Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


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

8:20 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020. It is no secret to anyone in this place that I've long been involved with the evolution of the cashless debit card. Prior to my life in politics—I was elected 18 months ago—I had spent my life working at the Minderoo Foundation. I actually led the project and the significant community consultation which underpinned the development of the cashless debit card. I spoke to people around Australia and heard their wishes and desires for their communities. The idea sprang up out of the community. It was an idea from the community before it was even thought about by the government. We took it to the government at the time and worked with the government to establish the trials.

I've taken the same approach since I was elected as a senator. So far, I've been to all the trial sites apart from, sadly, the Hervey Bay region in Queensland. I had planned to get there but, given the COVID restrictions, I was unable to travel there. There was a meeting in Perth just a week ago, and folks from that region came over, so I got to meet people on the ground, and I've met and spoken with many over the telephone, Zoom and those sorts of formats. The experiences of people on the ground are absolutely critical. People who are dealing with the impacts and the implementation of this card day in, day out are critical. It's a view that you really only get by being on the ground, listening to people and hearing their views. It's not a view that you can get by sitting behind a desk at a university on the east coast or from the comfort of an armchair. To really understand the challenges, you have to get out on the ground and spend time in these communities, not just fly in and fly out but spend time. I know Senator Sterle has done that over his career as a senator. When I'm in the Kimberley I hear people speak incredibly highly of you, Senator Sterle, because you are someone who understands, because you've spent the time and you've got the relationship. That's the approach that I've taken across these sites. As a senator for Western Australia, I've been working with the minister and the department to make sure we continue to improve the platform and work with communities on the ground to bring their experiences into this place. I'm proud to be part of a government which continues to support this program and is working hard to make sure that it's better.

This bill will extend the cashless debit card program in each of the trial sites, and it will establish the Northern Territory and Cape York areas as CDC program areas and transition income management participants in these areas to the CDC program next year. Supporting this bill is the right thing to do, but let me just deal with a few facts. Firstly, what actually is the cashless debit card? The CDC is a Visa debit card where 80 per cent of the cardholder's working age social security payments are paid into the CDC account. The remaining 20 per cent are paid into any other standard bank account. The CDC Visa card can be used at over 900,000 merchants—nearly a million merchants—across Australia, which is basically wherever there is an EFTPOS terminal. In practical terms, it works wherever Visa is accepted. The only limitation is that it won't work at a liquor store or a pub, and it can't be used to withdraw cash at an ATM.

I've heard those opposite saying in their contributions that this is controlling how people can spend their money. That's simply not true, because you can use this card absolutely everywhere except for a liquor store and a pub. You can purchase online. You can pay your bills. You can engage in commerce online. People have said, 'You can't buy second-hand furniture using Gumtree.' Well, you can use PayPal. There are many ways. You can even go to Centrelink and get an additional $200 a month to enable transactions that can't be covered by the cashless debit card. This means that the CDC can be used to purchase everyday items that individuals need to be able to provide for themselves and for their families. As I said, they can pay their bills. They can buy things online. They can use the card at bricks-and-mortar merchants as well. There really is actually very little impost on a cardholder, particularly when you consider that cashless and contactless payments have become the predominant way that people transact with merchants now. We've seen that accelerate significantly during this COVID pandemic. In fact, there are many cafes that won't take a cash payment. You have to use a card. Well, guess what? The CDC will work at those merchants as well. To date, the CDC has successfully blocked access to approximately 40,000 transactions. Senator Patrick said that, when he was using his card, he tried to use it at a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine, so he's possibly one of those 40,000-odd transactions that were counted when a participant was attempting to use the card at a place that was restricted.

This bill will allow the 25,000 people on the BasicsCard in the Northern Territory and Cape York to transition off this old and clunky technology, which is the BasicsCard, and move to a better and more ubiquitously accepted cashless debit card, which, as I stated, operates on the common Visa scheme. The BasicsCard can be very limiting for cardholders. A lot of the negative feedback that you get from people about the card is actually conflated with the BasicsCard, because the BasicsCard is a very old and clunky system. The main reason for that is that, for a merchant to be able to accept the BasicsCard, they have to opt in and sign up to an agreement with the BasicsCard provider. This results in there only being 16,000 merchants across Australia that will accept the BasicsCard, whereas, as I said before, nearly a million merchants are able to accept the cashless debit card. So it's a much, much better system.

If this bill passes, I look forward to seeing the people in the Northern Territory and Cape York get access to a much better system, because the government has heard of instances where people have had to travel across town to be able to make purchases because their local retailer doesn't accept the BasicsCard. But, if they're a retailer in business these days, where most people are actually opting and preferring to use contactless and cashless payments, then of course they've got an EFTPOS machine. Pretty much every merchant now has that facility. Even farmers markets have little Square or PayPal machines. They're everywhere.

The other fact that seems to be overlooked in this debate is that the CDC came about because the communities called for it and they designed it. How do I know this? Because I was there. I actually did it. I was part of the consultation team that saw this card initiated. I sat with the very brave members of those communities that called on the government to give this system a go. Senator Sterle spoke of one of those brave members of the community in the East Kimberley, Ian Trust. Ian is an absolute champion in that community. We're all very proud of him. He's a great Western Australian and great Australian.

These communities wanted to have a circuit-breaker to help them deal with the devastating impacts of the harms caused by chronic alcohol and drug use. Since being elected to this place, I've been speaking with community leaders, meeting with organisations directly involved in the delivery of this scheme and the wraparound services which support it. Their feedback has been clear, as have the results in each of the current trial sites and their respective communities. Participants in the program have reported drinking less frequently, using drugs less frequently and gambling less often. Has it removed these problems in the communities? Of course it hasn't. No-one was expecting that it would. Kids are now going to school with a belly full of food, which is helping them to get the most out of their education. Slowly these communities are starting to become stronger and more cohesive and are seeing less violence as a result of drugs and alcohol.

I visited a school in WA's north-west, which, not that long ago, before the cashless debit card was implemented, was providing large quantities of food at the breakfast club on a Monday morning, because these kids had not eaten all weekend. Now in that community, the food that they have to serve has decreased significantly on a Monday morning, because these kids are not coming to school as hungry. In Ceduna, Foodland reported to us that petty theft was down and that the purchase of fruit and vegetables had increased noticeably. They said people were buying groceries that they had not seen before. Their employment services provider, which is part owned by the local Indigenous corporation, reported that more people are getting into work and looking for work—they are seeing that there is something better. These are stories of locals on the ground, and the commentators and those who are opposed to the card think that we shouldn't use them because they are anecdotes. They believe they aren't a valid representation of the impact of what is actually happening on the ground, but they are important. If we aren't listening to these people, if we aren't looking at the evidence that they are putting forward to us as decision-makers and if we aren't taking their advice, then who should we be listening to?

We've seen the opposing position put forward on glossy reports which only use cherry-picked data. Evidence which supports the program is slammed as anecdotal, whilst anecdotes which oppose the card are somehow supported as evidence. All the views of people on the ground should be heard. Every experience is important, whether that's a good experience, a bad experience or otherwise. We've heard senators opposite say that people on this card feel demonised, targeted, disenfranchised—there is a whole list of adjectives used. Yet the primary places that I've heard these views come from are outside the trial areas. In fact, I heard Senator Walsh come in here today and speak of Helen, who opposes the card, saying it will significantly impact her. She then went on to say she is from Victoria. The CDC is not going into Victoria. If it was, it would require further legislation, because this legislation specifically lists the locations where it will be operating. The chain and campaign emails that I've received, and I know that you have received, almost always come from everywhere except these communities participating in the trial. Those opposite believe they know what is best for everyone. This is the height of paternalism, in my mind. To say to those people in these communities who want to see the continuation of the card that they don't actually know what is good for their own community—well, that is just so patronising.

In contrast, this government has been listening to those on the ground. We've received positive feedback and we've also received feedback on where it needs to be improved. That's why I've been working with the minister, with the banks and with the major retailers to improve the technology so that we can reduce some of the stigma that Senator Patrick was talking about and reduce some of the friction points that other senators have mentioned here today.

Is the CDC a silver bullet? Of course it's not, but we will continue to support the card and work with the communities to ensure that its evolution reflects what they need and what they want to see. We're continuing to do the same with the wraparound services, making sure that people can deal with addictions, that they can get the support that they need and, importantly, that they can get into a job pipeline so that we can connect them with jobs that actually exist. One of the next focuses that I'm going to have across the CDC trial sites is to make sure that we're actually seeing jobs, not welfare, as a destination. I commend this bill to the Senate.


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