“ The commonwealth has shown it has no interest in sustaining remote communities in Western Australia. In recent years the commonwealth has transferred its long-held responsibilities for housing and essential and municipal services to the state. And its legal responsibility to administer social security payments for people living in remote communities is operated punitively through the CDP and cashless debit card scheme.
Promoters of this approach say it is the most effective way to address passive welfare and to protect children and women in communities — and, to a certain extent, I am attracted to this rationale. Removing the never-ending humbugging between generations is a worthy aim, but removing cash from a vast landmass with no supporting technology is not working.
It is time we have a genuine dialogue about securing the future of remote communities and work towards establishing a long-term partnership between Aboriginal communities and state and commonwealth governments.
That partnership should incorporate strategies that break the institutionalised ghetto status of these communities and also understand how communities interact with each other. It should also involve best-practice governance models and vastly improved service delivery.
To me Ngaanyatjarra would be an ideal trial site for such an approach.”
Last week I drove from Perth to Warburton and Warakurna, two of the most remote communities on Earth.
Arriving at Warburton, population about 500 people, I visited the community’s administration office and became instantly immersed in the madness people there were dealing with.
A single mother was desperately contacting a distant call centre hoping to have her bank account reactivated after keying the wrong pass code given to her.
Unable to produce the required evidence to identify herself she was told to travel a thousand kilometres to Alice Springs to front in person.
She was desperate and broken.
Another woman with children to feed sought emergency relief after her income was suspended by Centrelink for breaching her work-for-the-dole conditions under the Community Development Program. At the counter a range of community people queued, demanding that overwhelmed staff help them navigate a social security income and banking system that to anyone appears impossibly complex.
This happens regularly, I was told repeatedly, where people have their income cancelled if they fail to report to Centrelink fortnightly on any changes to their living circumstances, miss a monthly report to Jobactive, which runs the CDP scheme, or do not comply with the requirement to work 20 hours a week for the dole all year round.
Given that English is generally not Ngaanyatjarra people’s first language, lack of phone access and the reality that people move between communities for all sorts of cultural and social reasons, the numbers of people denied social security payments is, of course, growing.
Other people complained they could not access funds from their bank because they had been conscripted on to the commonwealth’s income management debit card scheme — usually while spending time in Kalgoorlie — without fully understanding the consequences.
The scheme, which quarantines 80 per cent of social security payments to a special bank card that can be used only at certain vendors and cannot be used to buy alcohol and gamble, is being rolled out in Kalgoorlie and the Goldfields as part of a national trial.
The grog-free Ngaanyatjarra lands are not part of the trial and Ngaanyatjarra people who have been ensnared in the scheme through their visits to Kalgoorlie and other Goldfields towns are joining the increasing number of destitute people who rely on their already impoverished families to survive.
My roadtrip through the Goldfields and the Ngaanyatjarra Lands has been spectacular.
With some of the most remote communities in the world it proves a real policy challenge but the people who live so far from our cities are beautiful, resilient and extraordinarily patient. pic.twitter.com/8iurcRCH77
— Ben Wyatt (@benwyatt) November 8, 2019
A line of these cards is kept behind the office reception in an attempt by the community’s administration to, somehow, turn these cards, inoperable in the lands, into cash.
Clearly there has been significant problems in implementing the scheme, with its Canberra-based designers having no idea how the Goldfields and Ngaanyatjarra Lands operate as an integrated region.
- Large red dot: 500 people or more
- Medium red dot: 200 to 499
- Small red dot: 50 to 199
- Smaller back dot: less than 50 people
Visiting these communities I was struck by an overwhelming sense that people are disempowered and punished by a digital world of faceless and distant bureaucratic controllers.
Centrelink no longer posts cheques, and financial transfers to personalised bank accounts assume people have access to computers and banks. There are no banks in remote communities.
This, combined with declining finances coming into the lands through increased payment cancellations as punishment and the increasing conscriptions on to the cashless card scheme has meant the Warburton community council has had to establish its own quasi banking system through recirculating money from the community store.
This situation is unsustainable. There is already a crisis of financial security in Warburton and other Ngaanyatjarra communities.
I sense the next phase of this crisis is community implosion resulting in a major population relocation to towns such as Kalgoorlie and Laverton if policies aimed at supporting remote communities don’t change; a dynamic that would be replicated throughout remote Australia.