on the situation of income support claimants in Australia, constructed as faulty citizens and flawed welfare subjects. Many are on the receiving end of complex, multi-layered forms of surveillance aimed at securing socially responsible and compliant behaviours. In Australia, as in other Western countries, neoliberal economic regimes with their harsh and often repressive treatment of welfare recipients operate in tandem with a burgeoning and costly arsenal of CCTV and other surveillance and governance assemblages. Through a program of ‘Income Management’, initially targeting (mainly) Indigenous welfare recipients in Australia’s Northern Territory, the BasicsCard (administered by Centrelink, on behalf of the Australian Federal Government’s Department of Human Services) is one example of this welfare surveillance. The scheme operates by ‘quarantining’ a percentage of a claimant’s welfare entitlements to be spent by way of the BasicsCard on ‘approved’ items only. The BasicsCard scheme raises significant questions about whether it is possible to encourage people to take responsibility for themselves if they no longer have real control over the most important aspects of their lives. Some Indigenous communities have resisted the BasicsCard, criticising it because the imposition of income management leads to a loss of trust, dignity, and individual agency. Further, income management of individuals by the welfare state contradicts the purported aim that they become less ‘welfare dependent’ and more ‘self-reliant’. In highlighting issues around compulsory income management this paper makes a contribution to the largely under discussed area of income management and welfare surveillance, with its propensity for function creep, garnering large volumes of data on BasicsCard user’s approved (and declined) purchasing decisions, complete with dates, amounts, times and locations.Dee states that
In Australia, reframing welfare governance systems and employment promotion appeals to a rejuvenated neoliberal and paternalistic conception of welfare (Lantz and Marston 2012). At the core of this rationality is a focus on bureaucratic, measurable, rational-technocratic procedures and interventions to ensure compliance and to move welfare recipients into job-search training and employment. Welfare surveillance technologies and investigation strategies are at the heart of this policy suite, expanding the ways the state creates ‘deviants’ out of those who fail to be ‘good market citizens’ and reliable consumers of products and services (Monahan 2008; Maki 2011).
This article considers some of the implications of the expansion of welfare surveillance in Australia. It begins by briefly outlining the backdrop to neoliberal inspired welfare-to-work policies (a feature of both Labor and Conservative Federal Governments in the last thirty years) concerned with restricting access to welfare in general and, specifically, income support payments. Analysis will be extended to include a discussion of more recent so called welfare ‘reforms’, in the context of ‘activation’ and surveillance.
The focus is on the BasicsCard, as Australia is the first country in the world to enact this system of income management on identified income support claimants, introduced under the then Howard (Conservative) Federal Government in 2007 (an election year) in the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER). It is worth noting that in Australia’s Federal system of Government there are six States; Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, and two mainland territories often treated as states, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. There are distinct and at times overlapping responsibilities between the States and Federal or Commonwealth Government, resulting in tensions and disputes over funding and other issues (Healey 2008). For the purposes of this article, the Federal Government only is discussed as it is responsible, through the Department of Human Services, for income support and other social security benefits Australia-wide and is hereafter referred to as the government.
The NTER was and remains, a controversial melange of interventions only implemented in the Northern Territory (NT), ostensibly to address issues raised in the 2007 Little Children are Sacred report, documenting the historic practice of child removal and its negative and on-going outcomes for Indigenous Australian individuals and communities, in the form of child sexual abuse and neglect, domestic violence and a complex array of other problems (Wild and Anderson 2007). Some of the so called ‘emergency measures’ carried out by the Howard Government—which could not bring itself to formally apologise for the forced removal of children featured in the report, while the newly elected Rudd Labor government of 2007 did so—included suspending the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) in order to specifically target Indigenous communities for compulsory health checks and the closure of community employment programs (Cox 2011).
Income management as one element of the NTER operates by ‘quarantining’ a proportion of a person’s social security payments (including Newstart Allowance, Youth Allowance, Parenting Payment, Sickness Benefit and Special Benefit) to a specialised income management account accessed through the (electronic debit) BasicsCard (Australian Council of Social Service 2010; Billings 2011; Mendes 2012). Income managed monies can only be used to purchase items deemed to be ‘essential’ such as food, fuel, clothing, cleaning products and to pay rent. Prohibited items include alcohol, pornography, tobacco and tobacco products, gambling products/services and home-brew kits, but not chocolate, sweets or other ‘unhealthy’ food items (Department of Human Services 2013). In this way, the BasicsCard can be considered as a paternalistic control/caring, monitoring and surveillance assemblage deployed to secure socially and morally ‘responsible’ behaviours from some of the most disadvantaged individuals and the communities they live in, often denied the services and facilities available in most urban centres. The consequences of compulsory income management for welfare recipients include a sense of stigma and feelings of not being trusted, multilayered complexity, and a loss of control and active decision-making over personal and family finances (Cox 2011). …
[S]ystems of surveillance continue to be expanded, and performance measurement and assessment strategies, investigation and surveillance practices reinforce a deficit-oriented framework focused on perceived individual or family failings (Maki 2011). The commodification of data is now a substantial industry, highly influential in persuading governments of all political hues of the alleged benefits of dataveillance in most policy areas. It is clear that the intense shift to a more technological surveillance oriented system deserves closer attention, particularly in the ways apparently rational andideologically ‘neutral’ systems of surveillance mesh so adroitly with punitive welfare regimes (Wrennall 2010).
The surveillance of people on social welfare benefits and services funded or provided through the welfare state is far more intrusive than for those on fiscal welfare, with benefits received through taxation and occupational welfare, with benefits gained through employment (Henman and Marston 2008). Moreover, targeting personal behaviour by withholding income payments is inconsistent with a rights-based approach to income support that had been a feature of welfare policy and ideas about social citizenship in Australia since World War II, with the introduction of unemployment benefits by the Curtin (Labor) Government in 1944, ending the practice of applying for State Government ‘sustenance’ in food and blankets, from police stations (ACOSS 2010). This post war settlement around employment and welfare policies became increasingly brittle following the demise of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1975 and throughout successive Conservative and Labor administrations (Kennedy 1982; Pusey 1991; Bessant et al. 2006). Given the pervasiveness of all forms of surveillance and that ‘cyberspace is not a flat, multilateral plane and the nodes of the network are not all equal’ (Fitzpatrick 2000: 390) arguably, the classic formulation by Marshall and Bottomore (1950) of social, political and civil citizenship rights now needs to take into account a form of virtual citizenship rights—or rights over one’s virtual, data self, analogous to rights and protections concomitant with being a physically constituted being (Dornan and Hudson 2003).
Australia is still, at the time of writing, the only country in the world to impose this type of income management on some of its poorest citizens (Thomas and Buckmaster 2010). While the high tide of welfare surveillance is seemingly irresistible—perhaps even leading to a national identity card—resistance is necessary and powerful and has been an aspect of welfare in Australia since European settlement, with recipients attempting to navigate and subvert an often labyrinthine and administratively perverse system in order to survive (Kennedy 1982; Bryson 1992). The Australian Council of Social Services is calling for the abolition of compulsory income management and the savings made directed to community development projects and greater funding of mental health and other support services (ACOSS 2013). Rollback the Intervention is an Indigenous protest group also resisting compulsory income management and other features of the NTER. In this context, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people form a growing ‘precariat’ whose circumstances and prospects are entirely tenuous but whose rising anger at massive global and local inequalities holds the potential for a progressive agenda for widespread social change (Standing 2011, 2012).
The imposition of the BasicsCard is likely to have perverse effects. It is a clear example of a system implemented with little adequate research related to the effectiveness or otherwise of income management, despite governments consistently emphasising the importance of evidence-based policy making (Cox 2011; Buckmaster and Ey 2012). Administrative (and other) costs are high and the question persists as to whether it is possible to encourage or ‘induce’ people to become self-reliant if they are not trusted to exercise real control over vital aspects of their lives. Spending up to $7,900 to income manage people subsisting on $35 a day is highly discriminatory and counter-productive social policy (ACOSS 2013). Flexible and genuinely voluntary forms of income management, alongside increases in benefit rates and the provision of and investment in, a range of other community based support services would be far more effective in addressing poverty and rebuilding trust between all levels of government and citizens. Randa Kattan, Executive Director of Arab Council Australia wryly suggests that, ‘From the bush to Bankstown, people do not need Income Management. They need job opportunities, higher incomes and improved social services’ (ACOSS 2013: 2). So-called ‘welfare reform’ policies that are hastily conceived and rolled out without mindful and adequate attention to the difficulties of local implementation are most likely to fail, being experienced by welfare recipients as oppressive and vindictive (Priest and Cox 2010; Mendes 2012; Karvelas 2013).