House debates

Monday, 7 December 2020


Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020; Consideration in Detail

3:43 pm

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Bass gave the game away last week when she had the guts to say what the government will not—and that is that this is just the beginning of much broader rollout of this card. She said:

Applying a broad brush to all recipients in the current sites, no matter their circumstances, is harmful and unhelpful.

There's a high level of anxiety that exists elsewhere in the country beyond the three trial sites. In the northern Tasmanian community that I proudly represent, I've had distressed people, including pensioners, ask me if they will end up having their income managed. And with the amount of time and money spent in addressing the current challenges of this program, it is difficult to believe that this program will end with these current sites.

The member for Bass also said:

I also have a fundamental problem with how this program and this legislation aligns with my own principles. As a Liberal, I believe in personal and individual responsibility. It's the very foundation of our core principles. We work towards a lean government that minimises interference in our daily lives. Forcing the cashless debit card program on to people unless, or until, they can prove to the government that they can manage their own finances is antithetical to these principles. Do these principles only apply if you're not poor? I believe we're better than that.

That is what one of the members of the government side said. I note she is not here for the vote today. My question is to the minister. Does the minister agree with the member for Bass that this card is against Liberal principles, this card discriminates against people because they are poor and that applying a card so broadly is harmful?

3:45 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also have some questions I'd like to put through to the minister now. The simple reality of this bill is that it is racially discriminatory, and the rollout of the cashless debit card as proposed by the government is disproportionately impacting on First Nations people. Sixty-eight per cent of people who will be forced onto the cashless debit card are First Nations people. Over 23,000 of the 34,000 people impacted by this card will be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. That includes more than 18,000 people in the Northern Territory. This is an incredibly clear example of policy being done to First Nations people, not with them. My question to the minister is: how can you honestly believe that this bill is not racially discriminatory?

I also note that First Nations peak bodies have been united in their position to oppose the forced rollout of the cashless debit card. Their position has been united and, indeed, clear. They've said that nobody should have this program forced on them, that this program clearly represents and reinforces the colonial attitudes that they struggle against every day. It is yet another example of the government telling First Nations people that they aren't equals, that they don't deserve to have control over their own lives and that they would somehow benefit from a massive oversight and patronising paternalism of government to survive. My question to the minister is: if you didn't listen to First Nations people when drafting this legislation—the group who will be most impacted by this bill—who did you listen to?

This bill, like so many that have come from those who sit on government benches, lacks any evidence base. I am happy to provide the minister with some evidence now. Let's look at this. Researchers from four universities uncovered an overwhelming number of negative experiences stemming from the card, ranging from feelings of stigma, shame and frustration to practical issues, such as the cardholder simply not having enough cash for essential items or important things like paying for their child to go to a school camp or buying the little things that they need. My question to the minister is: who did you consult when drafting the legislation? What evidence was provided that supports this bill?

Government Members:

Government members interjecting

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm glad to hear that government members are interested in this, because there are a lot of questions to be answered. I've got another question—

Honourable members interjecting

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

when it pleases the Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There are too many interjections from both sides of the House. The honourable member for Newcastle has the call.

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My next question to the minister is on another issue with the bill: people simply get stuck on this card. There is no apparent exit strategy, no pathway for people to ever come off. Time and time again there are applications to come off the card, but they have continuously failed to be approved. It is almost impossible to be allowed to come off the card, despite people showing that they are managing their own affairs and that they are reasonable and responsible people. They should be allowed to come off this card, but we know that that is virtually impossible. So my question to the minister is: can you please tell me how many people have successfully applied to come off the card as a proportion of all applications?

3:50 pm

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I also have a number of questions, as does the member for Lingiari. I do hope government members, while they all seem absorbed in their phones, are actually listening to this, because we're talking about 23,000 to 30,000 people who will be affected by this. There has not been proper discussion. There has not been proper consultation. Perhaps the member for North Sydney—am I interrupting you?

Government Members:

Government members interjecting

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

It's important for people to note that the minister admitted, in budget estimates, that she had not read the evaluation before the decision was taken to move to this legislation. Now, to me that is lazy and it's reprehensible. It shows that this is not about evidence, this is not about what it means out there on the ground; this is actually about ideology.

Now, Labor have been extraordinarily clear about this legislation. We have said, if people want to volunteer to be on the card, it is not the business of government or anyone else to stand in the way of voluntary application. What we object to is the mandatory nature of this. It has been proven in other jurisdictions that mandatory application of welfare is a failure, and my prediction is that this will be no different. In fact, the evaluation that was done by Adelaide university, in conjunction with Monash University, on Ceduna in South Australia actually demonstrated that. It demonstrated there had not been fewer people to present at emergency, it had not stopped drugs and it had not stopped drinking. But all we hear from the government is hearsay, hearsay on whether this works or not.

Well, hearsay is not good enough for me and it's not good enough for the Labor Party! We want evidence. It is reasonable, on behalf of all of those people, that evidence is provided. And clearly the decision of this government about the mandatory nature of the four trial sites and, heaven forbid, the automatic movement of 23,000 people in the Northern Territory from the BasicsCard to the cashless debit card is not voluntary. It's mandatory.

An opposition member: It's social engineering.

And it's social engineering, as my good friend just said. It is not appropriate. There is a thing called human rights. There is a thing called social justice. And there's a thing called human—

Government members interjecting

An honourable member: Pull your head in!

I think the people who will be affected by this know what is best for them. And it is not simply about a technology change. Don't give me that rubbish.

Mr Howarth interjecting

Do not give me that rubbish!

Honourable members interjecting

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

In light of that, can I say that many pensioners and people—

Mr Howarth interjecting

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Member for Barton will pause for a moment. The minister will not interject.

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Many pensioners and people relying on social security have raised with me the same concerns that have been raised with the member for Bass. Pensioners, age pensioners, across the country are worried that the card will be rolled out to them, and many people on other payments are also worried they'll be forced onto this card. In fact, the government's real plan to roll this card out across the country was laid bare at Senate estimates when the department admitted it had set up technology working groups with the big four banks, the supermarkets and Australia Post. How many pensioners, people on DSP and people on carer payments will be on the cashless debit card— (Time expired)

3:55 pm

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

During question time we heard from the Prime Minister, no less, that he trusted Australian people with their own money. Not if you're a blackfella, you don't. Not if you're an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person, you don't. The Prime Minister said, 'We trust them to make their own decisions'—except if you're an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person in this country. What a bizarre notion. We've had the Prime Minister stand here today and claim that he supports the rights of people to make their own decisions about how they spend their money. Yet at the very same time, walking the other side of the street, he's saying it's okay to compulsorily quarantine incomes. It's not. It's not. Prime Minister, why are you treating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people differently? The bulk of this, we know, is racially discriminatory. 'Why would the government support racially discriminatory legislation?' You might well ask, because that's what this is. Let there be no doubt.

People have mentioned the BasicsCard. Since the day of the intervention in the Northern Territory, I've been on the record opposing the intervention and opposing the BasicsCard and its imposition. Compulsorily applying income quarantining—how can you do this? I understand the argument about people needing to look after their families having their incomes properly managed. But that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about a universal application of quarantining, compelling people to have their incomes quarantined. That is not an opt-in process. It's unreasonable, it's unfair and it's discriminatory. This government needs to understand what it does for people. There is no evidence at all that this thing works. We know that. The University of Adelaide's research, which the government won't release, was reported on in The Guardian today and it demonstrates very clearly that this scheme is unfair and unreasonable.

The Law Council of Australia put out a press release today which I'm pleased to be able to read:

The Law Council of Australia is concerned by the restrictive nature of the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) and urges the Parliament to abandon any plan to make it an ongoing program. With the House of Representatives debating the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill today, the Law Council believes that the Bill is being pursued without the benefit of a full and independent evaluation of the CDC’s merits, or adequate community consultation of the Bill’s current proposals.

We know that whatever research has been undertaken previously, by academics and others, has demonstrated that this does not work. But the government says 'bad luck'. The Law Council refers to the Audit Office, as well as academics, having expressed grave concerns as to the methodology of these early evaluations. This is a real issue about discrimination. The Law Council says:

The CDC, especially as expanded, disproportionately applies to Indigenous peoples, and may be inconsistent with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

It is. I ask the minister as he leaves the chamber whether he has understood what the Law Council has said about the racially discriminatory nature of this bill. Who benefits from it?

I've been involved in this game for 30-odd years, and I have never seen an approach to people in this country such as the one which has been adopted by this government. You have a responsibility, Prime Minister, to come and explain to people why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are to be treated differently, such as in the way you are proposing to do it in this bill. It is unfair, it is unreasonable, it's unjust and it is unconscionable. Any member of this House who sits here and says they believe in and support Aboriginal self-determination and decision-making while supporting this legislation is being an absolute hypocrite. But hypocrisy knows no bounds, as we know. (Time expired)

4:00 pm

Photo of Peta MurphyPeta Murphy (Dunkley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also have some questions for the minister. In the debate on the second reading speech of this bill, the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020, a number—well, not a number; there weren't very many government members speaking on this bill, were there? I imagine they were too ashamed to. But at least one government member said: 'Well, what's wrong with the cashless welfare card? I use my credit card all the time!' Just now in debate, the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts interjected to say, 'Don't you know that during COVID most people went cashless?'

Will the minister explain to the government backbenchers and the minister for communications the difference between using a credit card with which you can buy whatever you want, whenever you want, and being forced to go onto the government's mandatory cashless welfare card, which is racist in its application? Will the minister make clear to the other cabinet ministers, who appear not to know what this legislation that they are voting on is about, that this legislation is nothing like Australian citizens choosing to use their cashless debit or credit cards, because this forces people to use a card which stigmatises them, which calls them out as people on unemployment benefits and which applies disproportionately to Australia's First Nations people?

As the member for Barton has pointed out, we know that this government has spoken to the big four banks, supermarkets and Australia Post about the technology to extend this draconian legislation beyond First Nations people who are on benefits. Will the minister stand up in this place today and rule out extending the cashless welfare card to other recipients of government allowances? One person in five in my electorate is on a pension. There are more than 10,000 adults in the electorate of Dunkley on unemployment benefits and more than 1,000 young people on youth allowance. Sadly, those numbers are likely to go up before they come down. Will the minister say, once and for all, that it is not this government's intention to tell people on pensions, family tax benefits, single mothers supports, carers supports and disability supports how they can and can't spend their money?

How many local businesses in the sites where these cards have been on trial have missed out on business because they can't facilitate the cashless welfare card? Can the minister answer that question? And does the minister agree that government policy—particularly policy that impacts on the lives of people by telling them what they can or can't do—should always be based on evidence? Or is that only an attitude that the government took during COVID-19, and it doesn't apply to legislation and schemes that disproportionately impact on Australia's First Nations people? If the minister intends to push on with this legislation, does the minister then concede that this government picks and chooses evidence only when it wants to?

Finally, will the minister explain, or ask the Prime Minister to come into this chamber and explain, how he could stand up in February of this year and tell this parliament that he was the first Prime Minister ever to commit to working with First Nations people, to support their self-determination and to not telling them what to do, and yet vote for this draconian, racist legislation? Can the minister assure this chamber that the Prime Minister didn't mislead this chamber in February when he said he would support First Nations people and communities in the programs that they want to have to assist their welfare?

4:05 pm

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

I have five questions for the minister on this Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020. A few moments ago the Prime Minister stood here in question time and said that he trusts Australians to spend their own money in the way that they determine is in their best interests. Now, when the Prime Minister made that declaration, it was quite clear to us that it was quite clear to him that in his mind there are two classes of Australians. Perhaps there are the Australians who look just like him and the people who sit behind him in this parliament: middle class. Perhaps they've never had to rely on welfare—they've never had the indignity, or the unfortunate circumstances, of having to rely on an unemployment benefit. They're very, very lucky indeed. I know that on this side of the House many of us have and many in our families have.

In his mind, there are two classes of Australians: one class of Australians who have the right to determine how they spend their money and the other class that doesn't. So my question to the minister is: why does this government want to divide Australians into two classes—those who are worthy of having their full rights and those who aren't worthy of having that right that he says is fundamental?

The second question I have to the minister is this: why won't they listen to an Indigenous voice to this parliament? Indigenous people have said, 'Not only do we believe that these laws are targeted at us but we do not believe that these laws are going to fix the problems that you say they're directed at.' The evidence is in. The Australian National University conducted research to see whether there was any decrease in domestic violence at the trial site in the Kimberley accompanied by the introduction of these laws. They concluded, after extensive research—including consultations with community members, consultations with specialist services and consultations with the police force—that there was no decrease in family violence as a result of the introduction of this law. We know that this government persistently refuses to listen to Indigenous voices. It's why they're so adamant that they won't have an Indigenous voice to this parliament.

My third question to the minister is this: why won't they listen to the experts—the experts from the Australian National University, who conducted a study of the rollout of these measures in the pilot site in the Kimberley, or the experts from the University of Adelaide, experts who they provided with $2.5 million to conduct an analysis of the rollout of this measure in the voluntary pilot site in Ceduna. They declared that there's no evidence that these measures are meeting the government's stated objective. Why does the government persist with a measure when it does not accord with the evidence of the experts?

My fourth question to the government is this: why do you persist with this outdated cliche of what an unemployed person looks like?

They have this notion, born perhaps of inexperience, belied by the member from Bass, who has some personal experience of this—who could not have been moved by her contribution in this debate?—that they persist with that somehow the unemployment queues, much swelled of late, consist of a million people who are putting their feet up on the desk, refusing to look for work, spending their unemployment benefits willy-nilly in an irresponsible way. The facts are stubborn and they are very different. Is the government aware that one of the biggest groups of unemployed people are people over the age of 55? In fact, 20 per cent of Australians between the ages of 55 and 65 are out of a job. Why does the government persist— (Time expired)

4:10 pm

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think it's relatively unknown in this place that I've spent several years of my life working in the Northern Territory.

Mr Snowdon interjecting

Yes, the member for Lingiari knows. I share his fondness for the Territory. For nearly two decades, every few weeks I would go and spend a week in Darwin or Alice working with a range of Aboriginal organisations, government agencies and not-for-profits. And bit by bit I gathered a deep understanding of the ongoing, hard and deadly issues that face people in the Northern Territory, face our First Peoples. These issues have failed to be solved by successive governments.

I was working there when the intervention happened. When I look at this legislation I reflect back on the brutality of that time, on the way people in the Northern Territory, Aboriginal and Tiwi Islanders, had their rights totally stripped away from them. They talked to me of the shame of driving to their communities and seeing signs up telling people the revelations and the concerns about what wouldn't be allowed in their communities—nothing that they had given consent to. This was stuff that was imposed on them. I think that's what we are seeing here. We are seeing a mandatory enforcement of a cashless welfare card where people have not been genuinely consulted. It's an insult to them.

I have questions for the minister. I want to quote the Prime Minister. I don't often do that, but I really want to quote the Prime Minister here who, at the Closing the Gap speech in parliament this year, said:

We thought we were helping when we replaced independence with welfare. This must change. We must restore the right to take responsibility. The right to make decisions. The right to step up. The opportunity to own and create Australian's own futures.

The government partnership agreement on Closing the Gap states:

…direct engagement and negotiation is the preferred pathway to productive and effective outcomes.

Given those very important statements, my first questions to the minister is: given this card strips away agency and responsibility from thousands of people, simply because of who they are and where they live, how is the government's policy consistent with the Prime Minister's comments that First Nations people have the right to take responsibility and the right to make decisions? My second question is, and this is a crucial one: does every community where this card is to be imposed support it? What process has the government followed to get the support of hundreds of communities across the Northern Territory? Because that is the big gap in this whole proposal: the lack of genuine consultation, the lack of listening to evidence about it. They're not even releasing the report by The University of Adelaide. The minister admitted to not having read the report—not even the executive summary.

There are concerns for the impact this will have on Aboriginal people not just in the Northern Territory but across this country and how it may be extended to people in the electorates that every one of us represent—to people in Macquarie, pensioners, those on youth allowance, those who for a period of time are requiring social support, those for whom there is a long-term requirement or people on disability pensions? There are concerns for all those people. Can you imagine for pensioners, whose lives shrink as they get older and their incomes reduce, how this would shrink their lives even more?

I have other questions to the minister. How many jobs did the cashless debit card create in each of the trial sites? How many will it create in the NT? I wonder about the effect it will have on small businesses in my community if it's rolled out. Crucially, there's no evidence that it changes behaviours. I ask the minister: how many drug and alcohol rehab places are available in each cashless debit card site? Can the minister guarantee that there are no waiting lists and there is enough help to meet demand?

Bill agreed to.