Senate debates

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Regulations and Determinations

Social Security (Administration) (Trial Area – Ceduna and Surrounding Region) Determination 2015; Disallowance

5:44 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That Social Security (Administration) (Trial Area – Ceduna and Surrounding Region) Determination 2015 be disallowed.

The determination I am seeking to disallow is the Social Security (Administration) (Trial Area—Ceduna and Surrounding Region) Determination. This is the measure that puts in place the cashless debit card or, as it is probably more commonly known, the cashless welfare card in Ceduna. This is a measure that I and the Greens opposed when the legislation was introduced and debated and we opposed it largely for the same reasons that we oppose income management—income management is a poor policy and it has failed in its stated objectives. We opposed the cashless welfare card from the introduction of the bill that established the operation of the welfare card and set up the provisions for the trials. We opposed it through multiple rounds of estimates where I asked questions about it and now it is regulation. I am trying to disallow it because we do not think this is good public policy.

We want good policies that genuinely help people. We do not support harsh and ineffective policies that do not help people and that, in fact, can harm people. The fundamental ideology that underlies this policy is flawed. It is a belief that strict, harsh control measures by government can solve deep rooted social issues, social problems and substance abuse problems. It is harmful, it is paternalistic and it will not address the issues.

As Nicholas Rothwell wrote on Saturday in The Australian, the approach:

… embodies the hope that direct control over spending patterns can change the behaviour and the attitudes of families and entire communities: that the mind can be modified by a rein on the purse.

I believe that the approach of believing that you can influence the mind, that it can be modified by a rein on the purse is fundamentally mistaken. The Northern Territory intervention has shown this. Some problems cannot be solved by supposedly simple approaches that are strict and that put in place harsh controls. For a start, people will find a way around those harsh controls.

When I look at the evaluation of the Northern Territory intervention, it has had detrimental impacts. Some problems require care and support for people who are in fact vulnerable. They require the addressing of the underlying causes of disadvantage and of substance abuse. We need a multifaceted approach that deals with a multifaceted problem. We have consistently seen that this policy of income management does not work and there have been numerous assessments that show this, particularly for compulsory income management. This is not a new innovative approach; it is a continuation, another form of income management, and, as is often said, income management on steroids. It is a failed approach and has been shown not to work.

I would now like to quote from a very useful report entitled Evaluating New Income Management in the Northern Territory: Final Evaluation Report. I suspect that many people today who will be voting on this motion will not have read that report. For those of you who have read the report, what the heck are you doing supporting this approach and not supporting the disallowance of this determination?

The final NT evaluation said:

A substantial group of people subject to income management felt that income management is unfair, embarrassing and discriminatory.

The evaluation could not find any substantive evidence of the program having significant changes relative to its key policy objectives, including changing people’s behaviours.

There was no evidence of changes in spending patterns, including food and alcohol sales, other than a slight possible improvement in the incidence of running out of money for food by those on Voluntary Income Management, but no change for those on compulsory income management. The data show that spending on BasicsCard on fruit and vegetables is very low.

There was no evidence of any overall improvement in financial wellbeing, including reductions in financial harassment or improved financial management skills.

More general measures of wellbeing at the community level show no evidence of improvement, including for children.

… … …

The evaluation found that, rather than building capacity and independence, for many the program has acted to make people more dependent on welfare.

… … …

The evaluation data does not provide evidence of income management having improve the outcomes that it was intended to have an impact upon.

They are the findings of the evaluation of income management in the Northern Territory—failed on virtually every count. Yet he we have a government, and I predict an opposition, that are going to vote down my motion to disallow what is a failed approach. There is still time for the opposition to change their minds. I am not confident the government are going to. This is a very important point: this is failed measure. We have had this evidence for nearly two years yet somehow the government still want to proceed with this flawed approach—let's just amp it up a little more; keep amping it up instead of looking at the evidence. The government already know this approach does not work but they still keep pushing ahead.

I had someone ask: why don't you trial this? We have had a trial since 2007. That is more than a trial, folks. That is why we should not be having this trial, because it is just a continuation of a failed approach. It is a dead end. Nicholas Rothwell, in his article on income management, said:

When income management was first introduced in the Northern Territory in 2007, it was seen by the Howard government as a stopgap measure, a 'short, sharp shock', a way-stage en route to further economic reform rather than the long-term destination it has become.

What we are debating here is the long-term destination of continuing income management. He we are years later and income management is a dead end that hurts Aboriginal people and communities.

The idea that this policy is a trial is a sham for a number of reasons. To have a trial, you have to have comparison sites. There is no comparison site. This lies at the heart of whether it is really a trial, to look at whether it would work compared to other policies, or it is just an attempt by the coalition to push their ideology.

The coalition, thank goodness, is providing an additional $1 million in services to the communities in the area affected by the trial. I, for one, welcome any additional funding that provides good quality services. But, a year from now, when they are measuring some of these outcomes, we will not know whether it is those services or the cashless welfare card that have led to any changes that are found. In her submission and evidence to the Senate inquiry into the bill, academic Eva Cox put it well when she said:

This agreement for including services locally creates serious issues for the trial’s claimed intentions. How can any form of research determine whether any improvements that may occur over 12 months are the result of the card or of the services, or a mix of both?

…   …   …

How do you separate the card’s effects from the benefits from the services?

I have been asking about this and trying to find out where the comparison sites will be. People may recall that when we were debating this bill in the chamber I asked a lot of questions. I did not get a lot of answers, but I asked a lot of questions. I asked the minister about this particular issue, and I would like to go through his response at the time. Minister Fifield, who was the minister dealing with this bill in the chamber, said:

I guess there are two broad elements to an evaluation. One is comparing the circumstances in the given community, looking at what the baseline was and how things have improved or otherwise. The other is comparing a trial site to a similar community, and that will be part of the trial. There are other communities that would be receiving some equivalent forms of community support and that is what the evaluation will look at.

Let's skip forward from the debate that we had on that last year, when the bill went through, and go to Senate estimates from the week before last. When I asked, in Senate estimates, about this issue and where the other comparison site was going to be, the departmental officials told me they wanted an effective baseline both in the trial communities and in comparable communities that do not have the services and will not be having the services in place. What is the point of that? You are not comparing like with like. You are not separating out the effect the cashless welfare card will have.

So the government is welshing, before the trial even starts, on their commitment to have a proper evaluation, a proper comparison, and makes a mockery of calling this process a trial. It is not a fair trial. It is not a trial. It cannot prove that the cashless welfare card works for people struggling with issues of substance abuse, alcohol abuse, drug abuse and gambling. I do not want anybody to mistake the fact that the Greens are absolutely supportive of addressing alcohol abuse, drug abuse and gambling. We absolutely and fundamentally agree that it needs addressing. We fundamentally disagree with the approach that this government consistently takes and has been proven not to work. We still, in the Northern Territory, have significant drug and alcohol problems, and gambling problems.

Regardless of the outcome, members of the government have already been talking about the rollout of the cashless welfare card or the cashless debit card—whatever you choose to call it—across regional Australia. We already know from the report that Andrew Forrest did that he was advocating rolling out the cashless welfare card, 100 per cent, across all of Australia. It appears that it does not matter to the coalition that it works, and it is obvious from their response to the Northern Territory evaluation that they do not actually look at the evidence. They do not care whether it has worked or not. The evidence conflicts with their ideology, so why would they change their ideology? You have to limit these tough approaches that do not work. This is not a trial.

The coalition is targeting communities with very high numbers of Aboriginal people. We are very clear about that. The only two communities that have signed up at the moment are, largely, Aboriginal communities. I understand from media reports that Laverton has now said no to the card, joining Halls Creek saying no to the card, and I understand from estimates that the government is trying to convince Geraldton to have a go. I urge people in Geraldton to look at the evidence about this. It does not work. Do not condemn yourselves and your community to being another so-called trial site for this failed ideological approach. This policy has been criticised by Aboriginal leaders and Aboriginal community members. Not everybody supports this trial. I will get to the issues about consultation later.

Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, has written about this in both his 2014 and his 2015 report. He also wrote in The Australian that the welfare card is not the solution to alcohol abuse. He said:

Any possible benefit of the card must be weighed against the sense of disempowerment our people already face. It must be weighed against the stigma our people continue to face, and the restrictions placed on our basic rights and freedoms we fought so hard for.

He went on to say:

The hardest part of this proposal to accept is that yet again the treatment of our people will be different to mainstream Australia, and it is this differentiation of treatment that we have fought so hard to bring into the open.

As I said, the Shire of Halls Creek in my home state of Western Australia has decided to reject this card and this approach. They did that because their Aboriginal Advisory Committee voted against the card. The shire president said:

We've got an Aboriginal advisory committee. If we're not going to take any notice of them, then why do we have them?

Importantly, before the trial has rolled out, there have been many problems with the consultation. I know there are ongoing issues in Ceduna, because I am getting lots of emails and communication from community members. I understand that some signatories to the memorandum of understanding in Ceduna have very strong concerns about the manner in which the card is being implemented. In fact, they say it was not their understanding that it was going to be rolled out to everybody. I understand that one of the original signatories to the MOU wants to see elements of the MOU dissolved. I understand that is an ongoing discussion.

As well as this fundamentally flawed approach to the card, I have been asking a series of questions in this chamber and in estimates for months about the operation of this card. In the last round of estimates, we found out that it looks like some sort of loophole is already being built into the card, where people can transfer over $1,000 to somebody else's account, particularly if they are out of town and loose their card. The government did not volunteer this information. It came out when I was asking about what happens with a lost card. I would have thought there were some ongoing issues with that if the government says this is all about stopping people being able to access cash to buy grog.

I have been through in this place many times the impact that this card will have on vulnerable community members, but I want to go through some of the specific points in relation to the card in the time I have remaining. There are ongoing questions around what will happen in terms of merchant charges and what is happening with the status of the community body. I have spent some time trying to find out online about the community panel. This is the panel that you go to to ask to get the 80 per cent restriction on being able to access cash—in other words, you are going to get 20 per cent—down to 50 per cent.

I have not been able to find that online, but I am going to quote from a letter that I have just been sent about this card and that raises some questions about this card. The letter is from Mr Simon Schrapel, who is the Chief Executive of Uniting Communities. He has written this letter, which has gone to the minister, and I have been given a copy. He has cced it to me. He has written it on behalf of the 'keep income management accountable network'. One of the issues that he raises in the letter to the minister is the appointment and funding of the community panel. He says: 'Appointments to the community panel are a matter of ministerial discretion, but for the first trial site in Ceduna it is anticipated to include the local mayor and/or the council chief executive, among other local residents. We have raised concerns with departmental staff about these arrangements, including the disclosure of highly personal information to others living in a small community'—a small community, I might add, that is quite divided over this card. These are my words now; I am not quoting Mr Schrapel. This raises very serious concerns about the release of information. It also goes to the issue of privacy rights, which Mr Schrapel also addresses in the letter to the minister.

But there are other fundamental issues around the terms and conditions of the Indue accounts and the cashless welfare card. Indue is the financial institution—and I am being careful to say 'financial institution' because it is not a bank—but there are questions unanswered. They are implementing this on 15 March, folks. The department could not answer in estimates the week before last about very important issues around some of these financial arrangements, such as whether they are signing up to the ePayments Code and the Code of Banking Practice, and other issues. To date, they have not been able to provide the relevant terms and conditions under which the card will be operating.

The letter says: 'There are now only four weeks until the first trial is due to commence, and the documents are not available. We have been informed that they are commercial-in-confidence. The terms of reference do not, in our view, play a significant role in negotiations between the government and Indue but are critical in defining the relationship between the participant consumers and the financial service provider the government has mandated.' This is particularly important because the people who are subject to this measure do not get a say on which financial institution will be handling their money, but they are not being given some of the most basic understandings about how this is going to work.

We still do not have the resolution of who is going to pay the merchant charges that people will be required to pay when they are using this card. We confirmed in estimates that—contrary to what the government said in the chamber in the debate on this legislation, which is that they were working with the merchants in Ceduna that have merchant charges to see if they can get them waived—they have failed. They told us in estimates that that has failed. They have no answer for the issue for those merchants outside the trial areas. They are not negotiating with them. They cannot, because it is just too big an issue, so people will have to be paying merchant charges.

I repeat again: every dollar counts when you are trying to survive on income support, particularly when the government is making it even harder for you to manage your money under this card. That is unacceptable. This card will not work. It disproportionately impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is discriminatory in that respect. I believe it breaches their human rights. This is a failed experiment that started in 2007, and it should be put to bed. I urge the Senate to support this disallowance.


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