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'No, Gary Johns, Indigenous women aren't kept pregnant as 'cash cows'.'

Former Labor MP suggesting Aboriginal women are kept pregnant as welfare “cash cows” is utterly degrading, and does nothing to benefit the mature debate we should have around welfare reliance and Indigenous recognition, writes Patricia Karvelas.

When former Labor MP Gary Johns said poor women – particular Aboriginal women – were being kept pregnant as “cash cows” for welfare money, it was not just a “clumsy” use of language. Johns has form when it comes to talking about the nation’s poorest people.

Late last year he wrote an op-ed saying if a person’s sole source of income was welfare, they should only receive that welfare if they are on contraception. The notion that women would be deprived of reproductive control and forced onto birth control drugs by the state is so deeply out of step with the values we’ve built in this nation he was roundly dismissed and ridiculed at the time.

So when Johns made the new statements during Channel Ten’s Bolt Report program on Sunday, where he was discussing constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians with Andrew Bolt – it was unsurprisingly but equally disappointing. The fact that Johns thinks both his language and his argument can be defended is the most tragic part.

“A lot of poor women in this country, a large proportion of whom are Aboriginal, are used as cash cows,” he said. “They are kept pregnant and producing children for the cash. Now, that has to stop.”

The argument that women are having child after child singularly for welfare largesse is inaccurate and mischievous.

The trouble is, there is no evidence of a pregnancy industry where women are kept "pregnant" for "cash". There are complex reasons why many poorer women have more children, including lack of education and lack of employment. The complexity is important.

Those factors are real, and courageous Indigenous leaders have been advocating for big changes to transform this.

But the argument that these women are having child after child singularly for welfare largesse is inaccurate and mischievous. There is no evidence that it's happening exclusively for the "cash".

Comparing poor and Aboriginal women to "cash cows" is beyond comprehension. It is so utterly degrading to the Indigenous women in this country and deserves widespread rebuke.

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To dismiss it as inconsequential to the public discourse is deeply wrong. Johns has a strong public platform and is an active participant in debates around Indigenous affairs. He is entitled to oppose constitutional recognition and welfare reform. But language matters and the myth making around why poor people remain on welfare deserves analysis.

Johns also claimed that changing the constitution would not affect the quality of life for many Indigenous people, and said those leading the push for recognition should change their focus.

"I'd like (Cape York leader) Noel (Pearson) and his team to start thinking about fundamental issues that affect his people and our people at the really lower end of this society. And the fact is that they should be trying to smash the welfare state, not a liberal democracy and its constitution," Johns told Bolt.

Has Johns been listening? If he had he would know that Pearson and many of the others now advocating strongly for a change to the constitution have been actively campaigning against the toxic nature of generational welfare. Pearson has spearheaded the push against welfare dependence and through his Cape York reform trial has radically shifted the relationship with welfare dependence. He doesn't need advice from Johns on how to transform the lives of his people - he has spent his life trying to do it. The bizarre idea that it's not possible to do two things at once is nonsense. Indigenous leaders know what is best for their people.

A debate around welfare reliance and changes to the constitution must happen. But the debate needs to be had with facts at the centre and respectful language at its core.

Patricia Karvelas is the presenter of RN Drive has been a prominent senior journalist in the Australian media for 15 years.

This post originally appeared on the ABC and was republished here with full permission. 
© 2015 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved. Read the ABC Disclaimer here

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