Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


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

12:23 pm

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I'm joining this debate today to talk about, as many speakers have done, the personal stories of people who have been on this card and are looking, through the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020, at the possibility of permanently being on the cashless debit card and the impact that that has had on their lives and will continue to have on their lives going forward. I also want to take some time today to address some of the misconceptions about the way that this program is operating in Cape York, because I know that has been referenced on many occasions. I've actually spoken to the people who are running this program, so I want to spend some time to talk about that today as well.

I want to respond to some of the pretty disgusting things that Senator Hanson said about people on this card but also people generally who, at times in their lives, need to seek support from the government. Ultimately, we know that this legislation will be voted on and decisions will be made by our crossbench senators. I want to take some time today to appeal to those crossbench senators on this legislation. We know that it is a big decision to make and a lot of pressure would be bearing down from the government on these senators to make a decision to support this program. But can I say that this is not the legislation to let the government off on. This is not the legislation on which to let the government get away with thuggish, cruel behaviour that treats vulnerable people as if they are worthless. This is not the legislation on which to let the government get away with pushing through a policy with no evidence in the last week of the parliament because they want to get this done before they go home for Christmas. We know that the Prime Minister was the architect of the robodebt scheme. This is not the legislation for our crossbench senators to let this Prime Minister get away with yet another scheme that will hurt vulnerable Australians.

It is the personal stories that we need to listen to today, because the government will assume that they know best but we need to listen directly to the people who are affected by this legislation. Kerryn Griffis, a mother of four from Queensland, told 7.30:

I feel like in the Government's eyes I'm a lesser person. In the public's eyes it's much, much worse … What have I ever done for the government to treat me this way? To treat thousands of other people this way? We've been branded as drug addicts and alcoholics and gamblers and dole bludgers. Most of us are just doing the best we can to get by.

These are extraordinary words: 'In the government's eyes, I'm a lesser person'. This government is treating people as if they are worth less.

Bundaberg resident Emilie Randell, who is 28 years old, was placed on the card in November 2019 after she finished full-time study and moved onto the JobSeeker payment. She said the decision to make the card permanent where she lives was difficult to accept. She said:

It is hard to put into words, I guess hopelessness is the best word to describe it … I was putting everything into them ending the trial in December. I’m really frightened for what it means for the future.

Hopelessness—that is what this program does to vulnerable Australians. Governments are supposed to look after vulnerable people, not punish them. If the government won't protect our most marginalised and disadvantaged Australians then this Senate has to step up and do that job and block this legislation. That is the job that this Senate must do because we know that this government won't.

This program has not had an evaluation made public for senators to consider whether it even works in the first place. We've received anecdotal evidence from people who support the legislation, people who have an interest—a very big interest—in getting this legislation passed. But the social services minister, Anne Ruston, admitted in the Senate that she didn't even read the report before deciding to make the cashless debit card permanent. The Morrison government spent $2.5 million on a University of Adelaide report but didn't even wait for its findings before deciding to proceed. That is because this legislation isn't about evidence based policymaking; it's about ideology. This is about treating people as if they are worthless. It speaks to the government's ideological obsession with income management and attacking the most vulnerable. It is the same ideological obsession which led to robodebt and the mental harm that robodebt caused.

There have been many inquiries and reports into the effectiveness of income management in the past, and what the evidence has shown is that compulsory, broad based income management is causing significant harm to communities. The Auditor-General has found no evidence that the cashless debit card works and recommended better baseline data collection and monitoring. Independent analysis of the card by the University of South Australia made several findings, including that it has had no impact on reducing gambling or intoxicant abuse. It doesn't work. It is not doing what the government says it does, and that is one of the reasons why senators in this chamber should not support this legislation. The study found that the cost of implementing and administering the card came with little to no return on investment. It costs money to deliver this card and deliver this program, and we are talking about value for taxpayers because taxpayers provide this welfare in the first place. But taxpayers are actually being ripped off, because there is no return on investment for a program like this because it doesn't do what the government wants it to achieve. It actually has the opposite effect:

… a very large amount of evidence shows … 13 years of new income management in the Northern Territory … has had almost no positive impact—

no positive impact, and yet the government is still trying to push this legislation through

The cashless debit card will affect two areas of Queensland directly, and I want to talk about both of those communities today—in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay in the Fraser Coast region, and in the Cape York region. The government has chosen to make the trials permanent in those two communities for various reasons. They're two very distinct communities, but they will feel the same impacts. From the outset, can I say it reflects very poorly on the members in the other chamber who represent these communities in Queensland that they didn't have the guts to step up and speak about this legislation. They voted for it; they sat in the other chamber and they voted for the legislation. But they didn't have the guts to stand up and say why they were supporting it. That's because they know that in their community there is no support for this card. They are waving these changes through without questioning them or making it clear to the parliament where they stand.

Those two personal stories that I read out at the beginning are from locals from the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay area. Many, many members of the community in Hervey Bay and Bundaberg have campaigned against this card, but they are not being listened to. The member for Hinkler and the member for Wide Bay have completely gone missing on this. It really does go to show why, in the last state election, these two areas swung towards Labor, and they were two areas where Labor actually picked up seats. I mention that because it's a warning to this government that, if you go down this road, the community will respond. They will respond to this. You're not giving them a jobs program or a jobs plan—a way to create jobs. Unemployment is through the roof in these areas. They don't want income management; they want jobs. But that's not what this government is doing.

I will make some brief comments about the Cape York program, because it's very important that the Senate understand that the program in Cape York is completely different from what the government is considering rolling out across the country. There are 128 people on income management in communities like Aurukun, Coen, Doomadgee, Hope Vale and Mossman Gorge. Importantly, the decision to move to income management is only made after case management and discussions with the person involved. It is also regularly reviewed, and this is completely different from how the cashless debit card operates in other parts of the country.

It is not okay for this government to tie that program to the rest of these programs across the country by saying that this legislation needs to be pushed through; otherwise, that program in Cape York could fall over. We support that program in Cape York because the community members support that program. It is operating in a completely different way from the rest of the country. If the government wanted to do the hard work, they could have taken that program out of this legislation and dealt with it separately, but they've put it in this legislation to try to put a time line on passing this broader program through the Senate—again, cruel behaviour, thuggish behaviour, from the government.

We know that this bill will impact First Nations people more than any other group—and it was disappointing to hear those comments from Senator Hanson today. I know that maybe she has visited some of the communities in Cape York. She certainly hasn't listened to them, because, if she had, she would not be supporting a broader rollout of this program. Even the members of Cape York communities understand that their program is separate from the one being rolled out across the country, and they don't like the idea of this government using them to justify putting more First Nations people in the Northern Territory into a difficult position.

I started this speech by talking about personal stories. We have heard from people directly affected by this scheme. Many of them are single parents. I grew up in a single-parent household, and I am proud of the life that we had and of where I came from. I'm proud of the lessons that it taught me and the truth that comes from knowing that you're not better than anybody else, and no-one is better than you, just because you had the luck to be born in another suburb. But I understand feeling just like Kerryn when she says, 'I feel like, in the government's eyes, I'm a lesser person.' The problem with feeling like that, feeling like you're worthless, is that it becomes self-defeating and self-fulfilling. It is hard to step up and to step out of poverty when you are treated like dirt by this government.

There are many single parents who have fled their homes to escape domestic violence, and this card will prevent those families from starting a new life. I know. I was a kid bundled into a car to leave. I've stood there with friends and gotten all of their belongings together so that they could leave a home of domestic violence. One of the most important factors is having financial security, and if this government wants to tell people how they can and can't spend their money then it will definitely impact on those single parents and the kids that they are seeking to protect. There are many, many single parents out there who this will impact.

I honestly understand what it's like to feel embarrassed, but I don't understand why a government would want to embarrass people. Governments are meant to lift people up, not make them feel worse about themselves. So I'm asking the crossbench, and particularly Senator Lambie and Senator Patrick, to not let this government get away with making people feel like this. They've done a dodgy job on this program and this legislation from the beginning. There's no evidence. They haven't even read the report. They've left it to the last minute. Well, let them wear it. Let the government wear this problem. Let them fix the problems that not passing this legislation creates. Let them cop it, because, if we pass this legislation, the people that are going to cop it are the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our entire country. Don't let the government get away with this. Do not let the government get away with making people feel absolutely worthless.


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