House debates

Thursday, 8 September 2022

Matters of Public Importance

Pensions and Benefits

3:24 pm

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I have received a letter from the honourable member for Deakin proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:

This government's abandonment of vulnerable communities by seeking to abolish the Cashless Debit Card without consulting affected communities.

I call upon those honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

3:25 pm

Photo of Michael SukkarMichael Sukkar (Deakin, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

KKAR () (): Someone who is respected across this chamber—indeed, someone who is respected throughout Australia—Noel Pearson, said the following at a recent Senate committee hearing, referring to the disgraceful decision of the government to abolish the CDC:

You will repeal the card and then you will walk away and leave us to the violence, leave us to the hunger, leave us to the neglected children. It's very easy to forget about remote communities.

That's not the opposition speaking; that's one of the most respected Indigenous leaders in this country, eviscerating this ideological decision by the government to abolish the CDC.

In this place we often argue about very fine areas of difference. As a general rule, 90 per cent of the time we don't look at the motives of those opposite and think they are anything other than good. But in this instance we've got an example of a minister and a prime minister who are seeking to abolish the cashless debit card. That, we know with certainty, will have a few consequences. The consequences, we know, will be: more violence in remote communities; more drunkenness in remote communities; more drugs in remote communities; and more neglected children in remote communities. We know that will be the outcome of this decision, and this minister and Prime Minister have completely botched this process. The only decent thing to do now is walk away from this shameful decision—a decision that will, in the words of Noel Pearson, see more children neglected.

The cashless debit card operates in a number of communities—Ceduna, East Kimberley, the Goldfields in WA, Bundaberg, Hervey Bay and Cape York. We have seen in each and every one of those communities, since the cashless debit card has been in place, reduced antisocial behaviour, reduced consumption of alcohol, reduced consumption of drugs and attendance at school increasing.

Photo of Amanda RishworthAmanda Rishworth (Kingston, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

What evidence! In your imagination!

Photo of Michael SukkarMichael Sukkar (Deakin, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Yet we have a minister with the absolute gall to stand there interjecting. How on earth could anyone walk into this chamber and make a decision knowing that children will be abused and neglected as a result? That is the outcome of this decision!

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

The minister, on a point of order?

Photo of Amanda RishworthAmanda Rishworth (Kingston, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

On reflections on other members. I ask him to withdraw.

Opposition members interjecting

It is a reflection! It is!

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

Will you withdraw?

Photo of Michael SukkarMichael Sukkar (Deakin, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source


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

That's very unparliamentary of you.

Photo of Michael SukkarMichael Sukkar (Deakin, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry—what's the unparliamentary remark?

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

Have you reflected badly on the member opposite?

Photo of Michael SukkarMichael Sukkar (Deakin, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source


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

I will be listening extremely carefully to you. If I ask you to withdraw, next time you will think deeply about doing so.

Photo of Michael SukkarMichael Sukkar (Deakin, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

The decision to abolish the cashless debit card, in Noel Pearson's words, will see the government leaving affected communities with violence, hunger and neglected children. I can understand why the minister's a bit touchy about that. We'll see neglected children! That will be the outcome of the decision made by this government to abolish the cashless debit card. Members opposite might be very touchy about this, and so they should be. In fact, I know there are a number of very good people in the Labor Party who are utterly ashamed of the decision of the Prime Minister and this minister to impose this absolute tragedy on affected communities. There are 17,000 participants at present on the cashless debit card. What has been the process by which this government now wants to rip a tool we know is working, a tool that is improving the lives of women and children, in particular, out of those communities? Anyone with any common sense will accept that the inevitable outcome of putting more alcohol and more drugs into these communities will be devastating for them.

The least we could expect from this minister is that she would consult with those communities. Let's hear about the consultation from this hapless minister. The consultation involved a number of documents being sent to affected communities on 30 August.

Honourable members interjecting

No, hear me out, colleagues. On 30 August, the so-called CDC engagement team sent to the Goldfields a raft of documents to commence the process of consultation. There was a draft engagement plan, an engagement summary, a participation checklist, a CDC fact sheet, all very bureaucratic. That was the consultation that started on the 30 August, and they were given until midday on 2 September to come back, from 30 August to 2 September. This hapless minister, who's engaging in meaningful consultation, has given these communities less than three days to come back on an issue that is going to see devastation hitting their communities.

The minister opposite might not like the quotes that are about to come up, but these are quotes from the communities that will have the CDC ripped out of them. Ian Trust from the Wunan Foundation said:

It reduced the alcohol violence and the harassment of the elderly and vulnerable for cash when they used to go to the ATM … The government says if we want to go down that path of keeping income management that it has to be a community decision, but there's no information about how they want us to arrive at that decision or what the replacement could be.

Tammy Williams from the Family Responsibilities Commission said:

We are looking at going back to a card that doesn't match the technology of the CDC, and people will have limited access to their money, won't be able to utilise online shopping or travel outside their communities.

But it's even worse; the government is not even proposing anything viable in the place of the CDC, hence why there are so many fears about what is going to come.

Mayor Perry Will from the District Council of Ceduna said: 'The first we heard of it was in the PM's election promises that he was going to do it. Prior to that, we had no representation from any Labor politicians.' Oh, she met with him after she made the announcement! That's wonderful consultation.

Photo of Amanda RishworthAmanda Rishworth (Kingston, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I turned up. I had a meeting with him—two hours!

Photo of Michael SukkarMichael Sukkar (Deakin, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll keep taking these interjections if the hapless minister wants to continue to provide them. This is a crucial matter for our parliament. In my opening remarks to this bill, when the minister introduced it, I had a very different tone. I appeal to the decency of those opposite, the decency that I know is there amongst virtually all members of this House, the decency that you would not make a decision that you know is going to hurt children. And yet they proceed with this destructive course. If you don't want to listen to me, listen to people who are in the affected communities about the impact of the CDC. Again, this is from Perry Will in Ceduna: 'Don't take it away.' He was saying, 'Look out the window. Take a walk around. See the difference for yourself. The CDC's been terrific for the town in reducing violence, increasing tourism, improving safety for women.' The list of quotations is extraordinarily long. From a refuge worker in the East Kimberley—this is probably the most powerful: 'Since the CDC, the seriousness of assaults seen by the refuge has declined.' So, Minister, do not— (Time expired)

3:35 pm

Photo of Amanda RishworthAmanda Rishworth (Kingston, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

We have heard a lot of rhetoric from this minister. There is so much rhetoric from this minister, but no evidence whatsoever—sorry, shadow minister; I shouldn't have promoted him. We've heard so much rhetoric about crime, so much rhetoric, but with no evidence whatsoever.

One of the things that the shadow minister talks about a lot is crime and the crime statistics—he hasn't been able to provide any of them. But I'll give them to you. In fact, domestic violence offences as a subset of assault offences increased by 57 per cent between 2014 and 2019 in Ceduna and surrounds. In Alice Springs, between 2012 and 2020, we've seen assaults involving DV increase as well. What we've seen, for participants in areas where the CDC has been, is no change whatsoever or, in fact, things getting worse when it comes to crime.

This shadow minister has constantly ignored the evidence—and we've listened to him a lot. He talked about Noel Pearson. I met with Noel Pearson and I had a very productive conversation with Noel Pearson. But the shadow minister misrepresents Noel Pearson, because one of the things that the shadow minister suggests is that the blanket application of the CDC to anyone on an income support payment is supported by Noel Pearson. But, in fact, Noel Pearson has said he doesn't agree with the blanket imposition of the card. He doesn't actually agree with the blanket imposition of the card. There's Ian Trust from the Wunan Foundation, who the shadow minister mentioned earlier, who said about the card:

It lost its effectiveness as people worked out ways of getting around it: doing other people's shopping, buying people fuel and so on. That was always probably going to be the case.

So you have Ian Trust saying that the card is not really effective anymore. There was Ms PC Clarke from the Central Australian Aboriginal Family Legal Unit, who said:

CAAFLU supports the repeal of the cashless debit card. This bill is a step in the right direction …

Christine Donaldson said she was forced onto the CDC just because of where she lived. She said:

I am an elder … in the Goldfields region of Western Australia and I fully support the amendment bill and agree that the card needs to be abolished.

Then there was Antoinette Braybook from Far North Queensland, the co-chair of Change the Record. She said:

We agree with the government's conclusion that the cashless debit card is not evidence based, is ineffective and is discriminatory.

Beverly Walley from east Kimberley said:

… the cashless debit card has deteriorated quite a lot of life … There had always been parents drinking, drugs and gambling prior to the cashless card being enforced in 2015-16. Having said that, there is no change. Everything is still the same.

These are some of the people living in these communities. I would challenge the shadow minister: has he actually visited any of these communities; has he actually travelled to any of these communities? Because I have been up to the east Kimberley and met with organisations. I have been into Far North Queensland, as has the assistant minister. I've been to Ceduna and spoken to these communities. I have travelled through the Northern Territory, speaking to the women in the town camps, speaking to the women in the refuges in Kununurra. I would challenge the shadow minister to go out there, because he actually might learn a couple of lessons. He might actually go and speak to the people who have been affected.

When I heard from the people who had been affected, I heard that it had been shameful for them and it had ruined their lives. Many have said—these are the lived experiences of people—that they are embarrassed because they don't have enough cash to go to the school fete or they don't have enough cash to go and watch their country football. People are embarrassed, frustrated and shamed by this. One of the absolute furphies that those on the other side propagate is that everyone on the card has a drug and alcohol problem and, therefore, the government has to tell them how to live their lives. I met so many people, including carers and people on a disability support pension, who said they had never touched a drop of alcohol in their lives and they didn't understand why they were being punished.

I do want to get to the evidence, because the opposition has been full of rhetoric and no evidence whatsoever. And the evidence speaks for itself. Not only did we have two ANAO reports that said that this card was not delivering on the outcomes it had promised; we also had the University of Adelaide report in January 2021, which found that the evidence to support the CDC was inconclusive. The study found that any reduction of alcohol and drug use could not be attributed to the effect of the card. Also in that report—this is evidence that the opposition always ignores—it was reported:

… the CDC was reported to introduce widely felt and costly hurdles to many participants in relation to financial planning and money management …

…   …   …

A large proportion of CDC participant survey respondents reported that their quality of life had been affected …

Another study, by the University of South Australia and Monash University, found that the CDC in Ceduna had 'no substantive impact' on gambling and drug and alcohol abuse and no substantive impact on crime or emergency department presentations. And in June 2022, as I said, the ANAO released its latest audit, which was damning.

I would, finally, go to the point when the shadow minister was banging on his chest and talking about a lack of preparation from this side of the House. Let me remind the House of a couple of things. First, the cashless debit card legislation is due to expire on 31 December, and there have been no moves by the former government to put together any legislation to actually extend it. Second, there needed to be a tender process, because the contract was running out for the supply of the cashless debit card. Do you think the former government made any moves to ensure that there would be a smooth tender arrangement? Of course they did not. They made no moves to actually recognise that the tender was ending on the 31st.

In addition to that, we hear a lot about the support services. I've been very, very interested in the support services, because I know a lot of communities really value the support services and have recognised that, while the card hasn't done a lot, the support services have made a difference. Do you think that the former government put any money in the March budget for services past 1 July 2023? Do you think they gave any certainty to these communities that they could continue to rely on these support services? No. How much money was in the budget after 1 July 2023? Zero. So to have the opposition come and talk about abandoning communities, about leaving them behind and about not supporting them is absolutely appalling, because they did not put the provisions in to support those who actually needed those services. They can come in here and cry their crocodile tears, but there was no action and no preparation by the former government in terms of what would happen come 31 December.

I have been consulting with communities, I've been speaking with communities and I will continue to work with communities on the future of voluntary income management. I will continue to work with the Family Responsibilities Commission, recognising the important work they do and working to make sure that their work is not impeded. But we will not stand for communities, sometimes picked by the local member, having an imposition of a blanket card for anyone on a working-age payment. That leads to stigmatisation and significant problems when it comes to practical life decisions.

This government will work with communities. We will continue to listen to them, work with them and deliver for them, unlike those opposite.

3:45 pm

Photo of Kevin HoganKevin Hogan (Page, National Party, Shadow Minister for Trade and Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

The bottom line of this legislation going through parliament, both in this House and in the Senate if it does next week, is that this government did it in a rush. It was one of the first pieces of legislation they put through this parliament. In fact, they moved an urgency motion to rush it through. This legislation passing will mean that this Labor government are going to place women and children in dangerous situations. They're going to place women and children, who currently are in a safer position, in a very dangerous, vulnerable situation.

The communities where the cashless debit card is were chosen very purposely. It wasn't done randomly. They were in remote communities and predominantly in remote communities that had a higher level of domestic violence and other forms of views than the rest of the communities around the country. Now, that is sad. That is a very sad and very dangerous situation. We're talking about communities where children have sexually transmitted diseases. We are talking about communities where the presentation to hospital of domestic violence, school absenteeism and the worst type of abuse you could inflict on women and children were higher than the average around the country. They were chosen very purposefully. This wasn't picking on people. This was going to communities where statistics said that women and children were in trouble, that it was dangerous to be in those communities, especially on certain nights, when the welfare money arrived. It was dangerous. These communities—and I have been to them. I grew up not that far from Ceduna. I know Ceduna very well, amongst some of the other communities. And what would happen on those nights when it was particularly dangerous, when a large part of the population was drunk, was that children would roam the streets at night because that was the safest place for them to be. It wasn't safe to be in their homes. It wasn't safe to be inside. They would roam with friends because that was the safest place for them to be.

What is this outrageous stigmatisation that the government go on about? They get a card and they can spend 80 per cent of it on essentials. They spend it on food, they spend it on clothing, they spend it on the essentials of life and they have 20 per cent left over to spend on things that you would need to spend cash on. In an ideal world, of course wouldn't want to do that, but it was done not to be victims but to protect victims. It was done to protect children who were getting sexually transmitted diseases. It was done to protect women and children from going to hospital. That's why it was done. So when this is done, when this legislation goes through and the violence goes back into those communities, shame on all of you. This ideological thing—'Oh, we're stigmatising people.' What a stigmatisation it is to give someone a card! How terrible that they had a card that they went to a supermarket and bought food and essential items with. What a stigmatisation that is! I don't understand the fact that in the first two weeks of the parliament they had to rush this through. When the violence starts increasing, when the hospital presentations start to pick up again, when the children are starting to get sexually transmitted diseases again, shame on all of you! Shame on all of you because of this ideological obsession that you can't give them a card and the terrible things that that was doing to them.

The minister said talk to people. I have, and I've also spoken to my Senate colleague, Jacinta Price, who lives in Alice Springs. So she's not qualified to comment? Is that what you're saying, Assistant Minister? That she's not qualified to comment? She has said the same thing. We can talk about a lot of virtue signalling and we can talk about a lot of symbolism, but what this government has done—if we want to talk about closing the gap, which is a very important thing to do—in passing this legislation means that the gap isn't going to get closer. You've just widened the gap, and you've widened the gap especially in the communities where this is going to be lifted. So thank you for nothing there.

Again, when the shadow minister got up—and I won't go through some of the quotes that I have here—he said that a lot of the elders in these communities are very disappointed about this and a lot of the leaders in these communities are very disappointed about this, because it had made a positive difference. I know that it made Ceduna a safer place to be in during the daytime. It meant that tourism was back and it was significantly different; you could feel the difference. So shame on you for putting those people back into danger!

3:50 pm

Photo of Justine ElliotJustine Elliot (Richmond, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I find it beyond remarkable that the opposition has put forward this matter of public importance in relation to vulnerable people. For the Liberal and National parties, the parties of robodebt and the parties of WorkChoices and healthcare cuts—the parties that introduced the harsh cashless debit card—to come here today to stand and lecture us about it is absolutely appalling!

The fact is we're delivering on the government's election commitment to abolish the cashless debit card, and we are doing that because privatised welfare does not work. That is the reality. We have consulted extensively about abolishing the card. Those opposite didn't consult with anybody when they put more than 17,000 people on the card. Bang! They were put straight on the card—that's the reality. We are working with communities who have been devastated by the cashless debit card—

Photo of Kevin HoganKevin Hogan (Page, National Party, Shadow Minister for Trade and Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

You ran a scare campaign! You ran a lie that it was going to pensioners!

Photo of Justine ElliotJustine Elliot (Richmond, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

They can yell as much as they want, but the fact is they forced people onto privatised welfare. Do you know why they're yelling?

Photo of Rowan RamseyRowan Ramsey (Grey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Because you're not telling the truth!

Photo of Justine ElliotJustine Elliot (Richmond, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Do you know why they're annoyed? Because they were going to roll it right out across the country. That's exactly what they intended to do—

Opposition members interjecting

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

I just might remind members—

Photo of Justine ElliotJustine Elliot (Richmond, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

That's why they're in here today! The fact is that the cashless debit card is privatised welfare, and there is something deeply, deeply wrong when private for-profit companies control people's income support payments and they determine where they can actually spend their money. It wasn't a government department, a private company did it. What happened when people contacted them and said: 'I can't access a lot of goods. There's no money in my account, what's going on?' They got no help and they got no support because it's a private company. If you had any problems with the card nobody was interested, nobody would listen to you.

We know that the former government spent more than $170 million on the cashless debit card program, money that would have been better used for support services in those vulnerable communities. We also have a lot of evidence that it just didn't work. We know that. In fact, we had the Australian National Audit Office just recently release its latest audit on the performance of the card, highlighting once more the lack of evidence. But we also know that because of the extensive consultation we've done with communities. Both the social services minister and I have consulted widely with the impacted communities. I have been in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, and spoken with many people there about how they've been impacted. That includes community members, participants and service providers. I was in Cape York as well, and listened firsthand to their community and what they want to see moving forward in terms of income management. We went to Western Australia, speaking with many participants and local councils as well, particularly many individuals whose lives have been devastated by being on this card.

But, as I said, the reason those opposite were so angry before is that they did want to roll it out right across the country. We know that was their agenda: to put more recipients on the card. The fact is that it has devastated so many lives. So many people I've spoken to have had their lives impacted: the card was very restrictive, it was often declined and people couldn't buy basic food or groceries. People couldn't pay their rent, they couldn't make car repayments and they couldn't buy second-hand clothes. It's had a devastating impact on individuals because it stripped away their dignity and they have felt so stigmatised by it. In fact, I was handed a number of notes at the many consultations that we've had, with people saying, 'I can't pay my rent because at the time my landlord takes cash, and it's really embarrassing.' They can't pay their rent. They can't pay for things that require a BSB payment and they're judged everywhere they go. Also, they can't speak to anyone when they have a problem.

But we are approaching abolishing the cashless debit card in a responsible way, to ensure that communities and individuals are in a properly supported transition off the card. We will keep consulting with them, particularly in relation to the issue of voluntary income management as well. We have listened to people, we have listened to First Nations community leaders, we have listened to service providers and, really importantly, we have listened to participants.

The fact is that privatised welfare does not work. No matter how much those opposite keep pushing it, it does not work at all. Nothing highlights that more than the absolute disaster of the cashless debit card. It brought lots of very vulnerable people a huge amount of shame. They were stigmatised everywhere, and they couldn't access the basic services they needed. They felt like they were being punished and demonised. But these people opposite are still pushing the benefits of it, despite the thousands of lives that they ruined because of it. Do you know why? It's because they are so obsessed with privatised welfare and they are so annoyed that we stopped them rolling it out across the country so they could stigmatise and ruin more lives of vulnerable people. We are abolishing it.

3:55 pm

Photo of Rowan RamseyRowan Ramsey (Grey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The first community that adopted the cashless debit card was in my electorate, in Ceduna, and I refute many of the allegations that the assistant minister just made, including that the community was not consulted. It is absurd. It was the community of Ceduna that set the 80-20 split. We have a far west Indigenous leaders group there. They met every two weeks during the implementation and rollout of this program. Allegations were made by the minister that people say they can't go to the football and use their card. That is incorrect. It can be used for school lunches. It can be used at the football gate. It can be used inside the club rooms at the football. It can't be used to buy alcohol while you're at the football, though, I'm afraid. That is what it is designed for.

It's worth reflecting that this card was brought in in the aftermath of the state coroner's report in South Australia following six deaths in Ceduna over less than a decade related to alcohol abuse. There was another one while the commissioner was inquiring. We have not had any such deaths—touch wood—in the period since the card was introduced.

I absolutely refute the allegation that the people of Ceduna do not support the card. They know full well that I am in favour of the card, and they keep supporting me. People can check the ballot figures in Ceduna if they wish. So it is with a heavy heart I see the fact that the government is intent on taking this ideological step. I am absolutely convinced we will see a lift in violence, a lift in antisocial behaviour such as drunkenness and quite likely some untimely deaths. I have told the minister quietly—and I thank her for coming out to Ceduna, but she came with the decision already made—that, however you cut this up, she and the government will be held responsible for the outcomes.

I noted a couple of the submissions to the Senate inquiry as it went around, and I'll refer particularly to Allan Suter's contribution. He went through that period in which the Ceduna community set the 80-20 split. Not only did they set the 80-20 split; they embedded in the design of the card that people could be reduced to a 60-40 split if they liked and met certain criteria. He is of this opinion: 'It was a clear demonstration of how the removal of the cashless debit card in Ceduna will damage our community. I would encourage some to do some homework about the time during the pandemic when support payments were made outside the cashless debit card system. Our community experienced severe disruptions, including drunken rioting, family violence and major social disruption due to substance abuse. When these extra payments stopped, so did the trouble.' He went on to say: 'Unfortunately, most Ceduna residents fear that removal of the cashless debit card will turn back the clock to where we were prior to 2008. When this happens, the opponents of the cashless debit card and the Australian government will be totally responsible for the resulting increases in family violence, public intoxication and, potentially, more deaths such as those covered by the 2008 coronial inquiry.' I thought perhaps the Senate committee, when they were inquiring into this, may have listened to Noel Pearson when he told the meeting: 'Labor's decision to outlaw the cashless debit card nationwide would ruin two decades of progress and reforms in Cape York.'

That's because the card there has replaced the BasicsCard, and the BasicsCard was a very clunky type of system; whereas the cashless debit card is pretty seamless. I don't carry one in my pocket, but the member for O'Connor does, and you cannot check it visibly, from any kind of distance, to see that it is anything but a normal card.

So I am very concerned about what is happening in my community of Ceduna. It's a community that has come so far in the last decade that it's barely recognisable from what it was. And when you compare it to similar communities around Australia— (Time expired)

4:01 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the business of the day be called on.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: For the members' information, you won't get a call when the minister has moved that the business of the day be called on.

Question agreed to.