House debates

Wednesday, 27 November 2019


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

10:21 am

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Financial Services) Share this | | Hansard source

'Do things with us, not to us.' That was the request from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community of Australia over the last decade: 'Do things with us, not to us.' The tragedy is that this request, this plea for respect, has been ignored by the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments and their members of parliament. By dismissing the Uluru Statement from the Heart and, indeed, introducing legislation to extend the cashless welfare card, they are doing things to Aboriginal people, not doing things with them. That is a paternalistic, almost a colonial, approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people relations—implementing this through expanding policies that continue to tell Aboriginal people what is good for them, rather than listening and working with those people.

Like my Labor colleagues, I do not support this bill. It is clearly discriminatory. It applies predominantly to First Nations peoples, with 80 per cent of people on income management in the Northern Territory being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background. Twelve years after the Intervention, there's no clear empirical evidence that broad-based income management has worked. There's no evidence that it has got people off welfare and into employment. Once again, communities have not been consulted about this particular change.

Labor's not opposed to income management where communities request it and they are involved in the decision-making. In Cape York, we've had the Family Responsibilities Commission make decisions about the rates of payment that are quarantined, and they've made them variable. One hundred and fifty people have been subject to that particular program. The difference is that those decisions were made by the local community. They were made through government agencies working in consultation with the local community—working with Aboriginal people, not against Aboriginal people.

The cashless debit card has been rolled out in Ceduna, in East Kimberley, in the Goldfields and in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay. Generally, in those areas, 80 per cent of payments are quarantined. Labor sought to make that particular program voluntary; in other words, to make sure that communities had buy-in and that it was effective. Unfortunately, that was unsuccessful. That trial ends in July 2020. It's pleasing to see that the government did agree to Labor's amendment to allow people to come off the cashless debit card if they are effectively managing their finances. But the approach of telling people what to do rather than listening to them is evident in the reform that's before the parliament today.

The Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management to Cashless Debit Card Transition) Bill 2019 seeks to replace the BasicsCard with the cashless welfare card across the Northern Territory and Cape York by the end of 2020. It maintains the current 50 per cent quarantine rate and extends existing trial sites by one year. It removes the cap on trial participants, and the minister can make a non-disallowable rule to increase the proportion of persons on a payment up to 100 per cent. Many people fear this bill is being used as a precursor to a national rollout of a cashless debit card, and some government MPs have suggested that social security recipients under 35 should be placed in similar circumstances.

There's been much debate about the effectiveness of income management and the cashless welfare card. In all of that debate, in all of the evaluations and studies that have been done, there is no evidence that it actually works. A UNSW study of income management in 2014 found there was little evidence that the program resulted in behavioural change. In July 2018, the Auditor-General looked at this program. He studied it, and looked at whether or not it had been effective. The Auditor-General concluded:

The Department of Social Services largely established appropriate arrangements to implement the Cashless Debit Card Trial, however, its approach to monitoring and evaluation was inadequate. As a consequence, it is difficult to conclude whether there had been a reduction in social harm and whether the card was a lower cost welfare quarantining approach.

That's the view of the Auditor-General.

The Queensland Council of Social Services, in September 2017, issued a report after evaluating the cashless debit card. QCOSS said:

      It went on:

        It also said:

          That was the view of QCOSS after it had a look at this piece of legislation.

          There is plenty of evidence that this program does not work and is bad policy. There's no evidence at all that it has created a single job or that it's got people off welfare payments and into employment, which should be the aim of programs such as this. As I said earlier, it represents this government's ideological approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander relations in this country—that is, doing things to Aboriginal people, rather than working with them by consulting them and working with them on a cooperative basis.

          Mr Ramsey interjecting

          In many respects, it reflects the historical colonial approach associated with the conservative side of politics towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander relations in this country.

          Mr Ramsey interjecting

          Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          The member for Grey.

          Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Financial Services) Share this | | Hansard source

          It represents that party doing things to Aboriginal people rather than working with them.

          Mr Ramsey interjecting

          Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          Order. The member for Grey will remove himself under 94(a).

          The member for Grey then left the chamber.

          Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Financial Services) Share this | | Hansard source

          There's no evidence that this piece of reform has worked, and there's no evidence that an extension of this trial will work. And on that basis, Labor is opposed to it. We have proposed some amendments, that I won't go into in too much detail because time doesn't permit, to basically make the card voluntary in the Northern Territory so that a person is placed on it for a specific reason—for example, for child protection or by the Family Responsibilities Commission of Cape York—requiring the minister to demonstrate support for each individual community before rolling out the cashless debit card; requiring further independent evaluation of the debit card; and removing the minister's power to quarantine up to 100 per cent of a person's payment. That is an approach that the Labor Party will take in the Senate in trying to amend this particular piece of legislation. Once again, I reiterate my earlier comments that this represents this government doing things to Aboriginal people rather than doing things with Aboriginal people, and it should be opposed.

          10:30 am

          Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

          As an Independent member of this House, I see my role as built on three main pillars. These are: advocating for the needs of the people of Indi; maintaining the best interests of the nation; and diligent application of the principles of good governance. When assessing the proposed legislation against these pillars, I cannot support this bill. Many of my constituents believe the cashless debit card is punitive. Law-abiding frugal people living as best they can on social security payments are concerned they will be scrutinised and judged for their spending choices—spending which they budget into rent, food, school expenses and transport. If the week goes without an unexpected event, there might be something left over for an outing. A constituent told me the restrictive income management of the CDC would make them feel like a second-class citizen.

          The overarching aim, which is to reduce the expenditure of public funds on harmful alcohol, illicit drugs and gambling, is worthy of the House's consideration. Public funds are intended to support Australians in difficult circumstances with the fundamentals of daily life. On the face of it, this bill tries to combine health promotion with responsible governance of public funds. However, I believe the policy naively and unnecessarily attempts to change the behaviour of some by structurally imposing a remedy on all. To date, the CDC trials have cost about $10,000 per participant or over $25 million in total administrative fees. Yet the amount spent on financial counselling, drug and alcohol and family support services—$2.6 million—pales in comparison. If the intent of the policy is to ensure proper use of public funds and to effect positive behaviour change, then, based on these figures alone, the trials do not pass muster. Similarly, when applying the fundamental principles of behaviour change theory, this bill does not stack up.

          This bill has two main issues which mean I cannot support its passage through the House. Firstly, I want to highlight the government's own evaluations, which have found no widespread benefits from the imposition of CDC on entire communities. Secondly, I have significant concerns regarding the restrictive impacts this bill would have for regional people's ability to spend their payments as they see fit. An essential component of modern good governance is the application of robust evidence to develop policy and ultimately to ensure the laws made in this place are having the effect intended for our communities. This is something that I believe all members of this House can agree on.

          The government has disputed the validity of community concerns by characterising this bill as tough but necessary. Yet what is indisputable are the flaws of the independent evaluation process commissioned by the Department of Social Services. In 2018 the Australian National Audit Office criticised this evaluation for its lack of robustness in data collection and noted the trial was not designed to test the scalability of the program. The issue of scalability is a key concern, as data gathered in one community will often tell us very little about whether a program will work in another community. But, as this bill reflects, these documented flaws in the evaluation have not stopped the government from seeking to extend community wide CDC to even more communities. Even if we ignore these issues related to saleability, the Public Health Association of Australia noted that, even in original CDC trial sites, the CDC 'did not show positive outcomes for the majority of participants', who 'were more likely to say that the program had made the lives of them and their children worse rather than better'.

          It seems that the bill may not necessarily be the best tool to help participants. An Indi constituent who is a single parent in my rural area told me that this card would only add even more stress to an already stressful existence. Another constituent who is a recipient of a government payment, who has spent their working life paying taxes and is now in diminished circumstances, told me how if the CDC were imposed on them they would feel they were no longer able to exercise control over their own life. The constituent was concerned that they wouldn't have the flexibility to save money by shopping at local markets or online local buy-swap-sell pages to make their household budget go further. They were worried that, if these measures were rolled out nationwide and included people like them, they wouldn't be able to shop at the local supermarket, because their local supermarket also sells alcohol. In line with my constituents' concerns, the Consumer Action Law Centre warns that any extension of these trials has the potential to create a secondary economy and prevent people from shopping around to find the best deal. This shows that the community concerns raised with me are not an illogical leap.

          The significant overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people among trial participants is also an important concern among people from my electorate. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who already live with discrimination and racism, face an added stigma through the imposition of the CDC. Dr Jackie Huggins AM, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia's First Nations Peoples said:

          The cashless debit card has fundamentally undermined the self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The card shames and stigmatises our peoples for their disadvantage, robs them of their financial freedom, and exacerbates pre-existing social challenges such as financial harassment.

          While the government has sought to assure the nation that these measures would never be rolled out nationwide, and the government can protest that they are being unfairly criticised, public concern remains high. While the cashless debit card can be used at any store that has not been blocked by the department, the reality is that many stores in regional and rural areas sell a mix of both excluded and non-excluded goods. If rolled out further, this could prevent people from shopping at their favourite local stores and prevent them from supporting their community's local economy. It's not hard to imagine how this may isolate people in their own communities.

          The evaluation did find some evidence of reduction in alcohol consumption, illegal drug use and gambling. However, the accuracy of these measures is widely disputed by credible bodies, such as the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Public Health Association of Australia, ACOSS and the Human Rights Law Centre. The St Vincent de Paul Society summarised it best, when they said:

          Existing evidence shows that compulsory income management:

                  As it stands, this bill removes the requirement that an evaluation be conducted by an independent expert within six months of completion of a CDC trial. What's the point of extending the trials of the CDC if no independent evaluation is produced? This House should encourage independent evaluation rather than seek to avoid it. It is independent experts who challenge us on our preconceptions and help us to see the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be. If the government is so confident that community-wide CDCs do work then why not allow an expert to prove it through a properly independent and long-term evaluation?

                  Another aspect of this bill which is concerning to many in my electorate is the absence of voluntary participation. I welcome that this amendment enacts changes to allow people in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay area to opt in to the trial as voluntary participants. Allowing opt-ins for some is a good start, but it's only one half of ensuring voluntary participation. Allowing participants who are automatically included to opt out is more difficult, and sees participants having to bear the burden of proving to the department that they are reasonable and responsible citizens. It's important to remember that although some participants undoubtedly feel that income management has helped them this is not a justification for imposing it on entire communities. Rather, it's an argument for voluntary participation.

                  As the Independent member for Indi, I promised to bring a community-driven approach to my work in parliament. Enabling communities and individuals control over their lives is an important principle, and one which I know the minister supports. And yet this bill, in its current form, would only serve to remove agency from families, parents and communities as to how they spend the payments to which they are legally entitled. By ensuring participation in the CDC is voluntary, communities would be able to choose the options best suited to their circumstances—something that the Australian Human Rights Commission agrees would promote participation in decision-making based on free, prior and informed consent and good faith. Again, the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples advocates for the CDC to operate on an opt-in basis. It should be up to the people who want to participate in the communities. 'We are strongly opposed to further rollout unless an opt-in system is put in place and all trial areas are properly evaluated,' said national congress co-chair Rod Little.

                  I welcome the announcement by the member for Barton that her party would seek to move amendments in the other place aiming to ensure the CDC is only implemented after community support has been demonstrated through consultation or in response to specific reasons such as child protection. In principle, these amendments address some of my concerns and should be supported. In the future, we should ensure that no person is placed on such restrictive income support without their or their community's express permission. In light of the preliminary evidence and documented hardship experienced by many participants, I call on the government to, at a minimum, make participation in all and existing future trials opt-in. Even the parliament's own Joint Committee on Human Rights advises that voluntary participation would improve the bill's compatibility with Australia's human rights obligations.

                  The minister rightly talks about the need to help those who are receiving social security payments and have issues with alcohol consumption, gambling and illegal drug use. As always, I seek to be constructive in this place. We can do many things to help those with substance misuse and gambling issues, whether they're on social security payments or not. But what will not help our communities are blanket solutions to complex, multi-layered problems. Primarily these are health issues. The Australian Council of Social Service has rightly argued that people in our communities who have alcohol, drug or gambling issues need more coordinated health and social support services. Isolating people by restricting their ability to fully participate in their own communities is not the answer. As it currently stands, this bill fails to reflect the economic and social realities of those receiving government payments across our nation and especially in rural, remote and regional areas. Without significant amendments, I cannot support the passage of this bill through the House.

                  10:42 am

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

                  I rise to speak today to correct some of the inaccuracies I've heard from some of the previous contributors. I'd invite the member for Indi to stay for a moment because I will point out where she has misled the House—and perhaps she might like to correct the record. It is good to see that so many of my colleagues have turned up to hear my contribution today.

                  Government members: Hear, hear!

                  Thank you so much. You are intensely interested in this initiative by the government. Let me talk about how the cashless debit card came to be implemented across the Goldfields. It is centred on Kalgoorlie and the surrounding shires of Leonora, Laverton, Coolgardie and Menzies. Late in 2015, in the small town of Leonora, a town of around 250 people, a high proportion of whom are local Indigenous families, two 16-year-old girls committed suicide. It transpired that those girls had been subjected to abuse from people badly affected by alcohol. I was at the Leonora Hotel and one of the local Aboriginal elders came to me and said: 'We're in despair. We don't know what we can do. We don't know where to turn.' Nanna Gaye Harris was the catalyst for me calling the then minister, Alan Tudge, who within days flew to Leonora. The minister and I sat down with the Leonora Shire Council and the local Aboriginal leaders and discussed a concept, a trial, which had been begun in Ceduna in the electorate of my very good friend and colleague the member for Grey. While it was early days, the anecdotal evidence was that it was making a massive difference in people's lives. Subsequently, we conducted 270 consultations. There were people who complained later that they didn't have their opportunity, that they didn't get to a consultation, but 270 consultations conducted by the Department of Social Services was a huge undertaking and most people got the opportunity to have some input. Those five shires were all very proactive in promoting the possibility of a card trial for changing some of their communities. Some of the Aboriginal elders across the broader trial space—the beautiful Betty Logan and Bruce Smith, people that I've worked very closely with on this for four to five years now—have seen an incredible change in the way their communities operate.

                  Member for Indi, you made the comment that stores are blocked. You have no understanding of how the card works. I have an Indue card. I have a cashless debit card. I use that card the same as I would use any VISA card at any retail outlet anywhere in the world—

                  Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

                  These are the views of my people.

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

                  Is the view of your people that you can stand up here and give incorrect information to the House? The way it operates is like any other VISA card. There are over 1,000 merchant categories. If the merchant category that comes up when you scan the card is 'alcohol' it won't work. But the technology has improved to the stage where you can go into the Coolgardie store, the only shop in town, which sells both groceries and alcohol, and buy groceries. Pat Dellar, who has owned that shop for 40 years, tells me that families are coming in to buy a basket of groceries instead of alcohol for the first time ever. You would condemn those people, mums and dads, to going down to the general store and buying a block rather than food for the kids—because that's effectively what you're suggesting here.

                  The card trial in Kalgoorlie has been going for almost 18 months now. We are expecting the evaluation, which is being conducted by the University of Adelaide, to be handed down sometime around Christmas or post Christmas. That will have some statistics and some objective measurement. But let me tell you, I've been talking to people across my electorate over that 18-month period, and the anecdotal evidence is overwhelmingly positive. Kids who hadn't been going to school, because mum and dad had been on the grog, are going to school. Let me tell you, these communities were being torn apart and have been transformed by this card. We have police data. Every month the police publish their station statistics. In the town of Laverton in September 2018, three months after the trial had been introduced, domestic violence reports had reduced by 40 per cent. I wonder how many of those perpetrators would have gone on the card voluntarily? The women that get bashed don't get to choose. They don't get a choice. The police data across the Goldfields is extraordinary. The evaluation will take into account a whole range of things like rental payments, rental arrears, electricity disconnections and Department for Child Protection referrals. I absolutely look forward to seeing this anecdotal evidence quantified.

                  The cost was mentioned. ACOSS and others conveniently quote the $10,000 cost per trial participant, which refers to the initial trial, which had 1,800 participants; all of the overhead costs; and the setting up of the software. All of that was included in the $10,000 cost. As the trial spreads—and my colleague and friend the member for Hinkler has seen the trial extended to another 6,000 people in his electorate—that cost comes down.

                  As the technology improves and as the trial extends, we may well see some of the commercial banks come into this space and offer a commercial product that says, 'If you're on the cashless debit card and you're banking with us, we'll give you a new card that will look exactly the same and operate exactly the same, except, when you go to the pub, you can buy a meal but you can't buy a beer.' That's the only difference that it will make in those people's lives.

                  I implore the House to adopt the government's legislation. I have seen firsthand the benefits in my communities. It's been hard work getting there. There have been some incredibly courageous people, particularly our Indigenous elders who have stood up and said: 'We've had enough. We need to change something within our communities that's going to give our people, particularly our children, the chance of a better life.' I commend this legislation to the House.

                  10:50 am

                  Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

                  I rise to speak on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management to Cashless Debit Card Transition) Bill 2019. The cashless debit card expansion is a bad idea, and I will not support it. There are so many members of my community, and—through you, Deputy Speaker Rob Mitchell—your communities as well, members of the government, who are just bewildered. I've lost count of the number of people who have said to me that they don't drink, they don't smoke, they don't gamble and they are not on drugs. They can't for the life of them understand why they are going to be punished in this way.

                  Photo of Tony PasinTony Pasin (Barker, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

                  It won't affect them, then!

                  Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

                  I think the members of the government should pay more respect to people who have come into my office, who are downright scared and in tears. There are people like that in the community who are very, very rattled by the prospect of being put on the cashless debit card simply because they're in some sort of circumstance that warrants them being on it or they require government pensions and payments. It's also impractical—completely impractical.

                  To quote one constituent:

                  As for financial management, this will make my ability to manage my finances harder, not easier, as I will lose the autonomy to pay off my credit card debt in an efficient and timely manner, and some of the less expensive retailers, such as eBay, that I make use of to make ends meet, cannot be used on the card. Nor can online shopping, and as I have no car, I sometimes need to rely on that for heavier items. This card is being rolled out willy-nilly, and most welfare users are not addicts.

                  Other constituents have raised concerns about paying for rent in share houses and how they are going to purchase non-prescribed medications or treatments that work for their specific health conditions. They raise questions like: how are they going to pay for their children's school excursions? How are they going to buy fresh fruit and vegetables from the local markets and the bulk food stores? How are they going to hire a handyman for small house and garden repairs? What about cash contributions for petrol, when people organise carpooling in regional and remote areas to save on fuel costs? Other constituents and members of the community have raised things like: are they still going to be able to go down to their local pub or RSL for a bowl of soup and pay for that, or will they in fact now be socially isolated?

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

                  Yes, they can!

                  Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

                  I would encourage the members of the government to stop using this as an opportunity for pointscoring and start showing some respect and concern for the genuine concerns of the members of their community. It's not about pointscoring. It's not about genuflecting at the altar of their ideology. It's about members of the community who are genuinely feeling demonised, genuinely feeling rattled and genuinely feeling scared, and we should have respect for and acknowledge those issues.

                  I would also raise the fact that the cashless debit card doesn't address the underlying issues that are causing disadvantage for these unfortunate souls in the first place. Sure, we've heard some interesting stories there from the Goldfields—and I'm interested to hear those—but nowhere in those examples that have been mentioned is there any talk about programs to address alcoholism, to address drug addiction, to address gambling addiction, to address domestic financial abuse or to address financial illiteracy. At the end of the day, they are the problems. Giving someone on a government pension or payment a cashless debit card does not solve their alcoholism. It does not solve their drug addiction. It does not solve their gambling addiction. It does not solve the domestic financial abuse situation they find themselves in. It does not make them financially literate. It doesn't solve their problems. If someone is an alcoholic or a drug addict and they are given a cashless debit card, they will still find alcohol. They will still find drugs. Who knows how they are going to obtain it and who knows how they are going to afford it? It doesn't work. It just doesn't work.

                  We can't dismiss the fact that, since 2014, the cost of the cashless debit card trials has reached some $18 million. That has been approximately $10,000 per card. The result? As the Australian National Audit Office has found, it is 'difficult to conclude whether it has delivered a reduction in social harm and more efficient welfare.' No wonder the government, with this increased trial, is not going to allow an external evaluation in the future of the expanded trial. I can understand why the government wants to shut down any outsiders coming in and having a look at it: the government is fearful of the result. The government is fearful that their genuflection at their ideological altar will be shown again to be something that is ineffective, very expensive, demonises people on government pensions and payments, and doesn't achieve anything like what the government is claiming it is going to do.

                  We should be talking about measures and reforms that are actually going to address the underlying issues, the underlying problems. We should not be in here talking about a cashless debit card; we should be in here talking about how to rein in alcohol abuse in this country. What changes can we make to the price, the availability, the advertising or the accessibility of alcohol in our communities? What support services can we provide for alcoholics to help them deal with their addiction to alcohol? We should be in here talking about the illicit drug crisis in this country and what the federal parliament and the federal government can do to deal with that. How do we crack down on the supply of illicit drugs? More boldly, what about taking a health approach—a harm-minimisation approach—to drug abuse? Just about every health expert in this country knows that the way to deal with drug abuse is not a law-and-order response based on ideology but, rather, a harm-minimisation approach that treats drug addiction as a health problem, not a criminal problem in the first place.

                  I've been very disappointed that there is such a negative response in this place and in my own state of Tasmania to really innovative and effective responses like pill testing in the community. The response from the federal Minister for Health a couple of months ago when I asked a question of him about pill testing—and the response from the Premier of Tasmania when I have spoken publicly about pill testing—is to bite my head off even though all of the evidence is that measures like pill testing are the way to save lives and particularly the lives of our children.

                  Instead of kowtowing to the gambling industry, we should be talking about how we minimise the harm of gambling and how we reduce the rate of gambling addiction in our community. There will continue to be about 120,000 gambling addicts in Australia unless people like us, in a place like this, do something about it. But of course we don't talk about royal commissions for casinos in here. We don't talk about harm minimisation on poker machines here. We don't talk about better and more effective safeguards on sports betting or online gambling in here. That's because all the parties are on the take. It's because of the millions of dollars that the main political parties—the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the National Party—and some of the small parties get from the gambling industry. So instead of talking about cracking down or doing something about gambling addiction in the community, we ignore that and we say we'll give a gambling addict a cashless debit card and that'll fix the problem. It won't, because they're addicts. They will find ways to get money and continue their addiction.

                  We should be in here talking about domestic abuse and domestic financial abuse, because that's one of the reasons people are in financial strife—they are in an abusive situation with their partner abusing them, using money and not giving them access to money. We should be in here talking about programs for financial literacy so people who are unable to, or who struggle to, manage their finances can be taught how to manage their finances, can be mentored, can be assisted, but instead what do we do? We give them a cashless debit card and say, 'That will fix all your problems.' That's what we should be doing in here. We should be talking about measures like a sugar tax to make people in these communities healthier. They're the sorts of things we should be doing, not demonising people on government pensions and payments, not scaring the daylights out of them and forcing them to take a cashless debit card.

                  I would concede one point though: in the most exceptional circumstances there would be a small number of people in this country for whom a cashless debit card would have some value, but that should be the decision of a court or a judge, not for a bureaucrat and not for a minister. The number of people I'm talking about here is a very, very small number in the most exceptional circumstances, circumstances that are vetted and checked by a court or a judge.

                  You know what we should be doing here if we want to solve the financial strife of many Australians? How about we start having a serious conversation about lifting government pensions and payments to amounts these people can live on? Frankly, the No. 1 reason why people on government pensions and payments are struggling financially is the paltry amount of the government pension or payment. A single person with no children on Newstart gets $559 a fortnight. I'll say that again: a single person on Newstart with no children, and with no supplement like rent assistance, gets $559 a fortnight. I contrast that with the story in The Mercury newspaper this morning that average rents in Hobart have gone up by 10 per cent in the last 12 months. And these days when you compare average rents against average local incomes, Hobart is now the most expensive capital city in the country to rent. To rent a modest three bedroom cottage in an outer suburb in Hobart at the moment is $450 a week—$450 a week! That's the sort of reason why people on government pensions and payments are in financial strife, not because they're all drug addicts, alcos and gamblers, as some members of the government would want you to believe. It's because of the paltry amount of money they're trying to live on at a time of steeply rising costs of living, and in particularly in Hobart the steeply rising cost of rents.

                  We should be in here talking about a lift to all government pensions of payments, including allowances like rent assistance. There is no shortage of important community spokespeople saying that all government pensions and payments really need to be lifted by about $75 a fortnight, as a start. That would be a minimum. Of course, the government might sit there and say: 'Well, that independent over there, it's all very easy for him, he will never sit on the Treasury benches. He doesn't need to work out how we we're going to pay for this.' I'll tell you how we pay for it: we take advantage of the fabulous wealth in this country. This government will spend about half a trillion dollars this year. They will spend about $500 billion on all sorts of things, including down payments on doubling our submarine fleet even though we can't find crews for the six we've got already. It's all about priorities. Our country can afford to pay pensions and payments that people can live on with dignity, and the only reason they don't is that our priorities are all out of whack in this place. We think we have more important priorities to spend our money on than important measures like increasing rent assistance, increasing Newstart, increasing the DSP, increasing the parenting payment or increasing the age pension.

                  I've made this point repeatedly in this place, and no-one's listened to me. I've met people who live on dog food. I've met people who go to bed in Hobart at five o'clock in the afternoon in winter and climb under a doona because they can't afford to turn the heater on. That is commonplace in this country. It's not just commonplace in the places you might expect; it's commonplace right around this country, with stagnant wages, rising cost of living and paltry government pensions and payments. And what are we doing about it? The government is giving them a cashless debit card and saying 'That'll fix your problem; we assume you're all alcoholics, drug addicts and gambling addicts, so this is the way we're going to solve your problem.'

                  I make the point again that I was fascinated to hear the stories about the Goldfields. But I didn't hear one word from the government about the programs in the Goldfields to deal with alcohol abuse or drug abuse or gambling addiction or domestic financial abuse or financial illiteracy. That's where we should be spending our money. Imagine if we'd taken the $18 million we've spent since 2014 on the trials of the cashless debit card and spent that money elsewhere. I will not support this bill and I urge my colleagues not to support it as well.

                  11:06 am

                  Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

                  I'd like to return to some of my comments around the cashless debit card when this bill, the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management to Cashless Debit Card Transition) Bill 2019 was last debated in the House, in February last year.

                  Firstly, what is the purpose of the cashless debit card trials? In principle, they're designed to assist people to make positive choices with the spending of working age Centrelink payments and to limit the amount of discretionary spending on alcohol and gambling. Again, it's critical that we acknowledge in this place not everyone on Centrelink payments spend money on alcohol and gambling. Isolated sites were chosen so that thorough research could be undertaken to determine whether the implementation of the cashless debit card had an overall positive or negative affect on the community. Nearly two years after we last debated this legislation, we still don't have the academic research to hand to determine if the cashless debit card is in fact effective. The University of Adelaide report examining the effectiveness of the card in the Goldfields region was due at the end of this year. This report is now expected to be released early in the new year.

                  Now before us we have a bill to extend the cashless welfare card at its current sites and also to transition recipients of the BasicsCard in the Northern Territory and in Cape York to the cashless debit card. I'll come back to the Northern Territory and Cape York shortly, but I'd like to examine the current sites where the card is operating.

                  Without the academic evidence that the card is working or not working, decision-making on the extension of the current sites is made on site visits by Centre Alliance and the anecdotal evidence garnered whilst on those visits. Firstly, I would like to talk about my visit to the Ceduna community. Ceduna was the first community in Australia to trial the cashless debit card. In the course of making a determination on this piece of legislation, I visited the Ceduna community and met with a number of organisations and participants on the card, including the Ceduna day centre, the District Council of Ceduna and Red Cross, and I visited the town camp and the sobering-up unit. I did of course speak with a number of residents on the card.

                  The results from Ceduna are somewhat mixed. The District Council of Ceduna advises us that the card has been transformational in the community, has reduced public drunkenness and antisocial behaviour and has increased tourism. There are positive signs. The Ceduna day centre said there hasn't been a lot of difference and that people get around the card. They go and use the card to buy fishing rods, and then they try and flag down tourists and see if they can get a deal where they get some cash in return for the fishing rods and then have cash in their hand. With respect to participants, some were in favour of the card, some felt that their personal rights were infringed and some were ambivalent to the card—the card was not really impacting their choices in their day-to-day life.

                  Ceduna introduced alcohol restrictions independently of the trial site in September 2015. The East Kimberley region introduced additional takeaway alcohol management from December 2015. So it's hard to know whether it is the trial of the card or something entirely different that's responsible for any of the positive outcomes that have been reported. There are a few pieces of conclusive data. For example, in the 12 months after the Ceduna trial there was a 12 per cent reduction in poker machine revenue in Ceduna and the surrounding local government areas. Unfortunately, we don't have any up-to-date information for this. I would very much appreciate it if the government could advise us with respect to poker machine revenue.

                  I have also visited the community of Hervey Bay, in the Hinkler electorate, with my colleague Senator Stirling Griff. We again met with a number of organisations and with police, and we held a roundtable at the end of the day with a number of participants. I would like to thank all organisations and participants, who were generous with their time, particularly the participants who travelled down from Bundaberg. I know that was quite a challenge for some people. We were appreciative of people being very candid, very open and talking with us about the trial. I had meetings with Queensland police, headspace and the Fraser Coast council. In discussions with police, they said they were initially concerned the rollout of the card would see an increase in theft, particularly at outlets that sold alcohol. They were pleased to report to me that this hasn't occurred. I think it's fair to determine that the police would like to see the card continue in the Hinkler region. They also acknowledged that some people were finding a way around the card in order to obtain cash—a little like Ceduna—including people buying goods with their card and then swapping those goods for cash.

                  St Vincent de Paul has a large support centre in Hervey Bay. The group of members we met with supported the continuance of the card, because they felt that it hadn't been trialled long enough. There were positive signs that they had fewer people seeking emergency food relief. St Vincent de Paul did want to stress that much of the challenge for people receiving Newstart and youth allowance is the low rate of money received, no matter how it's divided between their bank account and the cashless debit card, and that the rate of both those payments needed immediate attention. I agree with St Vincent de Paul on this matter. We really do need to raise the rate. It would be an immediate boost to our economy.

                  I met with We Care 2, who provide emergency relief, counselling, free breakfast and a food bank style low-cost supermarket for people on healthcare cards, including pensioners. We Care 2 reported an increase in people purchasing food at their low-cost supermarket and a decrease in people seeking emergency relief. This is a very positive sign, but we do not have any reports to confirm this; we are working on anecdotal evidence. I acknowledge that we want to see less demand on those emergency services. We don't want people needing to go to organisations in a deep state of distress and we want to ensure that people have an amount of money that means they can afford to put food in the cupboard.

                  When I met with participants on the card, some of the themes that were picked up in Ceduna had continued. Firstly, some people felt there was a stigma to being on the card if the word 'Indue' was on the card. I understand the government has changed this and that the actual word 'Indue' is no longer on any new cards issued. It would be really important for government to reissue cards to people who would like to change from a card with 'Indue' on it to a card that looks like a normal credit card.

                  Another issue that many people raised with me was the schedule, with Indue, for paying rent. Basically, there's a 28-day rolling cycle. If you pay it a couple of days late in your first week, it essentially changes the payment schedule for the following weeks and you can become behind in your rent. I would urge government to have a look at the 28-day payment schedule. It's quite a rigid schedule and it's creating a lot of challenges for people who are paying rent but who can't pay through Centrepay.

                  There were concerns that the card would fail when people were at supermarkets. There was a heightened anxiety about that. I understand that when the card was in its infancy there were a few algorithm issues and cards would fail, but I understand from government that much of that has been addressed.

                  Finally, there is a great difficulty for many people to purchase second-hand goods. You can use your card to purchase second-hand goods, whether they're on eBay or perhaps Gumtree, but there are challenges around that. Similarly, you can't use your card if you are trying to pay off a payday lender, and that is a serious matter that I would really like the government to address. We've had discussions around this for a number of years in this place—the government has even had a draft bill around payday lending—but we have seen it go nowhere. Nearly every participant on the card that I have talked to has had a payday lender debt, and that was taking up a significant amount of the Centrelink payment that they received. I think that would very much address a number of the challenges people have in maintaining a budget.

                  The cashless debit card will not change behaviours of participants on its own. There must be a network of social services to support the participants to change behaviour, whether it relates to alcohol addiction, gambling addiction or other damaging behaviour. When I was in Ceduna, I saw a lot of services; however, there were some deficiencies. There were no residential alcohol rehabilitation services or substance abuse services within Ceduna. People needed to travel to Port Augusta. It would be really good to see services in there. In Hervey Bay, it was difficult to determine if there was any extra spending of government money to provide services to support people. Ultimately, this is about helping people to address any addictions and seek employment. I do not believe we will truly know how successful the trials have been until much more data is collected, especially as the research findings and community responses from the trials to date have been so mixed.

                  I would like to touch briefly on the remote Aboriginal communities. I recently discussed with the Central Land Council their concerns on the potential impact of the cashless debit card on the remote communities that they represent. These are communities that not only are highly remote but also lack basic telecommunications and internet infrastructure and banking services. Currently, with the BasicsCard, Centrelink teams visit their communities on a regular rotational basis, providing their communities with face-to-face interactions and discussions that help them to overcome the limited financial and digital literacy skills and capacity that exist in communities. However, with the cashless debit card it is unclear how or if the Indue subcontractor will be required or even if they will be able to provide similar face-to-face services or provide permanent shopfront services in such communities that exist in places such as Hervey Bay or Ceduna. It's unlikely to be feasible on the grounds of cost. In my view, Centrelink remains the most appropriate organisation to provide that interface between remote communities and a card, be it the cashless welfare card or a BasicsCard.

                  The most concerning issue that was raised with me by both the Central Land Council and other Indigenous Northern Territory organisations is the complete lack of consultation the government has undertaken with communities that will be affected by the card. I understand there have been some limited information sessions, but there has been no consultation about the implementation or administration of the cashless debit card if the rollout goes ahead. This is simply unacceptable. It's a major policy change that will impact thousands of lives; it should be accompanied by genuine consultation. For this reason, I'm intending to travel to the Northern Territory to undertake consultations directly so that I can hear on-the-ground concerns with members, and I would really urge the government to do the same.

                  With my Centre Alliance colleagues in another place, we will be asking the government to not bring this bill on for a vote. We want to see the University of Adelaide report; we want to ensure that there's consultation in the Northern Territory before this bill becomes law and before the card is rolled out further. Thank you.

                  11:19 am

                  Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme) Share this | | Hansard source

                  I thank all of those who have contributed to the debate on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management to Cashless Debit Card Transition) Bill 2019. The bill is a critical part of the government's ongoing commitment to an effective welfare system that not only provides a strong safety net for Australians but also ensures that all Australians take up their responsibilities and make a contribution to our community. I table a replacement explanatory memorandum.

                  By reducing the amount of cash available in the community, the cashless debit card is reducing the overall harm caused by welfare fuelled alcohol, gambling and drug misuse. The bill provides for the continuation of the cashless debit card trial for a further 12 months, until 30 June 2021; provides certainty for participants, communities, stakeholders and leaders, who know that the support of the cashless debit card will continue and the positive results of the cashless debit card can continue; and ensures that the positive impacts of the cashless debit card can be monitored and assessed. It also provides for the transition to the cashless debit card of income management participants in the Northern Territory and Cape York in Queensland. The government will work with income management participants, communities and stakeholders to support the transition from April 2020 and will transition participants progressively to ensure appropriate support can be provided. The bill ensures that welfare recipients in the Northern Territory and Cape York in Queensland have access to the best technology and the best process for welfare quarantining.

                  I'll also move some amendments to the bill that respond to issues raised in and by the Scrutiny of Bills and community affairs committees. These amendments will change the ministerial power to vary the restriction rate of community in the Northern Territory. This was originally included in the bill to replicate a power introduced by Labor in 2010 and currently exists under income management. In response to feedback from the committee, the government has amended Labor's 2010 powers and reduced the scope of the ministerial power to vary the restriction rate to a maximum of 80 per cent, in line with the cashless debit card, removing the trigger for age pensioners to be compulsory cashless debit card participants except in Cape York. The Family Responsibilities Commission in Cape York have explicitly asked to retain the power to refer pensioners to welfare quarantining measures.

                  Tidying up the process of voluntary income management participants to exit income management and re-volunteer for the cashless debit card will mean the process to transfer around 2½ thousand existing voluntary income management participants to the CDC will be streamlined. The CDC program is delivering significant benefits for the communities where it currently operates. The program has the objective of reducing immediate hardship and deprivation, reducing violence and harm, encouraging socially responsible behaviour and reducing the likelihood that welfare recipients will remain on welfare and out of the workforce for extended periods.

                  The government thanks community leaders it has worked with and will continue to work with for the implementation of the cashless debit card. We acknowledge their courage and leadership to assist members of their communities to break the cycle of welfare dependency, improve social outcomes and support people in the implementation. I commend the bill to the House.

                  Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

                  The original question was this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Barton has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question before the House now is that the amendment moved by the member for Barton be agreed to.

                  11:36 am

                  Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

                  The question is this bill be now read a second time.