Senate debates

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Bills

Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Cashless Welfare) Bill 2019; Second Reading

10:11 am

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

I rise to speak on the Social Services (Administration) Amendment (Cashless Welfare) Bill 2019. This bill makes changes to the exit and wellbeing exemption arrangements for people to exit the cashless debit card trials. These are necessary because the current processes aren't workable. These changes relate to the so-called exit or opt-out provisions, which were rushed through the Senate by the government and the ALP together in return for the ALP's supporting the government's extension of the cashless debit card trial sites. That happened in April. There was no time to debate the bill itself or the amendments. It was obvious from the start, by reading the amendments that were rushed through, that the exit provisions wouldn't work. But that really didn't matter to the government or the opposition, because they just wanted to see the extension of the cashless debit card rushed through without adequate scrutiny so that they could extend the trials for another 12 months.

That was rushed through before the election. Unfortunately there was no way to debate those changes, as I said, because the gag was applied to a number of bills that were rushed through in April, before the election. The Senate did not have time to adequately scrutinise the amendments. I would hope that, if we had been given time, the fact that they weren't workable would have been realised. What has happened now is that we have a whole lot of people that are in limbo. I will come back to that in a minute.

We have here a bill that makes a number of changes, including removing the role of the unelected, hand picked community bodies in assessing a person's exit applications. It makes the secretary of the Department of Social Services the decision-maker for the exit applications. It also amends some of the exit criteria and clarifies that exit applications that are to be made through a form approved by the secretary of the department.

I will come to the discussion of the amendments shortly, but let me first be very clear: the Greens continue their opposition to income management and the cashless debit card trials and the cashless debit card. This is a punitive approach that unfairly discriminates against First Nations communities, particularly, and does not work, despite the government's rhetoric. Last night in adjournment I articulated and spoke about a number of accounts from people that are subject to the cashless debit card and how it's making their lives worse, not better. The cashless debit card is not supported by lots of people in the broader community and people in the trial sites.

I move a second reading amendment to the legislation:

", but the Senate calls on the Government to abandon compulsory income management and the Cashless Debit Card."

People on the card have articulated how they feel demonised, stigmatised. People have been spat on, called druggies and had their children bullied at school because their parents are on the card. The card restricts human rights and unfairly targets people on income support. We do not support the cashless debit card. We don't support income management.

The government falsely claim the success of the card and of income management. Their own evaluations, if read clearly and properly, don't support those claims, even if you ignore the fact that the methodology is flawed. I have, many times in this place, gone through the flaws in the evaluation process and the way the government falsely claim that those evaluations show the success of income management. They ignore the voices of the community such as those that I quoted last night in my adjournment speech. Those people, as I said, talk about being shamed, being demonised and the fact that they have a lot of problems with the card.

The Northern Territory, through the Northern Territory intervention, has had income management for 12 long years. Does anybody seriously claim that the situation in the Northern Territory has been stabilised, that it has improved, when we see an escalating number of children going into out-of-home care still and we still have outrageous youth justice interaction problems and problems with the youth justice system? No, of course they don't. In 2007 the then-Howard government made what turned out to be false claims about the situation in the Northern Territory, to justify the dog whistling of the Northern Territory intervention. Those claims have not been proved to be correct. None of the things that they claimed would happen through the intervention and income management have in fact happened, which the evaluation of the Northern Territory intervention clearly showed. The hearing into the rollout of the cashless debit card in Hinkler clearly showed something similar. The authors of that report highlighted the findings from the Northern Territory intervention evaluation, which does not support the government's claims of success.

The Greens remain strongly opposed to the cashless debit card and income management. However, there are now hundreds of people in limbo because the application process that was rushed through this place doesn't work, and there is actually no process in place to assess their applications. The wellbeing exemption process is a mess. My office has tried to help many people who have applied for the wellbeing exemption and been extremely frustrated by the process. The wellbeing exemption process has been in place for a long time. For opt-out and exit there are no processes in place, but we've helped a number of people through the wellbeing exemption process. One person was told, 'You need to be on the card first, so then you can prove that it's adversely impacted your mental health.' In other words, the department at the time was saying, 'You need to be sicker before we can take you off it.' It's ridiculous.

We are supporting this legislation, although I have some strong concerns about it which I will articulate. We will be supporting this process around exemption. I'm being really clear: we do not support the cashless debit card, but we support improving the exemption process, because we want to help what we've been told, through our community contacts, is about 400 people who have applied for the opt-out process and are in limbo. We want to make sure there is a process in place, so we are supporting this particular bit of the legislation. However, I have some amendments to the process, because we think it can still be improved.

I thank the minister for the way that she has undertaken the consultation to get this process fixed. I think that she's been very open to what we had to say. She didn't take everything on board, I must say, but it was a welcome process because it enabled us to look at the legislation and point at some of the issues that we had. Once the legislation was released, we listened very strongly to stakeholders, who have had things to say even in the short time since this legislation was tabled last Thursday. There are a lot of people who are keenly interested in the cashless debit card trials and income management, and they have responded very quickly to our reaching out for their comments.

Unsurprisingly, there have been a number of issues that have been raised with the criteria, and I will go through some of those issues that we have now with the process. Having said that, I will reiterate that I was pleased that we could talk to the government about some of these issues. I just wish they'd gone a lot further. I will say now, too, that I have a series of questions. Although these changes are in place to help the process roll more smoothly, I think there are a lot of questions about how the process will work, so I'd like to get the answers on record in order for people to understand how the process will work when they use this legislation to opt out and also for the wellbeing exemptions.

Some of the issues that I still think are problematic are under section 124PHB(3). It says that a person wishing to exit the trial will be assessed according to the following:

(a) the person can demonstrate reasonable and responsible management of the person's affairs (including financial affairs), taking into account all of the following:

(i) the interest of any children for whom the person is responsible;

(ii) whether the person was convicted of an offence against a law of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory, or was serving a sentence of imprisonment for such an offence, at any time in the last 12 months …

I acknowledge that this is a change from what originally went through this place, which was about whether the person 'has a likelihood of engaging in any unlawful activity'. That was totally subjective. It wasn't measurable. It was dependent on whether somebody in the community, because at this stage it was about the community panels and the community bodies, thought someone was going to carry out any unlawful activity. So I do acknowledge that that's an improvement on what was there. We do, however, have concerns that it's 'convicted of an offence' rather than 'convicted of a serious offence', so I do have an amendment to make to emphasise that it's about a serious offence.

The criteria also includes:

(iii) risks of homelessness;

(iv) the health and safety of the person and the community;

(v) the responsibilities and circumstances of the person;

(vi) the person's engagement in the community, including the person's employment or efforts to obtain work …

Anybody reading those will see that a lot of those are also very subjective, so that's why I wish to clarify these issues during the debate of the whole—so people are clear about how this criteria will be assessed. We actually want to take out the whole lot of the criteria and just leave the 'managing financial affairs' part there. That's another amendment that I'll be putting in during the committee of the whole process.

Now, let's look at these criteria. For a start, some of these criteria would well contradict the wellbeing exemption. If having poor mental health, for example, qualifies you for a wellbeing exemption, will it then qualify you for a wellbeing exemption, or does it mean that you are caught up under the criteria that talks about the health and safety of a person in the community? The problem here is that we are at risk of the criteria for the opt-out exemption contradicting the process through the wellbeing exemption, so we need to make sure that that is clarified.

Many, many people responded over the weekend to the criteria, telling us they thought the exit criteria were incredibly patronising and onerous and that they believe they're based on ideological grounds rather than on being workable. These exit provisions require trial participants to provide evidence that goes above and beyond the objectives of the trial. It is unfair that trial participants are being forced to jump through these hoops that no other income support recipients are subject to all because they are unlucky enough to live in the so-called cashless debit card trial sites. Let me say that people who are living on incredibly low payments, such as $277.86 per week on Newstart, are some of the best money managers around. It is objectionable that the government thinks that just because you're on income support, you can't manage your finances.

Many people on income support payments, especially on low payments, find it difficult to provide evidence that satisfies these criteria. Let's take the criteria for risk of homelessness. The chronic lack of housing, especially in remote communities, means that First Nation families often experience housing overcrowding. This will work against First Nation people wanting to exit the card. A person's risk of homelessness could also be exacerbated by being on the cashless debit card. I've heard repeated accounts of people's rent payments bouncing back into their accounts, because of the Indue card, and not being paid on time. How is it fair to assess a person on their risk of homelessness when the card itself makes it difficult to maintain a good rental history?

To exit the card, a person also needs to demonstrate they have not been convicted of any offences in the last 12 months. This could see someone charged with minor offences like jaywalking, petty theft or graffiti excluded from exiting the card. First Nation people will again be disadvantaged because of the institutionalised and systemic racism they experience through our justice system, and virtually every day of their lives. We know that First Nation people are 13 times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous people.

A trial participant's exit application will also be assessed against the health and safety of the person and the community. This is incredibly unfair. How can a person prove the health and safety of their community, and how can they be held responsible for it? Individuals cannot, and should not, be held responsible for the health and safety of their community in return for getting off the card. It also directly contradicts the wellbeing exemptions that allow a person to exit the card based on their physical and mental health issues. It begs the question as to whether, as I articulated earlier, a person's health will determine whether they stay on the card or exit the card.

I also have strong concerns about the criteria around a person's employment or efforts to obtain work. The cashless debit card operates in many regional areas that are suffering from thin or non-existent labour markets. The focus on proving employment also reflects the government's devaluing of unpaid care work. Unpaid care often takes place in private and is not able to be verified by documentary evidence.

Overall, the exit criteria are not measurable or objective and I will move an amendment to have these removed. If that fails, I've got a lot of questions to ask about how they will operate. The objectives remain open to interpretation and allow the secretary of the Department of Social Services to exercise extensive discretion over a person's exit application, and that remains a strong concern for many people.

Despite being fully aware of these flaws, the government has not moved to make significant improvements to the exit criteria. When we are discussing these during the committee of the whole, I will urge the minister to clarify how these criteria will be interpreted, what evidence will be acceptable and how will it be verified? There are also significant problems with the role of the health and community worker in the reconsideration of the exit applications. Section 124PHB(8) stipulates:

If a health or community worker considers that it is necessary for the person who is the subject of a determination under subsection (3) to be a trial participant for medical or safety reasons, the worker may request the Secretary to reconsider the determination.

While I think the way that is worded shows some improvement, I am concerned that it doesn't stipulate that the health or community worker has to have a professional relationship with the person that they're talking about. Otherwise, any member of the community who happens to be a health or community worker may register an issue with the department to say, 'We want that person reconsidered,' having no justification for that at all, other than it may be their opinion. I'm deeply concerned about the way this could be interpreted and seek clarification from the government that the worker will be expected to have a professional connection with the person they're working with.

Unlike some people, we are in fact pleased that the community bodies have been taken out of this process. Community bodies are unelected. The government has chosen the people there. Nobody knows who they are. I've said this repeatedly in this place and called for those names to be released so that people in the community can know who's judging them. It is totally unfair that the participants of this trial do not know who the people are that are making the decisions in either the community panel or the community reference group, where they exist, in both Hinkler and Kalgoorlie. We don't know if there are participants, for example, on the reference groups. We understand there are businesses. So businesses get a say over the control of people's lives? This is outrageous!

People in the government will continue to get up and say how fantastic the card is. They obviously haven't spoken to the people that are suffering under this card—being demonised, stigmatised, spat on and called druggies who can't manage their financial affairs, when they have proven that they can manage their financial affairs. Income management stigmatises people. It is discriminatory. It should be abandoned now. We will not support any continuation of the CDC.

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