Monday, 29 May 2017
Cashless Debit Card
I rise tonight to share my personal journey to being a strong supporter of a cashless welfare card trial in my electorate of O'Connor. As many would already be aware, the Minister for Human Services, Alan Tudge, came to the Western Australian goldfields with me a couple of weeks ago. It is great to see the minister here tonight to hear my contribution. We were there to discuss a regional trial of a cashless welfare card and gauge the level of community support for the program. My story starts in November 2015. I was at an end-of-year school presentation in Leonora, a small town in the northern goldfields with a population of only a few hundred. The community was reeling from a spate of suicides. Two teenagers had taken their lives in the previous week. To lose one life so young is a tragedy; this was developing into a catastrophe.
While I was in town, I was approached by an Aboriginal woman, Gaye Harris, who is affectionately known in the local community as 'Nana Gaye'. She told me that social issues in Leonora had reached crisis point and something needed to change. Nana Gaye pleaded with me for help, and I suggested that we have a trial of the cashless welfare card. I stressed that I did not think this trial would be a silver bullet, but had the potential to make a difference. I also made it clear that this was a policy that the government would not introduce without the majority support of the community. I promise Nana Gaye I would return to Leonora as soon as possible.
Within weeks I returned to Leonora with Minister Tudge. We met with the community, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, and talked about the card. Then we listened. Not everybody in town was in favour of the trial, but a majority of people supported a change in the way that welfare dollars were being spent by the community. Our initial hope was to introduce a trial across the shires of Laverton and Leonora. The support was there and the need was clear. But our efforts were frustrated by the 2016 election, which put any further developments on hold. The minister suggested we wait for more evidence from the first two trial sites before expanding the program. While I was disappointed by the delay, he made the right call. We have now reached the point where we have seen positive signs from the trials at Ceduna and the East Kimberley. Binge drinking is down, gambling is down, drug use is down. Retailers say that more money is being spent on food and clothing. Admissions to the sobering up unit in Wyndham have fallen dramatically. The Mayor of Ceduna says that the town has never been so quiet.
For some opponents of this program these results are not enough. They say that government has no rights to manage people's income. They say we need to find other solutions to these complex issues, but I am still waiting to hear what those other solutions might be. Let me say this: it is easy to some people to criticise from a distance and say that this card is an infringement of people's rights. I challenge those people to visit places like Leonora and Laverton and experience the grief and despair for themselves.
A police officer from Leonora told me a story last week. Officers responded to a burglary at a house in the town, but nothing of value had been taken. Money, alcohol and jewellery were all left untouched. All that was missing was food from the refrigerator. In the gravel outside the house, there were tiny footprints leading to and from the property. A hungry child had snuck in just to steal food. Police say children wander the streets of Leonora at night begging for money or for food. A single parent with three children receives a payment of $1,500 per fortnight. The idea that this money could be spent within days on drugs, alcohol and gambling while children go hungry is abhorrent. We have a responsibility to protect those children. Even with the cashless welfare card, that parent would still have access to $300 of cash per fortnight.
Minister Tudge and I listened to an extraordinary, powerful cry for help from Janice Scott, an Aboriginal woman from Laverton. She asked how to combat the notion that opposing the card was a matter of human rights. These were her words: 'There are no human rights. Our children have no rights. They have no future. Our people are dying. We need this card. We need to try something now.' I cannot stand by in all conscience and watch an entire generation of people become lost forever. We have to try something. The cashless welfare card is no silver bullet, but it is a chance to fix a broken welfare system that is failing some Australians. To do nothing is to condemn an entire generation to a life of poverty and despair. I will stand with Janice Scott and Gaye Harris to help them heal their people. The message I heard loud and clear from the communities of the Northern Goldfields was: 'We've had enough information. We've had enough consultation. We need to get on and do this now.' Thank you.