Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


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

9:04 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

This is a quote from a member of the other place, Bridget Archer MP, member for Bass in Tasmania, a member of the government, a member of the Liberal Party of Australia and a vocal opponent of the cashless welfare card. These are her words, not mine:

Whenever you approach a human problem by inciting shame and guilt, you have already lost those that you are seeking to help. The rhetoric that surrounds social security and systems like income management plays in to the very worst of human nature; we're essentially inviting people to look at their fellow Australians as something 'other' or 'less than'.

Mrs Archer also said in her speech:

That's not the Australia I want to live in.

Well, it's not the country that I want to live in either. But Mrs Archer is part of the government. She's in a position where she could have actually done something to stop this insidious demonising of welfare recipients. But, unfortunately for our country, Mrs Archer was too spineless to match her words with action. She abstained from voting on the bill yesterday in the House of Representatives. She just didn't show up. She wasted her vote. She could have crossed the floor. If she had voted no to the bill, the bill would have been defeated. Instead, she amply demonstrated the Prime Minister's shameless practice of being all announcement, no action and of being there for the photo op not for the follow-up.

I note that Mrs Archer has a quote under her photograph on her personal Facebook page. It says: 'Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.' Well, by her decision to waste her vote—to not show up and vote according to her convictions—Mrs Archer has shown no courage, only fear. She's chosen cowardice over courage and gutlessness over conviction. Her lack of resolve has sold out tens of thousands of Australians. Her actions do, however, give us all a very clear picture of just how much opposition there is to this bill on the government's backbench.

Mr Pearce, the member for Braddon, the electorate right next door to Mrs Archer's, has said that the cashless welfare card isn't coming to his neighbourhood, so it's not a problem for him to support it being legislated. He's quite happy to sell out tens of thousands of Australians, as long as it doesn't come to his backyard. But the question I have is: will it? He will keep his head in the sand, his hands over his ears and look the other way. He voted for the bill three times—more fool him! Who is next, I wonder? Age pensioners? Those on disability support payments? Youth allowance? Watch out, Tasmania! Mr Pearce and Mrs Archer will be held responsible for bringing the cashless debit card to Tasmanian shores. There are 5,087 people on the disability support pension in Bass and 6,590 in Braddon. There are 7,888 Tasmanians in Bass on JobKeeper, and 7,034 in Braddon. There are 1,220 young people on youth allowance in Bass and 1,064 in Braddon. On the age pension, there are 14,653 people in Bass and 16,739 in Braddon. These are thousands of Tasmanians who have every right to be in fear today and every day that we have a Liberal government in this country. That's over 70,000 people in the two electorates of Bass and Braddon who are on some form of social security payment and will hold Mr Pearce and Mrs Archer to account. Mrs Archer sold out her beliefs when she could have made a difference—a huge difference. Mr Pearce is simply not listening and not doing his job.

Surprise, surprise, what did we see on the news yesterday? Senator Canavan calling for a national rollout of the cashless debit card! And so it begins. So there is no doubt that the Morrison government has a thinly veiled plan for the card's national rollout—potentially making life harder for millions of social security recipients and hurting local businesses. This is how unhinged the Morrison government's ideology has become. Despite a clear indication from people in our communities that they do not want the card, despite their own backbenchers thinking it's a stupid, cruel idea and despite a total lack of evidence that the card does anything other than humiliate and demean the people forced to use it, the government persist with their rampant ideology to torment and diminish welfare recipients.

Let's make this very clear: the Morrison government's cashless debit card policy is based on ideology, not evidence. There simply is no evidence that the cashless welfare card imposed on communities has a positive effect. It is a weapon for disempowerment. It is a weapon to diminish Australians who are already doing it incredibly tough. Since the start of the recession, the number of people receiving unemployment payments has doubled to 1.6 million. Those people thrown into unemployment by the Morrison recession deserve our support. They deserve a comprehensive plan for jobs and retraining. They do not deserve this kind of ritual humiliation fed by a barking mad, ideological bent.

This is about tormenting people to the point where they are too frightened to go into a Centrelink office—to the point where they will resort to almost anything, including prematurely accessing their own superannuation, in order to avoid going anywhere near Centrelink. The anxiety, the degradation and the stigma—that's what they fear. This government, the Morrison government, should be ashamed that they have allowed this climate to thrive in our country.

I note also, and importantly, that this bill and the government's cashless debit card policy are racially discriminatory. The bill would place over 34,700 people on the cashless debit card permanently. Over 23,500, or 68 per cent, of them have identified as First Nations Australians. This is from a government, from a Prime Minister, who had the gall—the absolute gall—to stand in our parliament in February of this year and talk about a new approach to closing the gap, that he has built on a partnership with First Australians on giving back responsibility, on an approach of listening and of empowering. Those were his words. That's what he said! The hypocrisy of it!

The bill is appalling, inhumane and racially discriminatory in effect. It is part of an ongoing and relentless attack on some of the most vulnerable in our community—those living below the poverty line and struggling to make ends meet. At its heart, it impinges on the rights and freedoms of people on social security payments, particularly, as I have said, our First Nations people. It reveals the twisted heart of this government and the Morrison government's ideology, seeking to further marginalise those on social security with the assumption that recipients are to blame for their circumstances. High unemployment rates and dependence on social security have everything to do with this government's history of a negligent lack of economic policies for job creation.

In Launceston in late 2019, during the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into the adequacy of Newstart and associated payments, I heard from recipients who were brave enough to talk about their experience on what was then called Newstart. Debra was physically ill and, having worked for 35 years in manufacturing, had been forced to live on her redundancy before then accessing welfare payments. Despite her years of experience she could not get a job interview. Her words were:

Frankly, I'm scared about what's going to happen to me … People like me deserve to be treated with some respect for our contribution to our country and to be able to keep some dignity … and not to be reduced to the poverty line and be forgotten about. We paid our taxes and we deserve better.

Now, because of this recession, there are twice as many Debras out there—scared and struggling with the system.

The vicious determination of this government's multipronged attack on welfare recipients is more evident than ever before. The government humiliate them, terrify them with false and illegal debts—robodebt—starve them, drug test them and now deny them the right to make choices about how to manage their money. My office has been approached by a constituent who moved from interstate, from an area that is currently part of the cashless welfare card trial—a trial that the government now seeks to make permanent. He was concerned that he would have to stay on the card that was imposed on him. He has sole custody of his two children, and, unfortunately, the card followed him when he moved to Tasmania. He had no choice and no say. Given that 80 per cent of his pension is quarantined, he struggles to provide lunch and pocket money to his kids. He's also constrained in accessing local farmers markets and purchasing second-hand goods like school uniforms and books for his children, who can't participate in school banking. It's difficult to send his kids to school on special days that require a gold coin donation.

In Tasmania we have a great tradition of country markets and roadside honesty stores. Some of the best, cheapest and freshest produce that you can buy will be from the small stand at your neighbour's gate, except he can't do that. He must go to the supermarket, because the card that quarantines his income has to be spent at big supermarkets. He's constantly frustrated in trying to live on a tiny income and give his children the best life that he can. He's constantly humiliated when trying to explain to his children and community why he and his children can't fully participate in what he might see as normal and desirable activities.

In 2019, the Senate committee inquiry heard from academics, community groups, economists and researchers that demonstrated there is no independent, rigorous evaluation of the trial sites that indicates the card is effective in reducing social harms. The Morrison government hasn't even waited for the findings of the review they commissioned from Adelaide university, before deciding to make the card permanent. There's been little or no consultation in the communities in which this bill will have the greatest effect.

The government literally has no interest in hearing from those that they wish to impose the sanctions on. This government—those opposite—admit that this bill is simply another way to demonise and shame those on social security payments, to kick those in the community who are already down. If this government truly believes its mantra—that the best form of welfare is a job—then it'd best get about making a decent plan to create those jobs. That way people who are trying to do their best to make ends meet, to provide for their children and to gain employment in the midst of a recession can actually get on with living their lives with dignity instead of worrying about the punitive measures that the Morrison government is going to take against them next.


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