A toxic mix welfare reform and the mob in remote australia – new matilda

The first workshop explored issues around excessive consumption by industrialised societies globally and how this is harming human health and destroying the planet. Workshop participants asked how such ‘consumptogenic’ systems might be regulated for the global good? My job was to provide a case study from my research on consumption by Indigenous people in remote Australia.

The first is to Close the Gaps so that Indigenous Australians can one future day have the same socio-economic status as other Australians. In remote Australia this goal is linked to the project to ‘Develop the North’ via a combination of opening Aboriginal communities and lands to more market capitalism and extraction, purportedly for the improvement of disadvantaged Indigenous peoples and land owners.


The second aim of policy is the extreme regulation of Indigenous people and their behaviour, when deemed unacceptable. In a punitive manifestation of neoliberal governmentality, the Australian state, and its nominated agents, are looking to morally restructure Indigenous people to transform them into model citizens: hard-working, individualistic, highly educated, nationally mobile at least in pursuit of work (not alcohol), and materially acquisitive.

This form of consumption might include hunting kangaroos or feral animals like the estimated 100,000 wild buffalo in Arnhem Land. Such hunting is good for health because the meat is lean and fresh; it is also good for the environment because buffalo eat about 30kg of vegetation a day and are environmentally destructive; and it is good for global cooling because each buffalo emits methane with a carbon equivalent value of about two tonnes per annum.

The legal challenge of gaining native title rights and interests is that claimants must demonstrate continuity of customs and traditions and connection to their claimed country. But in remote Australia, culture and tradition have been identified as a key element of the problem that is exacerbating social dysfunction. (That is unless tradition appears as fine art ‘high culture’ which is imagined to be unrelated to the everyday culture and is a favourite item for consumption by metropolitan elites.)

Such empty land would be ripe for resource extraction and capitalist accumulation by dispossession Despite all the talk of mining on Aboriginal land, there are currently very few operating mines on the Indigenous estate. This is imagined as one means to Develop the North, but recent history suggests that the long-term benefits to Aboriginal land owners from such development will be limited.

From 2007 to 2012 all communities in Arnhem Land were prescribed under NT Intervention laws. Since 2012, under Stronger Futures laws legislated in force until 2022, the Aboriginal population has continued to be subject to a new hyper-regulatory regime: income management, government-licenced stores, modern slavery-like compulsory work for welfare, enhanced policing, unimaginable levels of electronic and police surveillance, school attendance programs and so on.

The limited availability of mainstream work in this region as elsewhere means that most adults of working age receive their income from the new Community Development Program introduced in 2015. Weekly income is limited to Newstart ($260) for which one must meet a work requirement of five hours a day, five days a week if aged 18-49 years and able-bodied.

Since the year 2000, Noel Pearson has popularised his metaphor ‘welfare poison’. Pearson is referring figuratively to what he sees as the negative impacts of long-term welfare dependence. In Arnhem Land welfare is literally a form of poison because in the name of ‘food security’ people are forced to purchase foods they can afford with low nutritional value from ‘licenced’ stores.

With income management Aboriginal people are being coerced to shop at stores according to the government’s rhetoric for their ‘food security’. Before the introduction of this regime many more people were exercising their ‘food sovereignty’ right to harvest far healthier foods from the bush. The consumption of traditional Aboriginal bush foods continue to decline in the face of misguided Australian Government policies. (IMAGE: CameliaTWU, Flickr)

Hence in Arnhem Land, people maintain strong vestiges of a hunter-gatherer subjectivity that when combined with deep poverty makes them avid consumers of western commodities that are bad for health (like tobacco that is expensive and fatty, sugary takeaway food that is relatively cheap). Banjo Morton, an Ampilatwatja elder bordering the Utopia homelands. (IMAGE: Chris Graham)

Second, the Community Development Programme is a coercive disaster that is far more effective at breaching and penalising the jobless for not complying with excessive requirements than in creating jobs. CDP is further impoverishing people and should be replaced, especially in places where there are no jobs, with unconditional basic income support.

Fourth, the native title of remote living people should be protected to ensure that they benefit from all their rights and interests. There is no point in legally allocating property rights in natural resources valuable for self-provisioning if people are effectively excluded from access to their ancestral lands and the enjoyment of these resources.