Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020; Second Reading

11:24 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020, which I think we call the cashless debit card. This bill would make the cashless debit card a permanent program—not a trial—and it would replace the current BasicsCard for about 25,000 people in the Northern Territory and for those in the Cape York region, where there's no cap on the number of participants. All up, about 82 per cent of people who will be transferred on to the cashless debit card in the Territory are First Nations people, and most of them are living in remote communities.

Income management from its outset was clearly racist, because it was targeted at First Nations communities, and the response of the government was not to revoke this racist policy but to extend it to white communities so that it remained bad policy but now it applied to more cohorts of people. My home state of Queensland was one of those test sites for the extension of the card, and the impacts of that trial on actual human beings, many of whom I've spoken with, as has Senator Siewert, make it clear why the program should not be continued and certainly should not be expanded.

The staggered rollout of the card in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay started in January 2019 and was completed in mid-May of 2019. Queensland's peak social services body, the Council of Social Service, or QCOSS as they're known, conducted surveys in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay at the outset of the trial after it had been running for several months, and, contrary to the government's claim that the trial had support, the initial survey indicated 65 per cent opposition. That grew to 81 per cent during the trial. So the lived experience of being on the card or having family members on the card or working in an organisation whose clients were subjected to it, hardened people's opposition.

People with experience of being on the card reported problems with health or mental health issues. They reported rent problems. Senator Siewert has already gone through some examples where rent was not paid by the administrators of the card, leading to potential eviction by people who through no fault of their own had their rent mismanaged thanks to those running the card. People who were on the card also experienced stigma and discrimination. They experienced cards being declined and cash-only opportunities missed.

Some of the responses are truly heartbreaking. One person said: 'My card's declined at supermarkets and petrol stations. I've been publicly shamed when using my card. Rent's declined. I've missed out on second-hand goods. I can't shop at roadside stalls or markets. My kids have missed out on tuckshop and fundraiser school events.' The next person who corresponded with us and who wanted their story shared said, 'I feel embarrassed to pull my card out to pay at places, so I will often avoid shopping on busy days as the added stress makes my anxiety unmanageable.' A third person said, 'I've personally been called a junkie and a dole bludger at the supermarket.'

Naomi, who is a Queensland single mum who has multiple sclerosis, wrote to me when the news spread that the CDC trial could be expanded to other regions of Queensland. Naomi was terrified by what this card would mean for her and her family. Her youngest son had just finished year 12 and was acting as her carer. He's a talented athlete, and Naomi was only able to afford the amount of nourishing food that he needs to stay fit and healthy by shopping at local farmers' markets, something that I'm sure many of the people in this chamber do regularly. Naomi was terrified that if the CDC rolled out to her region she'd have to forego healthy, affordable, locally grown produce at markets where you pay with cash and instead would be forced to buy overpriced, much older and less fresh supermarket food. She was worried that if her son had to contribute to those costs that he would no longer be able to use the small amount of carer's allowance that he gets to pay for race entry fees. His athletics career would be over. These are the legitimate fears of a Queensland single mum with MS who is petrified about the effect of this card being rolled out across our state.

Kathryn Wilkes lives in Bundaberg in Queensland. She's been a fierce campaigner against the card for years. She's dispelled the mistruths and she's supported her community to speak out against the disaster of this program. I visited Kathryn, as has Senator Siewert and many others, in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay region, where we heard stories from people who've been forced onto the card. We heard directly about the impact that it's had on their lives. Their experiences were all different, but they shared the view that the card had made their lives worse. It's punitive and it does nothing to actually help people get a job or live with dignity. QCOSS agree. They said:

We believe addressing complex health and social issues, such as alcohol, drug and gambling problems, through the welfare system is fundamentally flawed. Evidence indicates that the CDCT is ineffective, expensive, harmful, unsupported, discriminatory and paternalistic.

These experiences in Queensland serve as a warning that the cashless debit card should certainly not be made permanent and it should not be rolled out more broadly.

My colleague Senator Siewert and several of the other speakers have outlined the issues with compulsory income management more broadly and with this bill in particular. Senator Siewert listed the many, many First Nations organisations that oppose this card. Of course, my colleague Senator Thorpe also gave a very powerful speech about the disproportionate impact of this policy approach on First Nations communities. This bill perpetuates a racist one-size-fits-all policy that targets First Nations and vulnerable people. The bill and the rollout in the NT contradict the Closing the Gap commitments.

Changes introduced by this bill will make it even harder for people to get off the card. It allows ongoing monitoring of a person's wellbeing, even after they've managed to get off the card. This bill is not supported by any robust evidence that the card has met any of its objectives. In fact, the ANAO found that there was no evidence that there'd been a reduction in social harm at the trial sites—no evidence. The final evaluation of income management as part of the NT Intervention found that it had met none of its objectives. Of course, we don't know what the University of Adelaide study that cost the taxpayer $2½ million says, because this government is not releasing it into the public domain and, as I understand it from some of the other contributors, the minister herself has admitted she hasn't even read the report. This is just farcical in the extreme.

This card is denying people their dignity and their quality of life. The cashless debit card is a punitive program that punishes people simply because they are on income support. Its impact has been to stigmatise and demean those who need support. In the middle of a pandemic and an economic and jobs crisis, now is when the government decides that it wants to make the cashless debit card permanent. The government uses economic uncertainty as a basis to defer decisions about raising the rate of JobSeeker permanently, but it's happy to try and lock in compulsory income management. This inconsistency will cause a lot of human misery.

The bill ignores the root cause of people's struggle to budget when they're on income support. The root cause is the fact that they're trying to survive on inadequate payment amounts. Surely a better way to reduce hardship, to support budgeting strategies, to return dignity to those on income support and to increase their prospects of gaining employment is to raise JobSeeker and youth allowance above the poverty line once and for all. Instead we see this government spending millions on an evaluation report that it won't release and on the privatised administration of this card. An astronomical amount has been given to a private company to administer people's own money, and to do so very poorly, with multiple examples of stuff-ups that have had real-world consequences for people and their housing security. What a waste of money! The money that they've spent on privatising this card could have been a down payment on a permanent increase in JobSeeker.

As my colleague Senator Siewert has said, it's kind of inconsistent—if you think that people with no money can't manage money, how do you think they would learn to manage money if you were taking away their autonomy to do that? There's a logical inconsistency. But, more importantly, that is such a fallacy. People who don't have enough money know down to the last cent how to manage that money. They have to. Every single day they make choices, choices that no Australian should have to make about whether to provide dinner for their family—for their kids—or buy their kids the latest textbook their public school requires. I don't imagine that anyone on this side of the chamber has ever had to face that sort of decision. And I know it's a cliche to say that they are out of touch, but I'm afraid, in this instance, it is true. They'll go off and have a nice, cosy Christmas holiday where they don't have to worry about where their next meal is coming from and they don't have to have someone else telling them how they can spend their limited money, and they will have absolutely no concept—


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