House debates

Tuesday, 2 August 2022


Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Repeal of Cashless Debit Card and Other Measures) Bill 2022; Second Reading

8:57 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Government Services and the Digital Economy) Share this | Hansard source

I am very pleased to join with my coalition colleagues who have spoken on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Repeal of Cashless Debit Card and Other Measures) Bill 2022, expressing our strong opposition to the extremely regrettable and retrograde step which it proposes to take. I think what does characterise the contributions made by many of my coalition colleagues is that they speak from experience. They have seen the way that this card has worked in their own communities, and I draw a distinction between that approach and the presentation based upon a set of ideological talking points that we have just heard.

The facts are that this card has made a significant difference in the lives of thousands of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, in many communities around Australia. It was introduced and implemented through a careful and comprehensive process. The cashless debit card was part of a suite of measures to help people improve their circumstances, and the coalition government made a total investment for support services of more than $110 million across the cashless debit card sites, including a $30 million jobs fund and job-ready initiative to strengthen local support services and to help participants in cashless debit card communities to upskill, to become job ready and to get on the pathways to employment. We invested $50 million for drug and alcohol residential rehabilitation facilities. Just as one example, in Cape York, for the first time since income management began, there are more people volunteering to take part in the scheme than have been required to, showing once again the positive effect the cashless debit card is having on people's lives. In the Northern Territory there are currently 2,085 people who have volunteered for income management, again demonstrating the empirical, on-the-ground, practical evidence that people do see the personal benefits of a cashless welfare system.

The choices made by many people are backed by the formal evidence from the various reviews and assessments that have been conducted. The findings from the second independent impact evaluation by the University of Adelaide include clear and consistent evidence. Twenty-five per cent of people reported they were drinking less since the cashless debit card's introduction. Twenty-one per cent of cashless debit card participants reported gambling less, and evidence found that cash previously used for gambling was being redirected to essentials such as food. Forty-five per cent of cashless debit card participants reported the cashless debit card had improved things for themselves and their families.

A dozen evaluations of the cashless debit card have provided consistent evidence about welfare quarantining policies that show decreases in drug and alcohol issues; decreases in crime, violence and antisocial behaviour; improvements in child health and wellbeing; improved financial management; and ongoing, even strengthened, community support.

Notwithstanding the many claims that we've heard from the government over the last couple of days and before, the report by the Australian National Audit Office, Implementation and performance of the cashless debit card trial Follow-on, did not find that the card was bad policy or bad morally and did not call for its abolition. The report confined itself to examining the program's oversight and evaluation systems by the Department of Social Services. That is the proper responsibility of the Australian National Audit Office. It's highly misleading to claim that that report is in some way evidence of flaws in the effectiveness of the cashless debit card itself.

During my time as Minister for Social Services in 2018 and 2019, I had the opportunity to visit a number of communities where the cashless debit card was in operation and to hear personally and directly from community members and community leaders as to why the cashless debit card had been such an important reform to our welfare system. I was particularly struck by senior Aboriginal women making it clear to me that they supported the cashless debit card because it meant that women could use social services payments for food, clothing and rent for themselves and their children, rather than being pressured by family members, typically male, to hand over cash to spend on nonessentials like alcohol.

In one town, police told me that the number of call-outs for domestic violence had dramatically reduced since the card had been introduced, and staff from the local medical clinic said they were seeing significantly fewer presentations from domestic violence. A chemist said that parents were coming into his shop to buy medicines for their children because they now had the money to do so. I heard senior Aboriginal women and men expressing their support. One told me, 'This is important for our people.' A social worker said that some people supported by the service she works for were now able to save money for the first time. People repeatedly commented that their town felt safer, that there was less public drunkenness and that the streets were quieter at night.

The cashless debit card is a powerful and practical tool to fight the scourge of welfare funded drug and alcohol dependency. It means that welfare money goes to pay the rent, put food on the table and provide uniforms for the children, rather than being handed across to grog sellers and drug dealers. In 2019 I observed, 'If Labor gets into power, the cashless debit card is dead.' It wasn't an observation I made with any pleasure, but it was a prediction based upon the regrettably ideological attitude we have seen from the Labor Party, informed by prioritising the perspectives of inner-city leftist activists over what people in remote communities are saying is their practical experience of the benefits in terms of safety and dignity that the cashless debit card has brought.

It is deeply disappointing that the Labor Party is pursuing this ideological vendetta against a policy mechanism that works. It is deeply disappointing that they would be doing this, even though the cashless debit card has demonstrably made a positive change in our welfare system and demonstrably delivered better lives and better outcomes for thousands of Australians.

I had the opportunity to meet with Ian Trust from the Wunan Foundation, a leading community organisation in the East Kimberley region. He has said:

We accept that there are some people with deeply held ideological or political views who reject the CDC

the cashless debit card—

'on-principle' and these people will point to all the things that are still challenges for our community as a justification for their opposition. The reality is that many challenges persist because they have been so many decades in the making and will take decades to turnaround.

He said:

… more than four years on from the beginning of the CDC trial, circumstances in the East Kimberley today represent an improvement on the lived experience of people before the trial began in April 2016.

I want to acknowledge the leadership and courage of Ian Trust and many other leaders around Australia who have been prepared to say publicly what the actual positive outcomes of the cashless debit card are, in the face of an onslaught of ideologically motivated pressure for them not to speak up about the benefits that the cashless debit card is providing—about the fact that the cashless debit card ensures that income support recipients and their children and families can access essential items such as food and housing, and reduces the amount of money being diverted to alcohol, drugs and gambling products.

Despite the evidence, despite community leaders still requesting that the cashless debit card stay, despite children dying from malnutrition and despite the Northern Territory government's moves to remove alcohol restrictions, this government, this Albanese Labor government, tragically, is acting based on ideological motivations in the face of clear evidence that this is a policy tool which works and which is making life better—which has succeeded in making life better—for many people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who are recipients of social services benefits. Australians, I think, should be deeply disappointed by this ideologically motivated action that the Albanese Labor government is taking, which, sadly, is going to reverse some very significant progress that has been made under the cashless debit card.


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