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Cashless Cards and other salvos in the war on the poor

Michele Madigan |  05 June 2017


The phrase was coined by Seretse Khama's country folk, in reprimand to the British public servants who refused to 'permit' him to be the Botswana chief because of his marriage to white British woman, Ruth Williams. Sixty-seven years later 'dislike for the unlike' well sums up the attitude of the ruling classes over and against the subject classes of a former British colony — Australia.

Cashless cardIn 1978 Kaurna/Narungga woman, Georgina Williams, said to me that Aboriginal people tend to be first on the receiving end of governmental oppressive practices and, when that works, the practices are extended to other poor Australians.  

Thirty-nine years later, almost every day brings new evidence of a relentless campaign against the poor. In post-Budget May, the Guardian Australia had two examples in one day: first, that welfare payments would be cancelled for those who don't accept 'suitable jobs', and second, that sewage would be tested to find areas of high drug use during trial drug testing of welfare recipients.

The federal government, too, via the disputably named Human Services Minister Tudge, has yet another confident solution to the problems of the poor — the Cashless Card.

In 2007, in the federal Senate chamber, I witnessed Kaurna/Narungga elder Dr Alitya Rigney's horror to see Labor Opposition members cross the floor 'laughing and talking' to legalise the repressive, all-encompassing Intervention into the lives and organisations of the Northern Territory Aboriginal peoples.

Shamefully, the Intervention, rebadged and extended by Labor in government, continues now in its tenth year, almost unnoticed by the rest of the country.

Just one of these Interventions to Aboriginal people on Social Security was the BasicsCard. Later, chiefly to technically comply with the Racial Discrimination Act, the 50 per cent cash-quarantined card was spread to include other poor Northern Territorians. Later still, it was extended to six disadvantaged areas nationally — largely encouraged by their respective Members of Parliament.

The mining billionaire Andrew Forrest's 2014 proposal of the 100 per cent Cashless Card was among 26 of his repressive recommendations accepted by the Abbott Government. In 2017, the proposal was incorporated to two areas, naturally both of high Aboriginal population: the East Kimberley and South Australia's Ceduna area, incorporating Yalata and Oak Valley. It was indiscriminately imposed on all 'welfare' recipients; 80 per cent of their income is quarantined.


"Interviewed about the Cashless Card and the decision to extend the trial in Ceduna and East Kimberley, Tudge spoke of the present tactics as 'innovative, agile and flexible'. In reality they are vindictive."


Though the trial has lately been declared a success by Minister Tudge, SA police reports tell a different story: robbery and related offences were up 111 per cent, aggravated robbery up 120 per cent, non-aggravated robbery up 400 per cent and serious criminal trespass up 20 per cent.

What do the instigators expect? How do those afflicted by alcoholism, drug dependency or gambling neatly and immediately resolve their issues? Prohibited from using 80 per cent of their income on such measures, of course there will be attempts to obtain the cash elswhere. There are also reports of prostitution and various other ways to obtain cash, not necessarily for the now declared 'illegal' purchases. Living as a poor person with so little available cash has many difficulties. There is also the shame of using the distinctive grey card with the name of the for-profit operator, Indue, emblazoned upon it.

Moreover, as Forrest's negotiating partners were Woolworths, Coles and the banks, the May 2017 report that a small Ceduna business is owed $100,000 and is near closure confirms that here is another win for big business and a loss for both the holders of the card and small business. Interviewed about the Cashless Card and the decision to extend the trial in Ceduna and East Kimberley, Tudge spoke of the present tactics as 'innovative, agile and flexible'. In reality they are vindictive.

At Adelaide's March in March gathering, Njole Naujokas' impassioned speech from her personal experience explained how the federal government's constant harassment of those on welfare affects women and children in particular. 'Poverty is a labour of its own, and it's usually a woman's labour,' she said. 'The relentless mental, physical and emotional labour of poverty tugs at the core of a person ...

'Amazing how people on welfare are called lazy. Women especially are kept relentlessly busy with poverty. Going to a laundromat if you have no washing machine, remembering where the free food is given away, budgeting to eat three meals a day on an amount that doesn't even amount to the daily living allowance of a politician, a mother not eating so her children can. Having to say "no" over and over again to her children going to sports, birthdays, canteen lunches, excursions to the point where the child stops asking. Choosing between medicine and food, or food and electricity, or electricity and rent.'

In his novel, 'Barracuda', Christos Tsiolkas has his character, the Scotsman Clyde, declaim that although Australians claim to be egalitarian, in reality, they're 'terrified of the poor'. The present political climate reflects that truth. The poor remain handy political scapegoats, 'dislike for the unlike' malevolently heightened to detestation. Or to use the word of the Australian Council of Social Service: demonisation.


Michele MadiganMichele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent the past 38 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of South Australia and in Adelaide. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.



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Submitted comments

A few years ago I was on a tram in Melbourne, heading for Fitzroy, where I lived. Two young lawyers (I was eagerly listening in to their conversation) were talking about the cost of buying houses in Fitzroy. "But luckily, most of the scum have been pushed out by now", said one woman. SCUM. And these two came from the class that today supplies so many parliamentary representatives today. Fear and loathing indeed.

Joan Seymour 06 June 2017

Thanks Michele!

Annette 07 June 2017

Another great article stressing the insidious ways that we oppress the powerless. Needless to say, while we might apply to other powerless groups the oppressive policies trialled on Indigenous peoples, we show very little willingness to learn from successful initiatives taken by them. On the NSW south coast, Aboriginal elders had a campaign to keep juveniles from the streets where they were tempted to mischief. The state government ignored this success and instead trialled harsh policing policies. Please maintain the fearless insights, Michele.

tony 07 June 2017

"How do those afflicted by alcohol, drug dependency or gambling neatly and immediately resolve their issues?" They are our issues, we are one society and they present to us the face of the one we turn our backs on. We cannot bear to see our pain, we reach for fixes when we are invited to be brothers and sisters.

Steve Sinn 07 June 2017

As a rule, charities such as the St Vincent de Paul Society don't give cash. Are they violating the autonomy or dignity of the people who ask for their assistance?

Roy Chen Yee 07 June 2017

For a long time, the super wealthy have tried to besmirch the poor in society. The poor are generally in that position because of exploitation by the super rich. As capitalism has moved into its "economic rationalist" and "neoliberal" phases, the even smaller percentage of people who are very wealthy have become more rapacious in their greed and more punitive and vindictive towards those whom they exploit. Sister Michele's analysis is very accurate. And our conservative politicians introduce policies to make life even harder for the poorer sections of our society - the poor, indigenous people, asylum seekers, people with disabilities etc. while doling out huge amounts to the very wealthy. During the Industrial Revolution, there were members of the British Liberal Party who deemed it necessary to assist poorer people in society. It was a society safety valve. Many of these liberals - unlike the "Liberals" in this country - financially supported the Methodist chapels that provided food and medical support for the working poor who were underpaid and assisted the early rise of unions. Our society has become extremely alienated as many privileged seek to blame the victims for all the problems we face and seek to punish them. Che Guevara, the Argentinian doctor who fought in the Cuban revolution once said: "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of live." We need to change to have a more compassionate and caring society. Punishing the poor is not the answer.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock 07 June 2017

Dear Roy Chen Yee I didn't answer your question yesterday as I didn't understand what the V de Paul donations had to do with the points I was making re Cashless Card. This is completely different. In a rich country like Australia every citizen deserves to have the benefit of some kind of income. The irony is that the target of controlling that income is focussed on the people First Nations peoples from whom we have wrested almost the entire real estate (which Australia has become) in the first place - to the enormous profit of the rest of us. And then seek to control even that small almost unliveable amount. How can this untargeted system help and not demean the people who are caught in it - including the many who have no drink, drug or gambling problems. My original article had how much this cost - an extraordinary $10,000 per person. But we have a government only too happy to spend in control of the poor - deserving or 'undeserving'

Michele Madigan 08 June 2017

Hello Michele, This is another excellent and important article - I hope that thousands will read it. With thank, Christine

Christine Judith Nicholls 08 June 2017

“….in control of the poor - deserving or 'undeserving'” Thanks for replying, Sr Michele. 38 years of working with Aboriginals in remote locations gives your points of view concerning them a lot of weight. Perhaps I might just ask some questions. Is income quarantining wrong in principle or are you opposed to how it is being practised? Charities practise value-for-money. Based upon the responding official’s or volunteer’s view of a recipient, a charity may ration the number of times the recipient can ask the organisation for help and cap the amounts of assistance given. Shouldn’t a government also practise value-for-money? Can the card be considered racially discriminatory if the overwhelming majority of aboriginals on income support are paid by the usual method of direct deposit? Can the card be anti-poor if, as I suspect, there are no aborigines (or anybody else) on Austudy who are ‘carded’?

Roy Chen Yee 09 June 2017

Pleased to have found this,partic comments M Madigan. Deplorable that mining magnate derived fortune mining Australia's natural resources and seeks to disadvantage "have nots"., Despicable Welfare Card and degrading terms including identification of those forced onto it. Millions donated to government were to ensure smooth passage of the evil card. One has to wonder how one man should have been in a position to get this evil card into circulation.....

Lynne Chinnery 28 June 2017

Thank you for an excellent article.

Chris Vincent 03 August 2017

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