House debates

Thursday, 26 October 2017


Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017; Second Reading

12:15 pm

Photo of Jenny MacklinJenny Macklin (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Payments) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm speaking today on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017. In the 2017 budget, the government announced that it would roll out the cashless debit card in two further locations from 1 September 2017. These proposed locations, according to the government, are the Goldfields in Western Australia, and Bundaberg and Hervey Bay in Queensland. This bill enables this by repealing one section of the Social Security (Administration) Act. The section repealed by the bill, section 124PF, contains the existing limitations on the cashless debit card trial, which require that the trials end on 30 June 2018, that there be the limitation for trials to occur in up to three discrete trial areas, and that the trial areas include no more than 10,000 participants.

This bill provides the framework for additional cashless debit card locations but does not enable the rollout of the card in any specific location. Any new locations for the rollout still require a legislative instrument to be tabled in the parliament. These instruments are disallowable, which means that the rollout of the card can be agreed or opposed in specific locations and not in others. This is an important point. It means that the potential passage of this bill does not automatically mean that the card will be rolled out in Bundaberg or the Goldfields, for example. It can still be disallowed through a disallowable instrument in the Senate.

Labor will not oppose this bill in the House today, but we do reserve our final position until the completion of the Senate inquiry into this bill that's currently underway. I must say, I'm very disappointed that this bill has come on for debate in the House of Representatives before the Senate inquiry has concluded. Rolling out this card is a very big decision for any community, and for this parliament, and it should not be rushed. This legislation requires greater scrutiny and deliberation than is being allowed for by the minister by bringing forward this bill for debate today. We certainly, on our side of the House, want to see the findings of the Senate inquiry before determining our final position.

Labor also want time to be able to conduct our own consultations with local community leaders in the newly proposed sites of Kalgoorlie and the surrounding communities, and Bundaberg and nearby Hervey Bay. The particular disallowable instruments to enable the card, of course, have yet to be introduced into the parliament, and the government has not said when they will be, so Labor reserves the right to support or oppose specific locations on a case-by-case basis.

I have received a lot of correspondence from people seeking Labor's position on the cashless debit card, so I do today want to take the time to spell out the principles that are guiding Labor's approach to this issue. We do support genuine, community-driven initiatives designed to tackle alcohol abuse. We do understand that many, many communities want assistance in addressing chronic alcohol related abuse. We also know that the cashless debit card alone cannot be a solution in addressing this problem. Labor have consistently said that we would take a community-by-community approach to the further rollout of the cashless card. We'll listen to each community's leaders and talk with them about the consequences of this card being rolled out in their community. Wraparound support services must also be community designed, agreed upon and resourced to address the challenges facing these communities, and, of course, they're different in different places. We understand—and this is a very important point—that the vast majority of social security recipients are more than capable of managing their own personal finances. That's why Labor does not support the cashless debit card being rolled out nationwide.

In 2015, Labor supported the cashless debit card trials in the east Kimberley and Ceduna and the surrounding communities. We did so after consulting with local community leaders. We also did so after securing additional funding for wraparound services, including drug and alcohol counselling and more mental health support services. It is important to recognise that, in the case of Ceduna, there was a formal memorandum of understanding that was signed with community leaders in 2015, and that included not only the Ceduna council and the community heads working group but also community leaders from the surrounding Aboriginal communities.

In assessing the best way to address alcohol related abuse and violence, all policy levers need to be considered. Just last week the Northern Territory government released a report by Trevor Riley proposing some of the biggest ever changes to the Northern Territory's alcohol management policies, and there are a range of recommendations that are relevant to this debate. I'm pleased to see that the Gunner government have said that they will accept, in principle, nearly all of the recommendations from the review—for example, they've indicated that they will enact a complete moratorium on all new takeaway alcohol licences—the point being that there's a suite of policy approaches that must be taken into consideration when trying to reduce alcohol consumption in an effort to deal with violence and abuse. I'd say to everyone that's been involved in this cashless debit card trial that it really was never going to be the case that an 18-month trial could meaningfully address multiple generations of disadvantage, poverty and social dysfunction. I think it was very misguided of those who thought that it could.

Income management, of course, is a very complex policy question, and one of the concerns that are often raised with me is: why should it apply to everyone in a community? What evidence is there that income management should apply to everyone in a community to effectively counter alcohol related abuse that only applies to some people? Why shouldn't people go on income management after certain trigger points—for instance, following the recommendations of the local department of child protection? These are some of the many questions that are being put that need answers.

Communities also want to know how consent by a location will actually be measured and what assessment is being undertaken by the government of the service gaps in each community where the cashless card is being proposed. What access is there to the alcohol and drug treatment services, mental health supports, family violence counselling, housing, health, education, jobs and strong cultural requirements that are, of course, essential for strong communities? All of these issues need to be assessed in deciding whether or not this card should be introduced in any particular place.

The intent of the trials of the cashless card in Ceduna and the east Kimberley was to test whether significantly reducing access to discretionary cash by placing a large proportion of a person's welfare payment into a restricted bank account can reduce the habitual abuse of and associated harm from alcohol, gambling and illegal drugs. The government has recently released the ORIMA evaluation of the trials, and this evaluation shows very mixed results.

I'm sorry to say that the evaluation has been widely criticised for being deeply flawed. I want to go particularly to one detailed analysis of the ORIMA evaluation. Janet Hunt is the deputy director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University and she says that the evaluation showed that the government's cashless card trials had not actually improved safety and violence despite that being one of the trial's objectives. Her research paper on the evaluation is critical of the methodology used in the ORIMA evaluation. She points out that the people interviewed for the evaluation may have told interviewers that they drank less than before the trial began but that such recall over a year 'is not likely to have been very reliable'. She also makes the valid point that, given that people had to give their identification to the interviewer, they may have said exactly what they thought the interviewer wanted to hear and they certainly would not have incriminated themselves by saying that they were taking illegal drugs. I think we can all understand that this would be particularly true for the Aboriginal population, who for historical reasons are likely to view authority figures with serious suspicion.

The Minister for Human Services described the cashless debit card trials as a huge success, and the Prime Minister himself said that the card has seen 'a massive reduction in alcohol abuse, in drug abuse, in domestic violence, in violence generally'. But Janet Hunt made clear that this wasn't the case, stating clearly:

Someone needs to tell them that the report does not say that.

When participants were asked about the impact of the trial on their children's lives, only 17 per cent reported feeing their lives were better as a result. In fact, a bigger group of parents—around 24 per cent—felt that their children's lives were actually worse. Asked to reflect on the trial's impact on their own lives, 32 per cent reported it had made their lives worse, compared with 23 per cent saying their lives had improved. One in three people responding to the survey reported struggling to transfer money to children who were away at boarding school or to pay for things at community fairs, swimming pools or school canteens. Crime statistics remained flat or worsened, the only improvement being lower rates of drunk driving and public intoxication in Ceduna. So we certainly don't believe that the government can justify the further rollout of this card on what is clearly a flawed evaluation.

The cost of the rollout of the cashless debit card is also an important consideration in this debate. According to documents released by the Department of Social Services to the opposition under freedom of information, the government has spent up to $18.9 million on implementing and managing the two existing trials between July 2015 and April 2017. The government has paid $7.9 million of that to the debit card provider, Indue, and almost $1.6 million to ORIMA Research to provide a frankly substandard evaluation. Wraparound services in the community such as drug and alcohol treatment and financial counselling cost a further $2.6 million. The $18.9 million equates to more than $10,000 per participant.

It's quite extraordinary that we're debating this bill today without any indication from the minister about how much it will cost taxpayers to roll out the card in the two new proposed sites in the Goldfields and Bundaberg-Hervey Bay. There is no indication whatsoever about what this will cost taxpayers.

In April this year the shadow minister for human services and I went to the east Kimberley to meet with community leaders in Kununurra and in Wyndham. We met with a range of different Aboriginal organisations and also the Kununurra Hospital, St John Ambulance, Kununurra police, the Sobering Up Shelter, Job Pathways, the Department for Child Protection and a number of other organisations in Wyndham. The feedback we received was mixed. I have an enormous amount of respect and regard for Ian Trust, the head of the Wunan Foundation. He is adamant that the card can be a circuit-breaker for his people. The St John Ambulance Brigade in Kununurra said that the call-outs for alcohol related violence had gone down. The police made it clear that, with respect to domestic violence rates within the Kimberley, 75 per cent of the incidents are influenced by alcohol, with either the victim or the perpetrator, and they're supportive of any policy attempts to tackle alcohol consumption in the community.

At the recent Senate inquiry, the Western Australia Police Force released data on domestic assaults. The 12 months to 30 June 2017 saw 508 domestic assaults in Kununurra. For the 12 months previous to that, 1 July 2015 to 30 June 2016, there were 319 domestic assaults. So, unfortunately, the data says that domestic assaults in this area have gone up. It is the case, and the Western Australia Police Force noted this, that it's very difficult to fully assess the value of the card from a violence perspective because the Kimberley district revised their approach to domestic violence to include a more thorough first response to reports of domestic violence. So it is very, very difficult to make an assessment about whether things have become better or worse in relation to domestic violence. What the data does show, though, is that there has been a uniform increase in the reporting of domestic assaults across the Kimberley. Of course, I'm sure we would all agree that 508 domestic assaults in Kununurra, based on the figures from the Western Australia Police Force, are far too many.

The shadow minister for human services and I also visited the women's refuge in Kununurra and talked to some of the women who were staying there, and they did not have a positive view of the card. From their point of view, life had become harder with the card; there was more violence and more crime as cash had become scarce. More recently, others said that they felt let down by the Minister for Human Services, who promised a lot but, in their eyes, had failed to deliver. Mr Lawford Benning, the chairperson of MG Corporation, an original supporter of the card, told the recent Senate inquiry hearing:

… the Minister for Human Services, made various commitments to me prior to the introduction of the CDC

the cashless debit card—

trial in Kununurra, none of which were delivered on time or as promised.

One of the issues that were raised in Kununurra with us was that the local Indigenous community thought that they would be given delegated authority to remove people from the cashless debit card without the process being intrusive. I have to say that it is still the case that the exact process of removing people or reducing the amount of money on the card is very, very opaque. This issue really needs to be cleared up. In Ceduna recently, I met with people who were on the cashless debit card. They then applied to be removed from the card through the community panel and ultimately got off the card, but the exact process by which this took place remains completely unclear. Who in the Department of Social Services ultimately makes the decision and on what basis? We really don't know. More importantly, local people in Kununurra, Wyndham, Ceduna and the surrounding communities also don't know.

We also met with people who were on the card and found it very difficult to manage their money because they didn't have money to send away to their children in boarding school and a whole range of other reasons. Others said that the sly-grog trade meant that there are, unfortunately, ways in which people get around the card if they want to buy alcohol. The policymakers would be better off restricting the sale of alcohol through tougher alcohol management rules and tougher policing of the sly-grog trade rather than introducing a cashless card on all social security recipients.

It is important to note that the current Takeaway Alcohol Management System in Kununurra allows for people to buy two cartons of full-strength beer, six bottles of wine, or one litre of wine or spirits with an alcohol content of 15 per cent or more per day. That's the amount of alcohol that the current Takeaway Alcohol Management System allows for every single day in Kununurra. Of course, this stands in marked contrast to the situation, for example, in Fitzroy Crossing, where only light-strength takeaway alcohol can be sold. The controls were introduced in Fitzroy Crossing, and in Halls Creek two years later, with a lot of community support, and the studies of the impact in those two communities have been very positive, showing a dramatic drop in assaults, a drop in domestic violence and a drop in presentations to hospital emergency departments. I must say, this point was made to me again by Ian Trust in Kununurra, where he indicated that he certainly wanted to see tighter alcohol takeaway limits in that community.

A common sentiment expressed to the member for Barton and me during our visit was that things are so bad in these communities that they're willing to give anything new a go. I would say that they support the cashless card not out of hope but out of despair. They certainly don't think that this card is a silver bullet. They emphasised just how important it is to help people into work and the need for better employment programs. They want to see young people especially finding meaningful work and also that we implement tougher alcohol management controls.

As I mentioned, in September I went to Ceduna and some of the surrounding communities and met with a range of people on the ground there about the rollout of the card. Once again, we received quite a mixed response. The Mayor of Ceduna is a very strong supporter. Corey McLennan, from one of the local Aboriginal corporations, is a compelling advocate for the card continuing. They really want to see the card continue. By contrast, the Aboriginal health service in Ceduna and their CEO have spoken powerfully against the card. At the recent Senate inquiry, their CEO, Zell Dodd, said:

… there is an urgent need for Aboriginal people to be at the centre of building their own capacity and purpose … growing local capacity and training opportunities so that Aboriginal people are equipped physically, mentally and spiritually to deal with the issues that confront them on a daily basis. For many it is on a 24/7 basis. Services have to be in place for a minimum of five years, not three.

It's also the case that Zell Dodd raised concerns about the funding certainty of the wraparound services in Ceduna. The health service indicated that the funding associated with the card rollout for an alcohol and drug worker actually only lasted for one year. They also noticed that the nearest alcohol and drug rehab centre was more than four to five hours away in Port Augusta—and, of course, this was not acceptable.

Other Aboriginal leaders I spoke to gave quite a nuanced perspective on the card. Some said that the card had resulted in some positive change but not as much as claimed by the government. It stopped some people drinking as much as they had before, but some people are still drinking. It hasn't encouraged people into work. Many, many people have said to me that the real solution has to be to help people into work, to encourage Indigenous businesses that employ people in their own communities. One thing everyone agreed to throughout my visit to Ceduna and the far west was that the Community Development Program needs to be fixed. Everyone, including those who support the card, said how important that is. Corey McLennan, for example, who is a supporter of the card, was scathing about the Community Development Program. Bob Larking, from Scotdesco Aboriginal Community, was the same. We simply cannot be talking about reducing alcohol consumption and violence without talking about jobs and the failure of the Community Development Program.

The government is now proposing to roll out this card in the Goldfields region, including a number of different communities. It wants that to happen from January 2018. I understand the government's proposal is that that be in place for 12 months. The Mayor of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, a supporter of the card, said at the recent Senate inquiry that the failure of the Community Development Program was the 'main reason that we're sitting here today'. By that he meant that they were considering the cashless debit card. The second site the government's proposing is Bundaberg-Hervey Bay. In quite a different approach, the government's proposing that this rollout of the card be targeted at those under 35 years of age and at those who receive Newstart, youth allowance, jobseeker, parenting payment single or parenting payment partnered. At this stage, the Senate inquiry hasn't heard from anyone in this area. Labor will reserve our final position until the completion of the Senate inquiry that's currently underway.

As I said, we won't oppose the bill today, but I am very, very disappointed that the government has brought this debate on before the Senate inquiry is finished. We need to have answered all of the questions that I have raised here today. This legislation really does require proper scrutiny. We of course will be conducting our own consultations with communities in the Goldfields and the Bundaberg-Hervey Bay area. We reserve our right to support or oppose specific locations on a case-by-case basis, depending on the views of local communities.

12:42 pm

Photo of Ted O'BrienTed O'Brien (Fairfax, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

By all accounts, the government's trial rollout of the cashless debit card has been a terrific success, contrary to what we heard from the previous speaker, the member for Jagajaga. Recently, the published evaluation results said: 'It provided a considerable positive impact.' Published findings include a variety of significant improvements in key measures, such as that 41 per cent of drinkers were drinking less, 48 per cent of drug users were taking fewer drugs and 48 per cent of regular gamblers were gambling less. In addition, there were also significant increases in positive behaviour, such as 40 per cent of parents and carers reporting they were better able to look after the needs of their children, and 45 per cent of participating people confirming they were better able to save money. Given this success, the extension of the cashless debit card and its rollout for welfare recipients into additional vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, which is what the passage of the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017 is all about, is a no-brainer.

In the two principal locations where the cashless debit card has been trialled, it has quite clearly worked, and any policy that actually works, especially in the challenging areas of welfare dependence and substance abuse, deserves to be applied to the fullest extent possible. Essentially, the cashless debit card works to reduce the amount of cash available to recipients in trial communities. This works to place downward pressure on the availability of drugs, alcohol and gambling, and, it was hoped—and is now proven—to improve social and family outcomes.

The operating mechanism of the cashless debit card is simple enough: having 80 per cent of welfare payments to recipients quarantined to be spent in the best interest of welfare recipients and their dependants, and not used for the purchase of alcohol, drugs or gambling products. The remaining 20 per cent of welfare payments continues to go into regular cash accounts and can be used for whatever purpose the recipients wish. The aim is to quarantine money for the essentials of life, for those people and families, heavily—and, perhaps, in some cases totally—dependent on welfare and to avoid the problems that too often flow for families and for individuals from spending on products that engender despair and dysfunction, very often with violence.

It is also a way of ensuring that the taxpayers' strong commitment to the provision of a social safety net is honoured. Welfare payments are provided to help people in need with essential living costs, especially food, clothing, shelter, transportation and the like. Welfare payments are not intended to fuel substance abuse, whether alcohol, drugs or other, or to provide an opportunity to gamble. The main game in this program is ultimately to enhance the lives of those people, especially the women and children, who live in communities where the problems of substance abuse, gambling and, too often, violence are prevalent.

Australians are fortunate to live in a country and at a time when dealing with, even recognising, these problems is so openly embraced by governments, to the extent that programs like this can provide some much-needed support and help turn the tide on disadvantage and despair. Not that long ago, domestic violence was a taboo topic, but today, thanks to the dedication of so many—including many victims, might I add, mostly women—both recognition of the problem and the level of support services for families affected by it have finally become a major focus for governments, for institutions and for communities right across the country. Increasing acceptance of the cashless debit card demonstrates that many communities are now ready to do whatever they can to ameliorate suffering, especially at locations where there are clusters of disadvantage and where the problems are greater than they are in more affluent communities elsewhere.

Now, this is not to say that problems of domestic violence and neglect are limited to severely disadvantaged communities. Clearly, they're not. As my colleague the member for Bradfield knows, there are problems on the North Shore of Sydney, which is one of the most affluent pockets of the country. No doubt, that's almost mirrored in Toorak, Brighton and the more affluent suburbs of other cities across the country. Indeed, the theme of the third annual conference of the STOP Domestic Violence organisation, to be held in Melbourne next month, is that domestic violence does not discriminate. And there is more proof of that in very recent statistics from the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data, which establishes that, in no fewer than 761 suburbs and towns across that state, more domestic violence suspects are picked up by police than for almost any other form of criminal behaviour.

But, having made that point, there is no doubt that where disadvantage is greatest, the problems of alcohol abuse and other forms of substance abuse—as well as sometimes ridiculously high spending on gambling—and the often closely related domestic violence statistics are also greater. That was certainly the rationale behind the first trial sites for this program last year. These trial sites were in communities with a strong Indigenous representation—over 78 per cent—and that straightforward fact has attracted some attention. But there's a reason so many leaders in those communities have come out in favour of the program, and that's simply that it has worked. And now they and other leaders in communities across the country, far more diverse communities, are engaged and also wanting to see this program rolled out.

One point must be made very clearly: this card, this program, is not directed at particular individuals, or races or religions, or anyone else; it is applied equally to all participants—and only in those communities that strongly support its introduction and only following extensive local consultation. More than 180 consultations were recently conducted in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay. Furthermore, the local MP, the member for Hinkler, seeking to consult directly with his community, sent a direct mail-out to over 32,000 of his constituents, phone polled another 500 and emailed around 5½ thousand more to get their thoughts and feedback on a possible rollout of the cashless debit card for his electorate. The result was that approximately 75 per cent of the feedback received was supportive of the cashless debit card. As a consequence of such a powerful community endorsement, a rollout for Hinkler has now been announced, subject to the passage of this bill. It must be said that the Indigenous population of Hinkler, at 33.5 per cent of the population, is less than that of other trial locations.

Safeguards are firmly in place to ensure that if the cashless debit card program is to be expanded, it will grow only in those communities that want to take part. If the parliament supports this bill, the government will co-design specially tailored programs for individual communities by working with those communities. And there are many communities that continue to express interest in being part of that extended rollout. A further safeguard is that any growth of the program can only go ahead with the agreement of the parliament via the disallowable instrument process, a process that was also in place for the first trials.

The objectives of this program are honourable not only to the Australian taxpayer but also in relation to those people the Australian taxpayer has long committed to support in their time of need. This bill, and the highly effective welfare mechanism it seeks to extend, is part of our strong and abiding commitment to the social safety net that is at the very heart of what it means to be Australian. The objectives are clearly set down in the existing legislative authority. They are: to reduce the amount of payments to be available that may be spent on alcohol, gambling or illicit drugs; to determine whether such a reduction decreases violence or harm; to determine whether such arrangements are more effective when community bodies are involved; and to encourage socially responsible behaviour. There is clear evidence that these objectives are now being met.

Let me address a concern raised by some, and that is that this program somehow impinges on human rights. However important these concerns may be, it is the government's considered view that the expansion of the cashless debit card actually advances the wellbeing and protection of the human beings it impacts. It does so by ensuring that income support payments are spent in the best interests of welfare recipients, their dependents—for whom, of course, they carry a responsibility—and the local communities of which they are part. The cashless debit card is assisting to reduce immediate hardship and deprivation, to reduce violence and harm and to encourage socially responsible behaviour. These are noble and compassionate goals. On that firm basis the government believes that there are limits on one's rights, limits that are reasonable and proportional in light of the objectives, which are to enhance the dignity and, indeed, the opportunities available to our most vulnerable citizens.

As I made clear at the beginning of my address, the problems that this program addresses are some of the most insidious and troublesome that our community suffers from, especially substance abuse and domestic violence. These problems are widespread, even approaching epidemic in some areas. Perhaps such problems offend our aspiration for a model, civil society and an Australia that we all want to see. So, when we find something that works, we should quite deliberately extend the confirmed benefits as broadly as possible, and that's precisely what we're doing in this case.

The cashless debit card is an important and now proven policy of this government, a policy that certainly has my enthusiastic support, and, for this reason, I'm delighted to commend it to the House.

12:56 pm

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to offer not unqualified support to the bill currently before the House. In saying that, I recognise that this bill seeks to deal with very complex, difficult and deeply ingrained social problems. There are no simplistic answers, in spite of what you might hear from the other side. The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017 will allow the existing trial of the cashless debit card to be extended to additional sites. Presently, there's a legislated limit of three sites, with a maximum of 10,000 participants in total. The legislation also sets 30 June 2018 as the end date for the CDC trials. Those limitations will be removed when this bill comes into effect. New trials will require the making of fresh legislative instruments which can be disallowed by either house.

I find the government's proposal troubling. I'm open-minded on the use of income management measures, but I'm in total agreement with the commentator Peter Martin from The Sydney Morning Herald when he writes:

If you were going to make life much more difficult for people on welfare you'd want to be sure there was a point. You'd want to trial the indignities, you'd want to know they helped.

As I said in relation to yet another of this government's many bills targeting those at the margins, if anyone in this country has a right to complain about government red tape and overregulation and also about lack of access, it's the poor and the disadvantaged.

My personal concerns centre less on the identified trial results or even on the government's effusive and overblown response to them, though these concerns are real enough. What I truly doubt is the CDC's capacity to deliver substantial and lasting benefits over the longer term to some of the most disadvantaged communities. I worry also that the cashless debit card, like its precursors and other forms of income management arrangement, might, in some instances, deepen welfare dependency or even further inure us to it. As one highly experienced social researcher has said:

Most trials have some initial effects, the Hawthorne factor, but these usually wear off, so good policy needs very solid data to justify major changes, particularly in areas that deeply affect people's lives.

It's an open question for me whether a better approach might be to trial more extensive and intensive efforts to lift the standard of health and standard of education of those living in disadvantaged conditions. There are many things we can do that can improve people's situations without putting in the cashless debit card. By that I mean improving overall health—not just more health care, but infant health, health of young adults and pregnancy health. There are many things we can do before we move to the cashless debit card. I think we also need to try other forms of assistance—some, at times, more radical—and see whether they can produce more lasting and more cost-effective solutions. That's more than I fear we are likely to see from the cashless debit card in the longer term, and I do worry about its persistence as a method of social control in very disadvantaged communities.

Extensive research work undertaken by those who have spent a lifetime in this field dealing with the interrelationship between health, economic and societal wellbeing clearly demonstrates that you cannot address health issues without attacking inequality and vice versa. I speak in particular of Sir Michael Marmot, the previous head of the World Medical Association, and his belief in the social determinants of health. As a paediatrician, you might imagine the sorts of things I have in mind, such as early childhood health and pregnancy health. We know now that the science of epigenetics tells us that we can do a lot about people's lifetime health experiences and lifetime education experiences if we intervene to provide good antenatal care and good pregnancy care for people. So, like the Jesuits, I believe you have to get children when they're very young, even before they're born, to make long-term differences.

I've read and re-read the minister's second reading speech and the explanatory memorandum, the department's very brief submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs inquiry and the exchanges between the government and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. I am also indebted to the Parliamentary Library for their insights and assistance. If the customary regulatory impact statement had been provided I would have read that as well, but it wasn't. The government has declined to include a financial impact statement in the explanatory memorandum on the basis of commercial confidentiality. But the department has advised through the parliament that the estimated cost of implementing and managing the CDC trial in Ceduna and the East Kimberley from 1 July 2015 to April 2018 is $18.9 million. That's just, of course, for a total of 2,000 participants. This is a very expensive program for very limited apparent benefits.

In 2013, the Australian National Audit Office reported that the estimated cost per person per year for managing income measures such as the CDC could be as high as $7,900 per person per year in remote areas. The income management regime that operated as part of the Northern Territory intervention cost in the order of $410 million and was also roundly criticised, including by a government-commissioned evaluation report, a report prepared by the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW. All I'd say is that you can get a lot of health care, a lot of medical support and a lot of educational support for that sort of money.

The cashless debit card can be used for purchases, excluding certain forms of gambling, illicit drugs, tobacco, alcohol and pornography. The CDC is a Visa debit card issued by the payment company, Indue. Cardholders can use the card at any bricks-and-mortar store that accepts Visa debit cards, unless the store has been blocked. It can also have its uses online. I acknowledge that the government has made progress in improving some of the technical aspects of the scheme, but there's some way to go yet, especially if the CDC is to operate effectively in more densely populated areas. Like earlier cards, the CDC suffers from the limitation that it directly blocks specific merchants and businesses rather than specific goods and services. Blocked merchants can be approved on a case-by-case basis if they undertake to have their staff guard against prohibited activity and if the store refuses to process prohibited transactions, including excluded goods such as alcohol.

The manual screening process necessarily adds to the cost and complexity of the scheme. It also makes elements of compliance highly contingent and it is difficult to see how it might readily translate from isolated regional communities to regional centres. The proposed Hinkler and Bundaberg trials will no doubt test this. In each of the two trials to date in the East Kimberley and Ceduna, 80 per cent of an individual's welfare payments are deposited in the cashless debit card account, with the remaining 20 per cent being placed in their ordinary savings accounts. Retaining some access to cash does mean that the scheme cannot entirely eliminate the possibility of welfare recipients using some portion of the entitlements on alcohol, prohibited drugs, gambling et cetera. Circumvention and gaming the system have been an issue for all income management schemes trialled in Australia over the past decade, as have cost and effectiveness.

ORIMA Research's first evaluation of the Ceduna and east Kimberley trials unearthed at least eight ways in which participants can circumvent the CDC restrictions. That tally is consistent with experience from all welfare card schemes trialled in Australia over the last decade. Even strong and undeniably well-meaning supporters of income management, such as Andrew Forrest and the Minderoo Foundation, argue that both past and current debit card systems suffer from technological limitations that make them difficult and expensive to implement and maintain. The Minderoo Foundation's submission to the as yet uncompleted Senate Community Affairs Committee inquiry argues that the government needs to overcome such technological limitations before extending the card to new communities. Blind to even the advice of those supporting further trials, the government has announced that it does intend extending income management and the CDC trials to at least two new sites: the Goldfields region of Western Australia and the federal electorate of Hinkler, centred on Bundaberg. The PM memorably described this as an act of love. Others might see it more akin to an act of blind faith.

Like some, I suspect, on both sides of this House, I do see how a cashless debit card or some other form of income management arrangement might be a useful data source, make a positive difference in the short term or act as an adjunct to other measures. I can also see it playing a supporting role, but only if it is well targeted, supported by local communities and proves cost-effective, meaning that it does not chew up either the scarce community resources and money that would be better spent elsewhere, such as in education, or goodwill that might be better invested elsewhere.

In his second reading speech, the minister quotes ORIMA Research's most recent evaluation report, which found that 'overall the trial has been effective to date'—hardly effusive praise. In particular, the trial has been effective in reducing alcohol consumption in the shorter term, illegal drug use and gambling, and has provided some evidence of proof of concept. This is a much more qualified claim than was initially made by the minister, who, on 1 September, in his excitement, ejaculated that the ORIMA evaluation has positive health and social outcomes 'almost without precedent'. Now, that is clearly not true.

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Development and Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

He did what?

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That's my language. I was quoting him. Like the Prime Minister's 'act of love' remark, this really was a contender for an 'eggbeater of the month' award. I don't doubt the sincerity of the minister and the government on this matter, but I do doubt their understanding of the concepts.

I can see why some might reasonably conclude that the cashless debit card trials undertaken to date have produced some mildly encouraging results, but this is only in the short term and, overwhelmingly, the trial results are more mixed than conclusive. That's a view I share with researchers and commentators such as Eva Cox, Peter Martin, Dr Janet Hunt of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the ANU, and numerous submissions to the Senate Community Affairs Committee inquiry into the bill. To quote Peter Martin yet again on the minister's somewhat eccentric reading of ORIMA's final evaluation report:

Forty-five per cent of the of the users surveyed found they were better at saving. Less publicised was that 50 per cent found they were not. Twenty-three per cent said it had made their life better. Less publicised was that 42 per cent said it had made their lives worse.

Forty per cent said they could better look after their children. Less publicised was that 48 per cent said they could not.

Eva Cox noted:

There are serious flaws in data collection, described in the Orima report, some of the limits are acknowledged in the report … These are not acknowledged by the Government.

The Western Australian Council of Social Service says in its Community Affairs Committee submission:

Our overriding concern with the proposed legislative extension of the Cashless Debit Card trials is the significant gap between the actual evidence of the impacts of the trials carried out to date and the claims being made politically about that evidence.

Overstating the positive aspects of the trials not only is misleading and unhelpful but can be harmful, especially if the government falls into the trap of believing its own publicity—something it is very prone to do. A proliferation of further trials or a national rollout of income management would be horrendously expensive and is not supported by the evidence assembled either by the ORIMA study or by earlier ill-fated ventures involving cashless welfare cards and income management arrangements.

The bill has been looked at by two parliamentary committees and is in the process of being examined by a third. The Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills reported on 6 September 2017:

… this bill converts authority to run a trial program into a general power to implement that program.

The Scrutiny of Bills Committee also raised concerns that the bill reduces parliament's capacity to supervise the operation of any extended trial. The committee requested additional advice from the minister as to why the primary legislation does not include more guidance and safeguards on matters such as site selection and participation criteria. These concerns are of the sort routinely raised by the Scrutiny of Bills Committee about this government's social welfare legislation.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights also examined the bill and queried whether the extension of the trials process is of itself a proportionate limitation on human rights. The Senate referred the bill to its Community Affairs Legislation Committee, which is not due to report until 13 November. The community affairs committee has not completed its inquiries, and a further public hearing is scheduled early in November. Quite rightly, in this instance, where the views of individuals and communities should be afforded the most respect, Labor has decided to reserve its final position on the bill until the community affairs committee completes its work. As part of its consultation process, the relevant shadow minister visited the east Kimberley and Ceduna trial sites, and Labor does still see the need for further evidence before strongly supporting this bill. This is entirely consistent with Labor's longstanding position on income management arrangements. It's consistent, too, with the findings of two Senate committees and many others on both sides of the House. I thank the House.

1:11 pm

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today in support of the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017. The passage of this bill will provide the legislative authority to allow the Goldfields region of my electorate to be the third and, to date, largest site for the cashless debit card. On 29 May 2017, I spoke in this place in support of the need in my Goldfields community for the cashless debit card as one tool in a suite of strategies to tackle some of the social and health issues fuelled by alcohol and other drugs in this part of my electorate.

Today, I stand here to give voice to my community and the leaders who have so bravely stood up and fought for the introduction of this card. They are people like Leonora Indigenous leader Nana Gaye Harris, who started the ball rolling when she first sought me out in Leonora 2015; people like Laverton Indigenous elders Bruce Smith and Janice Scott, who moved an entire room to tears with their powerful account of children living on the streets of Laverton, abandoned by parents on the grog; and people like Coolgardie community leader Betty Logan and her niece, Amanda Bennell, who in the presence of the Prime Minister challenged naysayers to look into the eyes of a child suffering the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome and not feel compassion. I give voice to people like Leonora police officer in charge Isaac Rinaudo, who has described children as young as five years of age breaking into houses just to steal food. And I give voices to civic leaders like Laverton's Patrick Hill; Leonora's Jim Epis and Peter Craig; Jill Dwyer and Ian Tucker from the Shire of Menzies; Mal Cullen and Betty Logan from the Coolgardie shire; and Mayor John Bowler of the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder. They are fighting for what's best for the communities that they know and love and have been committed to for all their lives. Today, I'm their voice in the Australian parliament.

On 1 September this year, the Prime Minister came to the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder and announced that, based on demonstrable need and a willingness reflected through extensive community consultations, the Goldfields would be the next site to roll out the cashless debit card. The Prime Minister's announcement was the culmination of over 18 months of community consultations and followed promising outcomes seen in the cashless debit card trials in Ceduna and east Kimberley. The second independent evaluation of these two trials, conducted by ORIMA Research, was released the same day. This evaluation concluded that, across these two trial sites, which involved a total of 2,141 participants, alcohol consumption and gambling had markedly reduced and alcohol related violence and harm had also diminished significantly. It found in particular that, of people who drank alcohol, 42 per cent reported drinking less frequently and 30 per cent of binge drinkers reported they were doing so less often. There was a 37 per cent reduction in alcohol related hospital presentations in Ceduna in the first quarter of 2017 when compared to the same period before the card was introduced. Other key findings included that 48 per cent of drug takers were using fewer drugs and 48 per cent of gamblers were gambling less. But, most importantly, the trend showed improving outcomes over time.

Many ask: why do we need this card in the Goldfields? The Goldfields is an area of tremendous mineral wealth, but also considerable social disadvantage. It has a population of around 36,000, of which approximately 10 per cent receive working-age income support payments. Tragically, a considerable amount of this money is being squandered on gambling, alcohol and other drug habits instead of the necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter and transport.

In the main street of Kalgoorlie, newsagent Kerry Holman reports that on a daily basis that she sells scratchies to parents on welfare while children plead for food. Other vendors report shoplifting of food and daily essentials as a constant. Meanwhile, government and non-government agencies report providing emergency food and clothing vouchers, even on the days after payments are made into their bank accounts. In Laverton, shire president Patrick Hill reported open gambling in public places, with anything from $2,000 to $5,000 in the ring, yet the kids are running around with no food and no clothes. Pat believes, 'If you restrict the cash, you restrict the things that are happening at the moment.'

This is supported by findings of the independent evaluation in Ceduna, which showed a marked decrease in requests for emergency food relief and financial assistance, while local merchants reported increased purchases of baby items, food, clothing, shoes, toys and other goods for children. Overall, the independent evaluation also found 40 per cent of cashless debit card participants across both Ceduna and the East Kimberley trial sites reported they were better able to care for their children.

The consequential harm from alcohol and other drug abuse is another massive issue for the Goldfields. WA police data indicates that domestic and non-domestic assaults in the Goldfields are more than twice the state average, with alcohol being a factor in two-thirds of all domestic assaults and half of all non-domestic assaults. In the Goldfields, alcohol related hospitalisations and deaths is 25 per cent higher than the state average. As mentioned, the independent evaluation of trials in Ceduna and East Kimberley confirmed a decrease in the alcohol related hospital presentations.

I'm not alone in looking forward to our hospital and emergency service workers having some respite. Mal Cullen, president of the shire of Coolgardie, reported, 'Our police are under increasing pressure, and ambulance service people are being abused.' In the northern Goldfields, I've been told there are sometimes three Royal Flying Doctor Service medical transfers per day, mostly for alcohol related issues.

Publicans in the City of Kalgoorlie, Boulder, Laverton and Leonora, together with the Australian Hotels Association, support the introduction of the cashless debit card, even though these liquor outlets stand to lose income with its introduction. They state the overall impact of less alcohol driven social disorder on the streets will be well worth it.

Last Friday's front page of the Kalgoorlie Miner quoted the Kalgoorlie police as saying that ice related crime was spiralling out of control, with offenders often between 10 and 18 years of age. Meanwhile, police in Leonora reported that between January and June this year there were more assaults than all other crimes put together. In Laverton, there were three times more assaults than any other crime, with Senior Sergeant Justin Tarasinki citing domestic and non-domestic violence, often as a direct result of alcohol consumption. He added, 'We're also concerned about kids who are confronted with the damage alcohol is causing adults, including their own parents, and how they're often exposed to alcohol from an early age.' These testimonies come from respected members of our community who agree there is a real and urgent need for the introduction of the card.

I'd like to take a minute now to define what the card actually is and how it will work in practice. This card is a cashless debit Visa card, and for those who say there's a stigma attached, just take a look. It's the same as the Visa card I use for my everyday purchases. No-one on this card will be financially worse off. They'll receive the same welfare benefit they've always been entitled to. Twenty per cent will be available for withdrawal as cash, and the remaining 80 per cent will be deposited onto the cashless debit card, which can be used for the purchase of goods and services, but not to purchase alcohol or to gamble. As an example: a single parent with three children receives just under $1,500 per fortnight in benefit; $1,175 of that will be credited to their Visa debit card, with the remaining $294 deposited into an account, which can be withdrawn as cash when required.

I plan to request a cashless Visa debit card myself and to use it when I'm in the Goldfields. With this Visa debit card I can pay for my hotel accommodation, I can buy groceries and I can buy a meal in a licensed premises; however, I can't buy beer and I can't use it to have a punt on the ponies. For those on the card, their benefit will continue to be deposited at the same regular intervals and can be linked to their mobile phone for real-time account balances. Large purchases such as whitegoods or motor vehicles can be catered for. Direct debit payments can be scheduled, and there is financial counselling and practical assistance available. I might add that that has been taken up on a voluntary basis by 40 per cent of people on the card so far.

I aim to ensure that every shire in the rollout area has its own local support officer to assist with the practicalities of managing or replacing the card. In addition, there will be case managers assigned to coordinate wraparound and support services. This card will apply to all working-age benefit recipients; however, in the case of disability support pension recipients, a wellbeing exemption can be applied for.

There are those who state that this card is discriminatory, but I'm confident that the cashless debit card trial sites to date have been selected based on a demonstrable need, combined with the support of local leaders. To date, in the two trial sites, which have included 2,241 participants, 78 per cent have identified as Indigenous. In Kalgoorlie-Boulder, over 60 per cent of welfare recipients are non-Indigenous. Across the entire Goldfields, there is a fifty-fifty split between Indigenous and non-Indigenous welfare recipients. The Goldfields definitely have a proven need.

I have worked hard to secure the support of these dispersed but united communities, that extend from the Shire of Coolgardie in the west to the WA, South Australia and Northern Territory border. I was first exposed to the dire situation in the northern Goldfields in late 2015 when approached to support more place based services to the town of Leonora, which was suffering a spate of youth suicides. I also met a remarkable woman, Nana Gaye Harris, who implored me to help her come up with a way to address the alcohol related harm her community was experiencing. We discussed the potential benefits of the cashless debit card, and her community has been working towards this trial ever since.

Since late 2015, I've had countless conversations with community members, Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders, business owners, health and other service providers, local government authorities and the police towards consideration of the Goldfields as the next site for the rollout of the cashless debit card. At my invitation, Minister Tudge came to Kalgoorlie in November 2015 to meet with community leaders and service providers. Following my meeting with Gaye Harris, he returned on 22 December 2015, travelling to Leonora to meet with a cross-section of the northern Goldfields community. Shire representatives, service providers, local police, Indigenous leaders and community members from Leonora, Laverton and the Ngaanyatjarra Lands discussed with Minister Tudge the possible rollout of the cashless debit card in dealing with serious social and health issues. The minister made it clear that communities would need to consult widely with their members and would need to commit to being involved in any design, were they to become a cashless debit card site.

Since this time, I've committed to consulting widely with adjacent communities and securing the support of residents, business and local governments of the shires of Laverton, Leonora, Coolgardie and Menzies and the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder. There's been considerable interest expressed by the Shire of Dundas, and I'm working with Minister Tudge for their inclusion in the rollout trial.

Prior to announcing the Goldfields as a site for the next cashless debit card rollout, the Department of Social Services conducted more than 285 consultations, including attendance at over 125 meetings across the Goldfields. This incorporated more than 30 consultations with local governments across six Goldfields shires; over 45 consultations with representatives, local service providers and peak bodies working with disadvantaged families; and in excess of 50 consultations with frontline state government officials delivering health and education and public safety services. And the Department of Social Services hosted 10 community information sessions in the greater Goldfields region, attended by more than 180 people.

The minister himself attended further stakeholder meetings. In May 2017, he received strong feedback from the shires of Laverton and Leonora that the time for consultation was over and it was time to get on with it. Minister Tudge listened to an extraordinary plea from a respected elder and grandcarer, Janice Scott of Laverton. She said: 'Our children have no rights. They have no future. Our people are dying. We need this card, and we need to try something now.' At the recent Kalgoorlie hearing of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, witnesses were asked if there had been enough consultation on the cashless debit card. Jim Epis, who has been the CEO of the Shire of Leonora for over 20 years, said:

You can only consult so much, and the people in Leonora … have had a gutful. Stop talking about it and just … do it.

He said:

Aboriginal people are the same; they don't want to sit down and meet, meet, meet all the time … Surely we've consulted enough.

I firmly believe the time is right to introduce this card into the Goldfields. I want to state for the record that I do not believe that this card is the silver bullet that will fix all the social issues of the greater Goldfields, but, if we can take some of the cash out of these communities, it will address gambling and illicit drug problems. And if this card can be a tool to help reduce the amount of alcohol-related domestic and other violence, if this card can redirect welfare dollars to where they are best spent, on the necessities of life, and if federal, state and local government agencies together are committed to providing the ancillary services to support those on the card, for those wanting to beat an addiction and for those wanting to manage their finances for the benefit of themselves and their dependants, I see no downside in giving this a go. If our communities are behind it, which I firmly believe they are, then we should just pass this bill and get on with it.

I note that the shadow minister has indicated that the Labor Party will support this bill through the House, and I sincerely thank her for that. And I welcome the shadow minister's willingness to visit the Goldfields and meet with the leaders of my community. I'm confident that she'll hear the same message that I've received from my communities: that the time for talk is over and it's time to get on with it. I will close with the words of Laverton elder Janice Scott when she implored: 'Please give our children a chance.'

1:25 pm

Photo of Emma HusarEmma Husar (Lindsay, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

'Cashless'—that's a very interesting term to bandy around in this chamber today! I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017, being mindful of a sneaking trepidation that all may not be as it seems. While the intentions of the government and this side of the House are clear and unambiguous, it is still not clear that the cashless debit card will deliver the much-needed assistance to communities that they require. Indeed, since its introduction, east Kimberley community leaders have raised concerns regarding the delivery of promised support services surrounding these trials. I would suggest that Labor and other members of this place will be looking closely at these comments and listening to the community leaders and members to find out the real outcomes of these trials. As the shadow minister for families and community services, Jenny Macklin, has rightly pointed out, it is mystifying why the government has introduced this legislation with the Senate inquiry that is already underway. We rightfully reserve judgement until that is complete—and so should the other side of the House. It is disappointing to see them jump the gun and attempt to pre-empt their findings.

Unlike the east Kimberley and Ceduna trials, the lack of consultation in the Goldfields and Hervey Bay areas is symptomatic of a government that doesn't listen, doesn't communicate and doesn't implement its promises. The actions, or lack thereof, in east Kimberley are in stark contrast to the hope that the trial of the card was thought to deliver. Mothers were hoping that their families would see support programs and training to help break the treacherous cycle of gambling addiction and alcohol and drug abuse. The member for Jagajaga, Jenny Macklin, who probably has more experience than anyone in this place regarding the implementation of these policies, rightly points out that surrounding support programs quite simply have not, at this time, been seen.

I note that the government likes to trot out the figures, provided through the evaluation of the cashless debit card trial, which were released by ORIMA Research in a flurry of publicity. They claimed that the figures were in and the Messiah had somehow arrived. I would be the first to applaud that, if that were indeed the case. Quite simply, we cannot be sure—and many experts have raised questions about the trial's methodology and the anonymity of participants. Janet Hunt of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research in the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, in her issues paper, points out that there are too many factors surrounding the evaluation and, importantly, notes the fact that participants were required to identify themselves prior to their participation and that that raises serious questions about how they would respond, and, in some cases, understand the questions and the implications of their answers. As previous speakers have rightly pointed out, it would be surprising if someone with a drug problem who had been identified by the interviewer would suddenly open up and discuss their volume of usage. Similarly, with no or little baseline data, can the stated drop in alcohol use be used with any accuracy? Again, I point to identification as a key problem. We're talking about people who have suffered greatly at the hands of government representatives and others. Yet the original problem of domestic and other violence remains—the very reason for these trials to begin with. This is hardly encouraging for potential participants in the Hervey Bay and Goldfields areas targeted by this legislation.

It is because of the limitations of the data presented by the government as fact that Labor is highlighting that the section repealed by this bill would still require a legislative instrument to be tabled in parliament, and, as we on this side have said previously, these instruments are disallowable and that means that the rollouts can be agreed or opposed in certain locations. The trial of cashless debit cards has been viewed through a prism of suspicion and distrust, and rightly so. It takes a great leap of faith for these communities to commit to their implementation. That's why Labor has consulted closely with communities in Ceduna and East Kimberley, listening to the communities' views widely, discreetly and humbly. We do support genuine, intuitive policies that acknowledge the problems and opportunities that are unique to remote and discrete communities. Because of the tireless efforts of my colleagues Jenny Macklin and Linda Burney, we understand that a cashless debit system may be part of the solution.

Photo of Mark CoultonMark Coulton (Parkes, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour. The member for Lindsay will be given an opportunity at that time to conclude her contribution.