SYDNEY // A government programme that requires at least half of social welfare payments to be spent on food and other essentials, instead of cigarettes, alcohol and gambling, is discriminating against the most disadvantaged, say critics.
The government programme, known as "income management", was first introduced in the remote Aboriginal communities of Australia's Northern Territory in 2007 and is now being expanded into five urban areas, including Bankstown, a suburb of southwestern Sydney, one of the country's most ethnically diverse areas.
There, for a trial period, some welfare recipients are having 50 to 70 per cent of their benefits quarantined on a BasicsCard that can only be used in certain stores, and only to buy goods such as groceries and medicines.
But community organisations, trade unions and church groups are waging a war of resistance.
"The best way of working with people who are having a hard time is to empower them and build up their skills and resources," said Pam Batkin, who runs a community services centre. "Income management does the opposite. It says to people that you can't manage money and we're going to mark you out as someone who's not capable. It profoundly undermines them."
Three categories of people are having their income quarantined: those deemed to be financially vulnerable, because they are behind with their rent, for instance, and in danger of losing their home; those referred by a child protection officer because their children are considered neglected or at risk; and those who volunteer for the scheme.
Fewer than 100 people are on the programme across the five trial sites in Australia, a government senate hearing was told in October. Three people were referred because they were deemed as vulnerable and 93 had volunteered.
The aim of the programme, which is said to be unique to Australia, is to ensure that children in low-income families are properly fed, clothed and housed. The federal government is also interested to see if it can help to address addiction-related social problems.
But opponents say income management is too blunt an instrument. They claim the policy will make life harder for people who are already struggling, and they object to the expense of administering it - A$117.5 million (Dh449.7 million) for the trial over the next four years.
In Bankstown, where 127 languages are spoken, multiculturalism adds another dimension. The main shopping street, Chapel Road South, has halal butchers, Korean greengrocers, Vietnamese fishmongers and Lebanese sweet shops. There are women haggling over durians and bundles of pak choi, and barbecued chickens dangling in the window of Chinese restaurants.
Locals cannot shop in Chapel Road South with a BasicsCard. The big supermarkets and chain stores dominate the list of Bankstown businesses approved to accept the card.
"It contributes to social exclusion, because you can't shop where your community shops. These are people who already feel isolated, who might have come here as refugees, and it's cutting them off from a way of connecting back to their culture," said Shanna Langdon, from the Metro Migrant Resource Centre.
The stigma associated with the bright green card is another concern. "When people use this special card, everyone sees them just like second-class citizens," says Angela Zhang, a community worker with Asian Women at Work.
"They feel shame, like they put something here" - she taps her forehead - "saying you can't manage money, you're stupid, you use drugs or you got some problem."
Proponents point to a study in Western Australia, where the programme has already been tested and where 60 per cent of those questioned thought it had "made their life better". Lee-Ann Platz, who volunteered for the programme in Perth, said it helped her plan a household budget.
"It's stopped that compulsive spending where I really didn't need to do it. It's been great for the budget ... I had heaps of food in the house, bills were getting covered, rent was covered and everything was running really well."
However, a report for Australia's Parliamentary Library, which evaluated all the available research, said there was "an absence of adequate data related to the effectiveness or otherwise of income management".
If the current trial is judged a success, the scheme is likely to be rolled out more widely. So far, it has spread with minimal public debate - which Eva Cox, a Sydney-based sociologist, attributes to the fact that "since [it] started as a targeted Aboriginal programme, other sectors of the population assumed it had nothing to do with 'people like us'."
The government says the five locations were chosen because of their high levels of unemployment and long-term welfare dependency. In Bankstown, however, many are convinced that the area - which has a large Lebanese population - was chosen because it already had a bad reputation.
During the past decade or so, Bankstown has been the scene of a series of gang rapes, carried out by young Lebanese men, as well as tit-for-tat drive-by shootings. Randa Kattan, head of the Arab Council Australia, believes that income management will reinforce prejudices. As another local puts it: "They knew people would say, 'Yeah, there's a lot of Lebs there, and they're rorting [defrauding] the system.'"
When the policy was introduced in the Northern Territory, it was attacked as racially discriminatory. "Now they're targeting people who are poor and unemployed," says Ms Batkin.