Tuesday, 2 August 2022
Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Repeal of Cashless Debit Card and Other Measures) Bill 2022; Second Reading
A few years ago I stood here in this House and made very clear my thoughts on the cashless debit card. Simply, I see the debit card program as a punitive measure enacted on the presumption that all welfare recipients in the trial sites are incapable of managing their finances and require government assistance. I acknowledged at the time that, while some communities are more likely to experience generational disadvantage and have generally poorer outcomes in several areas, forced government control on finances is not the solution to addressing some of the many systemic issues that exist in communities across Australia. At the time, I made it clear that, although I would like to see the end of the cashless debit card, I chose to abstain from my own party's legislation to make the trial sites permanent rather than vote against it, due to my serious reservations about the lack of transition plans in place—a decision that resulted in a deluge of vile, hateful messages directed towards me and horrific threats against my family, including my young children.
At times, I did wonder if it would have been easier to not have spoken up at all, but I reminded myself then, as I have done since, that I never want to make a decision based on what will be popular over what is in the best interests of the community. It must be the right decision, however difficult that may be. I stand by that decision to abstain, and today I'm choosing to withhold my vote on Labor's legislation to abolish the card. I want to be very clear, in case my decision is misrepresented, as it was in 2020, that I'm choosing to abstain, as, although I want to see the end of this system, I still have significant reservations that the transitions proposed by Labor do not sufficiently support those that they're seeking to assist as they move away from the card.
While they may be, once again, seeking to take the moral high ground, the cynical politics that Labor have played with this issue must be pointed out, including making it a cornerstone of their recent election strategy. This was evident in my own seat of Bass, where, despite their best efforts, the blatant scare campaign to terrify vulnerable pensioners into thinking that they would be forced onto the card, including a forum directly targeting lower socioeconomic areas, fell flat. Even after COTA called out Labor last year for the misinformation campaign, they persisted with their strategy.
I do believe it is only right that we look to give back financial autonomy to those who have endured the card. As I said in 2020, as a Liberal I have a fundamental issue with how the program aligns with my belief in personal and individual responsibility, which is the very foundation of our party's principles. One of our guiding principles is to minimise the interference of the government in the daily lives of our constituents, which is why a program that controls the financial lives of a particular segment of society unless or until they can prove to the government that they can manage their own finances is antithetical to these principles.
I want to acknowledge my colleagues who represent the communities where the current sites exist. They are good, caring and decent people who have a deep understanding of their communities and what is needed. I'm not disputing nor am I seeking to be in any way dismissive of the significant challenges that persist in these communities, and I understand the intentions of what the card is seeking to do. We fundamentally agree on the problems; however well intentioned, though, the scheme has not definitively demonstrated that it achieved what it set out to do.
As set out in the University of Adelaide report into the scheme, which was commissioned by our own party when in government, the evidence was mixed and, while there were some reported improvements—a reduction in alcohol consumption, for example—it wasn't possible to attribute the changes to the cashless debit card alone. Furthermore, there was no definitive conclusion about whether the CDC influenced the personal or social harm caused by illicit drugs and little consensus about whether and how children's welfare had changed since the introduction of the CDC in the trial areas. When you restrict somebody's income, of course it will lead to a decrease in the purchase of alcohol or illicit drugs, but there's no evidence that the measure has done anything to improve addictive or destructive behaviours, or created systemic change, as there is no long-term behavioural change support there.
After I gave my speech, I received a few calls from community leaders upset with the stance that I had taken, commenting that I didn't understand the challenges faced in their regions. While I certainly would not claim to fully understand their regions, I do know that some of the same challenges persist in my own electorate and I don't believe that they are able to be solved in the long term simply by taking away a citizen's right to have control over their own finances, no matter how much we may disagree with the decisions they make. Many individuals living in these areas are forced onto this card, no matter their circumstances, simply because of where they live.
I recently read the story of Kerryn Griffis, who spoke of the negative impact the card has had on her life and the lives of her five children. 'It has been a nightmare,' she said. According to Ms Griffis, the stigma of the card has led to difficulty finding a rental, forcing her and her five children under the age of 12 to move into her mother's three-bedroom home. For Ms Griffis the end of the card signals freedom. She said: 'I can't wait. I'm going to be able to have flexibility with my finances, I'm not going to be restricted by which bill I will and won't pay, and my kids are looking forward to having pocket money again.'
At the end of the day, no matter how well intentioned, this scheme doesn't fix the number of complex challenges that drive disadvantage. I have spoken a number of times on the need for trauma-informed responses as a starting point to address the many layered challenges, but what is needed in the short term—circling back to my points made previously in this speech—is the need for significant wraparound transitional and long-term services to support anyone who the current program is intended to help.
This is where I fall short of giving my support to this legislation. Despite the failure of the cashless debit card to meet its intended outcomes, removing the card without appropriate support will not fix the very problem that it's trying to address. It seems both the government and the opposition agree on the problem; they don't agree on the solutions.
The government's plan for a closure and repeal date expected to be around February-March next year leaves me with a number of concerns around how quickly the program is closing and that there's a lack of detail on programs or funding to assist the communities with the issues that the cashless debit card was designed to address, because they don't just magically go away with the elimination of the card. The minister has said the transition will include information and education sessions with culturally appropriate information and support, and individually targeted transitional support interviews for those who need them. Where participants require continued assistance with budgeting, transferring direct debits from the cashless debit card or referrals to further support services, there will be help available, including the option of voluntary income management.
I hold significant concerns about the ambiguity of these plans outlined by the minister. While the government has committed to consulting more widely with the communities where the cashless debit card exists, it does concern me that the implemented outcomes of the consultation will likely not happen until well after the cessation of the program, missing a chance to ensure that those coming off the card avoid falling through the gaps.
Of course, I do recognise that the current legislation sunsets at the end of this year, but I think in the rush to play politics with the issue in the lead-up to the election the government has backed itself into rushing this legislation through rather than looking for a way to allow for a proper and just transition that would ensure the community gains financial freedom while being supported where needed and necessary. The systemic dismantling of the income management system is the right thing to do, but this needs to be done carefully and by building long-term supports going forward. Where is the solid plan to invest in long-term solutions that will provide individuals with the tools and skills to improve their life, address long-term trauma and empower them to make the right financial decisions?
Finally, while making a lot of noise about the amount of money cancelling this program will save, I believe it will take an investment by the government to ensure that the right programs and services are in place over many years. Anything less would be virtue signalling. I'm disappointed that, after all the public statements on the need to abolish the program, the details on how these communities will be properly supported is lacking. What I see in front of me is nothing short of walking away from the very communities Labor is professing to help. I call on the government to address these issues as a matter of urgency.