Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


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

1:48 pm

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

The Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015 is important because it looks at an important change in the way that social welfare will be enacted in various communities. There are no names in the bill before us. It is an amendment of the social security law to enable a trial phase of a new cashless welfare arrangement. This is the 'healthy welfare card' recommendation from the review of Indigenous jobs and training conducted by Mr Andrew Forrest and his team last year. The trial, as explained in the legislation, will be conducted in up to three locations, involving up to 10,000 people. The way the locations for this trial will be identified is a very important issue. Locations will be selected on the basis of high levels of welfare dependence, where gambling, alcohol and/or drug abuse are causing unacceptable levels of harm within the community and where there is a level of community support. That last element is most important. This trial is going to be completely dependent on the level of support of the local community. As we all know, that is a very difficult thing to achieve. Any new proposal going out to any community will be unlikely to receive 100 per cent support. Even though, in the evidence that the Community Affairs Legislation Committee heard when we had our one-day hearing on this bill, the local mayor and community leaders were very supportive—and in fact the mayor claimed that he had well over 90 per cent of his community in favour of this trial—it is very important to realise that, with any change, no-one can guarantee overwhelming support for the action.

However, as a member of the committee that looked at the proposal that was put into this legislation, I was deeply impressed by the absolute commitment being brought to us by leaders of the local community, both within the township of Ceduna itself and in the surrounding smaller communities, many of which are Aboriginal communities—a joint appeal from these leaders to their parliament, saying, 'We need help.' In the committee papers, you will be able to read outstanding comments from the local community—bemoaning the impact of alcohol and drugs on their local community, talking about the lack of family safety, talking about the need to take action and talking about the fact that many things have been tried before and they have failed. In a memorandum of understanding that was signed earlier this year, there was a real call from this community to do something together—something new and something that would work for the health and the future of their communities. That is a very important element of the arguments about this trial.

Any trial must be well planned, must engage effectively with all those involved, must be effectively resourced and must have a strong element of evaluation built into the original process. On this element, I think that, whilst there was some difficulty in the information that was made available to us by the various departments that attended the hearing that we had, there has been genuine effort made in the Ceduna region—and I am going to concentrate on Ceduna in my comments, because the only area at this stage where there has been a signed MOU put in place and a public commitment to bringing in the trial is the community of Ceduna in South Australia. We know that some areas of the East Kimberley are already interested in this process. We did hear evidence from them on the day, but in the Labor response I will be concentrating on Ceduna.

In terms of the process for consultation, we asked the department and also the local government leaders and the Indigenous leaders about the processes that they had put in place in their communities to ensure people knew what was going on. I respect the fact that efforts have been made. I want to raise the issue, though, that the elements of engagement seem to have been at the local leadership level, and we questioned the department very strongly about this. Their answer was that, because the legislation had not been passed, they had not gone to any lower level personal consultation in the local area. I am concerned by that. I think that we all know that this has been a very public process. The parliamentary secretary, Mr Tudge, and the local member have been doing lots of public activity in the local region, talking about the issues. When I went into the internet during the hearing, I was able to find that there had been various media releases put out in the local areas, talking about the fact that the trial was going to happen and about the need for having a trial. All this information was around, but when we actually asked whether there had been specific personal discussion—and, in particular, discussion with the people who are currently receiving Centrelink payments in the area—we were told that had not occurred.

I am worried about this because the stimulant for engagement in this trial is being currently on a working-age Centrelink payment, so the people who will be immediately impacted by the changes in the way their social welfare process will be working under this trial may not all be aware of it. I cannot guarantee, no-one in the Ceduna committee can guarantee and certainly no-one from the department can guarantee that every person who may be impacted—in fact, every person who will be impacted—by the trial has knowledge about how it is designed, what their responsibilities will be and what the whole process will be into the future. That, to me, is a genuine weakness.

So we do acknowledge that the departments have made efforts to get information sharing. Thank you for the list of meetings that were held, and thank you for the list of telephone conversations that were had. We gratefully accept that—I say that as a member of our committee—but I want to put on my record my concerns. If you are going to be so significantly changing such an important part of your life—in fact, your livelihood if you are reliant on a social security payment—you should be personally aware of what is going on.

It even took a day to get a subsequent response from the department as to how many people were currently receiving Centrelink payments in the region, where they were located and particular information about their age and their gender. That should not have been the case. We should have known immediately how many people were currently receiving Centrelink payments which would be impacted by this trial. That should have been standard information to be exchanged on the day. It was not, but we do now have it, and we know that around 900 people will, should the trial proceed, have a massive change to the way their social welfare payments will operate.

Whilst Mr Forrest's original title was the cashless welfare card, we have moved away from the term 'cashless' because we have actually had some understanding that, no matter where you are in a community, there will be times when you will need cash. So the proposed change to the social welfare payment is an 80-20 split. This split will be operated by a special bank account where 80 per cent of your welfare payment will be placed, which will not be able to be used for the purchase of alcohol, drugs or gambling, nor will it be able to be used for the purpose of cash transfers. So you will not be able to use this new card—which we have not seen yet, but we know people are working on it; we have been told a lot in this process that people are working on it—for those purposes. That 80 per cent of the payment will be quarantined to the extent that you will be able to use it in the same way as you would use any other card.

Twenty per cent of your payment will be able to be used in your existing bank account—if you have one, because we do know some people have other forms of payment—for the things that you and I do all the time, like catching a bus or making a phone call. One of the people who talked to us in this process talked about going to things like community markets. Apparently there are very good community markets in Ceduna which operate on a cash basis. You are nodding, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi. If you want to purchase something in a market, you will have to use that 20 per cent of your payment.

At our inquiry, a number of questions were put on notice about exactly how this banking process will operate, because key to the trial is ensuring that the financial and banking processes will be easy to work and will respond immediately and that people will understand what is going on. Unfortunately, here we have a bit of a problem, because the final details of how the financial process will operate, even down to which bank or financial institution will conduct the process, are as yet unknown. Well, I do not agree with that; I believe they are known, except that, because of commercial-in-confidence processes, no-one is allowed to know.

I will put this in context. This trial is scheduled to start in February next year. We as a parliament are expected to approve the trial very soon—I would imagine that is the expectation of the government—but we still do not know how the card is going to operate, which financial institution will be working on it and how people will have that interaction. If we are going to be going into a trial which is so significant—and which the people of Ceduna have said at their leadership level they want so desperately—I believe we should have this basic information before us so that we will be able to see how it operates.

We know that we have a long history of the BasicsCard in Indigenous communities in this country, and a number of issues were raised through those 2½ years about how the BasicsCard works. None of us are confused between this card and the BasicsCard, though there was a presumption that we did not quite know what we were talking about—I am looking at Senator Siewert—because we were—

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

Thank you, Senator Moore. It being 2 pm, we move to questions without notice. You will be in continuation.