House debates

Tuesday, 26 November 2019


Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management to Cashless Debit Card Transition) Bill 2019; Second Reading

12:28 pm

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management to Cashless Debit Card Transition) Bill 2019. I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"the House:

  (1) declines to give the bill a second reading;

  (2) notes that, 12 years after the Intervention in the Northern Territory, there is no evidence that compulsory broad-based income management has worked to improve outcomes for First Nations people; and

  (3) calls on the Government not to expand the cashless debit card, and to instead invest in evidence-based policies, programs and services, including:

     (a) job creation and economic development;

     (b) education, training and TAFE;

     (c) health and rehabilitation services; and

     (d)   services for women and young people".

Labor cannot support this bill in its current form. It won't create a single job, it is extraordinarily expensive and there are serious doubts as to whether it actually works. We know that this card is actually stopping people from purchasing the basics and essentials at affordable prices. It is discriminatory and disproportionately impacts First Nations Australians. Eighty per cent of the people on income management in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Twelve years after the intervention, there is no clear empirical evidence that broad based mandatory income management has worked. Communities have not been consulted.

This bill also is a stalking horse for a national rollout of the cashless debit card, as several in the government have indicated they would like to see. It is incredibly concerning that the government is considering a national rollout, because there simply isn't evidence that broad based income management and the cashless debit card actually work. Labor is pleased to see that the government has extended the amendment Labor moved earlier this year to allow people to come off the cashless debit card if they are effectively managing their finances. However, that does not fix the fundamental problems with the cashless debit card. It should not be indiscriminately imposed on people without a reason relating to their individual circumstances unless a person volunteers to use the card or a community makes an informal local decision that they want the card in their area. I'm pleased to see the member for Lingiari has joined me in the chamber to speak on this bill, because it is communities in Lingiari that are going to be absolutely affected if this bill proves to go through both houses.

Labor will seek to amend this bill in the Senate to make the cashless debit card voluntary in the Northern Territory unless the community wants the card or a person is placed on income management for specific reasons—for example, for child protection or by the Family Responsibilities Commission in Cape York. Labor's amendments in the Senate will also require the minister to demonstrate the support of each individual community before rolling out the cashless debit card, including consultation with women's groups and community members.

In October we marked Anti-Poverty Week, which left us with some very sobering statistics which illustrate the gut-wrenching and unacceptable reality facing millions of Australians, and this affects us all as a nation and as an economy. Three million, or one in eight, Australians live in poverty and one in six, or three-quarters of a million, children live below the poverty line. Just this month we were reminded of the incredibly challenging economic conditions confronting our jobseekers, with the loss of 19,000 jobs from the economy. The Anglicare Jobs Availability Snapshot 2019 showed that there aren't enough jobs for the number of jobseekers, with employers receiving an average of 19 applications per vacancy advertised. Those that do have a job aren't receiving enough hours, with over 1.1 million Australians underemployed. And last month, the International Monetary Fund downgraded Australia's projected economic growth.

So the question all Australians are asking is: what is the government's plan to turn the economy around? It seems this government has no plan, no idea—nothing more than old reheated ideas like this one. The fact is this card will not create a single job. Even the minister admitted that. This card is not a substitute for an actual plan. Meanwhile, Australians continue to wait for action from this government. The number of Australians over the age of 55 on Newstart represents a quarter of all Newstart recipients, and the number of over-55s on Newstart has surged to 45 per cent under the Liberals and Nationals. We also know that under this government underemployment remains unacceptably high. In fact almost one in five, or 130,000, Newstart recipients do not earn enough money to receive enough hours to get off the payment.

Even having a job in this economy is no safety net for being in need of income support. Wages are stagnant and jobs are less secure than ever before. Recently the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released a report which showed that new apprenticeships are at their lowest in two decades and youth unemployment is double the national average. This card is going to be of little comfort to those desperately trying to re-enter the workforce. Australians who are trying to re-enter the workforce are right to be perplexed. How will this card get them a job? How will this card create a single job?

There are also serious questions about whether this card actually works. The Auditor-General has been scathing of the government's assessment of the effectiveness of the card. Even the Minister for Families and Social Services herself says she's uncertain about the effectiveness of the card. On Sunday 1 September 2019, the minister appeared on David Speers's program on Sky News and said, 'Until we get all the statistics, we can't say definitively how many people have come off Newstart as a result of the card.' It's extraordinary. On that Sunday, because of lack of evidence, the minister refused to commit to a national rollout, and then, one week later, the Prime Minister drastically changed the government's tune and began championing a national rollout.

There was further equivocation from the government when Senator Anthony Chisholm in the other place asked the minister to provide further details about the number of recipients who had come off the card. The government has refused. Last month the Senate concluded a series of hearings it held in relation to the cashless debit card. The overwhelming majority of the 108 submissions and the overwhelming majority of witnesses who testified to the inquiry opposed this bill. It is clear that the government does not care about the evidence. In fact, one of the serious concerns we have about this bill is the absence of any independent or rigorous evaluation of the cashless debit card in the trial sites with regard to its effectiveness in reducing social harms, particularly alcohol and substance abuse.

Cynically, this government doesn't really care whether this thing is effective or not. It is only interested in politics and nothing more. But here's what we do know and what we have heard from the communities and the people on the ground. We know that the evidence of the card's effectiveness to reduce social harm is not only inconclusive but in some instances shows that it has actually exacerbated the social harms it was designed to reduce or prevent. MoneyMob Talkabout told the Senate inquiry:

What our data suggests is that potentially welfare quarantining can cause the opposite to happen. While older people and people with disabilities won't be directly put on the CDC, it's unlikely to stop them from being targeted because they receive those higher payments, such as an aged pension or a disability pension. We're seeing them currently having their cards and income management allocations taken and used by other people who've already expended their income. So it's actually increasing their vulnerability and diminishing their ability to meet their basic needs.

The issue of increased elder abuse was touched on briefly by the University of Adelaide in their CDC baseline data collection research in the Goldfields region, but we're not aware of any systemic focus on measuring the incidence of elder or disability abuse in relation to income management or the CDC. This raises the possibility that one type of vulnerability could be just supplanting another one.

The inquiry also cited the study of the Menzies School of Health Research on the birth weight of Indigenous babies. This, to me, is the actual measure that I have leant on and taken on board as to the inappropriateness of this card. The Menzies School of Health Research found that the birth weight of Indigenous babies, a key indicator of disadvantage and one of the seven Closing the Gap targets, actually declined under compulsory income management, and that is a shocking statistic. It is a shocking outcome. This is what Menzies said:

The study's key finding of relevance to this Senate Committee hearing regarding the draft Bill to extend the implementation of the Cashless Debit Card to NT communities, is that the Aboriginal birth cohort affected by the 13 month roll-out of Income Management resulted in an average reduction in birth weight of 100 grams and a 30% increase in the likelihood of being born with low birth weight (i.e. below 2,500 grams). The magnitude of this effect is comparable to what has been reported from other international studies of births to women exposed to famines or extreme weather events such as cyclones.

That is an absolutely outrageous indication of just how damaging this card can be. Just think about it: lower birth weights comparable with the magnitude of women giving birth who have been exposed to famine and extreme weather events. The government's ideological obsession with compulsory income management is actively working against its own Closing the Gap strategy. We also know that this card has stopped participants from being able to purchase basics and essential items at affordable prices. We've heard from small businesses, especially discount variety stores, who are deeply concerned about the impact this card will have on their business and clientele and the cost of non-cash transactions. We've also heard that people have left town just to avoid this card.

There are serious problems with the technology that makes it easy to get around. Last month at estimates, the Senate community affairs committee heard from departmental staff that the card could be used to pay off credit cards, meaning that participants could wash money and prohibited purchases through a credit card and simply use the cashless card to pay it off. At the very same committee hearing, departmental staff confirmed that the card could still be used to purchase pornography in the Northern Territory, where specific steps have been taken against pornography on the basis that it had been linked to child sex abuse.

We're also concerned about the fact that this bill gives the minister extraordinary power to determine the level of restricted payments. The minister's power to do this will be subject to few or ill-defined checks and balances, and we strongly urge the Department of Social Services to clarify the minister's power in this regard. We're also concerned about the lack of procedural fairness. This bill will remove an individual's right to seek a review of the decision to be issued with a cashless debit card notice, and I'm sure the member for Lingiari will expand on this. It must be noted that this is a card that predominantly targets First Nation Australians.

The card will be managed outside of Centrelink processes by post or by telephone or online. When you consider that many of the participants live in remote communities, many of whom do not have adequate access to telecommunication services, it will be particularly difficult for them to manage their participation in the cashless card scheme and therefore exacerbating poverty and exacerbating the completely unacceptable situation of people who live in remote Australia. The government has failed to properly address the serious concerns raised about the operation of this card. It's reprehensible. Labor believes that it is in the nature of Australians to want to make the most of their lives, work hard and contribute their very best. That is why we've always said that, if a community or an individual genuinely wants to use or be placed on the card, then they should be properly consulted with and provided with the necessary supports to do so. What is so outrageous about this proposal is the rollout across a whole Territory without consent. It is completely against everything that individual and collective rights stand for. That is why we've always said that, if a community or individuals generally want to be placed on the card, they should be properly consulted with and provided with necessary supports to do so. What we're seeing is the Department of Social Services boldly rolling across the Territory telling people what's best for them.

We are not opposed to income management in all circumstances, but we are opposed to this broad based, compulsory program that catches and disempowers the wrong people. Income management can be justified when it is targeted, such as for child protection, but it should not be indiscriminate or broad sweeping, such as this across the Territory. For example, in Cape York, where the local community is applying income management based on individual circumstances, supporting families and monitoring outcomes, that is appropriate. Why it cannot happen in the Northern Territory is absolutely beyond me.

At a recent inquiry into another one of the government's cashless debit card bills, a number of witnesses told the hearing that one of the only credible pieces of evaluation of any form of income management is the evaluation that was completed about income management in the Northern Territory. That report found that compulsory income management usually does not bring about improvements but that voluntary income management might. It is not just the evaluation that says this. Late last year in a document presented to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Australian government wrote:

While there are more positive results associated with people who volunteer, as they have made a choice to change their behaviour and receive assistance, positive findings have been found for people who have been referred for Income Management by a social worker or a child protection officer.

You've got the Australian government telling the United Nations that voluntary income management is much better, but in reality what they're doing here is anything but a voluntary. I reiterate that the Australian government wrote that.

Dr Elisa Klein from the University of Melbourne told a Senate committee earlier this year:

If we … are serious about evidence based policymaking, we must stop the ongoing operations of the cashless debit card … or … make them entirely voluntary.

There is a very real difference between someone who generally wants to be on the card and believes it's appropriate for their circumstances and someone who is compelled to go on the card without any consultation, permission being sought or permission being given and whose circumstances are completely incompatible with the card. Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory, which includes the Central Land Council, the Northern Land Council and the Aboriginal Medical Service Alliance Northern Territory, said in their submission:

The continuation of compulsory income management through the transfer to the CDC is being rushed forward despite the lack of any strong or positive evidence drawn from either the 2014 Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) evaluation of New Income Management in the NT or the 2017 Orima Research evaluation of the Cashless Debit Card Trials in Ceduna, the Goldfields and East Kimberley (Western Australia).

Income management cannot provide a transition to employment in locations where few employment opportunities exist and those that exist are largely done by outsiders. Instead, for many Aboriginal residents of the Northern Territory, particularly those living remotely, compulsory income management is long term and, regardless of a person's lifestyle and financial management capacity, almost impossible to get off. The 2014 independent evaluation of the new income management conducted by the Social Policy Research Centre found that 90.2 per cent of those on income management in the Northern Territory were Indigenous, and 76.8 per cent of those were on compulsory income management. More than 60 per cent of this group were on income management for more than six years. Of those Indigenous people on compulsory income management, a mere 4.9 per cent gained an exemption, compared to 36 per cent of the non-Indigenous people—a sobering thought.

The Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation said in their submission to the bill:

The ALPA Board of Directors are disappointed that the Government is moving forward and expanding this oppressive policy when there is no evidence demonstrating that it creates positive change for the people who will be subjected to it. This erosion of people's choice and control over their own lives destroys any sense of self-agency, it is an attack on their basic rights, the burden of proof should lie with the Government to prove without doubt that this policy works before enforcing it upon our communities.

Alongside the lack of evidence there has been little to no consultation undertaken in the Northern Territory to date.

Anti-Poverty Network SA also told the very same Senate committee about a woman they had met in Ceduna who was on the cashless debit card. She volunteered at her local craft shop and donated what she could. She used to be able to purchase things online, but can no longer do this purchasing because of the cashless debit card. The network told the committee that this woman has never drunk and never done drugs or anything like that. It's such an inhibitive way of life for her now. Why should someone who has never engaged in binge drinking or taken illicit drugs be forced onto the cashless debit card that was introduced to address these behaviours? The answer is that they shouldn't be.

What has become so clear to all Australians is that this government has no plan to get Australians into jobs or to lift vulnerable Australians out of poverty. This is a government that is more obsessed with devising new ways to humiliate and harass Australians doing their absolute best to get back into the workforce, with urine tests and cashless cards. To add insult to injury, the government has more cuts planned for Newstart and the pension currently before the parliament.

There is no doubt that Australians are doing it tough at the moment. Many of them can't remember when they last received a pay rise. Many of them only see more of their pay cheque go to bills and to meeting the increasing costs of living, while there is less left over for them. Australians are having more difficulty finding a secure job with decent pay and adequate hours. Instead of lifting a finger to help turn around a weak economy that is getting weaker, instead of trying to get Australians back into work, the government actually has a plan for more cuts to Australians out of work and more cuts for pensioners. At a time when Australians are really doing it tough, we need more support for vulnerable Australians and for our pensioners, not more cruel cuts.

Currently, the government is short-changing pensioners by propping this budget up on the back of pensioners by refusing to adjust the aged pension deeming rates despite the fact that interest rates are at an all-time low. It currently has before the parliament a bill to increase the liquid assets test waiting period for Newstart. This will disproportionately impact middle-aged workers who have recently been made redundant. Think of men and women in their 50s and 60s who have recently been retrenched from the manufacturing sector and will need time and money to retrain and reskill. This will force them to eat into their savings before they can get help. This will drive them into poverty before they can access income support. This is truly a low blow. The government also has before the parliament a plan to cut the pension through its Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill 2019. The government's cruel payment integrity bill will rip $185 million from the pockets of Australian pensioners.

In conclusion, this card will not create jobs. It is discriminatory. There are serious doubts as to whether it is actually effective. It is stopping vulnerable Australians from accessing basics and essentials at affordable prices. Labor opposes this bill and, as I indicated, we will seek to amend it in the Senate. We have moved a second reading amendment here, which I have tabled in my name. I am absolutely appalled at this piece of legislation. There is no evidence to support the introduction of such a measure. The indiscriminate rollout across communities like the communities that the member for Lingiari represents is nothing short of social engineering, as far as I'm concerned.


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