Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


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

10:09 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020. Well, here we are again talking about a discriminatory, racist, punitive approach to income support in this country. It has been going on for far too long, and it is time it ended. The Greens have stood in opposition to compulsory income management for the last 13 years, and while I draw breath we will continue to oppose compulsory income management because it causes great harm to communities and individuals.

This bill will make the current cashless debit card trial sites permanent in the areas of Ceduna, East Kimberley and the Goldfields in my home state of Western Australia—that's two sites in WA—and the Hervey Bay-Bundaberg region in Queensland. It will permanently introduce the cashless debit card into the Northern Territory and Cape York. The government has finally come clean with its intentions. It always intended to try and make this card and this process permanent. This was its plan all along—to entrench this racist, discriminatory, paternalistic, ineffective, top-down, blanket approach of compulsory income management. In the middle of a global pandemic and Australia's first recession in 30 years the government has chosen this moment as the right time to make the CDC permanent. It's astounding the government refuses to make any decisions on the base rate of the JobSeeker payment and youth allowance due to the 'changing' economic conditions but is happy to introduce compulsory income management. You can't raise the rate but you can entrench this punitive approach!

I am so deeply disappointed that this bill did not receive the scrutiny it deserved of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, because of the tight time line put on it by the government. We had a single half-day public hearing into this bill, and many organisations and individuals, including First Nations organisations, missed out on their opportunity to voice their opposition. This level of scrutiny is simply unacceptable when you know that this policy will permanently impact, and, I say, harm the lives of tens of thousands of Australians.

I'm also disappointed with the complete lack of proper consultation about making the cashless debit card permanent. About 82 per cent of people who will permanently be transferred onto the cashless debit card in the NT are First Nations people, and they were not properly consulted. The government didn't even bother to ask First Nations communities whether they supported the introduction of the cashless debit card or the continuation of compulsory income management—just like they didn't consult the Northern Territory when they introduced the Northern Territory Intervention. I have said it before and I will say it again: information sessions explaining the policy is not consultation; it is simply explaining the policy and not listening to people's opinions on it.

There is a letter that has, I understand, been circulated to crossbenchers from Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory. I haven't got time to read out the whole lot, but in the absence of the government doing proper consultation I'll read out bits of it. This is from Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory to the crossbenchers. They say: 'We acknowledge the extreme pressure you are under in making this decision but want to let you know that you have the backing of APO NT and thousands of constituents we represent living in remote communities across the Northern Territory. The opposition to the CDC from the Northern Territory has been clear and unambiguous since it was first proposed, and members have lived with compulsory income management for more than a decade and remain subject to this enduring legacy of the punitive 2007 federal Intervention. We support income management as a voluntary measure for those experiencing hardship and who value the structure it can provide during difficult times or as a measure for individuals considered to be at high risk and vulnerable by Aboriginal controlled health organisations. Even in the latter situation, the period of income management should be time limited and closely monitored and supported. The clear and positive message from the Northern Territory is for improved education and training delivery and pathways to meaningful employment, not compulsory income management which traps people in a cycle of poverty.' The letter goes on, but I don't have time to read it all out.

The failure to consult directly contradicts and undermines the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap, which has been founded on the principles of shared decision-making and self-determination. The government should be ashamed of itself. The ink is barely dry on that agreement and already they are undermining it. The evidence used to support the recommendations of the Community Affairs Legislation Committee to pass the bill was deeply biased. The majority report cited 50 citations of pro-cashless-debit-card submissions and 96 citations of anti-cashless-debit-card submissions despite the fact that 90 per cent of submissions were against the card. What's worse is that Generation One—The Minderoo Foundation was cited at least as many as 16 times, which was more than all the organisations in the Northern Territory. Despite five years of the cashless debit card trials and 13 years of compulsory income management, there is no evidence to show its effectiveness. In fact, research shows that compulsory income management has produced worse outcomes for First Nations people in the Northern Territory.

The academic community has done some very good work reviewing the flawed government evaluations and undertaking independent research in the trial sites. Earlier this year, researchers from Monash University found that the cashless debit card had no substantive effect on gambling or alcohol use. They also found people on the card had a higher proportion of spending on less-healthy foods. Another study from the University of Queensland found that the social, emotional and economic costs of continuing with compulsory income management outweigh the benefits. Unsurprisingly, the government is refusing to release the latest University of Adelaide evaluation. Here we are debating making this card permanent, making compulsory income management permanent, and they won't release a study they've paid around $2 million for and wasted hundreds of hours of participants' time through that review process. They won't even release it so that we have the benefit of looking at it in order to consider these bills. On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that researchers conducting the evaluation say

… there is "little consensus" the cashless debit card is fulfilling its intended aims of reducing drug and alcohol abuse in—

the Goldfields trial site. It continues:

"only a minority" of those interviewed in the … back the card … in its current form

No wonder the government doesn't want to release it, because then we'd actually see what that evaluation said. It's not backing what they claim, I suspect.

Compulsory income management fails to address the underlying structural issues and social determinants that have an impact on health and financial outcomes. It breaches people's human rights, disempowers them and denies them control over their lives. It is an unacceptable denial of individual autonomy, choice and self-determination. Yet the government continues to obsess over this ineffective policy when we desperately need reforms in our social security system that would make a difference—for example, increasing the JobSeeker payment and making sure that communities have access to quality social services and support services and that they can be accessed on demand.

I would like to acknowledge government MPs like Bridget Archer who have displayed courage in speaking out against this card. Ms Archer knows what it's like to live on income support payments and recognises that the CDC is not the answer. Maybe if more parliamentarians had lived experience of the social security system then they would understand this card is not the solution. They would understand how people feel when their income is managed, how it takes away their autonomy, how it makes them feel anxious, how it makes them feel like they are losing their dignity because somebody else is controlling their money.

I find it deeply problematic that the objectives of the cashless debit card have shifted under this bill. There is a new objective of the policy related to financial literacy to support program participants and voluntary participants with their budgetary strategies. This is unbelievable, given the empirical research which shows the cashless debit card has not only failed to support people with their budgeting strategies but has made budgeting more difficult by preventing people from paying their bills and rent.

We also have to ask whether the cashless debit card could ever be an effective budgeting tool when the biggest challenge facing people is the low rate of the JobSeeker payment. People on income support are some of the best financial managers you can meet, because until the coronavirus supplement came in they had to manage on $40 a day. I tell you what: that takes a lot of financial management. The cashless debit card is an outrageous waste of public funds. We have no information about the cost of making the card permanent, because we're told that's commercial in confidence. The supporters of this bill are essentially giving the government a blank cheque to spend an unknown quantum of money rolling out an ineffective policy. This is irresponsible and reckless conduct from a government that claim they're good financial managers. What a joke.

There are a number of serious technical problems in this bill, of which I'll outline a few. The bill gives the minister the power to quarantine 80 per cent of someone's income support payment on the card. While the bill maintains a 50-50 quarantine ratio for people moving from the BasicsCard in the NT and the Cape onto the card, there is nothing stopping the minister from increasing this ratio to 80-20, as it is in the other trial sites. This is an unnecessary and unchecked power. You've got to question the government's motives on this. The bill also reintroduces an element from previous versions of legislation that enables the minister to revoke an exit or wellbeing exemption. The retrospective application of this could mean exit approvals made prior to the passage of this bill could be revoked, another flawed mechanism in this bill. As we all know, the exit application process is already deeply flawed and not many people have come off the card, given the number of applications. This will make that situation worse.

The bill also removes the ability of the secretary or the AAT to review certain decisions relating to child participation. It's incredible that the government is taking away these rights. This means that an individual will no longer be able to seek a review from the secretary or the AAT when they are first placed on the card and will instead need to apply for an exit or exemption from the scheme. Again, this is appalling. Also, there's no clarity in this bill about whether the government intends to place new income management recipients onto the cashless debit card. This bill lists the cap on the number of people who can be placed onto the card. Although the minister paused new entrants being placed onto the card in March, it's unclear whether this clause will remain in place if this legislation passes. Newly unemployed Australians have the right to know whether they will be placed on the card before the scheme becomes permanent. The government must come clean about this, but, when I asked about it in estimates, the minister could not answer my question.

This bill will be responsible for entrenching a two-tiered banking system that goes against section 12DL of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001. Sending a debit card or a credit card to a person who did not ask for one is an offence under this section of the ASIC Act. Today I'm calling on ASIC to take action against the government for sending unsolicited cards to people on income support.

We have had 13 years of this discriminatory policy. It has not worked. The government can't produce the evidence. They produce anecdotal stories all the time. I get emails, Facebook messages and tweets every single day from people who have trouble with the cashless debit card. Rent is a particular problem; they cannot pay their rent. A lady who could not pay her rent using her card had to get Indue to pay it. Indue told her that they had paid it and so she went out and made other purchases only then to find that her rent hadn't been paid, so in fact it made her life more difficult. She was trying to follow good financial management and Indue once again stuffed up because they didn't pay her rent. Now, if she applies to exit the card, they'll say, 'You can't manage your money,' when it was Indue's fault. Repeatedly they will not pay rent. They mess up all the time. This card is a racist, discriminatory, paternalistic approach that costs this country a fortune but, more importantly, takes away people's dignity and causes anxiety and stress. It is not a good measure. It is a poor measure. Compulsory income management is an appalling infliction on our social security system. This needs to end. (Time expired)


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