Is Sam Tomarchio, the Laverton-based lender of last resort to Aboriginal residents of remote desert communities, a prince or a profiteer? Tomarchio, who denies wrongdoing, says his services should be understood in terms of "a f**king humanitarian, sympathetic, humanitarian aspect". According to Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, by contrast, his actions are so "appalling" that the situation is a crisis.
A crisis? Well, if one reflects on the "crisis" that precipitated the Northern Territory emergency intervention, it might be so identified. Both relate to longstanding activities of which there was wide awareness - Tomarchio's business may be brazen, but it is far from unique.
Into small communities across remote Aboriginal Australia there flows a constant stream of government funds from which a broad range of players profit. Drawing on my experience as a medical practitioner in remote communities of north Queensland and the Kimberley, the stream of funding is like a river system (think of the Murray-Darling) in which a flow barely able to sustain its dependent ecosystems is serially depleted from source to sea. Little remains when it gets to the mouth, or in this case the mouths of the most vulnerable: children and those unable to scavenge to survive in remote communities.
The stream is depleted at the outset. Virtually all non-welfare funding goes to non-Aboriginal workers or contractors, many of whom are disparaging of the disadvantaged people whose needs are the basis for their secure employment. Furthermore, although there is a common, pejorative perception of Aboriginal Australians as skilled dole bludgers, I regularly have patients who are in receipt of no funds at all, either because they are "between" welfare categories (having shifted location or welfare program, or exited correctional systems), or because they are defeated by the complexities of negotiating with an ever-changing bureaucracy.
The welfare resources that do get to the community are then subject to a variety of deductions. On top of rent for substandard housing this may include costs for damages to property resulting from overcrowding and social ills. More will have deductions to pay fines; a significant subset of my patients are almost constantly paying fines, generally for public nuisance offences incurred while intoxicated or for possession of alcohol in restricted areas.
Once money actually arrives in individuals' hands or accounts, it is vulnerable to profiteers: not only Tomarchio and his like, but family and community members who may have control of individuals' cards and identifiers, the most vulnerable being recipients of disability and aged pensions. But the most liable to "entrepreneurial" extraction are those dependent on alcohol and drugs. Indeed, even where alcohol is available it is in the economic interest of sly groggers and those selling drugs to maintain indebtedness and thus custom. That this may exhaust sustenance funds is of no consequence to either party.
Many of those whose sustenance incomes are not already diverted may yet lose most, if not all, through gambling. Many of my disabled patients are welcomed into circles on payday, where they are quickly fleeced of their cash. They also fall on to the largesse of their non-drinking, non-gambling relatives. Other than selling alcohol and drugs, gambling is one of the ways of concentrating funds in a welfare-dependent economy. The anodyne interpretation of gambling is that it is an intra-community redistributive process, a set of social transactions with no real losers. In reality, concentrating welfare resources into fewer hands supports another level of opportunism. In almost every community there are external contractors who on leaving dispose of goods at inflated prices, and car salesmen who pass on stock that would otherwise be a liability.
However, large capital purchases (largely for vehicles) strain even the concentrating powers of gambling circles and regular windfalls - tax refunds, victim compensation, mining royalty payments. At least until the global financial crisis Aboriginal recipients of disability payments were also being targeted by major banks. On several occasions I have interceded on behalf of Aboriginal patients who were receiving psychiatric disability payments who were confronted with unsustainable repayments for loans that were then provided to third parties (relatives) who had no credit rating - and no compunction.
I could go on. The workforces of health, police, child protection, community administration (I intentionally leave out education, the workforce for which is insufficient in number or skill sets for the tasks it confronts), the ranks of academics, researchers and social entrepreneurs on city salaries and in comfortable accommodation, and the contractors cutting corners in the safe knowledge that standards will be less rigorously enforced - all benefit from continuing dependence of Aboriginal communities and the river of gold that flows through them.
The same may be said for many Aboriginal councils and organisations who often comfortably support administrators and senior staff whose positions are contingent on ensuring local factional favouritism in jobs and activities.
Tomarchio may rightly be cause for indignation, but his crass opportunism is but the most recent - and publicised - example of a longstanding alchemy that transmutes the base metal of indigenous dependence and disadvantage into golden profits. The catalyst is the welfare economy.
While restricting or removing the diversions of the Tomarchios is almost certainly a good thing and will moderately increase flow through the system, it is not likely to have a major impact at the mouth(s). That demands far more complex policy interventions than simply legislating against profiteers. At least for the patients and their families with whom I work, it will require policy that gives people economic control through education and meaningful employment. It must also protect them from the culturally rationalised extortion that allows the irresponsible to shift their losses on to those struggling to nurture their children. Now that's a crisis - and we've known about it for a long time.