Dateline Australia: Across-the-board attack on welfare parents grows out of government grab for Aboriginal land

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On July 6, Australian Federal Police and army personnel invaded the remote Aboriginal community of Mutitjulu — the first stop in a takeover of Indigenous land throughout the Northern Territory (NT).

Conservative Prime Minister John Howard claims the armed invasion was necessary to save Aboriginal children from sexual abuse, based on information in a recently released report. He ignored, however, the report’s exposŽ of the overall plight of the region’s traditional owners, who have been deprived of funded services and left to die. This is no hyperbole: the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is double that of the disproportion in New Zealand, the United States and Canada.

The real reason for the shocking invasion? Northern Australia’s vast deposits of iron, gold, aluminum, and the world’s largest reserves of uranium.

Protests were held across the country and outside Australian embassies in New Zealand and England. But the government hastily moved to cement and “legitimise” its takeover with a package of laws aimed at returning the NT’s 73 Indigenous communities to the abominable colonial “mission” days, stripping them of all rights to their lands and control over their affairs. Bypassing constitutional safeguards, the government rammed its despicable measures through Parliament on Aug. 17.

The support of the Australian Labor Party, bereft of principles, clinched the legislation’s passage. There’s an election coming up this year, and the ALP did not want to lose the votes of a vocal bigoted minority — nor get on the wrong side of business, especially the mining companies it has been courting.

Name the real child abusers. But Indigenous people were not the only targets of this legislation, as the government used its suppression of Indigenous rights as a racist wedge to attack another vulnerable target — people on welfare.

When it invaded the NT, the government announced the “quarantining” of half of every Aboriginal parent’s welfare income, to be managed by an appointed authority. The August legislation, however, allows the government to quarantine up to 100 percent of the welfare benefit of any Australian parent of a child whose attendance in school is “unsatisfactory” or who is otherwise in need of “protection.” Beginning next year, the government’s welfare agency, Centrelink, will conduct random checks of school attendance records.

Both the government and the ALP have grabbed onto “child neglect” to raid the welfare chest. This is part of a general drive to cut wages and living standards for Australia’s poor and working people in order to further subsidise big business and pay for Australia’s military operations in Iraq and the Pacific.

The new assault on welfare comes just a year after the implementation of Howard’s Welfare to Work regime, a devastating downgrading of the benefits system for single parents and people with disabilities. Among other things, the changes force sole parents to find a minimum of 15 hours of work per week — paid or “voluntary” — once their youngest child turns 6 and, once the child is 8, cuts their benefits.

Last year also saw the passing of budget measures designed to claw back 550 million welfare dollars over five years.

This year, a new task force was set up to haul in another $270 million from age pensioners, veterans, students and families. In July, the Child Support Agency netted $9 million from parents who allegedly failed to properly disclose their incomes.

Meanwhile, one in 10 Australians lives in poverty. Twenty percent of children under 15 are in single-parent households, 87 percent of them headed by mothers. In 2003-2004, 61 percent of these homes relied on welfare.

A survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in that same period showed that over half of sole parents could not pay electricity or gas bills on time. Costs for food, rent, petrol, transportation and education continue to rise. Forty percent of Australians can’t get dental care, because public waiting lists are years long.

For workingclass unity. Australia’s rich and powerful made their money on the backs of Australia’s workers. Ranching, farming, mining, manufacturing, textiles: owners in all these industries amassed great fortunes from paying wages ranging from low to nothing. They particularly exploited women, Aboriginal people, and immigrants, who not only built their businesses but served as cleaners, cooks, nannies, nurses and teachers — and still do. The continuing use of racism and sexism to dispossess the traditional owners and producers of Australia’s wealth, which should be all of ours to look after, share and enjoy, is enraging and painful.

And it must be stopped.

Workers well-placed to begin this effort are Centrelink and other government staff, teachers, and health and community workers. When health workers spoke out against forced medical checks of Indigenous children, Howard backed down, and the examinations became voluntary.

But the Community and Public Sector Union, which covers many state and federal employees, refuses to challenge government policy. The union’s response to the welfare measures goes no farther than health and safety issues: the plight of workers having to cope with more angry, aggressive clients!

It wasn’t always like this. In the 1990s, members of the CPSU refused to implement the introduction of a “dole diary” monitoring system. Imagine if today’s unionised government workers turned their offices into campaign centres for welfare, union and Indigenous rights.

Ultimately, the solidarity capable of transforming isolated, picked-off victims into a powerful, united force can only come from the whole union movement. The multi-pronged assault by Howard, aided and abetted by the ALP, graphically shows how tightly Indigenous rights and conditions are bound up with those of all working people.

To stop Howard and his pals in their tracks, let’s organise around these demands:

• A treaty with Australia’s Indigenous nations, unconditionally recognising Aboriginal sovereignty.

• A comfortable, liveable income for all, free from coercion.

• Secure, affordable housing and free healthcare, childcare and public transport for everyone!  

Melbourne Radical Women Organiser Debbie Brennan is a workplace delegate for the Australian Services Union. She can be contacted at debbie.

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