Wednesday, 9 December 2020
Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to speak against the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020. It's a bill that all senators should be totally against. They should be against it because it's—and it can be summed up in one word—inefficient. This government has failed to do what it should have done in representing Australians in these trial sites. I spoke in the Senate this week about this government's failure to adequately evaluate what was going on in the four trial sites across Australia. This government has failed to bring to the Senate, to Senate estimates and even to Senate inquiries what it is about the cashless debit card that is so good.
All senators in this Senate must uphold the highest standards in the work they do in approving or disapproving legislation. There is no evidence to prove that this legislation before the Senate, which forces people into compulsory quarantining with the cashless welfare card, is a good thing. If anything, the evidence shows the reverse. It shows how discriminated against people feel. It shows how discriminatory the behaviour of others towards them is. It shows that it doesn't empower residents of Australia to rise above poverty and vulnerable circumstances. There is no evidence that shows this card does what the government espouses it does. Have a good think about that for a moment.
We here in the Senate must always research, inquire and ask the deep questions: Is this good policy? Does this help our fellow Australians? Does it enable them to take their place in Australian society as equals? Does it enable them to pay their bills with dignity, without having to be scrambling and scratching on a phone for hours, begging for help to get some dollars out? It's not empowering when they need to pay their bills, their rent or the local supermarket or they need to take their children to events or functions but can't. There is no dignity for families who cannot look after their own simply because they are forced onto a card—all because the government says they should be. The real problem here is that the government has failed to show any evidence to prove otherwise. If anything, it is that the cashless debit card is so discriminatory and so racist, like the BasicsCard we have in the Northern Territory.
Let's look at the history of that in the Northern Territory. In 2007, then Prime Minister John Howard intervened in the lives of First Nations people across the Northern Territory, and 70 prescribed communities were immediately forced onto the card under the emergency intervention. The then Prime Minister and the then Indigenous affairs minister said it was based on 'caring for children' and the 'rivers of grog', but we know that only a few months after that decision former minister Alexander Downer publicly said, 'We only intervened in the Northern Territory because we could.' Those of us in the Northern Territory knew then what being disempowered felt like. I was the member for Arnhem and stood in the Northern Territory parliament representing the people of Arnhem Land, and never in my life had I felt so disempowered. Here I was, a politician representing thousands of people in my electorate, and I could not change or stop anything.
I went out to Arnhem Land on 3 August 2007, a couple of months after the Intervention occurred. There were meetings of First Nations people happening at the Garma Festival, at Gulkula. I knew when I went there that I was going to face a barrage of criticism, concern and hurt from First Nations people, and I did. I went out there to face them knowing it wasn't me who'd made the decision of the Commonwealth to come in and impose such draconian laws on people of colour, but they were my constituents and I had to go out there and face them, because no-one from the Commonwealth was coming up. No-one from the Commonwealth parliament was walking there on Gulkula country and saying, 'Oh yeah, this is why we've intervened in your life.' So on 3 August 2007 I walked in on that ceremony ground and I got eaten alive. First Nations people were so hurt, so angry, and they let us know it. They turned to me and my parliamentary colleagues from the Northern Territory parliament and they said: 'You did nothing! You did nothing, and in our lives we're all being treated like we're paedophiles, we can't feed our children, we don't care for our children, we don't work, we're all druggies and alcos. You did nothing!' As we walked away, some of my colleagues said to me, 'But we couldn't do anything.' I said: 'Yeah, we could've. Constitutionally we might not have been able to. We're a self-governing territory; the Commonwealth can intervene on us any time it likes. But we could've protested, we could have marched the streets, we could have had civil disobedience. But we did nothing.'
The hurt was palpable. The anger has never gone away. That sense of deep oppression, of racism, has gone on for 13 years since that Intervention, in the policy of the BasicsCard, and more, across the Northern Territory. Oh yes, I heard all the arguments: 'Oh, but millions of dollars is going into the Northern Territory now, millions of dollars. We've got all these Canberra public servants flying back and forth, assisting with the establishment of safe houses, safe places—even a few extra police stations. There's millions of dollars going in.' And I turned around and said: 'Yeah, but we needed that anyway. Why did you have to intervene on people's lives to give them what they rightly deserved in the first place—to have decent homes; to have safe houses for their families, especially the women; to have more police protection, like any other Australian community?' Why is it that First Nations people always have to feel grateful for receiving something that is a basic right for any other Australian in this country?
Now the government comes to the Senate and says not only does it want to make the four trial sites across Australia for the cashless debit card permanent; it wants to include every single one of those families under the BasicsCard—25,000 extra people. On what grounds? On what basis? There has not even been an evaluation of the BasicsCard in the Northern Territory since 2014—that's six years ago—and even that evaluation proved that the BasicsCard was not working. So I raise it in the Senate here: where is the evaluation for those families who have felt completely undignified for all of this time?
Their children have had to grow up over the last 13 years feeling like oppression is their future, oppression is their life. That doesn't give hope.
I expect better of this Senate. I expected better of the minister and I expected better of the government. At least have a decent, good reason as to why you're doing what you're doing. But you don't, do you? You've been sloppy in the way you've gone about getting any evidence; in fact, worse, you've abrogated responsibility to Australians by not even looking at the $2.5 million worth of evidence that you called for. And you still brought this legislation into the Senate. You passed it in the House! You had a member on your side telling you that this legislation was wrong. I wish she had had the courage of her convictions to cross the floor, because we would not be having this conversation in here if she had done that. I know that Bridget Archer MP is not the only one in the House who has that view. So it's left to senators to show courage—not just some but a hell of a lot of courage. Even if you like the cashless debit card, even if you think purchasing goods from 900,000 outlets across Australia is a wonderful thing, I ask you to consider this: do not reward a government which has been lazy and inefficient and has abrogated its responsibility to this Senate to have the right kind of evidence to bring to the Senate, to respect the Senate so that senators are able to make wise and just decisions on behalf of all Australians. What you have brought in here in this legislation is not that. You have failed.
You have not even spoken to the people of the Northern Territory or given them the opportunity to tell you how they feel about the BasicsCard; you're just expecting them to roll across onto the cashless debit card. There is no decency in that. It is so un-Australian; it really is. We here in the Senate do pride ourselves on trying to examine and investigate everything from every perspective. I urge senators to recognise that, even if they do like this cashless debit card, they cannot make a decision on behalf of thousands and thousands of Australians when no evidence that says the cashless debit card works has come forward in this Senate. At the very least, you should condemn this government for its failure. You should condemn this government because of the position that it's put the Senate and senators into. It is not our place to fix its mess.
I say to the crossbenchers: this legislation is wrong; it is unjust, racist and so un-Australian. Vote no to this legislation and compel the government to do its job—to get off its backside, get out there and actually do its job. Listen to the Australians out there who are crying out for your empathy and recognition of the hardship that they are experiencing. Take the sand out of your ears. And let's hope we can soften your hearts, because all this legislation does is push people further and further into the ground. Please, Senators, vote no to this horrendous legislation.