Fighting Poverty From Below: An Interview with the Anti-Poverty Network QLD

Fighting Poverty From Below: An Interview with the Anti-Poverty Network QLD

Sei Ahnne – Anti-Poverty Network QLD at their JobActive Speak-out During the anti-poverty 2021 Week of Action

Anti-Poverty Network QLD is a militant grassroots organisation of people in poverty for people in poverty. If you would like to find out more about APN or get involved in the fight against poverty more information, they can be reached through their website and facebook. APN can also be found in their home at Common House every Monday between 4pm and 7pm.

The following is an interview with long-time Anti-Poverty Network and Anarchist Communists Meanjin member Sei in which they discuss the history of Anti-Poverty Network QLD, the amazing work they are doing in building the power of people in poverty, and the lessons they’ve learnt in struggle.

  1. What led to the formation of APN? 

APN formed in 2017 in response to the disregard with which those in poverty are treated in our society. There had been a few casual conversations about forming an organisation similar to that of Anti-Poverty Network South Australia, a group that fights for welfare, homeless etc rights. There was a bit of hemming and hawing about the idea, APN SA was still relatively new and most members hadn’t been around this type of organising on the left before, but the catalyst came when the local council and police started ‘evicting’ some people from the bridge they were sleeping under. These were people who were already sleeping rough, already getting hassled by police constantly, and the cherry on top was the council coming along and taking their belongings, sleeping bags, personal items etc to be thrown in the dump. I feel like that really kicked everyone’s butt into deciding let’s do this.

  1. As a militant anti-poverty organisation how does APN differ from other organisations doing similar work on paper? 

For starters we’re a grassroots organisation where the vast majority of membership is made up of poor people. We’re not from the “anti-poverty sector,” the closest we would come to that would be having a few social worker members. So we have a material interest in ending poverty rather than just doing our jobs. Another difference is we refuse to just deal with the symptoms of poverty, we actively challenge those who profit from poverty and the system that creates them. This comes out in how we organise – our aim is the self-organisation of the people. So while we might be demanding the same thing as say an NGO, like the abolition of the cashless welfare card, for example, our reasoning for doing so, our goals and the tactics we use to reach them are going to be different.

  1. What projects is APN currently working on?

They’re very intertwined but you can roughly break APNs work into two areas. The first is what you’d call campaigns or immediate reforms. Examples are things like raising the JobSeeker rate and abolishing the cashless welfare card, but our major campaign is the fight against the JobActive system. 

The second area is more nebulous and long term, and where the anti-capitalism of a lot of our members factors in. It’s facilitating the organisation of the poor, which our own membership to an anti-poverty organisation is obviously the first step towards. But it’s more than recruitment, it’s building the fight against poverty in already existing networks and communities, particularly in the outer suburbs long neglected by the left. Mutual aid work is part of this, we’ve found that by having things like clothes and hygiene necessities for giving away on our stalls that connections have been built that wouldn’t have otherwise, and people who otherwise had no way to help others with their skills or resources have joined in. Other mutual aid stuff we do includes car care clinics, conversational english classes etc. Advocacy and advocacy training are also part of this, so helping people navigate the Centrelink bureaucracy and spreading the skills for others to do so really builds up people’s understanding that you can stand up to the government. It can start with helping your mate have their payments restored and then the thought starts, ‘if I can win this one little thing I can win more little wins, I can win reforms and I can take on the beast that is this system’. Overcoming alienation and building up people’s confidence to understand that they can fight back is an important thing. Honestly, when you’ve been shit on your entire life, it’s a powerful thing. Earnest university students with flyers, however, tend to provoke the response, “yeah we need radical change but it’s pointless to try.”

  1. APN has recently begun a campaign against the JobActive system. Can you elaborate on the campaign, and why the JobActive system is such a focus for APN? 

JobActive is a system where people on Centrelink payments are referred to private agencies that are supposed to help them find work. Sounds fine on paper and we’re not opposed to people receiving help in writing a resume or getting work shoes. But JobActive does not exist for that, it’s a mandatory system that exists to browbeat and humiliate people in order to punish them for being poor, to push them into any work no matter how unsuitable and to make being on welfare so awful workers will accept poor pay and conditions in order to avoid it. It’s made up of a network of private companies who are making a fortune off the backs of the poor. Billions of dollars in public funds are funneled in corrupt private companies. It exists solely to benefit bosses, not help the unemployed.

Our main demand in this campaign is “Scrap JobActive and the Cashless Welfare Card and Investigate the Crooks!” Anti-Poverty Network QLD calls for the immediate abolition of all mutual obligations as well as the cashless welfare card and an immediate investigation into the abuse enacted by the JobActive system and Indue. 

It’s such a focus for us because it’s so insidious. Without this punitive mechanism people on welfare would have less to fear in pushing back against the system. The stories of abuse from these job agencies are atrocious, they harass and humiliate people until they’re nervous wrecks. They’ve cost people new jobs by harassing their employers for proof of employment so they can get their government kickbacks of up to $4500 in some cases. No one deserves to live like that just because they can’t work or can’t find work. The amount of available jobs is much less than the amount of people looking for work. Why should people live in fear of their means of survival being cut off by some unqualified ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ idealogue just because our economic system needs an unemployed underclass? It’s also good to keep in mind the sort of role this type of system plays in capitalism and the wider class struggle. The government can make all the justifications for punitive mutual obligations they like, and people can call them evil for doing it, but at the end of the day, there is a reason behind it. Having a reserve army of labour that are in poverty, brow-beaten and completely demoralised means there is a massive population that can be used to undercut employed workers by accepting unsafe or underpaying jobs, in some extreme cases even resorting to scabbing, out of desperation to escape their situation.. From a class struggle anarchist perspective that is the real crux of the issue. JobActive doesn’t exist because the LNP or ALP are evil, but as an attack on the entire working class. This is why we really need to see the unions and the entire working class participating in the fight back.  

  1. What lessons have you learnt over the past 4 years of APN that you would like to pass onto people looking to organise against poverty? 

Poverty is a systemic issue, capitalism cannot survive without it. So it’s important to keep that in mind – poverty isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. I think it’s important to keep that in mind because it’s going to affect how you organise. If you consider poverty a bug that can be fixed by appealing to politician’s consciences, you’re going to gear your strategy towards lobbying, by asking nicely, getting the “right” people into power or throwing a tantrum to threaten them. While it’s more boring and long term you’ve got to focus on the self organisation of the people – we owe a lot of our current welfare system to this, we got it through the power of both unemployed and employed people organising. It’s tempting to just engage in charity or to make a snappy social media campaign but if that doesn’t mobilise people and get them working together it’s really for squat.

Have a well thought through strategy and stick with it long enough to see if it actually works. APN used to have a problem with issue-hopping because we didn’t have a clear idea of what our medium term goals were or what tactics we needed to use to reach them. I think the current process APN uses to work out strategy is pretty good, I’m not going to spend five minutes here talking about it but if you’d like us to take you through it for your own organising please get in touch.

Avoid saviourism for the love of god.  I guess it’s a bit ironic for this question but it’s striking a balance between thinking you know all the lessons versus being completely passive. Someone who has lived in student poverty for a few years isn’t going to have all the answers for someone coming from intergenerational poverty, likewise someone from the city towards someone from the country and so on. Lots of people are doing similar advocacy and mutual aid work in their own communities, it just isn’t organised in the political manner that is needed for systematic change. Providing the means and encouragement to get people organising in this way is the main job, trying to help people past the “like the facebook page, come to the rally, alright job done” mindset.

There’s lots more but these would be the main lessons I’ve learned. I try to keep abreast of what similar groups are doing nationally and internationally because there’s always something to pick up. Obviously if I knew all the answers we’d be free of poverty right now.

  1. Mutual aid has been a vital part of APN’s work and growth. Can you explain a bit about mutual aid and what separates it from charity? Have you encountered any pitfalls with that area of work? 

There’s no set consensus on what mutual aid is honestly. When used in the context of political organising it seems to be one of those new left phrases that’s become an anarchist shibboleth. A broad definition of mutual aid would be that it  is about establishing a reciprocal relationship of support where everyone stands as equals. Mutual aid breaks out of the capitalist illusion of survival of the fittest and social life as competition and instead shows another path – that of survival of the community and social life as cooperation. There’s a lot of conversation about what is mutual aid, what’s service provision, and what’s charity. Besides not falling into the trap of charity, you know saviourism, the idea that poor people should scrape by thanks to the good will of the rich. I don’t really care about what something is defined as, I care about its implications and results. It’s the same principle as looking at how you win reforms – did you win it by begging politicians (though this rarely works) or through people power. One tactic demobilises the masses and gives them false faith in the likelihood of reforming poverty away, one builds the self organisation of poor people that can do away with poverty for good. When doing stuff that falls under the mutual aid umbrella this is the main thing to keep in mind.

The pitfalls come from this nebulous definition, it’s very easy to construe anything as mutual aid, so people will engage in what’s basically charity or service provision (I don’t necessarily think service provision is bad for leftist orgs if it’s been considered properly by the way) but be like, well my intentions are better than say that of the Salvos so what I do is mutual aid. It’s not really a problem with APN QLD but I’ve noticed it in other countries, particularly in the USA, where many community organisers or activists engage in mutual aid because it’s easy. Not easy in the sense of there’s little work, there’s so much grunt work involved, but it’s a way to do something, to feel good without engaging in the far more difficult work of organising against the system. You reach your goals fairly quickly when doing mutual aid exclusive work, there’s no end in sight when trying to abolish poverty altogether. I’m not shitting on these groups, I think they do good work, but the idea that running a food bank or driving people to their doctors appointments or whatever alone is enough is hopelessly naive at best and defeatist at worst.

  1. Any closing statements? 

If you’re employed with a good wage don’t think the plight of people in poverty doesn’t affect you. Forcing people into unsuitable jobs or work for the dole undercuts your pay and conditions. Not being a scab is definitely an ethical thing, but it’s silly to just rely on that. We need to make sure there’s a safety net, that there isn’t a huge mass of desperate people and to ensure the material conditions that lead to people scabbing are lessened.

Get involved! The situation in Australia is becoming more dire. The doubling of Jobseeker payments with the COVID supplement shows that decent welfare payments are definitely possible, there just isn’t enough political will amongst the two major parties for it. Mutual obligations and JobActive are bald-faced corruption. They’re totally unnecessary and exist only to punish and force poor working conditions upon us. We have to force these reforms and it’s only possible by building popular power.

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