Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


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

7:54 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | Hansard source

This week we are really starting to see this government's true colours. For months we've been hearing from the Prime Minister and many other members of his government that through this pandemic 'we're all in this together'. And for many of the last few months Australians have been in this together regardless of their political persuasions, regardless of where they live, regardless of their racial background. We have all had common cause, fighting the pandemic and making sure that all of us get through it okay and all of us come out the other side in a recovery that is shared equally among all of us. But that approach, which has been put forward over and over again by the Prime Minister, has this week come to a screaming halt.

This week, despite the fact that we are in the middle of the deepest recession this country has seen since the Great Depression, despite the fact that we still have well over a million Australians who are unemployed—and more still who are underemployed and not able to get the amount of work they need to get by—as we approach Christmas the government has refused to permanently increase JobSeeker for those poorest members of our community who can't find work. This week the government has maintained its position that superannuation should be cut. This week the government has introduced new laws which would actually cut workers' pay in the middle of a recession. And this week the government seeks to push through this legislation, the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020, to enshrine a cashless debit card which is racially discriminatory, doesn't work and has no evidence to back it up.

Putting all these things together, you can see very clearly that the government no longer thinks that we are all in this together. What you can see is that the government is rapidly choosing to leave behind vast segments of the Australian community. It's leaving behind the unemployed by refusing to grant a permanent increase to JobSeeker. It's leaving behind the very essential workers we have all relied on to keep us safe, to keep us fed and to keep us healthy throughout the pandemic by cutting their pay. And it's also leaving behind some of the poorest and most remote communities in our country by forcing them, through this legislation, to remain on the cashless debit card, which so many of those communities rightly reject. It is profoundly disappointing that, in the middle of a recession, the government is so determined to leave so many people in our community behind, including through this legislation. It is a very sour way for this year to end after all the Australian community has been through.

This bill, as other speakers have said, will make the cashless debit card permanent in the existing trial sites of Ceduna, the East Kimberley, the Goldfields and Bundaberg and Hervey Bay in my home state of Queensland. It will also permanently replace the BasicsCard with the cashless debit card in the Northern Territory. It will replace the BasicsCard with the cashless debit card in Cape York and extend income management in Cape York until 31 December 2021, and it will make a number of other changes as well. As I and other Labor speakers have said, we will be opposing this bill because it is another example of the Morrison government leaving people behind in the middle of a recession, in the run-up to Christmas, when people are feeling more insecure about their welfare than ever before.

The cashless debit card has been shown over and over again, through independent research, through Senate inquiries and through other means, to be expensive, to be cumbersome, to be racially discriminatory and, arguably worst of all, to have no evidence whatsoever to back it up. It is really hard to escape the conclusion that, in the absence of evidence that this actually works, the government's determination to push on with the cashless debit card, to extend it and to make it permanent, is ideologically driven. There is no evidence to support what the government is doing. The government is doing this out of its ideology, which, despite being theoretically a small-government party, sees it dictating to people how they will live their lives and imposing a scheme that applies vastly disproportionately to Aboriginal communities and makes it harder for some of the poorest people in our community to take control of their own lives and actually get ahead.

When the government is asked to come up with evidence that this scheme works, it points to an evaluation of the scheme that was performed by researchers at the University of Adelaide. It cost $2½ million to commission this research, so the cost of this scheme is not just the cost of rolling out the scheme itself. The government has spent more money commissioning research, which it says backs up what it's trying to do. I'll admit that I haven't looked at this report; I haven't seen this research. Do you know what? Not one of us has, because the government won't release it. The so-called evidence base that the government has spent $2½ million commissioning is so good and so conclusive that the government won't release it.

Does that not tell you how weak the evidence is for this government in pushing on with this scheme? If the government actually had evidence that demonstrated that it worked, they would put it forward. They have spent money on it. They have got the report. Why continue to hide it? The only conclusion that anyone can draw is that the research does not back up what the government are doing. It would help the government's position if they could actually point to this research, take us through it, show us the pages and show us the evidence. If we saw this evidence some of us might even change our minds, but the government won't do that because they know that the research that they are relying on doesn't back it up.

Card users say that they can no longer buy second-hand goods online, they can't buy school uniforms at op shops and budgeting is hard because they can't put money aside in a separate account for bigger expenses. It has practical problems. When an EFTPOS machine is out at the pharmacy, the post office or the supermarket, people on the cashless debit card won't be able to get their medications, pay their bills or get food for their kids' lunches because they don't have access to their own money. Through this mechanism the government is controlling how they can spend their money and what they can spend it on.

As I said, one place where this cashless debit card has been rolled out is the Bundaberg-Hervey Bay region in my state of Queensland. There is no doubt that that region suffers very high levels of poverty. It's principally because it has suffered from very high levels of unemployment for a long time, certainly under this government and, to be fair, under previous governments as well. Wouldn't you think that the best solution to that would actually be for the government to get in there and create jobs and invest in some of the industries that have the potential to grow and employ people? This government is so lacking in imagination that, rather than actually doing the hard work of investing in the region and creating jobs—like the state Labor government is doing—it chooses this punitive measure of restricting people's ability to control their own lives and to control what they spend their income on and when they spend it.

It's no wonder that, as one example, Bundaberg-Hervey Bay mother of three Kerryn Griffis told ABC's 7.30 program:

I feel like in the Government's eyes I'm a lesser person … If my partner was to quarantine some of my money and tell me where and when I can't spend it, tell me it's for my own good … people would be screaming financial abuse. Why is it OK for the Government to do it?

That is a very good question: why is it okay for the government to do something that, if it were being done by someone's partner, we would rightly say amounted to financial abuse? Childers single mum Hannah Leacy said she experiences problems with the cards monthly and the extension 'just makes it harder for us to become independent again and support ourselves and budget our own money'. If you actually speak to people who are on the cashless debit card—as I have done in Bundaberg through meetings with the very active group campaigning against this, who've done a fantastic job raising community awareness about the problems of this proposal—the thing that they find most hurtful is that it removes their independence.

Day after day, we hear members of the government and their supporters in the media and the business community say: 'Unemployed people should go and get a job. They should get off their bums. They should take some self-responsibility and get ahead in life.' But that's exactly what this government is stopping people from doing by controlling how, where and on what they can spend their income. How can you demand, on the one hand, that people show a bit more personal responsibility and get their own house in order, and then, on the other hand, say, 'But we're not going to let you choose how you spend your money, because we know what's best for you'?

I heard Senator O'Sullivan earlier today—and I do get along with Senator O'Sullivan on many things—saying that those who deny that the cashless debit card should stay in place are being paternalistic. I would argue that it's actually the other way around. A government saying how people should spend their income: that is the act of paternalism, and it's unbelievable to me that in 2020 it continues to go on, particularly in First Nations communities. We know, when we look at the figures, that the vast majority of people who are on the cashless debit card are from First Nations communities. Around the country, over 68 per cent of people who are on the cashless debit card are Aboriginal Australians. The percentage is obviously even higher in the Northern Territory, where it's 83 per cent, and in East Kimberley, where it's 82 per cent. If this isn't paternalism, I don't know what is.

Labor have been very strong in our opposition to this proposal, but we're not alone. The organisations that don't support the cashless debit card include St Vincent de Paul, the Law Council of Australia, the Queensland Council of Social Service and the Australian Council of Social Service. Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT said in their submission to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry on this issue:

… imposing the Cashless Debit Card on approximately 25,000 Aboriginal Territorians will fundamentally impinge on the equal enjoyment of human rights and freedoms.

They went on to say:

Rather than building capacity and independence, the program has had the opposite effect, by further entrenching an individual's dependence on welfare.

There are many other organisations which, like Labor, oppose this cashless debit card.

As I've already said, the research that the government points to in support of its proposal doesn't stand up to scrutiny because it's not allowed to have any scrutiny. The government won't release the very piece of research that it spent $2½ million worth of taxpayers' money on, which it says supports what it's doing. But the research we do know about, which has been made public, includes research from the University of South Australia, which released a statement on 16 November this year that said:

We found no substantive impact on measures of gambling, drug and alcohol abuse, crime or emergency department presentations.

These are the things that the government say are being reduced as a result of the cashless debit card. They can't produce any evidence that backs them up, but here we have evidence, from people who've actually had a look at it and are prepared to make their research public, saying that it hasn't made a difference. They go on to say:

…if there are plans to expand this scheme, we should be sure it's meeting its objectives, and the data indicates it just isn't doing that.

If that isn't clear that the evidence to back up what the government is doing isn't there, I don't know what is.

In conclusion I'm very pleased, along with my Labor colleagues, to be opposing this bill. The bill is worrying not only in what it proposes for some of the poorest members of our community, particularly those in First Nations communities, but because it is another example of what we're seeing over and over again from this government—that is, now that we are, hopefully, through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are leaving so many people behind. Indigenous Australians, workers, the unemployed—that's not who this government is for.


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