Inside Story

Price and Pearson, uneasy allies?

Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Noel Pearson’s clash over the Voice masks a more complicated picture

Tim Rowse 23 December 2022 2227 words

Jacinta Nampijinpa Price (second from left) with Labor senators Jana Stewart, Malarndirri McCarthy and Pat Dodson after her first speech as a senator in July. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

If it existed right now, the Indigenous Voice to Parliament would be faced with a troubling social policy question: should income management — sometimes referred to as welfare quarantining — ever be compulsory for people reliant on government income support?

Income management has been facilitated by two schemes: the Basics Card, introduced in 2008, and the Cashless Debit Card, or CDC, which was launched in 2017. Each card was designed to stop people on welfare from making purchases deemed harmful to them and/or their communities.

What makes income management an “Indigenous issue” is that most people who must use these cards identify as Aboriginal: as of 27 May this year, more than eight in ten of the 24,825 people on the Basics Card and half of the 17,322 on the CDC. The six regions in which the CDC was introduced between 2016 and 2020 — Ceduna, East Kimberley, the Goldfields region, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, the Northern Territory and Cape York — all had large Indigenous populations.

A high proportion of welfare recipients using these cards haven’t chosen to have their expenditure managed. Someone else has decided for them: the Australian government or (in Cape York) a community-based panel working under the local Family Responsibilities Commission. These organisations have declared that certain welfare recipents can’t be trusted to spend their money wisely or deserve protection from others’ predation.

While some welfare recipients have found these constraints helpful, many would like to have had the option of agreeing to or refusing such help. Many feel stigmatised by “the Card,” or at least unreasonably inconvenienced by it.

In September this year Labor abolished the CDC, and many of its users are now being “transitioned” to the Basics Card. Critics of compulsion were encouraged by Labor’s decision: they hope the Albanese government will soon take the next step and make the Basics Card optional, giving the swelling ranks of its users the choice of whether to continue under its discipline. Some critics would prefer the government to go further and abandon income management programs altogether.

Labor has promised to consult widely before making further decisions about the Basics Card. The momentum is in the direction of an optional card because recent discussions have revealed wide agreement — among both its defenders and its critics — that it is a more “primitive” (Noel Pearson’s term) tool than the CDC.

Because the CDC used existing banking infrastructure, cardholders could shop at around a million outlets with EFTPOS facilities, and could also shop online and internationally. The Basics Card can be used only at a dramatically more limited number of stores individually approved by the Australian government.

To acknowledge the defects of the Basics Card is one thing; to make its use entirely optional is quite another. The idea that some authority should control the spending of irresponsible or vulnerable welfare recipients still has firm defenders. But if compulsory income management is to remain in the social policy toolkit, who should decide which welfare recipients will be controlled, and by what criteria will they be selected?

It is an orthodoxy of our times that only extensive Indigenous consultation will assure good Indigenous program outcomes. Among the Coalition’s objections to Labor’s decision to abolish the CDC was the accusation that the Albanese government didn’t sufficiently consult affected communities. If the Voice were up and running — both nationally and at the local/regional levels — it could advise the government about the principles that should govern Indigenous Australians’ (and others’) welfare entitlements. The thirty-five Local and Regional Voices might even be able to propose regional variations on the modes of welfare delivery, which are already emerging.

Despite criticising the Albanese government for failing to consult on the CDC, the Nationals’ Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a senator from the Northern Territory, has pledged emphatically to oppose the Voice, and she has the National Party behind her. But her position is not as clear as it could be. After all, as partners of the Liberal Party, the Nationals supported allocating $31.8 million in the March 2022 budget to establishing Local and Regional Indigenous Voices, with a view to legislating them some time in the future.

Has the National Party in opposition repudiated a position on the Voice it supported in government? Has Price withdrawn her own taunting suggestion to the Albanese government in August 2022: “If this government is so hellbent on establishing this Voice then it needs to first demonstrate it can be successful, by legislating it rather than enshrining it”? One thing that is clear is that Price and the Nationals don’t want an Indigenous Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution.

Price’s recent pledge to lead the No campaign in the referendum was scornfully slapped down by one of the leading advocates of a Yes vote, Noel Pearson. On 29 November, he dismissed Senator Price as trapped in a “redneck celebrity vortex.” But this spectacular confrontation on the referendum issue obscured the extent to which Price and Pearson are in agreement on the question of whether Labor erred in abolishing the CDC. Both of them believe compulsory income management should continue for individuals whose unfettered use of welfare income poses a threat to their community.

Price and Pearson’s convergence in defence of compulsory income management — with the CDC as its tool — was on display in August at the Senate inquiry into the bill that abolished the CDC. Senator Price was asking questions; Pearson was among those answering.

What did they say?

As one of three representatives of the Cape York Institute appearing before the Senate committee on 16 August, Pearson described how income management commenced in 1999–2000 on Cape York. At first, recipients had volunteered for the scheme, some of them as a justification for telling importuning kin that they couldn’t oblige demands for cash because their spending was being controlled.

For these welfare recipients, compulsory income management was a way of resisting “demand sharing” — a practice honoured by Indigenous custom but fatal to the wellbeing of many. The legislation to abolish the CDC, said Pearson, “will wipe out twenty years of my work.”

According to Pearson and his colleagues, the most important achievement of the Cape York Family Responsibilities Commission, or FRC, had been identifying local authorities with the capacity to decide whose income should be managed. Local commissioners and local elders identify errant or defenceless members of participating communities and put them on the card. “Your own people will hold you to account,” explained Pearson, urging the government to “fund similar decision-making mechanisms” in other communities.

“Our work in Cape York will be severely kiboshed if we don’t have a card facility attached to the FRC,” Pearson claimed. The CDC was the better card for the FRC to work with because it offered greater flexibility to the small number of Cape York people (around one hundred at any one time) on whom budget discipline is imposed for three to twelve months. Labor’s legislation would force them back to the “primitive” Basics Card.

The entire Senate committee found the Cape York Institute presentation persuasive. The majority report (senators Marielle Smith, Janet Rice, Louise Pratt, Anne Urquhart and David Pocock) recommended the CDC be abolished, subject to the government working with the FRC to ensure that it could find a practical substitute. The Coalition senators (Slade Brockman, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Anne Ruston, Wendy Askew and Matt O’Sullivan) used their minority report to wholly endorse Pearson’s objection to terminating the CDC, pointing out that the thousands of people in the Northern Territory who had transferred from the Basics Card to the CDC would now have to return to a card they found less useful. They criticised the government for not revealing its plans for those on compulsory income management, and slammed it for inadequate consultation.

How the users of the CDC will be affected remains to be seen. If the FRC is frustrated by the transition to the Basics Card, we can be certain that the Cape York Institute won’t remain silent. Pearson is a formidable advocate. Whether the government will encourage bodies equivalent to the FRC to form in other regions is hard to predict. If ever the thirty-five Local and Regional Voices come into existence, I imagine some of them will examine this possibility.

Senator Price made it clear she is impressed by the Cape York approach to compulsory income management, referring to it several times at committee hearings subsequent to Pearson’s presentation. Addressing witnesses from Ceduna, she acknowledged that committee members were aware of the FRC model and “how this sort of program might actually benefit other communities,” especially those that are “tight-knit.” She asked another witness whether she thought the FRC “framework” demonstrated that “a form of income management that is tailored to a community can work.”

At another point Price asked a witness from Change the Record (a coalition that wants all forms of income management abolished) to consider the help that the FRC would give to a victim of domestic violence or to neglected children. She drew another witness’s attention to “a framework in Cape York where the community understands the circumstances of individuals within a family group” and intervenes “to ensure that those vulnerable people are taken care of.”

All of this means that Price must have been shocked on 29 November to hear Pearson excoriate her for the Nationals’ position on the Voice. “Ultimately it’s a tragic redneck celebrity vortex that she’s caught up in,” Pearson told ABC radio, “and it involves right-wing people, particularly… the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies. They’re the string pullers… and their strategy was to find a Blakfulla to punch down on other Blakfullas.”

“I am no stranger to attacks from angry men,” Price responded, adroitly transforming Pearson from protector of women and children to “angry man.”

Those words reflected Price’s seemingly deep ambivalence about the representative capacities of organisations that claim to speak for Indigenous Australians who suffer at the hands of family members. Implicit was the question: are organisations critical of compulsory income management (really) a vehicle for men’s interests?

This is the kind of gender-nuanced question the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory has long asked of the powerful statutory land councils. Price speaks from within that tradition of conservative political discourse that highlights the vulnerability of women and children to men.

“I know it’s easy for organisations to be heard and speak up,” Price said at another point in the committee’s proceedings. “Has it been difficult for some of the vulnerable people to be heard?” Time after time, she raised doubts about the “governance” of organisations that oppose compulsory income management. Responding to research criticising the practice, she contrasted organisational views with the outlook of “the individuals themselves.” Price was alive to the possibility that an organisation’s view could be more reflective of its leaders’ attitudes than of “those they serve.”

Price’s own experiences give her the confidence to make this sustained critique of existing instruments of Indigenous representation. Her political persona derives not only from being the child of a Warlpiri mother and white father, raised in Alice Springs, but also from being a woman and a mother herself, a member of a structurally vulnerable category that includes her relatives and friends.

“Do people in your organisation have lived experience in some of these places?” she asked one critic of compulsory income management — “particularly places like remote communities in the Northern Territory?”

She is also one of the few politically successful Central Aboriginal people for whom none of the large “Indigenous sector” organisations (including the Central Land Council, Tangentyere Council and Central Australian Aboriginal Congress) is a power base. Making a virtue of her tense and sceptical relationship with such bodies, she has thrived in elected office under the patronage of a Country Liberal Party that claims to speak for the Aboriginal people neglected by the Indigenous sector.

This way of relating to her home region differentiates Price from Pearson and helps to explain their opposing positions on the Voice. While Pearson’s voice has been facilitated nationally by the Murdoch press, his power base is in the regional Aboriginal organisations he has helped to build since the 1980s. It is there in Cape York that he has conducted social policy trials persuasive enough to win financial patronage and delegated responsibilities from federal and state governments.

Indeed, Pearson is Australia’s leading theorist and practitioner of Indigenous regionalism. He also conspicuously refuses to be party political. Implicit in his political trajectory has been the choice not to stand for elected office as the preselected candidate of a major party.

If the Indigenous Voice were established, and if it included a strong regional tier (as recommended by Tom Calma and Marcia Langton in their final report on the Indigenous Voice co-design process), Price would find herself marginal to any Central Australian or Northern Territory Indigenous Voice(s). This is because they would probably be fashioned from the very NT Aboriginal organisations against which Price defines herself as the tribune of the vulnerable and unrepresented.

Pearson, by contrast, could vaunt the Cape York structures with which he identifies as prototypes of regional Indigenous empowerment. He was making that case, very effectively, in his August pitch to the senators against Labor’s abolition of the Cashless Debit Card. •