Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015; Second Reading

4:37 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

As I was saying in my previous contribution to this debate on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015, this is a really important trial, and to make a trial effective we have to have all the issues considered and examined closely, both by the parliament and by the community which is involved.

Certainly, one of the core aspects is the fact that we are changing social security access by members of the community. As I said, many of these members of the community may not know that these changes are going to occur, so it is very important that that information is shared. But what has become very clear over many years in this place is that there is never a single, brought reaction to any process. In this case it became very clear that the change to the healthy welfare card must be supported by wraparound services that identify the very issues that the community has said they need to struggle against. And those are the impact of alcoholism, drugs and gambling, and the dissolution of effective community.

One of the core aspects of the investigation that we took in the Senate Community Affairs Committee inquiry was what the process was going to be for ensuring that these wraparound services are introduced, well-resourced and also evaluated, to see that not just the card process alone but in fact intensive support for the community can make a difference in lives. That is what the community has asked for. The community of Ceduna—the leadership of the community of Ceduna—told our committee that they wanted a change in their area.

At the time of our community affairs inquiry we had no detail at all. We were just told that there had been discussions, that there would be changes and that there would be processes put in place. Only very recently—in fact, at the end of last week and earlier this week, at the time when this piece of legislation was being brought to the Senate—the assistant minister responsible in the government has been in communication with Ms Macklin and also, I take it, with other people in this place, about what will be invested in Ceduna to ensure that the community has the most effective trial put in place. A figure has been allocated which has been added to existing services. Earlier, there had been an audit of services in the Ceduna community to see what was then available. Then, through agreement with the federal government and the state government, it was going to be the full wraparound package for the area.

We do appreciate that there has been more detail provided now. We appreciate that this detail has been put forward by the government after discussions with the local community. But I just put on record that for there to be any outcome—any effective response to the issues that have been identified—it is most important to make sure that the kinds of support services which we discussed at our committee are in place. They include things like appropriate alcohol support for people who are struggling with this process and appropriate financial counselling support. When you are living on a low income in any way it is hard enough to cope. But when you have assessable income and the way it is received by you so massively changed by the introduction of an 80-20 split, that is when you certainly need that financial counselling support.

Mr Tudge, in his role as assistant minister, has provided that detail very recently. We think that it gives an opportunity to ensure that the community can work effectively with the three levels of government—local, federal and state—to ensure that Ceduna and the outlying areas have support. As we know, it is not only the township of Ceduna involved; there is also the range of outlying communities which are in the coverage area for the trial.

Another aspect that was talked about consistently was the absolute need for an effective evaluation process. Since we had our committee hearing—and I do apologise, Mr Acting Deputy President: I had been talking earlier with some concern about the lack of information that was available to us when we actually had the one-day hearing to look at this legislation—there has been provided to the committee and also to the shadow minister, more detail about the importance of and the process for putting in place an effective evaluation mechanism.

Again, there is still much which has yet to be finalised. This is another time when this parliament is being asked to support a process without having all the information in front of it. I think that we need to have it to feel certain that the trial process is given every possible chance.

On that point: in some of the interaction that has occurred with the assistant minister talking to the shadow minister, Ms Macklin, and other people, there seems to have been some issues raised that Labor may not be responding to the demands and needs of the people of Ceduna. I want to put clearly on the record that the Labor Party is interested in responding to what the people of Ceduna and the surrounding region have asked for, which is support to look at the social issues which are, in their words, 'destroying their community.' As I have said, we have listened to that.

But this needs to be an effectively designed, resourced and evaluated trial. If not, it will add again to what I believe is the betrayal of the people of that region. They have been given a set of expectations that they will be given the necessary support they need to work together to ensure they can rebuild their community. And, as we have heard from them, they want their kids to grow up healthy and safe, and want people to feel as though they have that chance for a future. Again, if any process is not done with the most strict understanding of what can work, how it will be evaluated and how the people in the community will be actively involved it will be another failed process. What the people of Ceduna do not need is another failed process.

On that basis, the first step included in the bill is about three communities which would be identified to be part of the trial. There may well be variations in the way in which it operates in different parts of the country—you would expect that. But the most clear aspect of our inquiry was that people want this to work. We do not want to be part of any process that does not give that the best possible chance. So there needs to be considerably more exchange of information. There needs to be a commitment that, should things change in Ceduna during the time of the trial, there will be more support available so that, if things are identified that should be introduced, the governments will make a commitment that they will intercede at that time. This needs to be a flexible, dynamic process. We cannot just say, 'This is how the trial will operate,' and walk away from it.

I know there are different views. I particularly want to acknowledge the submissions provided to our committee by ACOSS and the National Welfare Rights Network, who have great concerns about any of these processes with changing the way the social security system works or impacts on people. Because of technical difficulties on the day, we could not hear their evidence, on top of their very detailed submissions. But they have raised serious issues about how we can most effectively work with the community. Should the trial proceed, we have to get everybody who has interest, concern and expertise involved. In terms of the government process and the range of departments involved—this is not a single department process; this crosses at least three Commonwealth departments and a number of departments in the South Australian government—there needs to be confidence that information will be shared openly, that there is a transparency about this process and that consistently along the way there are checkpoints to see how the progress is occurring and what evaluation is taking place, because it is in everybody's interest to ensure that this community is safe and healthy.

4:46 pm

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

I rise to make a contribution on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015. It will come as no surprise to anybody that, right up-front, the Greens are opposing this flawed approach to deal with extremely complex, serious issues. This is flawed legislation. It is income management on steroids. We know that income management has not worked. The monitoring and the evaluation processes have clearly showed that. This legislation is being rushed through. The committee was limited in the extent to which we could inquire into this bill because we were forced to meet a very short time line for reporting, to the extent that we could not hear from two of the peak social service organisations in this country: the Australian Council of Social Service and the National Welfare Rights Network. They made very important submissions, bringing up very important issues, and we could not find time to hear from them, because of a technical difficulty on the day. We had to cram them into one session. The phone lines failed so we could not hear from them, and we could not find another time to meet with them. That is appalling, when they are two of the largest organisations in this country that are particularly qualified to talk about this particular issue.

This is a punitive, ideologically driven approach that is not based on evidence. We are in an evidence-free zone here. I will come back to the government's proposed evaluation. A limited amount of information has just been made public, in a letter from Minister Tudge to the ALP. I will come back to the flawed approach that it looks like the government will be undertaking with this so-called trial. This bill is being rushed through. I suspect one of the reasons the government want to rush it through is that, if more communities find out what is going on, they will refuse to take the trial as well. The government hope that, once they get Ceduna up, maybe some other communities will come on board. It is well known around the shops that a number of centres have refused to participate in the trial. I will come back to where we are with East Kimberley later.

I was hoping that, with the change of PM, the new PM would abandon this ideological approach to how we help communities. But no. We have a new PM but the same old policies. The PM, I am sure, must know that this is the 'brainchild' of Andrew Forrest, again based on ideology and not on evidence of what does and does not work. Throughout the committee process, we heard of a number of problems in relation to this bill. These add to the concerns that we already had about income management. The overriding concern here is that these trials are to expand income management. We know that. When the minister was the parliamentary secretary, he made comments about the fact that this would provide further evidence around a possible expansion of income management. So any claims by government that this is not income management are simply not true.

The bill amends the social security legislation to split welfare payments into restricted and unrestricted portions. Basically the trial proposes that 80 per cent of payments received by trial participants will be restricted, with the remaining 20 per cent available to cash. Those of you who know the limited size of the payments of Newstart, for example, will know that that is a very small amount of cash that people are going to be able to receive. The restricted portion will be paid into a specified bank account. At this point, we still do not know who the financial provider of the so-called debit card will be. We are voting on this legislation and we do not know who the financial institution that provides the card will be. I have just read the letter that has been made public, and it does not say it in there. They are in the final stages of negotiation.

This card will not be able to be used to purchase alcohol or gambling products or to withdraw cash. The bank and the government will potentially know what types of purchases you make, because there will be a transfer of information between the bank and the financial institutions. Participants in the trial will be determined by legislative instrument, based on a combination of trial areas, the income support payment an individual is receiving and the class of persons, which we understand may be used to distinguish based on age. At this stage we know that the legislation includes trigger payments for youth allowance, Austudy and carer payments. These are payments to people that are caring for their loved ones, caring for relatives, carrying out important tasks. We are income managing carers—people on disability support payment, parenting payment single, widow pension B and wife pension. The age pension does not trigger this; I am aware of that.

We know there are a number of broad problems with income management. This blanket measure will apply to the trial locations regardless of whether a person struggles with some form of substance abuse—whether it be alcohol or another drug—or gambling. It will not be tailored to meet the differing needs and circumstances of individuals, which we know from all the evidence are absolutely crucial when we are dealing with such things as substance abuse, gambling abuse, and people that are living in difficulty and suffer from disadvantage. We know that individualised approaches are the things that work, not blanket approaches, taking decision making out of their hands or imposing on their dignity. That is one of the things that people have said to me in personal communications—in emails or in talking to me. They have a deep concern about the impact on their dignity that this sort of thing has.

We have strongly opposed income management, I will say right from the start, because we did our due diligence. We looked at the international evidence that showed that income management does not work. You know what? Evaluation after evaluation has in fact shown that to be the case, including the final evaluation of income management. We will continue to oppose this approach, which in fact is punitive and top-down. We spoke about this when the Howard government introduced the Northern Territory intervention in 2007, and we spoke about it in 2010, and we spoke about it in 2011 and 2012, when the Gillard government continued income management.

We do not oppose voluntary income management per se. There is some evidence to suggest that in fact voluntary income management can work, and so we do not oppose voluntary income management. I again point out that Tangentyere Council in Central Australia have been running what they used to call a form of Centrepay, different to Centrelink or Human Services Centrepay, where they had about 2,000 people on their books who, at various times, were in fact doing their own form of money management through Tangentyere Council. That was voluntary.

In the evidence the committee has received from independent researchers, academics and commissioned evaluations, we have had a consistent message, and that is that income management has not been working. A note by the Parliamentary Library said:

The evaluation reports published to date have not provided strong evidence of benefit for those referred under the 'membership of a class' measures—

that is, people who are forced to undertake income management because they are receiving a particular type of income support payment. That is exactly how this trial will apply in the locations it will be rolled out in. In a submission to our inquiry, Eva Cox, adjunct professor at the University of Technology Sydney, wrote:

… there is no valid evidence that the income management program, in its various form, has improved the alcohol and related problems in the range of communities in the NT where it has been applied.

One of the most important conclusions from a report commissioned by the government—after much prompting, I must add—when they were evaluating income management and the intervention in the Northern Territory was:

    …   …   …

    The evaluation data does not provide evidence of income management having improved the outcomes that it was intending to have an impact upon.

    Through the inquiry process, we have heard from one of the authors of that very extensive evaluation; we understand that it is in fact one of the most in-depth evaluations that we have had on income management yet. That expert confirmed that there was no evidence that income management achieved its goals and that the findings are very relevant to the measure that we are currently debating. That is particularly important because the government has consistently been trying to imply that income management is different to what we are going to do in Ceduna, when quite plainly one of the authors of that evaluation said it is highly relevant to the legislation that we are currently talking about.

    This is an issue that we have been campaigning against for a number of years now, and the evidence bears out that income management is an expensive process that hurts the people who actually need help the most. I am deeply concerned that what we are seeing here is an ideologically driven approach that is not based on evidence and that, unfortunately, the other two major parties in this country are supporting income management and this approach without evidence that it works. When this first came in the noughties, maybe they could say there was not any evidence from Australia to show that it would not work, but we do have evidence now. We clearly have evidence now that this does not work.

    Let me go to the consultation process for a short time. Mr President, do you want me to keep going and stop at five, or would you like me to finish my speech?

    Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

    Senator Siewert, if you want to continue through to past 5 pm and conclude when you want to conclude, that would be fine.

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

    Okay. I just thought I had better check to see how you wanted to handle it, Mr President.

    Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

    You are entitled to continue your remarks until the expiration of another eight minutes and 11 seconds.

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

    One of the arguments that the government has been making is that this is different because they have actually gone out and done consultation. I will say that in the past governments from both sides, when they were talking about income management, have said they had carried out consultation too, and in fact that plainly was not sufficient. I would suggest that, while there has been some consultation and meetings undertaken by the government, there clearly was inadequate consultation undertaken in Ceduna.

    There is a petition that should have been tabled today—if not, it is being tabled tomorrow. Over 200 people have signed the petition, which is around 10 per cent of the population of Ceduna. They have said, 'We don't like this.' We know there is a climate of pressure on a number of people in Ceduna about this particular trial, but individuals who are on Newstart, carers payment or DSP have not been consulted. As far as we can tell, from the limited time we have had available during the Senate inquiry, what happened is that while some of the office bearers in Ceduna have said, 'Yes, we like this idea,' they have not consulted their actual constituents. People who are actually on income support have not been consulted. For some, the first time they found out about this was when they saw it in the media. There was no town meeting. In fact, the only meetings that have been held in the broader population in Ceduna are by the people who hold concerns about this particular measure. So the government cannot claim that they have had an extensive consultation period.

    I notice that the opposition tailored their comments largely to Ceduna. This government, though, is planning to roll this out in East Kimberley. Just last week we had the Halls Creek Shire and the Aboriginal advisory committee to the local shire reject the healthy welfare card. So the government cannot claim that they have overwhelming support from either the broader community in Australia or, particularly in East Kimberley, from a large number of Aboriginal people who are rejecting this particular measure. So much for the consultation process. It is very clear that there has not been a lot of consultation with many members of the community who will be subjected to this particular measure.

    There are many people in Ceduna who have been emailing me, who have presented evidence to the committee, who gave very eloquent evidence about what impact this particular measure will have on their lives. Unfortunately, I am going to run out of time but there are a lot of issues about the implementation of this particular measure. Senator Moore outlined some of those issues that came up during the committee process and some of those measures are addressed again in the letter from the minister, but there are still significant issues. What are the minimum purchase prices that you will be able to use when you are using your ETPOS card? What happens when you lose your card? I know from personal experience that when you are in regional and remote areas you cannot get a card replaced very quickly.

    Government senators interjecting

    Mr President, I have limited time as it is, without having to compete with interjections.

    Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

    You have the call, Senator Siewert. On my right.

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

    I know from personal experience that it is very difficult. You cannot get your card replaced straightaway, so you have to go into a bank to get cash. If you are only allowed 20 per cent, that is not going to be much cash to get you through until your card is replaced. The government could not answer a question that we asked on notice about bank fees, and now they have come back in a letter to Ms Macklin to say that there are not going to be transaction fees. Who is going to pay for those transaction fees? The financial institution? Is that going to add further to the cost? People have talked about needing cash to participate in a cash economy, particularly when they have a limited amount of funds. People on income support are not poor money managers. My experience is that those living on income support are some of the best money managers you can find because they are living below the poverty line, or very close to the poverty line. They have to take care of every dollar that they have available. They participate in the second-hand goods market. What happens when they go to a restaurant? Now the government is saying that places that sell alcohol, or a gambling establishment, will still be able to use the card. Those products will just be banned. What happens when they sit down and have a meal? The government is saying that people on income management cannot have a meal with a glass of wine.

    Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party, Minister for Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

    They use their 20 per cent cash.

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

    I just heard that interjection saying that they can use their cash. What happens when they have to use their cash to give their kid money for the school bus, for a school lunch, for second-hand goods, for a taxi? They can use cash for that, but what you are saying is that they cannot go in and then pay for that separately. What do they do when they are in a restaurant? It is supposed to be, 'There's no discrimination here. We're going to maintain people's dignity.' They are going to have to use a separate card for paying for their meal and then get cash out to pay for alcohol. They might as well wear a sign saying, 'I am on income support' when they go into those places. What happens when they are running short of cash and they cannot get any more? In some cases we are talking about $50, folks.

    It comes to the point where people talk about their loss of dignity. People who are living on income support are so careful to protect their dignity and to have control over their own lives. We know from the evidence that what helps people find employment, to access education and training and to start to overcome some of the causes of disadvantage or some of their abuse issues is being able to have a form of control over their lives. That is what people have been talking to me and emailing me about. It is the fear of the loss their decision making capacity and the loss of their dignity. Whether they have a substance abuse issue or whether they have a gambling problem, there will be a large number of people who will be subject to this measure and they are going on it because the government has ideologically decided that this is a way that they think that they will make a difference when it does not work. People who are struggling to make ends meet now face a feeling of loss of control over decision making and a loss of their dignity.

    There are many case examples that were provided to us during the Senate inquiry, such as people needing extra cash to be able to travel, to contribute to buying a birthday present, a christening gift or a gift for a first grandchild, and not being able to do it. That is what we mean when we are talking about people's loss of dignity and loss of control over decision making. We know those are key things when you are dealing with people's substance abuse, when you are dealing with people who are trying to get their lives together if they have a chaotic life or if they have got some issues. This is why income management does not work. This is why this approach will not work. Yet again, we are going to be spending and wasting more money on this.

    Debate interrupted.