Residents in Northern Territory Indigenous community unable to buy food for four days after internet outage | Northern Territory

An internet outage left residents of a Top End remote community unable to buy food for four days, with critics arguing the situation was worsened by forced welfare income management policies.

Maningrida, an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory home to about 3,000 people, suffered through an outage of 3G and 4G internet services from 11am Thursday until Monday afternoon.

Speaking before the outage was finally fixed at 12.30pm on Monday, the mayor of West Arnhem regional council, Matthew Ryan, said the situation was dire.

“There are food shortages, people are not able to access food from the retail shop,” he told Guardian Australia. “Some of them are closed due to the lack of internet access. The ATMs are closed.

Ryan said some residents were going hungry or leaning on extended family for food. “Even fuel has been scarce,” he said.

Telstra said the problem was fixed at 12.30pm on Monday and apologised to local residents.

Before then, critics argued the situation for some Maningrida residents was further complicated by the basics card, and its successor, the cashless debit card, which are both forms of forced income management.

Under the basics card program, which has been in place in the NT since the Intervention in 2007, a proportion of person’s welfare payments is placed on a debit card that does not allow cash withdrawals and cannot be used to buy prohibited items.

While Eftpos machines were down during the outage, some of the town’s ATMs have been operational at times.

Maningrida resident Olga told ABC Radio Darwin the ATMs were drained “pretty much on the first or second day”.

“A lot of the money is tied up in basics cards,” she said. “That means that income management system has totally failed people here with regards being able to purchase food. That’s since 11am on Thursday.”

Olga said the council had organised “cook ups” most nights and encouraged people to bring containers so they could take food home.

“That’s how desperate it is,” she said.

The Northern Territory Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy said it was unacceptable that families were going hungry.

“This wouldn’t be accepted in Melbourne or Sydney, it should not be accepted in Maningrida,” she said.

McCarthy said the “latest internet outage in Maningrida is just another example of how dysfunctional and punitive compulsory income management is”.

“Families who have no choice but to go on the basics card or cashless debit card by the Morrison government cannot even access their own money,” she said.

The government argues the cashless debit card reduces social harm.

Labor has promised to scrap the card, which operates in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, and with the basics card in the NT. It has not announced its plans for the basics card.

Ryan said he had written to the federal Indigenous affairs minister Ken Wyatt in October complaining about the continual outages in the area but had not received a response.

He drew attention to the impact of outages on cashless debit cardholders. “It’s a big human rights issue in our community,” Ryan said.

Nic Danks, the regional general manager for Telstra in the NT, said there was an “intermittent issue impacting services in the community since 16 December”.

He said landline services and NBN internet services were not impacted.

“The cause was found to be a hardware issue at the local telephone exchange that was impacting the transmission network,” he said.

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“Telstra apologises for any inconvenience caused to local residents during this time and will continue to monitor the site over coming days to make sure it continues to operate effectively.”

Danks said Eftpos machines could also connect via fixed line or wifi and the telco encouraged “stores across the NT to have a backup connectivity option”.

Hank Jongen, a spokesman for Services Australia, which manages the basics card, said the agency worked with “communities, stores and service providers during outages of any length to provide support”.

“Grocery stores can accept the purchase of essential items by local residents and then transactions are processed once the outage is resolved,” he said.

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