evaluation of the CDC, commissioned by the Australian government and conducted by researchers at the University of South Australia, was limited in its ability to evaluate the cashless debit card’s effectiveness. But meanwhile other analysts have independently conducted their own research into the impact of the CDC on First Nations communities, and found that the card had a variety of negative impacts on trial participants. 

Besides provoking feelings of shame and stigma, compulsory income management may have a detrimental impact on newborn health, contradicting the most recent Closing the Gap strategy of improving maternal and child health with the goal of having the gap in child mortality rates. Elise Klein, a researcher at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, and lawyer Sarouche Razi, conducted research into the experiences of trial participants in the East Kimberley region and found that the card has exacerbated existing material hardships in First Nations communities through limiting their access to the cash economy. Entering informal rental arrangements, purchasing fresh food and meat from markets and buying second-hand items are crucial ways in which people meet their basic needs in remote communities. All of these things are made impossible without the ability to access cash, which is constrained by the card. 

As the Government continues its project of defending a policy for which there is limited evidence, it is worth recalling that controlling First Nations people’s finances isn’t a recent imposition. During Australia’s early colonial period, the colonial governments exerted dominance over First Nations people by restricting their access to finances, entrenching poverty, hardship and ill health for decades to come. As historian Rosalind Kidd reminds us, governments across Australia controlled wages, benefits and savings belonging to First Nations people for the majority of the 20th Century – withholding child endowments, pensions and soldiers’ pay, as well as neglecting and misusing trust funds holding First Nations’ money. Across Northern Australia, profitable beef and pearling industries were founded on unpaid First Nations’ labour, whilst in Queensland alone it is estimated that $500 million worth of wages were stolen from First Nations people. Through enforcing the CDC, the Government has demonstrated its lack of commitment to learning from the past. 

In a recent journal article, Elise Klein argues that the CDC depoliticises poverty and reinforces a paternalistic attitude toward First Nations people. Klein reminds us that material poverty within First Nations communities living in sites where the CDC continues to be trialled cannot be reduced to a question of individual responsibility. Poverty has structural and historical roots in Australia’s ongoing colonial history, in which wealth continues to be created through the exploitation of First Nations people’s labour and land. 

If the Government is truly interested in improving First Nations people’s wellbeing, then it needs to abandon the CDC and begin by acknowledging this fact.  

Penny Cummins

Penny is in her final year of a Master of Development Studies at the University of Sydney. Her academic interests include Indigenous rights, medical anthropology, language extinction and the political economy of mining and extractivism. As an intern, she is supporting ANTaR in their work on First Nations’ cultural heritage protection and housing. Last year, she contributed to a policy reform paper for Just Reinvest NSW, advocating for the importance of trauma-informed approaches as an alternative to suspensions in primary and secondary schooling. She has previous experience working in the recruitment team of an education NGO and interning as a community organiser. 

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