Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


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

8:50 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Senator Lambie is often a hard act to follow, particularly when she combines her own personal experiences with some of the current challenges we are facing in the chamber, and I think tonight we've seen another example of that. But what Senator Lambie's speech has done is actually mirror some of the experiences that I've found when I've been out in the electorate of Hinkler, where those Bundaberg-Hervey Bay communities have been part of the trial sites, and I as a Labor senator happen to be the duty senator for that area. I've spent plenty of time there since they've been a trial site. I've held community forums in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay to which anyone is allowed to come along, and I've also had Linda Burney, the Labor shadow minister, with me, where we've gone up there and heard from those people. I will make some broad statements before I talk about some of the local examples that I've seen and the people I've met and the stories that they've told.

At the end of the day, when you look at the application of this legislation, it is racist, it's discriminatory, it stigmatises those impacted and it divides communities like those of Hervey Bay and Bundaberg. What is shameful is that not one National has come into this chamber and defended it. Not one National has spoken in this chamber and defended this legislation. The seat of Hinkler has been held continuously by the National Party for 27 years. The member for Hinkler has been from the National Party. Yet not one of them has come in and defended this. Just as shameful is that we've only had one Liberal who has been prepared to come in and defend this. I don't know Senator O'Sullivan well, but I believe his sincerity when he talks about what he has done in this. But this is the party of freedom, the party of choice—individual choice. They say, when they've allowed young people early access to the superannuation, that it's their money. But not with this and the way they treat those people in Hinkler, those people of Hervey Bay and Bundaberg; the way they treat those people in remote Cape York; and the way they want to treat those people in the remote Northern Territory and in some of those other communities. It's not freedom of choice for them. It's not their money when it comes to this. They're going to be treated differently and restricted, and it has a massive impact.

The member for Hinkler, whose own electorate is the most impacted—it is the biggest trial site—did not even speak on this legislation. That will become permanent if it passes. He did not even speak on this legislation. So I'm going to focus the substance of my speech on Queensland and the impact of the card on Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, but I have also in recent times visited those communities that will be impacted in the cape—some of those communities that are on the BasicsCard at the moment.

As I said, I've held community meetings in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, along with shadow minister Burney, and we met with anyone who wanted to come along and tell us their story. Some of the service providers have been dealing with the fallout in those communities, and we've held roundtables for them as well, and I want to tell some of their stories tonight. But let's bust some myths. One of the myths is that communities were consulted. The communities of Hervey Bay and Bundaberg were not consulted. The member for Hinkler still won't meet with those that have been impacted by this decision. He refuses to meet with constituents. I've had them talk to me. They cannot get a meeting with their local member. The fact is that none of the communities of Bundaberg and Hervey Bay were consulted. This was imposed on them from up high. There was no consultation on the ground. The government did not even try to evaluate this card before pressing ahead to make it permanent. It has led to a thriving black market, particularly in those Indigenous communities; many of those have been impacted as a result.

And the government promised more support for social services. I know that in Hinkler it took more than two years for the government to deliver on that. They imposed the card but didn't actually give the wraparound services—this is some of what Senator Lambie went to—to provide support for people who did need help, who did have addictions, who did have substance abuse issues that they wanted to be rid of. The government provided none of those extra wraparound services to those people.

So the truth behind the government's plan is laid bare: it's actually a big rollout of the cashless debit card, and it is coming permanently. How can they say they're going to treat the community of Hinkler differently to that in Brisbane or any other city? Why should those people be treated differently? Why should those Indigenous communities be treated differently? It is nonsense, and that is something the government no doubt have planned. This bill seeks to remove the trial site parameters and establish the cashless debit card as an ongoing program. It will add the Northern Territory and Cape York, in changing from the BasicsCard to the CDC, and it will mean that those communities of Bundaberg and Hervey Bay will be on the card permanently.

Before introducing the new law to make this trial permanent, Senator Ruston hadn't even read the report by the University of Adelaide, which was looking into the effectiveness of this trial before a big permanent rollout of the cashless debit card was launched. How arrogant has this performance been from this government? The study cost $2.5 million and the government wasn't even prepared to read the results before rolling out the card. The Liberal and Nationals parties obviously didn't want to read the report before they made the card permanent. It has been reported that the trial found no substantive impact on measures of gambling, drug and alcohol abuse, crime or emergency department presentations. Dr Luke Greenacre, one of the authors of the University of Adelaide report, said:

We have shown the CDC policy to have had no substantive effect on the available measures for the targeted behaviours of gambling or intoxicant abuse.

It has been reported that the government has now spent $4.8 million on evaluations, but so far all have failed to produce credible evidence to support claims of effectiveness, efficiency or suitability, as noted by ANU researcher Elise Klein in her submission to the committee inquiry into the legislation.

The government had claimed that the card would help with youth unemployment, but this doesn't bear out in reality. Since the trial period beginning in late 2018 there hasn't been an improvement in unemployment or youth unemployment, especially when you look at similar communities like Gympie compared to Bundaberg and Hervey Bay. For those who don't know, Gympie is about an hour-and-a-half drive away from Bundaberg and Hervey Bay in regional Queensland. In June 2018 the unemployment rate was 9.5 per cent for the Bundaberg local government association, 10.7 per cent for Fraser Coast—which is where Hervey Bay is—and 8.9 per cent for Gympie. In December 2019 they were 7.6 per cent, 8.8 per cent and seven per cent. So, despite the fact the trial had been running for a year and a half, there was no significant statistical difference between the towns of Bundaberg and Hervey Bay on the cashless debit card compared to Gympie, which is a comparable town nearby.

The unemployment rate in the Wide Bay labour market region of Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Maryborough and Gympie has stayed high. In September 2018 the unemployment rate for people aged between 15 and 34 was 10.9 per cent. In December 2019 it had increased to 13.8 per cent. In a similar period the Brisbane rate dropped by over one per cent. So, when we're talking about youth unemployment, those people impacted in the community, in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, had actually seen an increase in the youth unemployment rate through the period of the trial of the cashless welfare card before COVID hit. Since January 2010 the average unemployment rate in Wide Bay for 15- to 34-year-olds has been 14.6 per cent. For too long this area has had a high level of youth unemployment. But what the government has done with the cashless welfare trial has seen no change to a high youth unemployment rate through that region. So there's no evidence that the cashless debit card has had any impact on youth unemployment through the trial sites.

I want to talk about the forums I held in Hinkler. I repeatedly heard about the emotional toll the card was having on those impacted. I heard from Jodie, who shared her story. Jodie has been forced onto the card. She travelled from Bundaberg to Hervey Bay to share her story with me in November 2019. I've spoken previously in the chamber of how Jodie suffers from chronic pain from her arthritis and prolapsed discs. She doesn't drink or gamble and was applying to opt out of the trial. In July this year, they rejected her application to opt out after nine months of waiting. This caused her to have a stress-induced heart attack caused by long-term severe stress. She couldn't include this in her review of the decision and has been forced to make a new opt-out application.

We heard from a mother who was almost unable to see her son's school concert performance because she couldn't get the cash out to buy a ticket. It was a good Samaritan who handed the mother the cash to pay the entry to gain access to watch her son perform. The fact is that it limits people's ability in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay to visit local fresh food markets and to buy fruit and vegetables from local stores. The Bundaberg and Fraser Coast region is so renowned for having good access to fresh fruit and vegetables, but people are missing out on that opportunity. There were countless stories of people missing rent payments because Indue had miscategorised a payment as rent, meaning that, when the actual rent bill came, there wasn't enough money in the real account to pay the rent.

We heard from people who had been abused and shamed in shops for having the CDC. One person had taken the step of putting a cover on her card so that it wasn't obviously a cashless debit card so that she wouldn't be targeted when paying for people and be stigmatised as a result. It's clear to these residents that the government and Keith Pitt, the member for Hinkler, weren't listening to their concerns. None of those extra services focusing on jobs that Senator Lambie talked about have taken place in Hinkler to give them a chance for this to thrive.

Then I raised the lack of access to support services. Hinkler was promised $1 million in extra funding for support services. It took the government over two years to grant the local funding. They said that this was going to be part of the proposal, but it took them two years to actually deliver the extra support services that were so much needed in an area that has such high youth unemployment and has had for such a period of time. In September 2019, I called on the government to stand up and keep their end of the bargain with the community after two years of neglecting to fund these services. It still took a few more months for them to actually deliver on this.

There's no doubt that this bill is the thin end of the wedge of the cashless debit card. We know that there are LNP MPs out there who have called for the national rollout of the cashless debit card. Senator Canavan was on the news yesterday doing the same. In February, we saw Senator Ruston say that there was absolutely a case to introduce the cashless welfare card in major cities given the results of trials in Bundaberg-Hervey Bay in Queensland, in Ceduna in South Australia, and in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. She told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age:

The reason we haven't done it in the major cities is because we need to deal with the technology issue, which we are now close to resolving.

So there is no doubt of the trajectory of this legislation and what the government want to achieve if they are able to do it. We know the Senate estimates established that they had a working group with big banks and supermarkets to look at how this could be rolled out across Australia. We know that those receiving DSP are on the cashless debit card, and it's only a matter of time before this is introduced.

There's no doubt that the government think that beating up on welfare recipients is good politics for them. They've made an art form out of it since the Howard government 20 years ago. But it is an opportunity for us here in the Senate tonight to say, 'No more,' and to say that stigmatising and dividing Australians and targeting those people on welfare will not pass this Senate tonight. Labor will oppose this bill, and we will continue to stand up to the government's efforts to roll this out across Australia. I know, from the work I have done in Hinkler over a number of years now, that this doesn't work, it divides communities and it is not the answer to problems that need fixing.


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