Indigenous women: Rethinking economic security


The Women’s Policy Action Tank recently published a special issue of the Good Policy newsletter, exploring three areas of policy with a gender lens: women and the criminal justice system, Indigenous women, and women’s experience of employment. Each topic is explored using a dialectical approach, in which two authors approach a topic from a different angles. We will be publishing the paired articles on our blog over the coming three weeks. This week: read about the impacts of the welfare system on Indigenous women. This article is a companion piece to Income Management and Indigenous women, by Shelley Bielefeld.

Elise Klein, Development Studies, University of Melbourne

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a simple idea: provide every resident (child and adult) of a particular geographic location a regular and unconditional subsistence wage. Scholars, activists, and politicians have argued that UBI has radical potential for societies around the world; from increasing freedom for people to live the lives they value, to the realisation of justice – where the social dividend transfers democratic power back to the citizenry through economic rights.

Feminists have also considered UBI as a valuable contribution towards women’s economic empowerment; specifically as it is a way to value the work of unwaged productive labour. In many societies women have held the burden of providing economic security for families through unpaid care and domestic work.[1] Whilst care and household productive labour is drastically undervalued, it is extremely important to both domestic and public spheres. Yet these broader definitions of labour and work are limited in Australian employment policy – restricted to merely the involvement in the formal labour market.

Many Indigenous Australians living remotely are also challenged by similar limitations around the definitions of work and labour. Indeed, productive work ‘on country’ where Indigenous peoples undertake customary (non-market) work for livelihoods is severely undervalued and often not incentivised by government policies.[2] The Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) was a notable exception; it provided an economic base and sufficient flexibility to support diverse Indigenous aspirations and livelihoods. Moreover, Altman (1987) found that CDEP was used to remunerate productive work inside the home – labour generally undertaken by women.[3]

A universal basic income could support Indigenous women to live the lives they value.  Photo courtesy of Goodstock photos . 

A universal basic income could support Indigenous women to live the lives they value. Photo courtesy of Goodstock photos

However, CDEP was dismantled in 2004 as part of the neo-assimilations and neo-colonial turn of the Australian settler state. CDEP was replaced by the misnamed Community Development Program (CDP), a work for the dole scheme, which not only disregards diverse Indigenous aspirations of work outside of the formal economy, but also enforces integration into market capitalism, all the while unwilling to recognise the precarious nature of labour markets in remote Australia.[4] This neo-colonial policy has led to further hardship for Indigenous peoples living remotely.

Many Indigenous women are therefore faced with a double burden. Not only is their reproductive work and labour undervalued as women, they also have to contend with neo-colonial policies implemented by the Australian settler state.[5] Indeed, when faced with the fallout of punitive polices such as income management and sanctions on work for the dole arrangements, many Indigenous women have to fill in the gaps in household income, care and community support.

It is in this context that a UBI may be useful to consider. Specifically, like CDEP, a UBI could:

·         Support Indigenous notions of productive labour as the payment is unconditional

·         Provide an income floor in precarious and insecure labour markets – especially for people living remotely

·         Increase the sense of agency and freedom to live the lives women value

·         Appease some outcomes of poverty such as domestic violence and alcoholism through improving economic security

However, UBI is not a panacea. Services such as education, health, social supports and community development initiatives must work alongside economic security, and are therefore still extremely important and need continued support. Yet a consequence of the neo-assimilationist and neo-colonial turn of Indigenous policymaking has seen the dramatic defunding or underfunding of Indigenous-controlled services. One option for rebuilding the Indigenous sector is to make unconditional stakeholder grants available alongside an individual basic income. This will require recognition that it is effective Indigenous grassroots organisations that can address the aspirations and needs of Indigenous people to live the lives they value.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that policy in Australia is part of the settler colonial infrastructure. Primacy must be given to Indigenous peoples making sovereign decisions. Therefore, the uptake of a UBI must come from Indigenous women themselves, and not be enforced by the state or non-Indigenous organisations.


[1] Waring, M. (1999). Counting for Nothing: What men value and what women are worth. Toronto: Toronto University Press.

[2] See Jordan, K. (ed.) (2016). Better than welfare? Work and livelihood for Indigenous Australians after CDEP. Canberra: ANU Press.

[3] Altman, J. (1987). Hunter-Gatherers Today: An Aboriginal Economy in North Australia. Canberra, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

[4] Sanders, W. (2016). Reframed as welfare: CDEP's fall from favour. Better than Welfare: Work and livelihood for Indigenous Australians after CDEP. K. Jordan. Canberra, ANU Press.

[5] Moreton-Robinson, A. (2009). The Good Indigenous Citizen: Race, War and the Pathology of Patriarchal White Sovereignty. Cultural Studies Review, 15:2, pp. 62-79. ; Watson, I. (2007). Aboriginal Women's Laws and Lives: How might we keep growing the law? Australian Feminist Law Journal, 26, pp. 95-109.