Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


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

8:09 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this rather contentious and emotive bill, the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020, also with a bit of politics involved, I think. I have an engineering background, and that's the way in which I like to look at things. I like to find workable and practical solutions. And so the fundamental question for me, in whether or not to support this legislation, is: does the card work? That's the fundamental question. This card has an objective of reducing alcoholism, gambling and drug abuse amongst welfare card recipients. I think everyone would say that that's an admirable aim. But does it do that?

One of the problems we've got here—and, actually, I think most people recognise this—is that we do not have any empirical data, any definitive dataset, that would guide us as to whether or not it actually achieves those particular objectives. As Senator Watt indicated, there is a report that is available to the minister that hasn't been made available to other senators. We don't know what that report says, although there have been some leaks that suggest it also doesn't contain the definitive data, the objective data, that is required for the government to prove their case. What that does is leave every senator in this chamber working on anecdote. As an engineer, in the absence of data, I thought, 'How am I going to research this?' I got myself a CDC. Senators are allowed to have a CDC even though they're not welfare recipients. I think there's only one other senator that has a CDC—I think that might be Senator O'Sullivan—who's been out there and tried it and used tap and go. It's actually quite an impressive bit of technology. It replicates pretty much a credit card. A number of changes have been made to the card which get rid of some of the stigma—not all, I will tell you. Whilst I was using the card, as I travelled about, it was very easy to use, but I did go into some alcohol shops and bottle-os. I tried to use the card and got rejected. And I found myself looking for some sort of excuse as to why my card had been declined. Of course, I was then able to rip out another card and pay for a bottle of wine, or something like that.

I then went out and about to the coalface, because, if you're relying on anecdote, the last thing you want happening is that anecdote being infected by chinese whispers, which is what happens with distance and as messages pass from person to person. So I went to the coalface. I've got to thank—in the first instance, when I went to the Northern Territory—Senator McCarthy for inviting me up to Darwin to talk to Aboriginal corporations and Aboriginal elders and then taking me to Nhulunbuy in Arnhem Land to meet with Indigenous people in that community. I really am grateful for Senator McCarthy's assistance in that regard. I'm also grateful to Minister Ruston, who came to Ceduna with me and also facilitated me meeting a whole range of different people. Some of those people were from Indigenous communities; others were from business. But I actually stayed there a couple of days—one with Senator Ruston, one without. In the day that I was without Senator Ruston, I talked to health officials. I talked to the Aboriginal health service there. I also talked to people in the street. I talked to my neighbour on the balcony next to me in the hotel I was staying in. I must apologise to her now; I was being a little bit sneaky. When we had our conversation, I started talking about the CDC card. All of those conversations were useful in informing me. Indeed, probably the most important people I spoke to were those that were required to use the card. Senator Siewert put me in contact with people; so too did Senator McCarthy. So I did talk to people who were on the card, and, of course, through emails and people calling into my office. I actually called a number of people. I spoke to a gentleman named Frank in Mount Barker, who told me his story. He wasn't on the card. He was a very troubled person. It sounded like he had his life in order, but he was just fearful that he would end up with the card being imposed on him, which would simply add to the burden he already suffered through a disability and through having had difficult interactions with Centrelink in the past.

I also had a look at some of the wraparound services that go with the card. One of the really difficult things here is that you can't put your finger on whether the card is actually a major contributor or a minor contributor to something that may or may not be working. For example, in Ceduna, when you go to the bottle-o, you have to show your licence. If you come from one of the Indigenous communities, you can't purchase alcohol if, for example, you're from Oak Valley or Yalata. That's a measure that the Indigenous community has imposed upon themselves. There are also other services, such as rehab and sobering-up centres, health centres, community help centres and so forth. In trying to look at all of this, again, it's hard to work out what the card contributes to the purported benefit from the government and, indeed, how that might affect what is being said in the anecdotal information being transmitted to me.

I will say that in this debate and in consideration of this bill, sadly, my office was swamped with people who were quite rude about the card—quite rude about the fact that I hadn't made up my mind and that there was a possibility that I might vote against it. They were aggressive and threatening to my staff to the point where the Special Minister of State has now had to implement measures, including the AFP being involved, to make sure my staff are safe. They have been yielding threats against me as well. I engaged some of these people, trying to have a discussion with them, to have them shout down the phone at me. Some people chose to name my staff on Facebook and other social media platforms—staff that took their call and listened to what they had to say to pass on to me. I think every senator will agree with me when I say this: we have people in our offices who work for us who may actually have the same feelings or the same attitudes towards the person calling, but they very professionally represent me; they very professionally answer calls from people who may be sharing the same thoughts and opinions that they have, and they are getting abused. To all those people who have campaigned in a rude way, understand that you have not affected my decision; indeed, you have prevented other people who wanted to have their say from talking to my staff and having their concerns voiced to me. To those people who did that, please think about that in the future.

In the end, weighing up all the evidence, the difficulty for me is that the government has not made out its case. When I balance up everything I've seen, unfortunately, the data to support the concept that the card will achieve what it is intended to achieve is not there. It is on that basis that I will not be supporting this legislation.


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