Australia’s Racist Cashless Debit Card System Should Be Replaced With A Universal Basic Income

Imagine the current welfare system, only without all the punitive, dehumanising measures and enough to live comfortably above the poverty line.

Cashless debit card

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are advised this article contains the name of a deceased person.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 has seen many positive Indigenous stories and political developments: Senator Lidia Thorpe was sworn in as the first Aboriginal Victorian Senator, the Torres Strait 8 submitted a formal response to the government’s attempt to dismiss their UN case, and the Northern Territory court’s decision to try Police Constable Zachary Rolfe for the death of 19-year-old Warlpiri Kumanjayi Walker marks the first time a police offer may be held responsible for the death of a First Nations person while in custody.

However, 2020 has also seen the Australian governments support of actions and policy that continue the colonial legacy of disregarding the self-determination of First Nations people; the Council of Attorneys-General ignored calls to raise the age children can be jailed from 10 to 14; the Victorian Government chose to prioritise the development of a highway and destroy a sacred Djab Wurrung directions tree; and, in the midst of a global pandemic, the government is considering the expansion of the controversial cashless debit card (CDC) program, an unsubstantial system known for targeting First Nations people.

The card “quarantines” 80% of the users funds, which they are unable to withdraw or use to purchase alcohol and gambling products. The remaining 20% is transferred to the user’s own bank account.

First trialled in 2016 across Ceduna in South Australia, the East Kimberly and Goldfield regions in Western Australia, and Hervey Bay in Queensland, the government is now considering making the card permanent in these areas and expanding the program to Cape York in Queensland and the Northern Territory — despite lacking evidence of the program’s efficiency.

The CDC has been criticised for being based on ideological myths: that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander welfare recipients are lazy and cannot be trusted to handle their own money and their own communities. Of course, the card is perfectly in line with the government’s history of shaming and stigmatising welfare recipients.

John Paterson, spokesperson for the Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory, responded to the government’s plans to expand the CDC in a media release, saying, “We are tired of the government making decisions without adequate consultation and engagement with us.”

In the same media release, Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Services, criticised the CDC for continuing to discriminate against Indigenous people by imposing a program that does not effectively invest in areas like housing and child and family support — a finding that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights also came to in a 2016 report.

Many are now calling for a report on the trial findings before the government decides to make the card permanent in these trial sites and expand to the Northern Territory and Cape York. The Senate Estimates Committee heard a draft of such a report, although, when pushed on why she had not read the report, Social Services Minister Anne Ruston insisted that the report findings were not intended to decide whether the card is extended or not.

Yet, this failed social service — coupled with the COVID-19 unemployment fallout — may present an opportunity to think about an alternative system that may reduce stigma, decrease poverty rates, and, ultimately, help all Australians. That system is called Universal Basic Income (UBI).

How would a UBI work? It would ensure every Australian receives a regular, guaranteed payment. These payments, whether paid in a yearly lump sum, fortnightly, or monthly, would be enough to live comfortably — to pay your bills, eat, and have a little left over.

Imagine the current welfare system, only without all the punitive, dehumanising measures and enough to live comfortably above the poverty line. You wouldn’t need to plead your case in order to apply, or complete any monthly tasks to keep it, and you would still receive the full payment in addition to any other income (no more reporting your wages and no more baseless concerns over welfare recipients turning down work in order to cash in welfare cheques).

In a recent study proposing an Australian Basic Income (our version of a UBI), common concerns about such a system being “too expensive and too radical” were rejected, finding that a basic income could be affordably implemented by raising tax levels to roughly the OECD average.

“Imagine that a check showed up in your mailbox or your bank account every month,” says Annie Lowrey, author of ‘Give People Money’ and UBI supporter. “It would save you from destitution if you had just gotten out of prison, needed to leave an abusive partner, or could not find work.” This money could be used on anything, Lowrey explains, including paying bills, enrolling in an educational course, and saving for a down payment on a house.

“You could spend it on cigarettes and booze, or finance a life spent playing Candy Crush in your mum’s basement and noodling around on the Internet. Or you could use it to quit your job and make art, devote yourself to charitable works, or care for a sick child.”

Importantly, unlike the CDC, each UBI recipient would have the power to spend their money how they choose fit. Like Australia’s current welfare system, UBI supporters are often met with concerns over this income dissuading people from work (as the Prime Minister did earlier this year, despite having no evidence and ignoring that, if this were true, it may instead be due to poor wages and job conditions).

This argument has been proven unlikely, to say the least.

In a 2019 interview with Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, public policy researcher and activist Dr. Elise Klein described the way White Australia, as she calls it, has set the expectation that in order to be a productive Australian you have to be a working Australian. “If you’re not working, then you are punished through the welfare system… Basic income would challenge the Australian settler state’s obsession with work.”

Dr. Klein believes a UBI could not only revolutionise the belief that one has to work for money, but would also have an emancipatory effect on First Nations people. Importantly, Dr. Klein explains, the involvement of First Nations people in creating this new welfare system would be crucial. “Moving forward… it has to be about honouring people’s sovereignty.”

Honouring the sovereignty of First Nations people is not achieved through a limiting welfare card that claims to lower rates of domestic violence and financially empower people — despite evidence that shows the exact opposite to be true.

Powerful things happen when First Nations people decide what to do with their lives, their communities, and their money.

While a UBI might not happen anytime soon, there are many ways we can support First Nations people today; Sisters Inside provide services for criminalised women, girls, and children and campaign for their interests with governments; Grandmothers Against Removals advocate for more cultural and community based care in place of the systemic, racist removal of First Nations children; Black Rainbow advocates for the social and cultural wellbeing of First Nations LGTBQIA+SB people; and ANTaR, Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, is a grassroots not-for-profit NGO support the justice and rights for First Nations people.

First Nations people deserve to choose how they live and deserve access to adequate resources and finances in order to actualise these decisions. Anything short of Indigenous self-determination is a continuation of Australia’s colonial past and present.

Savannah Ross is a Torres Strait Islander, African American writer. They completed a Bachelor of Honours in 2020 after writing a thesis on the barriers university staff face when implementing decolonising pedagogy.