A few weeks ago, I was catching up with a friend whom I hadn’t seen for a year and a half. She wanted to know everything that I had been doing since then. I started to tell her about my life and she got overwhelmed by how complicated it is. “Yeah, I guess it is. Why is that?”

“Most of the complications in your life are due to Centrelink,” my friend observed, astutely. I realised she was right.

Have I written about income management here? I feel like I talk about it all the time. In 2007, when the Northern Territory Intervention started, all Indigenous people in the NT receiving Centrelink payments went on income management, meaning they could only buy “basic” supplies with the money they got from Centrelink. I’m not sure if it was 100% of the income back then, but these days it is 50%. The 50% of money that is income managed is usually spent through a basics card, which just looks like a normal credit card, or so the Centrelink workers keep assuring me. The big difference is that it’s not accepted in most places of retail. The main point of the basics card is that it can’t be used to buy alcohol or pornography, which according to the logic of the policy makers leads directly to child abuse [1].

Income management is now regulated based on geography, rather than race [2]. So when I was on Newstart Jobseeker Allowance and I moved to the NT, well, first of all, Centrelink wanted to cut my payments because I chose to move to a place with higher unemployment rates [3]. I managed to convince them it was good for my career to move there, and this was true on a temporary level as well as a long-term level: as well as moving forward in linguistics, I managed to score not one, but two jobs during my time. Compared to six months being unemployed in North-East Victoria, where I didn’t score a single job. But while they let me live remote and get Jobseekers payments, they still wanted to put me on income management.

I heard stories of balanda (non-indigenous) recipients of Centrelink payments being threatened with income management, but then they had a phone interview, wherein the income management worker would ask them a few questions, basically establish that they weren’t Indigenous, and they got an exemption.

At first when I was threatened with income management, I spoke to a Centrelink officer, who asked me if I was Indigenous. I said no, and he said, well you don’t have to worry about that. But a month or so later Centrelink started writing to me about it again. I tried to get an exemption, but either I’m not savvy enough, or they are cracking down on the racism inherent in the system.

So I went on income management. It was a weird feeling, not having control over what I considered to be my own money. In a way, I kind of liked the solidarity of using basics card at ALPA (the local shop). And while I was in the community, income management didn’t really affect my life. The only place I could use my basics card was at ALPA, and I spent probably about 50% of my money on food anyway. The big problem, that I’m still dealing with, was that income management stays for thirteen weeks after you leave an income managed area. THIRTEEN WEEKS! That’s three months! Once, I asked a Centrelink worker why that was so, and he tried to find out, but couldn’t come up with anything. He waved his hands, indicating the higher powers that be that make these decrees.

The same Centrelink worker told me that it’s not a big deal, because I can use basics card in most major retailers (read: just Woolworths and Coles), and if I want to buy something else, like clothes, I can come into Centrelink and get special permission. Does that sound creepy to anyone else?

At the moment I have about $800 sitting in income management, not including what’s on my basics card. If that were in my bank account I’d be receiving interest on it. But I doubt Centrelink would care about that argument – people on “welfare” aren’t supposed to be able to save, amirite? So I am trying to summon up the energy to go into Centrelink and beg them to let me pay my rent with that money. It’s hard to get motivated to do so because they’ll probably say “oh la that’s really complicated” and push me out the door.

Some Yolngu I’ve spoken to like basics card. Income managed money doesn’t go straight into basics card, it has to be transferred manually. This means that if your husband is humbugging you for money, you can throw your basics card at him, knowing full well that it only has $10 on it, while the rest of your money is safely tucked away in income management.

I don’t want to discount their opinions because it is at odds with my politics. But I’ve heard non-Indigenous people argue that because some Yolngu find it helpful, it must be a good thing. This ignores the underlying issue of how income management was instituted: without consulation. And therefore, the message that it sends: that the government has control over the lives of Indigenous people.

I’m not Indigenous, but being put on income management – and continuing to be on income management – is also a demonstration that the government has control over my life, more so than I am comfortable with. In order to receive the money I need to live, I have to give up control over my own choices.

I guess you could say it’s my own choice to get money from the government. And I know that getting that money is a privilege, not a right. But I can’t work to support myself and study at the same time, and there is no-one else who has the obligation as well as the means to support me financially. So “choice” is not as straightforward as it may seem.

I was going to write about other forms of institutionalisation, but it seems I have a lot to say about income management! I will write more about the institutionalisation of disability, chronic illness and mental illness at a later date.

Update: Since I wrote this last week, I have gone onto Austudy. Centrelink didn’t tell me, though, my job search agency found out first and rang to ask if I wanted to be “exited” from their program. When I went to my Centrelink online account, I discovered that my next payment is going to be the full amount. The income management box has disappeared. Hopefully the hundreds of dollars hasn’t disappeared along with it. So I am going to have to visit Centrelink and beg to have my money back.


1. I’m not arguing whether or not this is true, just stating that this was the justification behind instituting the policy.

2. Andrew “Twiggy” Forrester wants all Centrelink payment recipients to go on it, for the sake of equality with our Indigenous neighbours. Equality in the wrong direction, in my opinion; paternalistic attitudes to all recipients of Centrelink payments, not just those who are Indigenous.

3. Actually, being a fulltime student means I should be straight off income management. But in dealing with another institution, the uni, it took a while to get officially enrolled, and I had to be enrolled before I could put in a claim for Austudy. Then, once I put in the claim, I have to wait 21 business days for them to scratch their arses process my claim. I lodged my claim on the 4th August. I’m still waiting.


One thought on “Institutionalisation

  1. Pingback: Income Management Adventures Part 2 | Emmeline

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