Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


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

9:32 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020 in the context of some very moving speeches by those on this side of the chamber and on the crossbench.

The first thing I think you should do when you're legislating is talk to the people who might be affected, who are affected, by the legislation. There's nothing more basic to our jobs than that. But this Morrison government has demonstrated its complete disinterest in listening to the people who would be affected by its legislation to lock in the cashless debit card that has been trialled in recent years. The context for this failure to listen particularly matters when it comes to this legislation, because this isn't just more Morrison government power-grabbing centralisation of government and paternalism, although it is all of those things, and it's not just more arrogant 'we know better than you', although it is certainly that; it is that this legislation comes in the context of generations of paternalism towards First Nations people in this country, of generations of disempowerment. So when the Morrison government chooses not to listen to First Nations people about something that deeply affects them it is throwing back to an attitude that we all hoped government in this country moved past with the national apology in 2008, an attitude that says government knows better than the people it serves, the smugness that says government can manage some people's lives better than they can manage it themselves, the same superiority that let government think they were noble for stealing children from their parents. Those opposite seem to have learnt nothing from their history, because they think they don't have to. They think their smugness is worth more than facts and evidence. They think they know better than the sum of our own history, and so, to paraphrase a famous saying, they are condemning First Australians to repeat it.

Isn't it interesting how those opposite purport to be the party that gets out of people's lives, the party of small government, and yet they want to reach into the lives of thousands of First Australians in designated areas and control nearly every decision they make, and somehow this is supposed to be for their own good. But there is no other community in Australia where those opposite would tolerate such a proposition. They wouldn't tolerate it for any other Australian who needed help from the government. And, if we're honest, we will recognise that the vast majority of us have help from government in one form or another at some point in our lives and never face the level of disempowerment, when we do, that our First Nations brothers and sisters face. We're still trusted to make decisions in our own best interests from the choices available to us.

You've heard tonight a great deal of disappointment, frustration, anger and sadness towards those opposite, and I have criticisms especially of those who purport to be moderates inside the Liberal Party, because they would never propose legislation like this for non-Indigenous Australian but they're fine with it for Indigenous Australians. I ask them: doesn't it concern you at all to hear from Indigenous Australians what this legislation means for them? Doesn't it concern them at all to hear the ways in which their cashless debit card can trap women in unsafe situations of family violence? Does it not concern them at all to hear from witnesses at the Senate inquiry on this legislation, such as Olga Havnen from the Danila Dilba Health Service in the Northern Territory, who said:

… there is an absolutely astonishing lack of credible evidence that income management has made any significant improvement to any of the key indicators of wellbeing: child health, birth weights, failure to thrive, and child protection notifications and substantiations. There are no improvements in school attendance, and … nothing we can see would suggest that there has been a reduction in family or community violence.

So why is the government proceeding with this legislation? Let's remember the Prime Minister's lofty words when he talked about closing the gap. He said:

… to rob a person of their right to take responsibility for themselves; to strip them of responsibility and capability to direct their own futures; to make them dependent … is to deny them of their liberty—and slowly that person will wither before your eyes.

And yet this legislation in his government's name will do exactly that.

I cannot understand why this government flat-out refuses to take on board what people affected by this legislation have to say about it. Why do they insist they know best when the evidence proves they don't? Why do they insist on repeating the mistakes, indignities and outrages of the past? Why do they insist on treating our First Australians as second-class Australians? And why do they continue to spurn the generosity of our First Australians? I am constantly stunned by the asymmetry of what First Australians ask of the rest of us compared with what has been and is taken from them. And I'm not talking purely about our history; I'm talking about our present—how little some in this place are prepared to give, even when it costs them nothing. It costs them nothing to demonstrate respect and inclusion by displaying the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags here in this chamber, but those opposite won't. It costs them nothing to support Senator Dodson's call for a Senate select committee into Makarrata, but they won't. Have you no shame? This is a man who, in his first speech, spoke of hiding in the grass so he was not taken away, and he extends the hand of reconciliation and you turn your backs. It costs nothing for those opposite to denounce the racist interjections from their own side, but they won't and they didn't today. It costs them nothing to listen to First Australians, but they don't. And it costs so little—nothing—for those in the Morrison government who purport to be moderate to actually do something helpful for race relations and reconciliation in this country, but they don't. Instead they put forward legislation like this, proven to waste taxpayers' money with its inefficiency and ineffectiveness. So often, they are allowing decisions about First Australians to be driven by the most extreme elements amongst the coalition.

I say to those self-described moderate senators: if you could summon one fraction of the courage that Senator Dodson, Senator McCarthy, Ms Burney or other First Nations members of this parliament have to summon every single day, we might actually get somewhere. But they won't summon that courage, because all the evidence points to an embarrassing reality: they don't have that courage to summon. They just cede the ground to the hardliners and extremists in their party and let their chapter in Australian history be written for them. It will be a tragic coda to the history that has already been written—a history for which this parliament has already once apologised. For so many of the reasons articulated tonight and by those we are privileged to have in our caucus, Labor opposes this bill.

I turn now briefly to the second reading amendments. Labor's second reading amendment, which we have moved and has been circulated, goes to the fundamental flaws in what the government is proposing here tonight. Thirteen years after the intervention of inflicting compulsory income management on thousands and thousands of people across the Northern Territory, it simply hasn't worked. We believe the bill should be abandoned and the government should instead invest in local jobs, scrapping the CDP and replacing it with a program that gives local communities control, and make sure there are services and opportunities, not just punishment.

I also indicate on behalf of the opposition that Labor will be supporting the Greens second reading amendment to the bill. As has been said by many of my colleagues, we believe this is a racially discriminatory policy that is not based on evidence and that is being imposed on communities without consent or consultation.

Finally, Labor will not be supporting Senator Patrick's second reading amendment. We do not believe we should be picking and choosing who this card is imposed upon, dividing Australians into the 'deserving' and 'undeserving'. This card is being foisted upon many in the name of social issues faced by a minority. We do not believe this card should be rolled out generally, and therefore it shouldn't just be pensioners who are excluded. The reality is that the bill does extend, in its current form, the cashless debit card to pensioners and that there are already pensioners subject to compulsory income management. Thank you.


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