Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


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

7:29 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020. The primary purpose of this bill is to transition income management participants in the Northern Territory and Cape York regions onto the cashless debit card, the CDC, and to allow the CDC to continue as a permanent measure in the existing trial sites of Ceduna, the East Kimberley, the Goldfields, and Bundaberg and Hervey Bay. Labor will not be supporting this bill, and it is incredibly disappointing that the government is ignoring evidence to pursue this discriminatory policy. I want to associate myself with the contributions in this debate from Senators Dodson and McCarthy. This is a racist bill. Sixty-eight per cent of those who are impacted by it are First Nations people, and it is a prime example of policy being done to First Nations people and not with them. They are disproportionately affected, and now the government is pushing through the legislation.

The evidence presented to the inquiry into this bill is largely unsubstantiated and anecdotal, but those sitting opposite are happy to ignore the facts and expand the CDC program based on their distorted political ideology. There has been minimal engagement with the communities being impacted, and now the government plans to roll out this scheme permanently. The dichotomy between the CDC program and the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, which claims to emphasise genuine partnerships and shared decision-making between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, is stark. This card is not the answer to overcoming systemic social issues. There needs to be greater emphasis on employment, training pathways, transitional housing, financial counselling and addiction support.

Labor supports voluntary participation in this scheme, and the government themselves have conceded that there are positive results associated with people who volunteer for this program. But forcing people to use cashless debit cards is demeaning and removes their personal liberties. I myself have been a recipient of government assistance and have experienced the stigma associated with being on social services support. This system of income management takes away independence and a sense of pride. I understand why, if they haven't had this lived experience, so many on the other side have no understanding or concept of what the forced adoption of this program is like for individuals—to have your individual rights taken away from you, to be stigmatised when you're going to purchase something, not to be able to have cash to buy second-hand furniture, and not to be able to give care and support to those people who have been neglected by governments of all persuasions over a long period of time. To now try and enforce such action is unforgivable.

As uncovered at the Senate estimates, the minister, Senator Ruston, commissioned a review undertaken at a cost of $2.5 million, and she admitted that, prior to the introduction of this bill, she hadn't even read the report. This really goes to show the attitude and, quite frankly, the arrogance of this government. They are not serious about evidence based policymaking. It needs to be noted that the government did not make the University of Adelaide evaluation public in time for it to be considered by the inquiry into this bill. Why not? The failure to permit the inquiry to examine this evidence is a very clear indication the government's pursuit of this bill is ideologically driven. The evidence presented in the report has not been substantiated. It is flimsy and mostly anecdotal. It is not rigorous or reliable, and there has been nothing to produce which can show the accuracy of the claims made by the government about the way in which this card has had a positive effect on any community across Australia. In fact, significant harm has been associated with compulsory broad based income management. Most recently, an independent analysis of the CDC in Ceduna, conducted by the University of South Australia, concluded:

… had no substantive effect on the available measures for the targeted behaviours of gambling or intoxicant abuse. There is evidence for an increase in total store spending.

Here the data showed:

… increased spending on healthy foods, but there is an overall shift toward a higher proportion of spending on less healthy foods.

It is crystal clear that those sitting opposite have cherrypicked the submissions and accounts, and what has resulted is a flawed assessment of the measurement of the effectiveness of the cashless debit card. This government is not interested in evidence. There is no evidence that this scheme is working to its desired effect. There has been intervention in the Northern Territory for 13 years, and there is nothing to suggest that income management has had any positive effect. We cannot determine whether positive gains are attributable to the CDC as opposed to other interventions, such as alcohol restrictions or increases in social security payments during COVID, yet the government still wants to progress this bill.

There have been several inquiries into the efficiency and the effectiveness of the CDC, and none of them have found any clear evidence of the effectiveness of this policy—none, zero. Why is the government rushing to legislate this? We want to know what the evidence is. It's not unreasonable to expect that evidence to be presented. It concerns me that the current government is looking to continue the Intervention in the Northern Territory on a permanent basis by stealth by continuing to expand the reach of the cashless debit card into the Northern Territory. Thirteen years after the Intervention began, it is clear that such an approach to the delivery of services is a failure and has left people worse off. This government also has plans to roll out this scheme nationally, no matter what they come into this chamber and say. It established a CDC technology working group consisting of representatives from the four big banks, supermarkets, EFTPOS and Australia Post. This is a precursor for a national rollout, which Senator Canavan has openly endorsed. I know that the people in my home state of Tasmania will not welcome this news.

Bridget Archer, the Liberal member for Bass, has spoken out against her own government, condemning the program, but the reality is she cannot have her cake and eat it too. You can't say one thing in the chamber in the other place and then go back to your community and say something else. We get paid to make decisions. Politicians are paid to come here and vote on legislation and put forward good policy. The member for Bass has failed her community because she doesn't have the courage of her convictions. She wimped out. If she had not abstained from voting, if she had had a backbone and voted against her government, we would not be here tonight debating this flawed legislation. It is not good enough to pretend you care and to give an impassioned speech if you aren't prepared to stand up and to vote bad legislation down. That's the reality of the life of a politician. Sometimes you've got to make tough decisions.

Parliamentarians go to parliament to vote and to make policy. It is unforgivable that somebody who has made an impassioned plea in her speech in the House of Representatives about what it's like to live on welfare—we all commend her for being honest and frank about her experience, and we admire her for being elected to the House of Representatives, but you have to be able to walk the walk not just talk the talk. In keeping with that logic, what is the point of Mrs Archer being the member for Bass if she doesn't have the backbone to stand up and vote on behalf of the people who elected her?

I'm sure that the community will not forget this, particularly when we see this rolled out nationally and when Tasmanian welfare recipients are forced onto a CDC.

Labor is calling on the government to listen to and engage with communities, including First Nations communities; invest in job creation; and pursue evidence based services and partnerships rather than base their policy on distorted ideology. Continuing to pursue the CDC and broad based compulsory income management is not likely to have any positive impact but rather will remove individuals' liberties and take away human rights. The government needs to stop its pursuit of action without cause and abandon its technology working group and preparations for a national rollout of the CDC. The Labor Party is incredibly disappointed by the government's insistence on this bill. Not only is it counter to the Prime Minister's commitment to a new partnership approach to closing the gap, but the government has no foundation to argue that this program will deliver better social outcomes for those communities. It's not consistent with genuine partnerships. This program limits freedom of choice, discriminates against First Nations people and has no sound evidence to prove its effectiveness. The scheme limits the human rights to social security, to a private life and to equality.

This inquiry did not engage in meaningful two-way discussion, and the government will now attempt to roll out this program with little information or guidance offered. In order to overcome social issues and welfare dependency in these communities, a bottom-up approach which emphasises genuine engagement and inclusive structures of collaboration is required. It is about time that this government stops spinning its way out of accountability and engages in evidence based policies so that we can have a better outcome for all Australians.

I want to finish by bringing to the attention of this chamber, and particularly the government, that in the debate on the legislation which they've brought before us there have been comments and contributions that I'm embarrassed by. I'm embarrassed as an Australian senator to have heard the comments of Senator Hanson—the racist, vilifying comments that she has made in this debate. All legislation like this does is bring out racism in this country. It shines a light on the worst aspects of some of our community members. When you're an elected member of parliament—whether it's in a state parliament, in the House of Representatives or in the Senate—you have a responsibility to show leadership, and leadership means that you have to be tolerant, you have to be inclusive and you have to lead from the front. You have to show leadership. I was ashamed to sit in the chamber and in my office and to hear some of the contributions to this debate. I was ashamed of those contributions. I'm all for a debate about the merits of whether or not this legislation should be supported, but I hate to see Australians set against Australians in such a racist tone as in Senator Hanson's contribution.

I implore the crossbench to consider all the facts before them and to vote this legislation down. We can do better for our First Nations people. We can do better for our people who need a hand-up on welfare. No-one ever knows the circumstances in which they or one of their family members—one of their kids or grandchildren—may end up needing welfare. That's what welfare's there for: to give you a hand-up. We're a rich country. We can do so much more. We have to ensure this legislation is defeated, as it should have been in the House of Representatives. (Time expired)


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