Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


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

5:30 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to be supporting the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015. This bill is absolutely critical to finding ways to deal with social harm, particularly violence against women and children, caused by welfare-enabled alcohol and drug abuse. This bill will allow for the introduction of a cashless debit card trial for up to three different communities. These communities will be selected for the trial on the basis of high-welfare dependence and high-social-harm indicators and also openness from community leaders to participate in the trial. The trial will run for 12 months, be limited to 10,000 participants and be subject to independent evaluation. This card is an important recommendation from the Forrest review report, Creating Parity, as a way of dealing with significant harm occurring in heavily welfare-dependent communities.

I would like to respond to some of the things Senator Siewert had to say on consultation. I found them a little bit ironic. I met with the Yalata community and the Ceduna Aboriginal Corporation, whose leaders came to Canberra in the last couple of days to talk to senators about this legislation, and I am told that Senator Siewert refused to meet with them.

Senator Siewert interjecting

You talk about consultation, but then you refused to hear from the very community leaders who are going to be affected by this trial, who are affected by the problems right now and who are best placed, in my opinion, along with other community leaders and other community members, to have a view on why this is necessary.

Mr Andrew Forrest, whose Creating Parity report recommended this reform, gave evidence to the community affairs committee inquiry a few weeks ago on 11 September and set out the tragic and troubling context for this reform. We should pay tribute to Mr Forrest. He is clearly committed to getting better outcomes for Indigenous Australians. I do not think we should question that at all. I think there is a genuineness to him, and certainly that is the way he presented as a witness. If we look at his record, he has done some great things. We should commend significant Australians like Mr Forrest who are looking to put something back. Mr Forrest told our committee:

Unfortunately, over the 40- or 50-year period that I can remember, I have seen the degradation of communities at the hands of alcohol and drugs. As many would know, in those communities there is a very high rate of attendance at funerals of friends and people who, like me, were bright-eyed, confident, happy and looking forward to living a full and secure life in Australia as youth. I feel that has been denied to so many of our vulnerable Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, through disproportionate access to alcohol and drugs in vulnerable communities. These are the great destroyers of community, of lives.

Ceduna in South Australia will be the first site where this trial will take place. Ceduna and its surrounding region has a population of 4,425. It is a town on the midcoast of South Australia around 800 kilometres west of Adelaide. In 2013-14 there were over 500 presentations to the emergency department due to alcohol or drug abuse—more than one a day. The Ceduna Sobering Up Centre had 4,667 admissions in that same year. Hospitalisations in the region due to assault are 68 times the national average.

The Ceduna community leadership, who also made a submission to the community affairs committee and appeared at the public hearing, have called for this reform and see it as a crucial way of addressing the wide-ranging drug, alcohol and gambling problems in their community. When the government announced they would like to bring the trial to Ceduna, these leaders said:

We want to build a future for our younger generation to aspire to and believe we cannot do this if our families are caught up in the destructive cycle of alcohol or drugs that destroys our culture, our lands and our communities.

At the heart of this reform is a change that is being shaped specifically to meet our local needs. It has been a true collaboration to ensure that we can give our mob and our Communities every chance to create real and genuine change in their lives.

We have grasped this initiative; we have helped shape this initiative; and we are confident that this initiative is for the betterment of all people within our region.

These are very powerful words coming from these community leaders. They are saying that they want to empower their community and deal with the scourge of drug and alcohol abuse in their communities. We as a government want to work with those communities who are willing to take these steps. We want to work with them and trial these technologies to see if we can make a genuine difference to some of these horrifying statistics. That is what this reform is about. It is about improving the lives of people in the regions. It is about protecting people from harm and giving people who have been caught in a cycle of welfare dependency, addiction and abuse some hope that there is a better way and a better future. Ceduna community leaders told the committee during the public hearing:

We understand the introduction of this trial is not the silver bullet to solve all of our issues, but we strongly believe that it provides part of an overall plan aimed at reducing easy access to alcohol, drugs and gambling addiction. As community leaders, we are very much aware of the social consequences of sitting back and not doing anything. We are at the forefront of alcohol and drug related violence. Families are going without food and children are not attending school, and there are other social issues which impact on the general health and social wellbeing of our people.

In the past, measures to reduce alcohol fuelled violence and chronic alcohol misuse—contributing to the premature deaths of our people—have been tried and tested and have failed. It is our belief that as a first trial site, amongst a possible three across Australia, we now have an opportunity to make positive change in the lives of our people.

Again, these are powerful words coming from those on the ground. The government is listening to those communities and working with them to get better outcomes.

Let's go to some facts about the card. This card will look, feel and act like the normal debit card product that we all use every day and will be connected to the Visa, MasterCard or EFTPOS platform. Participants in the trial would receive this cashless debit card for the cashless part of their welfare payment, and their existing bank account will receive the cash component of their payment. Government consultation with community leaders has determined that 80 per cent is the sensible cashless figure.

Under the trial, if you are on Newstart, single with three children and live in your own home, you have over $145 cash per week, with the remainder of the payment on your card. If you are on parenting payment, single with four children and living in a private rental, you will receive over $220 cash per week, with the remainder of the payment on the card. If you are on disability support pension, partnered and with no children, you will receive over $85 per week, with the remainder of your payment on the card. If you are single and on Newstart, you will receive $60 per week cash, with the remainder of your payment on the card.

This card will work like any ordinary debit card from any ordinary bank except for those store categories which have been switched off. These stores would include liquor stores and gambling outlets. Participants will also not be able to withdraw cash using this card; however, the 20 per cent that goes into their usual bank account can be withdrawn and used without restrictions. Participants will be able to benefit from banking technologies, including online budgeting options. Participants may also be able to manage their welfare payments and develop their budgeting skills through setting daily spend limits, maximum transaction values and maximum numbers of transactions per day should they wish to.

The card will include push text technology for recipients and their mobile phones. This will help people develop their financial literacy and financial management. People will receive these notifications when their Centrelink payment has arrived in their account, to show them the remaining balance after a purchase over $10 and when their balance is running low.

It was made clear that many in the communities affected by this proposal were generally in favour of it and those against it were often external to the community. For example, Professor Eva Cox gave evidence at the hearing to oppose this measure. I asked Professor Cox if she had actually spoken to people in Ceduna about the trial. Her answer was, 'No, I have not.' The committee also heard from Mr Rob Bray of the ANU, who, when asked if he had spoken to people in Ceduna, replied, 'No, I've not spoken to any of the community of Ceduna.' Professor Ilan Katz of UNSW also opposed this measure; but, again, when asked about his involvement with the people of Ceduna, he said, 'I've not spoken to them either.'

Many of those opposed to this measure went on to mount a straw man argument about income management with regard to this bill. This issue came up during the committee hearings, and it needs to be made clear that this is a false comparison. This trial is not income management. It was emphasised a number of times during the committee hearings that this debit card is not to be confused with the BasicsCard or any other type of income management. Professor Marcia Langton, who has worked in some of the affected communities, made it clear that this measure is not income management. She told the committee:

It is quite a different model. Income management works in a kind of reverse way. What is being proposed here will work substantially differently and it is important to trial this in order to see if this kind of approach will work better. Under this scheme, there will be something like the Families Responsibilities Commission—that is, a committee of responsible members of the community, including elders, who subscribe to good social norms, who hear cases to remove the high levels of the cashless component of the income to enable people to access the cash, depending on, critically, whether or not they are sending their children to school every day.

Mr Michael, Haynes, the CEO of Ceduna Aboriginal Corporation and one of the community leaders actually from Ceduna, also told the committee:

… this is not about income management. This is a cashless debit visa card. We see it as totally different …

Mr Gregory Franks, the CEO of Yalata Community Inc, expanded on Mr Haynes's comments to the committee by saying:

The difference between this card is that it has a 70/30 minimum split, a standard split of 80/20 and potentially 90/10, so it has the variable. It has very strong Aboriginal leadership commitment to it. It has very strong community support. It is a standard visa-type card that you can use anywhere in the country. It is a catch-all for everybody, black or white—anybody who is receiving benefits. But the big aspect of whether this will work or not will be around the fact that the trial will have a range of support packages provided with it, things like financial counselling, alcohol and other drugs counselling, and grief and loss counselling, as well as support for employment programs, support for economic development activity and support for diversionary activity. That is where this card will succeed or fail. It is not the mechanics of the card or the card itself. I know that I, and probably you, do not use more than 20 per cent of my own cash when I do most of my transactions. It is a normalising behaviour and it facilitates that normalising behaviour. It has very strong community support and very strong Aboriginal leadership support, but it is the support packages that we are still negotiating that will determine whether the card does or does not work.

Some critics of the trial also talked about it being a paternalistic measure or limiting people's human rights. When asked about this during the hearing, Professor Langton said:

I do not believe that it is paternalistic at all. Aboriginal leaders in these communities want this measure, and they want this measure because you have to see alcohol abuse to the extent that it occurs in these communities at firsthand to understand their concerns. What has happened over the last 50 years is that Aboriginal people have become normalised to welfare dependency. The proposition that a capable adult could go and get a job is simply regarded as impossible by many Aboriginal people because they have a mindset that their permanent destination is social security dependence.

…   …   …

This is not a paternalistic measure; this is a protective measure that leaders have examined closely and want for their communities because children are unsafe, women are unsafe and, more and more, people are being dragged into the drinking culture and increasing the proportion of drinkers in the community.

Professor Langton went on to say:

In relation to human rights, this is not a human rights abuse. The proposition is not race based. Both of these towns are open towns that have multicultural populations, including Australian settler folk, various kinds of Australians from elsewhere in the world, and very large Aboriginal populations—and much larger Aboriginal populations in the Hinterland of these towns.

Mr Forrest also addressed this issue, saying:

… this card is not remotely paternalistic. Anything which gives thinking adults caring for community—experienced adults—an ability to further help their community is not paternalistic. To deny those Australians that basic right without a trial, to deny them access to a better technology which has transformed our own lives in this inquiry … is very paternalistic.

I also note that the committee looked at the value of this trial in helping teach those on welfare important habits such as budgeting and saving. Mrs Michele Pucci of the east Kimberley region told the committee:

I think there is a general feeling and acceptance in the East Kimberley that there needs to be something done around addressing some of the antisocial behaviour. There is a belief that the card will in some way limit that as it limits people's access to alcohol and drugs.

…   …   …

I also believe there is an opportunity. People may be able, through this card, to better manage their spending, and I think that there are some services that then will be able to get in behind those families.

This is an absolutely critical bill. It will help address the significant harm being done in small, welfare-dependent communities where alcohol, drug addiction, abuse and gambling are rife. This is not income management. This is a card that will operate like any card that everyday Australians have. The only difference is that it will have stores that are switched off, such as liquor stores and betting agencies. In addition, people will have access to 20 per cent of their income in cash, which they can use on absolutely any product they choose to spend their money on.

This is about empowering communities. This is about addressing the scourges of alcohol abuse, drug abuse and gambling addiction, and some of the terrible, negative effects that we see in some communities as a result of those scourges. I would urge all senators to get behind this. It is a trial, it is an important trial and it is a trial which has overwhelming support in the community. I think that we in this place should always be looking at ways in which we can improve the lives of Australians. But importantly, as we do that, we should be looking at ways in which we can work with local communities, in consultation with local communities, to deliver local solutions which will make the lives of ordinary children, men and women in these communities much better as a result. I commend this bill to the Senate.

5:46 pm

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015. This bill will amend the Social Security Administration Act 1999 to enable a trial phase of new, cashless welfare arrangements. Under the trial, welfare recipients will have a proportion of their payments credited to an account that they can only access using a restricted debit card. The trial, as outlined, will extend across three locations, involving up to 10,000 people.

These changes come as a result of the Forrest review that was conducted a short while ago, which found that the current income management system was economically unsustainable and unsuitable for broader application. When income management was first implemented by the Howard government, the scheme that was put in place—that is, the first scheme—suffered from the same thing: it was economically sustainable and unsuitable for broad application. It was a detailed methodology used by the then Howard government to income-manage individuals during the Northern Territory intervention. It was clunky in the extreme; it required significant numbers of personnel to operate the system and work with the communities to ensure that it at least worked in the way that it was designed; and it left no room for growth in the system.

Ultimately that was replaced by the BasicsCard, which is well known now across the Northern Territory and in other locations. The BasicsCard served the purpose of overcoming the limitations that were inherent in the system that was implemented by the Howard government in the Northern Territory intervention. In line with technology updates, we now have a new scheme, a debit card trial, that will hopefully prove more economical, sustainable and suitable for broader application, as outlined by those opposite in their second reading debate contributions.

There are, on this side, some concerns about how it will operate, and they have existed throughout the history of income management more broadly. The previous speaker tried to indicate that it is not income management. If it is not income management, it is a form of welfare assistance that could be more broadly or generically described as managing incomes rather than dealing with problems in a more nuanced way.

The trial locations will be selected based on where there are high levels of welfare dependence and where gambling, alcohol abuse or drug abuse are causing unacceptable levels of harm within the community. I think that alone describes the issue—that you intend to income-manage those communities to avoid those levels of difficulty. Of course, a high level of community support is always a key factor in determining trial locations. The card itself will not allow cash withdrawals for purchases of alcohol or for gambling services.

Subject to the passage of the bill, the first trial will commence next year, as I understand it, in Ceduna, South Australia, and surrounding areas. On 4 August, community leaders in the Ceduna area signed a memorandum of understanding with the government, to trial the card in Ceduna. As I said, obviously you need a high level of community support for such a trial to proceed. You need to give an explanation of how it will work. You need a broad level of government support in that initial trial to ensure that it is successful. I have doubts as to whether the government will provide that complete level of support that is needed, but I will wait to see the final outcomes of that trial before being so bold as to criticise the government at this juncture. The arrangements will apply to all people on working-age payments, including Newstart, disability support and carer pension recipients who reside in the trial locations. Age pension recipients and wage earners may also voluntarily nominate to have the debit card. It is also understood that the government is in further discussions with two other communities across Australia that may wish to take part in the trial.

In doing that based on location, the government should proceed carefully and ensure that it is appropriate to offer the debit card to all those within that trial location who fit the description, because it appears there is no opt-out provision. The government must ensure that those persons do require or should have the card, and that there are no objections—because objections are always very difficult to deal with, post a rollout.

Initially, 80 per cent of participants' income support payments and 100 per cent of lump sum payments will be restricted. However, the minister or a community body may vary the percentage of a person's payment that is restricted. In doing that one would hope that procedural fairness is provided for and that a reasonable process to ensure fairness is provided to a person who may find that the percentage has changed—increased or decreased as the case may be. Participants will receive a cashless debit card that will work as similarly as possible to any other bank card. I commend that. I think it is a good process to move to a debit card that is indistinguishable from any other payment system that is used, and that it is used in a way that ensures that the user of the card is not identified by the card itself. The trial will seek to ensure that the card works at all terminals and retailers, except those that exclusively sell restricted products. There will be no requirement to direct funds to priority goods and life's essentials. It is essential to ensure that issues are managed, so that where the debit card does not function participants understand why it is not functioning, or that where there has been an error at an ordinary location the sales assistants also understand what to do. A certain level of support needs to be provided to ensure the trial does have a fair opportunity to be successful.

It is clear that action is needed to tackle alcohol abuse and excessive gambling and the harm they cause in some communities. That has been obvious for some time. Labor believes that targeted income quarantining can be a useful tool in supporting vulnerable people; however, in saying that, such an approach requires a range of responses and support services delivered in close consultation with communities. The government does need to be mindful that in implementing this new technology—although it may be old in some respects the EFTPOS system is ubiquitous; it has been around for some time—and using it to tackle the issues of alcohol abuse and excessive gambling it must draw heavily on the past experiences of the Department of Human Services and the original intervention by I think it was then minister Mal Brough with the Northern Territory intervention to ensure that there is sufficient support for persons who have the trial card.

In saying that, a card itself will not solve the issues. It is the support and the case management of individuals that will go a long way to breaking the cycle of alcohol abuse and excessive gambling. Labor did push for a Senate inquiry on the bill to allow the impacts of the trial to be thoroughly explored and give affected communities the opportunity to make submissions. Labor does believe that welfare quarantining should only apply to vulnerable people who meet certain criteria rather than to all people within a particular location. We must ensure that the measures proposed in this bill are not discriminatory and that they meet community expectations. I remain less convinced that the government has taken this issue to heart to ensure that it does act in a nondiscriminatory way and does meet community expectations. But the trial, if the government fails in this area, will highlight that more broadly.

I know the government does not think this is the same as income management, but I think it is apposite to say that under the existing income management scheme a proportion of a recipient's income support payment is set aside to pay for necessities such as food, clothing, housing and utilities. Recipients can spend their income managed funds using a PIN-protected debit card, which is still known as the BasicsCard, or by arranging for Centrelink to make payments on their behalf. The major issue that exists with the BasicsCard is, as I think I outlined earlier, that a merchant must apply to the Department of Human Services to accept payment and it is the merchant's responsibility to block purchases of excluded goods such as alcohol. In saying that, the BasicsCard did well in moving away from what was an overly regulated, burdensome and cumbersome process, and of course the new restricted debit card system will address several problems identified with the existing BasicsCard. It will also not have the costs associated with administering the BasicsCard, which is not affiliated with any payments provider. The debit card will also do away with the perceived stigma associated with the BasicsCard, which clearly identified recipients as income support recipients.

Existing income management arrangements have been rolled out in conjunction with a range of support services, and this is the point I was making earlier—support services are where you make the major advances; you will not find the solution in the card itself. The card is just a tool that will assist. What we do need, and we remain unconvinced about whether the government has provided it, is sufficient individual support and support services to make sure that the system is successful. Success will be measured not by how the card has operated, not by how many transactions the card has successfully processed, not by how many errors the card may have caused; it will be measured by the change in the community in response to both the support and the tool, the card itself. We hope this arrangement will lead to a much better community in the longer run. That will be harder to measure for, and during, the trial, but it is something that the government should spend some time considering in order to ensure that the trial, and not simply the card, is a success

Unfortunately, additional support services will not be provided in the trial areas as part of the debit card trial. Debit card participants will also miss out on the additional support from Centrelink that is provided to income management participants. I think that the government is being a little duplicitous when it says that this is not income management so we therefore do not have to have support services and Centrelink and that the debit card will operate effectively on its own and do its job. The question is: what are you trying to achieve? The job is to move community expectations from where they are now, dealing with drug and alcohol abuse and gambling abuse, to where you want the community expectations to be—that is, a much better environment for the raising of families in those communities. In not providing those additional support services, I think that the government has missed a great opportunity to ensure that the card is a successful implementation of the strategy. The objective of the strategy is to move the community to a much better place.

In my view, those opposite need to consider the complexities of breaking the cycle of alcohol abuse and excessive gambling. The debit card—as I have underlined—will not offer a standalone technological fix to what is ultimately a social issue. The government needs to consult with affected communities and listen to their concerns so that this becomes a process and a feedback loop, and not only during the trial. You may want to ensure the success of the trial, and you will need to ensure that it is monitored and reviewed as well as that the lessons from that trial are learnt. In addition, those affected in these communities will require financial counselling services, they will require early childhood and community safety services and they will require substance abuse services. Without those services being provided, I cannot see how such a trial will demonstrate that it is making a substantial difference to that community.

It is of concern that the trial does not allow participants to seek an exemption or to be excluded from the trial. Therefore, if a person is identified as a compulsory participant, they will have their payments restricted regardless of their level of vulnerability. Existing income management participants are identified through a range of triggers, including child protection notification, length of unemployment, young people at risk and people on prison release. Labor simply does not believe in the blanket use of income management. Labor is aware that the vast majority of Australians receiving income support are more than capable of managing their own income. We are, however, committed to ensuring that welfare payments are spent responsibly and in the interests of individuals and, particularly, children. That is why income management should be targeted towards those that are most vulnerable within the community.

I look forward to reading the report of Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee. This inquiry has allowed for the impacts of the trial to be thoroughly explored and for people who will be affected to have a proper say. Labor will continue to engage with the communities that will be affected by the government's proposed trial and will take the opportunity of listening to their concerns. What are required to curb the surge of alcohol, drug and gambling dependence are, in truth, community based initiatives which engage with persons, including with those most vulnerable in the community, and which provide assistance and support when it is required. That can be done alongside such a payment card as this, should it prove to be a useful tool in supporting those outcomes. The card should not be the final solution in and of itself; it should be able to be utilised in a way that supports those initiatives that I spoke about.

I doubt that the government have taken much of that on board. They seem to be clear that this is not income management; it is a technological solution and an improvement on the BasicsCard. They are all arguments to be had about the card but not about changing community attitudes, changing community social norms, ensuring that our children can grow up in a safe environment, and assisting in resolving community excesses around alcohol abuse and drug dependency.

6:06 pm

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to contribute to the debate on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015—or the card I like to call the healthy welfare keycard. After being injured during my service in Australia's Army, I know what it is like to live from pay cheque to pay cheque on a disability support pension. I have experienced the anxiety and fear you feel when you are forced to pay for the grocery bill by credit card hoping that you are not about to max it out buying the essentials. I know how hard it is to manage your money, make ends meet, break out of the cycle of poverty and raise a family while you are struggling to cope with physical and mental pain and the addictions that all too often come with those injuries. I know what it is like to be discriminated against by government agencies and treated like a second-class citizen

I understand the fears of discrimination that people may have about the introduction of this new money management initiative. However, the time has come to face up to a few hard realities.

Our kids are needlessly suffering, because too much of our welfare money is being spent on illicit drugs and alcohol. Our mums and dads with diminished capacity through addictions and mental health disabilities are needlessly suffering, because too much of our welfare money is being spent on illicit drugs and alcohol. That is why I support the broad principle that a healthy welfare keycard is based on—namely, that it introduces a cashless method of managing welfare payments for communities which are suffering from a crisis with alcohol and drugs. Once the teething problems with this new card and its technology are sorted out, I would like a healthy welfare keycard rolled out across the whole of Tasmania. It will save lives and needless personal harm and suffering. It will significantly reduce the rates of family violence and family break-ups. It will reduce the rates of admissions to our hospital accident and emergency departments.

The healthy welfare keycard is also a vital early intervention initiative. Not only will it save lives; it will save a lot of taxpayers' dollars in the long run. As one of the Jacqui Lambie Network senate candidates for Tasmania, Rob Waterman says, 'Every dollar spent on early intervention saves $7.' And that is exactly what the healthy welfare keycard is—an effective and compassionate early intervention initiative, which will save at least $7 for every dollar invested in it. The healthy welfare keycard contains a function whereby an automatic text is sent to a card recipient's phone, stating what the total of their account balance is after every transaction over $10. This is an important tool, which will help people on welfare better manage their money. It will gently encourage better financial management skills.

There are a number of groups of people who will either hate or be very disappointed by the introduction of the healthy welfare keycard. Drug dealers will hate this card, because over time it will mean fewer people will buy their products. Pub, hotel and bottle shop owners will experience reduced profits in the communities where the healthy welfare keycards will be in use. People who make a living from the gambling industry will also experience reduced profits in the communities where the healthy welfare keycard is in use. This is because, as the explanatory notes reveals:

The trial will test whether significantly reducing access to discretionary cash, by placing a significant proportion of a person's welfare payments into a restricted bank account, can reduce the habitual abuse and associated harm resulting from alcohol, gambling and illegal drugs.

Despite the obvious social and personal benefits which this trial has the great potential to produce, I had and still have reservations about the manner in which this trial is to be conducted. One of the proposed trial sites is the South Australian community of Ceduna. I accompanied Senator Xenophon on a tour of the community on Friday, 2 October and spoke with many people about this trial. While I listened to all the community's concerns, from Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, it became apparent that a significant section of the community, mainly non-Indigenous stakeholders, had not been properly consulted with and their interests were not being properly represented. Based on that meeting I had in Ceduna, I was prepared to vote against this legislation should the government fail to delay presentation of the bill before the Senate. However, after a further meeting I had in my Senate office this Monday with the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister, Alan Tudge, and more Ceduna community representatives—Greg Franks, Michael Haynes and Wayne Miller—I have decided to support this Turnbull government initiative and trial immediately. I changed my mind after listening to the Ceduna community representatives and also after Assistant Minister Tudge gave a personal undertaking to travel with Senator Xenophon and me back to Ceduna in South Australia over the next month so that we can hear all of the community's concerns and answer their questions honestly and openly.

After my visit to Ceduna, I became very worried that the government was swooping in to 'save the day', without knowing all the facts—but that is not the case. I acknowledge the long, hard detailed work which has been put into this project. After reflecting on his commitment, advocacy and willingness to consult, I have to congratulate Assistant Minister Tudge for his leadership, passion and drive with regard to the healthy welfare keycard. It is also important to acknowledge the courage and bravery that local leaders, both in local government and within the Indigenous community, have displayed. They have borne the brunt of a lot of community heat and criticism. They could have easily folded under the pressure and opposed this initiative, but they knew in their hearts that what they were doing was a good thing for their community and for the generations to come. So they pressed on and fought the good fight and had the courage to act on the knowledge in their minds and the feelings of love in their hearts for their community. This can teach us all an important lesson. It is one thing to have knowledge and feelings of love; it is another thing to have the courage to act on that knowledge and love and turn thought and feeling into deeds. And that is what we have with this legislation. It is a means for this federal government to resource and fund good deeds through a program which will make the world safer and happier for the communities which are fortunate enough to be selected for the healthy welfare keycard trial.

I am reluctant to make too many comments about Australian billionaires, given my recent, unfortunate and painful experience with one of them. However, if there is one lesson I have learnt from this legislation it is that there are billionaires and there are billionaires. It would be ungracious of me not to acknowledge the hard work of Mr Andrew Forrest, who really is the father of this healthy welfare keycard. Twiggy Forrest is a well-known Australian businessman and entrepreneur. This legislation would not be before this Senate if Twiggy Forrest had not decided to act. Australian communities suffering from all the harms and illnesses that come with alcohol and drug addictions would not have the hope that comes with the presentation of this legislation. Twiggy is not just responsible for a new card; he is responsible for a new approach to solving the terrible problem of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian disadvantage.

The JLN supports Twiggy's 27 recommendations of creating parity and ending disadvantage. I do not care what colour your skins is or what religion you are. If your community is suffering from alcohol or drug addiction then Twiggy's solution for early intervention—particularly through the establishment and integration of early childhood services in the most vulnerable communities and intervention before birth—will be vital for the safety of our children who are placed at risk because of the alcohol and drug addictions of adults. If this legislation passes this Senate, then, according to the explanatory memorandum, it will:

… enable a trial phase of new cashless welfare arrangements in response to a key recommendation from Mr Andrew Forrest’s Review of Indigenous Jobs and Training.

The purpose of the trial is to test the concept of cashless welfare arrangements by disbursing particular welfare payments to a restricted bank account, accessed by a debit card which does not allow cash withdrawals. The trial will test whether significantly reducing access to discretionary cash, by placing a significant proportion of a person’s welfare payments into a restricted bank account, can reduce the habitual abuse and associated harm resulting from alcohol, gambling and illegal drugs. It will also test whether cashless welfare arrangements are more effective when community bodies are involved.

Throughout this debate, the word 'disadvantaged' has been used by me and many other speakers. Many people watching these Senate proceedings or reading Hansard may ask the question, 'What is disadvantage?' Probably the best report I have read that clarifies, describes and quantifies the word 'disadvantage' is a report published by Catholic Social Services and Jesuit Social Services, written by Tony Vinson and Margot Rawsthorne, with Adrian Beavis and Matthew Ericson. Dropping off the edge 2015, or DOTE2015, examines persistent communal social disadvantage in Australia. 'Social disadvantage' was defined as a range of difficulties that reduce a person's opportunities in life and prevent people from participating fully in Australian society. Social disadvantage is calculated by combining statistics and research on criminal convictions, juvenile offending, long- and short-term unemployment, youth unemployment, disabilities, lack of formal qualifications, family violence, family incomes, rental assistance—to name just a few social indicators.

In Tasmania, the five most disadvantaged of the 29 local government areas, or 17 per cent, accounted for 64 per cent of our state's top-ranked consistently entrenched place-based disadvantaged people. We have some of the worst rates of unemployment and youth unemployment in Australia. This report shows that the local government authorities which are really doing it hard are Brighton, Central Highlands, Derwent Valley, George Town and Glenorchy.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons why I want to support this trial is that I think it will be a success, and then I will fight hard to have the trial of the healthy welfare card transferred to cover the whole of Tasmania. If it is a success, I have no problem going into bat for it to make sure that the state of Tasmania is first in the receiving line. As Mission Australia's executive summary says in its 2014 youth survey, there is no doubt that in Tasmania:

Inequality and disadvantage remain entrenched in areas of our society with intergenerational poverty becoming well-known. It is becoming increasingly common to understand that this disadvantage is concentrated in some locations.

Tasmania is one of those locations. This card will be one of the steps we take to address this crippling social disadvantage.

Other solutions that I have put forward to also address and solve the unemployment crisis and the lack of confidence include supporting an involuntary ice detox and rehabilitation act that gives parents the right to use non-consensual medical treatment on their drug-addicted children; supporting voluntary national service for our young people which will allow them to join the military for a year and learn some skills or participate in trade training and apprenticeships; making areas in Australia where high unemployment is endemic, including most of Tasmania, special economic zones that are payroll tax free; creating a national policy which guarantees the protection of Australia's prime ag land or best farming lands, noting that Australia only has 3.4 per cent prime ag land; guaranteeing the supply of health gold cards to members of the ADF and police who have served overseas in war zones and under warlike conditions, with that to be automatic; supporting the introduction of national legislation which targets members of organised crime groups and their associates, similar to America's RICO laws—the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act; and guaranteeing that Australia's fuel, gas and power are cheaper than our major trading partners' so that our manufacturers, small businesses and farmers can profitably compete in unfair world markets while maintaining wages and standards of living for Australian workers and providing a lot more jobs, especially for our youth.

6:20 pm

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015. I applaud this initiative that will enable a trial phase of a new cashless welfare arrangement and a cashless debit card. It will try to reduce the harm caused by alcohol, gambling and drug abuse.

When I read the details, I cast my mind back to a Senate inquiry that I was involved in in 2009. It was the Senate Select Committee on Men's Health. There was plenty of evidence about disadvantage from rural and remote communities, and I always remember the evidence given by Risk Welsh, who was the Aboriginal Men’s Health Project Officer with the Men's Health Information and Resource Centre. I will quote what he said:

I recently visited a community in north-western New South Wales, at Wilcannia—

probably far-western New South Wales is the correct description—

and that is a pretty grim place, because the average life expectancy for Aboriginal males out there is 35, so they are basically lucky to see their kids hit high school.

That the average life expectancy of an Aboriginal male at Wilcannia was 35 shocked all committee members. I actually went out to Wilcannia on a couple of occasions to see for myself.

On one occasion, the then minister for Indigenous affairs, Senator Mark Arbib, actually came out at my request and met with the council and local groups to discuss how some of these problems could be addressed. We heard of children having to get themselves ready for school—dressing themselves and, most likely, not getting breakfast. We heard that the school bus often did a second run to ensure that those children who wanted to go to school did get the opportunity. This is just one example of a community that needs help.

The reason I support this trial, which starts in Ceduna, South Australia, is that we cannot stand by and watch these communities killing themselves and their children. For too long governments of all persuasions have thrown billions of dollars at these communities in the belief that it will fix the problem, but it never has and it never will. This is why we are here today discussing the need for a cashless welfare card.

I live in a country town that has a good and decent reputation but is not without its problems. When you drive through the business centre late at night and see young children, who are primary school age, walking around the streets or on their skateboards, and you wonder about their home life. Are they rebellious? Do mum and dad have no control over them? Have they just given up on trying to discipline them? Are mum and dad at home or at the pub affected by alcohol? Is there a mum or a dad? What is the future for these children? We can close our eyes and block our ears and pretend that it is not happening, but I can assure you that, unless something is done to arrest the alcohol, drug and gambling issues affecting some communities, we cannot expect future generations to be any different.

I was interested to read the speech given in the other place by my National colleague, the member for Parkes, Mark Coulton. He mentioned that Moree in the north-west of New South Wales would be a good place for a trial, and I would agree with him. For those who do not know their geography, Moree is only a 90 minutes' drive from my home town and has produced some very good sportsmen over the years, including the Sutton cycling family and NRL star, Ewan McGrady. I am pleased to say that in this year's group 9 rugby league grand final, the Inverell Hawks just outlasted the Moree Boomerangs to win the title. Mr Coulton pointed out that about one quarter of the population of Moree is Aboriginal and the welfare split of Indigenous and non-Indigenous is about 50-50. This is not about the colour of people's skin or their background; this includes all in the community. For various reasons, including misinformation that was spread, the trial in Moree will not go ahead and so we will never know what impact it may have had.

It will go ahead for 12 months in Ceduna in South Australia and it will then be reviewed. When you read the shocking statistics in that location you will understand why some form of intervention or control is needed. In 2013-14 presentations to the hospital emergency department due to alcohol or drug use exceeded 500—more than one per day and nearly two a day. The Ceduna Sobering Up Centre had 4667 admissions in 2013-14 financial year. Hospitalisations due to assaults are 68 times the national average. Minister Tudge said on Monday that for the last year in Ceduna there were 4600 admissions to the local sobering up centre, despite the population being only 4400. I will repeat that: there were 4600 admissions to the local sobering up centre despite the population being only 4400 people. If those stats alone do not make Labor and the Greens sit up and take notice, nothing will, and so Ceduna is a good choice for the first trial site. The community leaders of Ceduna actually approached the government to explore the idea of the cashless debit card and they have supported a trial to address some of the alcohol and drug abuse affecting the region.

I want to stress that this is not income management. Participants in this trial can use the card anywhere and purchase anything except alcohol and gambling products and will not be able to withdraw cash with the card. Participants in this trial will receive a mainstream everyday debit card, which will be connected to a Visa, MasterCard or Eftpos platform. Cash will not be available from the card, and the holder will not be able to purchase alcohol, gambling products or illicit substances. Eighty per cent of a person's social security payments will be placed into a debit card account and the remaining 20 per cent cash will be placed into their existing bank account.

All working age social security support recipients within the Ceduna region will be part of the trial and receive the card. Aged pensioners, veterans and workers may volunteer to opt in. This is how it works: under the trial, if you are on Newstart, single with three children and live in your own home, you have over $145 cash per week with the remainder of your payment on the card. If you are on a parenting payment, single with four children and live in a private rental, you will receive over $220 cash per week with the remainder of your payment on the card. If you are on a disability support pension, partnered with no children, you will receive over $85 cash per week with the remainder of your payment on the card. If you are single and on Newstart, you will receive $60 per week cash with the remainder of your payment on the card. It is adjustable. If it is found that a person needs more cash and they are known to have been responsible with their spending in the past, then the arrangement can be adjusted to allow them more cash.

How will this be achieved? The package focuses on areas where there are existing gaps in funding and where it has been identified locally that people are likely to need the greatest support during the trial. Funding is being made available to support a new mobile patrol team to operate 24 hours, experienced drug and alcohol counsellors, increased rehabilitation services, intensive financial counselling, family violence services and other services. This package is not being forced on the community; it has been codesigned by the Ceduna community.

I was interested to read the comments from the Greens back in March, when this program was first made public. That then Green leader Senator Milne said it was offensive for the Prime Minister and mining magnate to tell people throughout Australia who are less well off how they should manage their income. Even Senator Siewert was quoted in the article as saying that 'this patronising and paternalistic policy decision will not work'. It was interesting to read the exchange between Senator Siewert and the chair of the Australian Indigenous Studies at Melbourne's School of Population and global health, Professor Marcia Langton, at the Senate hearing.

Prof. Langton …First of all, this is not income management.

Senator SIEWERT: But it is.

Prof. Langton : No, it is not income management.

Senator SIEWERT: Why not?

Prof. Langton : It is quite a different model. Income management works in a kind of reverse way. What is being proposed here will work substantially differently and it is important to trial this in order to see if this kind of approach will work better.

Professor Langton earlier said that she supported the legislation and that it certainly was not paternalistic. She pointed out that Aboriginal leaders wanted the measure because, as she said:

…you have to see alcohol abuse to the extent that it occurs in these communities at firsthand to understand their concerns. What has happened over the last 50 years is that Aboriginal people have become normalised to welfare dependency.

…      …   …

…children are unsafe, women are unsafe and, more and more, people are being dragged into the drinking culture….

I also refer to the evidence of the Mayor of the Ceduna District Council, Allan Suter. He said:

In this case, council support for the trial of the cashless debit card was made on condition that we got strong support from the senior Aboriginal leaders, and I am happy to say that we have got that. We are also satisfied that we have got strong support from our non-Indigenous community, with, of course, a few exceptions. Some of the objections are very genuine and passionate. Being a small town, we have a good knowledge of people's motives. Some objections are from people who wish to have money to purchase drugs or alcohol. Some are even from people who are very anxious that their customers will be able to have money to purchase drugs and alcohol. We respect the opinions of the genuine and passionate objectors, but they really are very few.

Andrew Forrest, a man who has a great passion to ensure people get off welfare and get some self-respect, had this to say at the Senate inquiry:

Unfortunately, over the 40- or 50-year period that I can remember, I have seen the degradation of communities at the hands of alcohol and drugs. As many would know, in those communities there is a very high rate of attendance at funerals of friends and people who, like me, were bright-eyed, confident, happy and looking forward to living a full and secure life in Australia as youth. I feel that has been denied to so many of our vulnerable Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, through disproportionate access to alcohol and drugs in vulnerable communities. These are the great destroyers of community, of lives.

This week, we saw the report of the Community Affairs Legislation Committee. In part of its summing up, the committee said it was:

… satisfied that the trial is strongly supported by community leaders in the proposed trial communities in Ceduna and the East Kimberley. The committee considers that the expected benefits of the trial to reduce the social harm caused by alcohol and gambling, particularly for children, justify the measures outlined in the Bill.

The committee recommended that:

… the Minister for Social Services include safety net provisions in the proposed legislative instrument to ensure that vulnerable people impacted by the trial are able to be exited from the trial, where appropriate, to ensure they are not further disadvantaged.

The committee recommended that the bill be passed.

Mr Deputy President, I want to take you back to the mid-1970s, when I was driving livestock transport. We would go out to places like Wertaloona station in the Flinders Ranges, where four or five semitrailers would show up late in the afternoon. Bob Wilson would be in the cattle yards with three or four Aboriginal stockmen—bandy-legged, slim fellows with high-heeled riding boots and big hats. They were good stockmen and good workers. It was hot. They did their job well and tied their horses up under the trees as they drove the cattle that we would load at daylight the next morning. I think if I took you out there today, Mr Deputy President, you probably would not find many Aboriginal workers out there. There would be some but certainly not like there were back in the 1970s.

What did we do? I will tell you what we did. We threw money at these people. We on all sides of politics over the last 40 years thought money would solve the problem. We threw money at these people, and what did they do? They gave up their jobs, they went to the pub, they got drunk and they probably bashed their wives when they got home—not only people of Aboriginal descent, I can tell you, but also people of Anglo-Saxon descent as well. We are not focusing on one colour here or anything like that. Colour does not come into this debate. It is about looking after taxpayers' money. But we threw money at these people, and I think we did a great deal of harm to them. It is a good lesson to all of us that lack of money is not the problem.

Here is a situation where these people will get some cash and a debit card, just like most people have. They can buy products that are essential items—food, clothing or whatever they need—on those debit cards at the stores, but they cannot be used for gambling or alcohol. That bring us to the situation where the social security cash is simply spent on Friday and Saturday, much of it at the local pub or perhaps gambled or spent on illegal drugs. What do the mums and kids live on for the next week? This is where it is so wrong. There is abuse of social security. Hardworking Australians are paying their taxes to give money to these people—people who are certainly not well off, perhaps unemployed, perhaps obese and perhaps not in good health. But throwing money at them makes their situation worse.

I commend Ceduna. I have been to Ceduna many times. It is a good community, a beautiful place on the Great Australian Bight off the Southern Ocean and a lovely place to drive through. In my previous job, I actually had an agent who sold my products there. I would visit the town quite often and go right back through Streaky Bay, Elliston to Port Lincoln et cetera. To think that this community has such a terrible record of alcohol abuse—4,660 admissions out of a population of 4,400 in a year—is just unbelievable. That is outrageous. It is crazy.

So what do we do? If we do nothing, nothing will change. I have always had the attitude that to try is to risk failure but to do nothing is to guarantee failure. The government, under Minister Tudge, is working with community members such as Twiggy Forrest and the local government representatives at Ceduna to give this a go. We should give it a go. I encourage everyone to have their say on this issue. Let's help these people. Let's try to get them off their problems of alcohol and drug abuse and especially unemployment. As I said, throwing money at the issue does not always solve the problem. Of course money helps in many respects. We in Canberra collect a lot of money from the taxpayers of our nation—and, of course, too much is being borrowed—and we must spend that money wisely. Sometimes that money is going out there and actually destroying people's lives.

I take you to a trip I did to Wilcannia with former Senator Mark Arbib where I found out the average man in Wilcannia has a life span of just 35 years. I put it to you, senators, where could you go on this planet, to what other country, where the average life span for men is less than 35 years? Maybe Ethiopia or some other African country or somewhere else? I do not know. I do not think you would find a place or a country on this planet where the average life span of a man is just 35 years. I think this is a disgrace. Of course Wilcannia is a community with a high Aboriginal population. I have been travelling through there for 40 years. I know why they have problems: they are unemployed, they have little to do and they have alcohol, drugs, a bad diet, obesity and a lack of exercise. All of the above contribute to that terrible statistic that the average man in Wilcannia will live to just 35 years of age. As I said earlier in my presentation, they probably will not live long enough to see their children get to high school. If you were to search the world for a worse statistic, I do not think you would find anywhere worse.

So we have to trial this. We have to do something. We are throwing money at these people who can then go to the pub and fill up with grog. I have seen them. I have been driving through Wilcannia for 40 years. On social security day, where is everyone? They are lined up outside the pubs.

Then of course there is that terrible drug ice, which seems to be right throughout Australia. It is in the big cities, in the bigger country towns, in the smaller country towns and even out in the shearing sheds. Ice is a big concern. People who are peddling these rotten drugs are destroying people's lives. If we hand out cash, when people are bored and do not have a job, what are they going to do? Just one shot of ice and people are totally addicted to it. It is a terrible drug and is causing so much damage. People are going off their brain in anger, bashing the women around them and committing all sorts of crimes. I know they are bashing the ambos and the police when they are arrested. They are bashing the nurses and the doctors in hospitals. If we are going to hand out people's hard-earned cash—governments do not have the money; we either take it from the people or we borrow it—and promote more social unrest, more social harm and more harm to women and kids especially, when the money is all gone at the pub on grog or on drugs at the start of the social security week, what is mum cooking? What is she feeding the kids? How are the kids clothed? How are they getting off to school? We have seen too much at Wilcannia. These are issues which each and every one of us in this chamber should work to correct.

What we have done is not working. As I said, I doubt whether those great . What we have done is not working. As I said, I doubt that they would be there today . Those great Aboriginal stockman would be out there today. Why? Because they worked hard in those days. They earned their living and then we threw money at them. I think it is shameful—not only the Aboriginal community but the community as a whole. I commend the minister for this program and the committee for its report and the research. We have to give it a go. It is a trial. It is not running right across Australia. If it works, and I hope it does, let us hope it is broadened out so that when people receive taxpayers' money they do not blow it in the pub or blow it on drugs or gambling. I hope they use their debit card to buy food and clothing, the things they need to care for themselves and, more importantly, for their families, for their wives, for their children, to see that they are treated well and that they live properly. Hopefully in time things will be better so that the average man in Wilcannia will live longer than just 35 years of age.

6:39 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015. A number of senators have made reference to a recommendation which emerged from Mr Andrew Forrest's review of Indigenous jobs and training. What is probably not well known about Mr Andrew Forrest is that he goes a little bit further than giving advice to government. He employs Indigenous workers—13 per cent of his workforce are Indigenous. He contracts over a billion dollars worth of work per annum to Indigenous companies which employ 40 per cent Indigenous workforces. He goes further than just giving advice.

I have visited his employment centre in Roebourne, where he has a very deep connection. I think that was the genesis of his experience, where children were wandering the streets late at night, hungry and sometimes affected by alcohol and drugs. He decided to do something. What he did is quite remarkable and is worth repeating ad infinitum in this chamber. He actually employs Indigenous people. He looks at the barriers to employment, whether they are no licence or lack of literacy or numeracy, and he addresses, identifies and provides training for them. If they pass the vocational education and training course, he gives them a job, I think on $117,000 a year fly-in fly-out from any of his remarkable mines in Western Australia where he is producing 165 million tonnes of iron ore. He is not just giving advice to government or to communities; he is actually walking the walk and doing the things that will make a difference.

When you move through Port Augusta, Port Pirie, Whyalla, Elliston and over to Ceduna, as I did recently, most of the local mayors are quite open about the connection Indigenous communities have with the country and they are well aware in some cases of the awful history, but not too many of them offer employment. There are not too many who are taking the step Andrew Forrest has taken and saying, 'I will have 10 per cent of this council workforce cutting the grass, emptying the garbage and doing whatever who are Indigenous.' In fact, some very wealthy communities over there employ no Indigenous people. I do not know why that is. I just make that observation.

When Mr Forrest gives the Australian community advice, backing up that advice are his actions. He is moving people from welfare dependency into good, well-paying jobs. I met grandmothers who had returned to work in the stores. I met a young Indigenous person who said that their ambition was to buy a house. You need a senator's wage to buy a house in Perth, but he was not frightened of it. He was saving to do that. The reality is that these measures are eminently defendable, but we do need children to get fed and clothed and to go to school. We need a safe environment where they can be kept in a measure of comfort and experience the normality of growing up in Australia, where they can kick a football, go home and have a jam sandwich or a Vegemite sandwich and be looked after. We know that in some of these communities alcoholism, drug addiction, petrol sniffing and glue sniffing, substance abuse has torn all that asunder.

I take particular note of Senator Williams' contribution because I, too, can go back to the late 60s in the Northern Territory, to places where Indigenous people could get a drink but it was usually in a bar separate from the white person. There were plenty of stockmen would have had good jobs

It is probably three or four weeks work now and the rest of the time is drinking. That is the awful reality in some of these outback communities. I no longer stop in Tennant Creek when I am driving through, as it depresses me so much. If you go to the Goldfields Hotel it is amazing how a licensee can actually go to sleep at night with the obvious, almost death in front of you, drink-till-you-drop culture in some of these places. Anyway, I do not want to get too carried away on those issues.

I did visit Ceduna, and I had a very agreeable meeting with the local mayor—who, I might add, had checked with the local member to make sure it was okay to talk to me. Apparently I passed the test and he did speak to me. He said that they had sat down and worked it all out; that they had sat down with a number of groups in the community, and this was a community driven position. I was encouraged by that. I asked who the main opposition was. The main opposition would not be all that hard to find. It is a grand premises adjacent to the beachfront that provides alcohol and gaming for the community. According to the local mayor, there was some stern talking and they had to sit down and really knuckle it out.

They want a community that is attractive to tourists. It is the start of the tourist trail through to Port Lincoln. They were getting a substantial number of tourists but, according to some of the press reports, the behaviour of some people was detrimental to growing that sector. I must stress that the local mayor had a not unusual view in South Australia that the local paper was not reporting things accurately and that the local paper had reported things that were quite ancient and unproven as fact—as if they had happened the day before. When he tried to address that with the Advertiser they basically did a double-up on the story of inaccuracy and virtually canned his community a bit more. So he had a ban on them. He was not going to talk to them anymore. But he was very, very insistent that the community was getting together with a view that they could make things better, and I fully support that.

I do however think that there are risks with all of this. If it is not capped by a genuine attempt to provide employment, a genuine attempt to move people, all we will end up with is some sober people without hope. I am not sure that is what we are trying to achieve here. We do know that there is mineral exploration and drilling going off in the Great Australian Bight, 300 kilometres off the coast. We know that the airport is receiving additional traffic numbers and may well be upgraded. If there is a substantial find in the area, there may well be a boom in Ceduna's economic activity. But it is important that people who live there, and have always lived there, get to share in that. I do not see any connectivity at the moment between the obvious need to have people sober and feeding their children and how we move to the next stage, which is to take advantage of that situation and get them into useful paid employment.

Clearly, there are a number of other issues. I want to go through some correspondence I received from a constituent in the area. I do not want to mention his name, but I think it is fairly insightful that we place on the record that not all of these trials are going to be suitable. This person has a fairly straightforward position. He is 50 years old, of working age, and receives a disability support pension. He has been told that his payments will be part of the mandatory income management package being rolled out. He says:

I was employed and payed taxes for most of my working life. I have a mortgage and 3 children in school. My health gave out a few years ago and I have been on a disability support pension since. I have COPD with possible Sarcoids and suffer severe back pain and nerve damage issues due to arthritis and disc damage from the physically demanding and heavy work I used to do to earn my living. These sicknesses are further complicated by the early stages of Chronic Kidney disease.

This person is on a disability support pension—through no fault of his own, I suppose—and is now in the situation where he is subject to this trial of 20 per cent cash and 80 per cent on goods. The police or social services have never attended his residence due to domestic violence, noise or unruly behaviour. He values his peace and privacy and considers his neighbours and their rights to the same things, and he tries to instil those values in his children. He goes on at length to say that he is managing his disability pension payment well and managing a mortgage and that the kids are in school and the school fees are paid—all of the normal things that a prudent person can manage.

As part of this trial he will have reduced flexibility. He makes a couple of good points. He is a thrifty person and he says he buys his gear at the op shop whenever he can but that op shops do not have EFTPOS facilities. I am not really sure about that, but that is what I am told—op shops do not have EFTPOS facilities. So, if he is prudent and wants to get some second-hand clothes from the Save the Children shop or United Mission or whatever it may be, these businesses do not have EFTPOS facilities; they deal in cash. He also says:

We will no longer be able to take advantage of the sharp practice of many local traders who will give substantial discounts to non credit or eftpos card transactions.

I am not familiar with that either, but these are matters that he has raised with me. This person says that he will no longer be able to purchase foodstuffs direct from growers markets or producers, which will drive up his cost of living. He has a long list of issues.

I hasten to say that, on 20 August, I provided this information to the Hon. Scott Morrison's office, and I am awaiting a reply. The reality is that this particular person is not someone we are out to try to income manage or to quarantine payments for. When we get an answer from the minister's office it may well be that there is a local committee that can look at his particular circumstances and vary his arrangements. However, he for one is not very happy.

So to say it is unanimous in the area is probably a long bow to draw. I think there is some evidence on the public record that some of the Indigenous women leaders in the communities would prefer that the alcoholics and the druggies were managed where the elderly, the vulnerable and children are at risk. They do not appear to support a blanket trial.

It is an awful thing: if you do put 10,000 people on this system and they only have access to 20 per cent of their cash then they are in a position of some vulnerability in some respects. A neighbour of mine actually provides financial counselling, formerly as a volunteer and now with COTA, to a lot of very vulnerable people on Newstart and the like—those sorts of pensions. He tells me that they do not lack the financial knowledge and they do not lack the financial management skill; it is that they make poor decisions when they go to enter into agreements with people. He has lost count of the number of times that people have made decisions on the hire-purchase of a fridge or the renting of a TV—really poor decisions. He provides advice to people all over South Australia. There is one particular well-known national company which does a lot of work with people in this area. Financial counsellors will send people down to that shop and they will do their best deal. Then the financial counsellor will ring up and ask, 'Can you do better?' And sure enough, this particular national company does do the right thing. So I just wonder whether the quarantining of the 80 per cent of the spend will have some unintended consequences. Will it drive up prices in certain areas? We know those are the only places they can get their stuff from. They cannot go elsewhere.

I used to know a pensioner who lived at Elliott, which is halfway between Alice Springs and Darwin. When pension payments and went cashless he used to drive to Tennant Creek to shop because the shopkeeper in Elliott would say, 'Well, pick out what you want and then we will give you the change.' And he would say, 'No, no—you give me the money. You cash my cheque and then I will go and buy what I want.' Anyway, they could not agree so he used to drive 350 kilometres to Tennant Creek to do his shopping and come back. I just wonder whether quarantining that amount of the payment will have some unintended consequences. That may well need to be very carefully monitored.

I am absolutely sure on this one: if you take a person who is dependent on alcohol or gambling and you make it that they cannot spend money on that, they will come up with another way of doing that. There will be a trade somewhere which will allow those people to get access to alcohol. Prohibition has never worked anywhere. So if someone is dependent on alcohol and you have quarantined their money they are going to do something silly, like buy something and trade it for a carton of beer or a bottle of rum or, as I saw in the bottle shop in Ceduna, a five-litre cask and a sixpack of Bundy and Coke.

I do not think we should be kidding ourselves that this will actually solve the problem where people have a genuine addiction to alcohol or gambling. It is not going to solve the problem. It may well increase—we probably need to say this—prostitution and things like that. It just may well do that. There will always be people who will take advantage of people's addictions and there will always be people who can go to a pub and buy grog for people who cannot buy grog. So let's not have our rose-coloured glasses on with any of this stuff.

As I said at the outset, kids have the right to be brought up in a safe home environment—fed, clothed, looked after and cared for with all the love that most families in Australia get. But let's not kid ourselves that this is going to be all roses because we have quarantined the spending. In fact, we might be patting ourselves on the back and saying, 'Oh well, we've stopped those people wasting their money on alcohol and wasting their money on gambling.' Well, I am not sure about that. Time will tell. I am hopeful that this will be a successful trial, if this legislation gets up. But I do not have any confidence, looking back over the last 35 years, that this will be all good. In fact, it is probably going to impact on people who do not need management. We had one case there in evidence, as I spoke about. And we hope to get a response from the minister's office about that.

I think that it is a good initiative. It is a community-led initiative, if the local mayor and the other people who participated are correct. It is a courageous initiative, but it is not one that is guaranteed to succeed. I think what will guarantee success is if we can build on this initiative and give them some hope about involvement in employment. Let's give them some hope—not training jobs just for the sake of it. One of the things that Andrew Forrest has done very well is that if you complete a training course with his outfit you actually get a job. You do not just complete training for the sake of training. I think that these initiatives, if they are to be successful and if they are to work, need to have a component in them where the whole community gets behind employing some of these people—furthering their education and giving them the opportunity. Let's face it, local councils are, in some cases, the biggest employers in these areas. I challenge those local councils to have a look through their workforce and to look at the people who have lived the longest in their communities and see how many people are actually offered employment.

I know all the stories. I know that they do not have a licence and that they will not turn up every day and all that sort of stuff. Well, Andrew Forrest disproved a lot of that. And there are Aboriginal organisations which should be contracting to these local businesses and contractors; taking responsibility and building proper economic opportunities for their people so that they are not dependent on welfare and they are not dependent on having their income managed. I do not think that is too much to ask. I think that the will is there in regional South Australia to have a go at this sort of stuff. I think that they should. It is very clear if you look at some of the operations in the APY lands. One Indigenous construction company hangs out how many visibility vests they need for the next day. Five visibility vests means that five people get a job. You just turn up, put a visibility vest on, do the job and get paid. Those sorts of initiatives are operating in the APY lands and I think that with this, combined with employment opportunities, we may well measure some small progress. Thank you.

7:00 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I have not found making a decision on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015 to be easy. The bill deals with inherently difficult issues and seemingly intractable problems—not problems over recent years but problems over many years, over generations. Whether these problems can be tackled, or even go some way to being solved, with this bill remains to be seen.

This bill seeks to have a trial of the healthy welfare card in up to three locations around the nation. But it needs to be made clear at the outset that this bill does not actually set up those locations. They are not specified in the bill as such; they must be set out in regulations. And those regulations can be disallowed by either house of parliament. That is something that I am sure the government will be acutely aware of should this bill pass. Should any of these trials—and I emphasise 'trials'—be established, they will need to be subject to regulations, and those regulations can be disallowed in terms of setting up any trial site. That in itself, I believe, is an additional safeguard in respect of the implementation of these trials. It is an additional safeguard because the Senate can scrutinise, at least within the statutory period, these trials.

I will discuss with the Assistant Minister for Social Services, Alan Tudge—who, with a lot of good faith and with a lot of goodwill, has engaged in enormous amounts of consultation with local communities and indeed with my crossbench colleagues and, I believe, with the opposition on matters raised in this bill—whether we ought to look at having a provision for the period of disallowance to be extended so that, if the trial is established and it appears that there are serious problems with the trial, the regulations setting up the location of that trial can be disallowed. That is something I will have a good-faith discussion with the assistant minister about.

I am acutely aware of the limitations that this bill will place on a person's spending. However, I am equally, if not more, aware of the devastating harm that alcohol and gambling addictions are causing individuals, families and communities as a whole. This bill not only attempts to address these harms; it does more. I believe that if implemented properly—and I emphasise those words: 'if implemented properly'—it can actually create hope. As imperfect as this bill is, my concern is that doing nothing, not at least attempting an alternative approach, would be a worse position. But I am acutely aware of the remarks made by Senator Siewert of the Australian Greens, whom I have enormous regard for, who implacably opposes this bill because the Australian Greens consider there are alternative pathways to deal with these issues. But I think that what is contained in this bill—having a healthy welfare card—could, if implemented properly, actually work.

The history of this is contained in a report prepared by Andrew Forrest, who most people know as a mining magnate but who I believe is someone who cares passionately about Indigenous Australians, about Indigenous Australians having a fair go and about remedying those generations of inequity and disadvantage. This particular approach could actually work. Mr Forrest suggested that a cashless welfare system for vulnerable Australians:

… poses a way of providing stability for families and individuals so they can concentrate on finding employment, providing adequately for their families, and sending their children to school.

Let us make this clear: this healthy welfare card applies across the board. It does not simply apply to one class of Australians. It is going to be done on a location-specific basis as a trial. Because the beautiful town of Ceduna, on the west coast of South Australia, in the Great Australian Bight, is one of the proposed sites, I went there to visit, on Friday, 2 October, with my colleague Senator Jacqui Lambie. I want to take this opportunity to thank the community of Ceduna—both those for and those against the healthy welfare card—for the reception they gave me and Senator Lambie, for the time they spent with us and for the discussions we had, which I thought were incredibly useful.

I thank the District Council of Ceduna, including its mayor, Allan Suter, and its CEO, Geoff Moffatt. I thank the communities that I met at Ceduna Council Chambers: the Ceduna Aboriginal Corporation, with Mick Haines, their CEO; and Wayne Miller, their Indigenous Community Engagement and Governance Officer; the Koonibba Aboriginal Community Council, with Corey McLennan; the Scotdesco community, with Robert Larking; and the Yalata community, with Greg Franks, who dialled into that meeting. The Oak Valley and Maralinga Tjarutja communities, with Peter Clark and Keith Peters, were also part of this process. I also heard from members of the community at the Ceduna Community Hotel, where there were about 20 or 30 people. One of the local organisers recorded the whole meeting, so apparently you can get on YouTube to see Senator Lambie and I being asked questions and responding to very legitimate concerns in relation to this proposal.

For those who have not visited Ceduna, it is a beautiful coastal town located on the west coast of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. It is famous for its annual Oysterfest, which coincidentally was held over the weekend that Senator Lambie and I visited, although I hasten to add that we left before the festivities. We were there just for the day. Clearly there was a certain buzz about the community because of the number of people coming into Ceduna for its annual Oysterfest.

Sadly, though, it is not Ceduna's beauty and natural assets that make it famous; rather, it is the town's struggle with drug and alcohol abuse that has led to some adverse publicity in relation to the community. The local council has tried time and time again to curb the damage caused by alcohol addiction. A dry zone encompassing Ceduna and the nearby township of Thevenard—the port—has been in place since 1988. There are restrictions on the sale of certain types of alcohol. It is also a requirement to produce ID when buying alcohol so that a purchaser's name can be checked against the list of persons who are barred from buying alcohol. The question of whether that is being enforced or followed through is another matter altogether. But these measures are simply not enough.

In 2011, the South Australian deputy coroner handed down his findings in the inquest into the deaths of six Indigenous Australians in Ceduna. The findings were damning. The deputy coroner had serious concerns with the health of Indigenous Australians with an alcohol problem located in the region around Ceduna. He identified numerous satellite Indigenous communities within a 300-kilometre radius of Ceduna. Of particular concern to him were the Yalata and Oak Valley communities. The deputy coroner found there was overwhelming evidence that members of these communities often travelled out of Ceduna to acquire large volumes of alcohol, thus circumventing the dry zones. While the dry zones in Ceduna and these communities were found to have been effective, it was clear to the deputy coroner that determined people often used areas just outside Ceduna to consume the alcohol they had purchased. The deputy coroner heard evidence that authorities very frequently reported breath alcohol analysis that exceeded a staggering 0.25 per cent. The inquest found that many in those communities around Ceduna also suffer from chronic ill health and self-neglect. An extract from the report explains just how entrenched the problem of alcohol abuse is in the area. The deputy coroner said:

It would be wrong to stereotype the entire indigenous population in this region as having drinking problems, but the evidence adduced before the Court establishes that there is without a doubt a severe and intractable culture of excessive alcohol consumption among the transient Aboriginal population in Ceduna and that this culture is having a negative impact on the wellbeing and functionality of those people.

The deputy coroner concluded that there would remain an ongoing need to reduce the availability of alcohol to affected communities. The government says that it hopes that restricting access to cash through the trial of this debit card will restrict the accessibility of alcohol. But the point here is: will this work in isolation? I do not think it will. You actually need to have a number of measures and to have a holistic approach to dealing with these issues.

The figures from Ceduna's Sobering Up Centre, which is a very important facility, indicated that there were over 4,500 admissions to the Sobering Up Centre in a population of about 4,000 people. These are devastating figures. They are not just statistics. They are families—mothers and fathers, and children and young people in some cases—who are gripped by addiction. There is a question of the informed choices that a person can make in the grip of an addiction, particularly with respect to substance abuse.

Some of the key Indigenous communities—not all, but a number of them: Ceduna Aboriginal Corporation and Koonibba Aboriginal Community Council, for instance—are strongly in favour of a trial of the healthy welfare card, and they have extracted concessions from the government in terms of additional support for the communities: drug and alcohol services and additional services to provide that support. The question is whether the healthy welfare card in itself will be useful in dealing with these issues.

Some concerns were expressed to me by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and it was quite pointed. One person who approached me at the meeting said that they had never, ever been on welfare, they had paid their taxes all their life, and they resented the fact that they would be subject to this card, because it would cause them difficulty in their own financial commitments and the like, and going to a panel seemed to them to be inherently unfair. By the way, effectively that was put to me by an Indigenous and a non-Indigenous Australian who had jobs, who had worked for many years and who found themselves on hard times needing support from the community through our welfare system. Two of the volunteers at the local op shop were concerned about the fact that they do not have EFTPOS facilities there and that restricting access to cash could have a very devastating effect on the op shop or, indeed, be a great inconvenience to some of the volunteers, stalwarts of the community in their 80s—senior citizens—who say, 'Do I have to be trained in how to use an EFTPOS or payWave facility in the context of a healthy welfare card?'

So they are some of the issues. This will not be easy. I think that any trial needs to be strictly monitored for the purpose of seeing whether it works or not. The undertaking that I gave to the community that I spoke to at the Ceduna Community Hotel was that there ought not to be any trial commencing and that, before we go any further, there needs to be further community consultation. I acknowledge that Assistant Minister Tudge has dealt extensively with key stakeholders in the local community, but it appears that there has not been a robust public meeting where those who are concerned about the health welfare card can ask questions and those questions can be answered fully. There needs to be that level of consultation so that matters can be taken on board before any place is designated for this healthy welfare card trial. That is an undertaking that Mr Tudge has given to me. I hope to be able to travel with him to Ceduna—and Senator Lambie may be coming to that meeting as well—so that we can genuinely hear from the community—those in favour but particularly those against the healthy welfare card. That is something that I think is essential.

I think another safeguard, if a particular place is chosen as a trial site, would be that there is the opportunity for the regulations to be disallowed for that particular area. I think that is a very critical safeguard in relation to this. There must be a robust evaluation process, and I think that, should this bill pass its second reading stage, there must be some very clear undertakings, guidelines and parameters as to how the evaluation will take place and some of the matters that have been raised—I think very legitimately—by Senator Siewert on behalf of the Australian Greens as to how this would actually work in particular cases. If you are in a restaurant and you are having a meal, you can use the healthy welfare card for that, but if you decide to have beer or a glass of wine then that can cause problems. I think that is a very good point made by Senator Siewert, as to how that would be dealt with in the context of this card and the issue of people feeling stigmatised in relation to that.

A particular interest I have had is about the impact on the local community of gambling. The feedback that I have had is that poker machines have had a devastating impact on the local community in Ceduna. The Productivity Commission says that something like 40 per cent of gambling losses come from problem gamers, and I dare say that figure could be even higher in the Ceduna community. I think that having a healthy welfare card restricting that access to gambling would be a good thing. We also need to be aware that online gambling, presumably on both illegal and legal sites, is also very problematic. It has been a growing problem, particularly in those remote parts of the west coast where access to poker machines is not so easy. People can go online and lose a lot of money very quickly on their credit card, and that in itself is very problematic. The question I will be asking in respect of the healthy welfare card in the committee stages of this bill—should it get through the second reading stage—is: you can work out the legal sports betting operations, the online gambling operations, because they would have certain merchant numbers and they would no doubt cooperate with such a trial, but in terms of those illegal gambling sites based in places like the Caribbean and Gibraltar, where they have innocuous names that do not appear to be linked to the merchant name, how will that work? That is a huge and growing problem for the Australian community generally.

I note that there has been correspondence between the shadow Minister for Families and Payments, the Hon. Jenny Macklin, and the Hon. Shane Neumann, the shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and Assistant Minister Tudge in relation to this issue. I think it is fair to say that Minister Tudge has attempted to fairly comprehensively address a number of the concerns raised. The level of engagement and the detail in that letter indicates at least a willingness to engage in the concerns that have been raised by the opposition in relation to this particular proposal.

I note that the opposition considers that the bill should not be progressed further until there is, in their view: sufficient consultation; an agreed comprehensive package of supports; further consideration and consultations; details of the operation of the bill—including possible community involvement in quarantine decisions—made public; and a fulsome evaluation framework for all possible participating communities established, in place and made public. I think for the Senate to do its job, we need to rigorously, forensically, deal with these issues. It has never been my position to support a gag on a substantive debate such as this, so I think it is very important that those questions be answered.

These are difficult issues, but the questions raised by the opposition and by the Australian Greens must be answered in the context of this debate. It is important that we go into committee. I will support the second reading stages of this bill, but I think it is important that the questions raised by those who have concerns, or who have outright opposition to this bill, need to be addressed in the context of this debate. I want this trial, should it go ahead, to be effective, to work, but there needs to be further consultation. I am pleased that Assistant Minister Tudge said that should this bill get through the second reading stage, there will be further consultation and extensive consultation with the people of Ceduna, which is proposed to be one of trial sites. Having said that, I look forward to further debate on this issue. This issue will not go away. I think all sides of this debate have legitimate concerns that need to be respected. I hope that the Senate can robustly but fairly deal with concerns in respect of this bill.

Debate adjourned.