Senate debates

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Regulations and Determinations

Social Security (Administration) (Trial Area — East Kimberley) Determination 2016; Disallowance

6:18 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate disallow the Social Security (Administration) (Trial Area—East Kimberley) Determination 2016.

The reason I am doing this—and if the government attempts to bring in a third trial I will be doing the same thing—is that we think this measure is deeply flawed. Just to be clear: this process is about disallowing the application of the so-called cashless welfare card and the so-called cashless debit card in the East Kimberley. This is the second trial site. The first one was Ceduna and started a bit earlier than the one in the East Kimberley.

I will be very clear. We have been opposing this measure from the start, the same way as we opposed income management when it was introduced into the Northern Territory via the Northern Territory intervention. The comments that we made when that bill was being debated in this place all those years ago in 2007 have, unfortunately, been proven to be correct. The Northern Territory intervention has failed. The final evaluation clearly shows that. It clearly shows the issues that we highlighted during the debate about the potential failures of a flawed system of income management where you take top-down, punitive approaches to try to achieve the social change that the then government said they were trying to achieve. We very carefully evaluated at that time in 2007 the global evidence that showed that these types of income-quarantining measures do not work. The limited evidence that was available in Australia also indicated that these sorts of punitive, top-down approaches do not work. Of course, with the intervention, there was no consultation on the way it was put in place.

We opposed the cashless welfare card legislation when it was introduced into this place, and we voted to disallow the Ceduna trial. The same sort of regulation was being put in place that we are now debating here. But every time we have sought to draw attention to the evidence that shows that this sort of approach is flawed and does not work—for example, the final evaluation of the intervention and its income management has shown that it was flawed and did not meet its objectives—the old parties have voted together to impose this or a similar cruel and harsh measure.

We oppose this policy because this approach is flawed. We do not believe it will meet its stated objectives. This is about the coalition's constant decision to take a punitive approach to serious entrenched issues. They prefer to take a punitive approach than one that is subject to full consultation, that works for the community, that is community driven and that includes wraparound support. I am not denying that there are serious issues that need to be addressed. In fact earlier today, I was talking about alcohol and substance abuse in the debate of the MPI, acknowledging that these issues are very serious. I urge the ALP to change their mind on this, to support this disallowance, to listen to the evidence, to look at where the coalition has been going with this—because this has been their consistent approach—and to actually then look at what measures will in fact help to address this sort of entrenched disadvantage and also to address substance and alcohol abuse.

I was speaking in the chamber earlier today about what are the issues that lead to alcohol and substance abuse. I talked about the measures that the World Health Organization has listed that can lead to and add to alcohol abuse, and about the social determinants of health. Wealth, housing, racism and discrimination all come in to it. These are all the sorts of social determinants of health that we should be addressing as pointed out by the World Health Organization. We have been having a debate on the social determinants of health in Australia and have been hearing the talks by Professor Marmot, who led the debate on this issue.

The scheme does not address the social determinants of health or the systemic issues. It tries to take a top-down flawed approach that cuts off people's access to cash, that determines the way they can spend their money, that puts stigma on people, that takes away people's dignity—these are all things that I have been told by community members—and it makes them feel ashamed when they go shopping with that 'white card', as people call it.

This scheme was rushed through without adequate consultation. People in communities were not properly consulted. This is very evident from the approach that we saw when the government was trying to drive this particular measure into Geraldton. The government were not going to consult. In fact they have not consulted widely. They have consulted with the people they felt they should consult with, their determination of who community leaders were. They were not actually going out to talk to the people that were going to be affected by this card. Remember this card applies to everybody on working-age income support payments in a community, not just the people that the government thinks are abusing alcohol and substances, and gambling.

This card applies to everybody in these communities. Were the government going to talk to people in the Geraldton community? No they certainly were not. I did. I held a public meeting. I fed back to this chamber what those community members felt and they overwhelmingly rejected the Healthy Welfare Card. Not only that but the combined Aboriginal organisations in Geraldton very clearly looked at the evidence, talked about it and decided they would not support a so-called trial of the cashless welfare card in Geraldton. They rejected it. The government then started to talk about Laverton and Leonora and said the communities there supported it. But there are voices there that do not support it.

In the media last night there was an article saying the government may not be going ahead with the third trial and I for one say: good because it is not a trial. When they say they are trialling it, they are not evaluating it properly or comparing it to alternative approaches so how could they call it a trial? Geraldton said no. Other communities have said no. We have heard that that is why the government came to Western Australia, to look for a second site in Western Australia, because they could not con the communities in the eastern states into doing it. Geraldton really clearly demonstrated that the government did not consult them. That is the same thing they did in the other communities; they consulted people they thought were leaders in the community but not everybody and they did not consult the people that were going to be affected.

In the same way, in the Northern Territory, they did not consult. When they rammed through income management and when they rammed through the intervention, there was no consultation there. The evaluation shows that in fact there did not prove to be any significant change in the very issues the government talked about wanting to address. In fact, the evaluation talks about entrenching some dependency on income management and on income support. They did not build people's decision making capacity on how to manage their money, which was one of the things that government said they were trying to do.

This reflects the coalition's agenda to take a punitive approach to some of the most vulnerable members of our community. Since entering into government, this coalition has constantly been subjecting the most vulnerable members of our community, many of whom are on income support, to constant cuts, to constant changes. They are trying to keep young people off income support. First they were trying for six months and now they are trying for five weeks. They are constantly trying to save money on the most vulnerable members of our community. You have to look no further than the omnibus bill that is going to be debated in this chamber in the not too distant future. They are cutting Newstart to some of the most vulnerable people in our community and trying to take DSP off people that are in psychiatric confinement. They are trying to take money from carers. They are trying to make changes around interest and debt recovery for debts that people on income support may have accumulated—and many of these debts are caused not by the people themselves but by the failures in the system.

It is very clear that they are continuing this punitive approach with the cashless welfare card. They have made cuts to social services and income support. They brought out the disastrous Indigenous Advancement Strategy and, during the process, ripped over half a billion dollars of funding out of services and support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The government say this is a trial, that they are imposing this card for 12 months and that they will look at the impacts of the card. However, the government are also funding some additional services. Not for one minute am I rejecting the additional services that are being offered to these communities. I would go so far as to say that, if these communities had had these services in the first place, they might not be in the situations that they are in now. It makes you wonder how the government do not get that they should not be ripping over half a billion dollars out of Aboriginal funding and that these services are vital. They have obviously realised they are vital, because they are providing them in some of these trial areas. But what they are not doing is then evaluating what happens in a community when you have only got the card, so how can they tell the difference between the impact of the card and the impact of the services? You cannot. In fact, when we were debating the bill that brought this legislation in in the first place, I had this debate in the chamber with Senator Fifield. He acknowledged that that was going to be difficult. But have they looked for an alternative community to evaluate, a community that is getting just additional services, so they could make a true comparison? No, they are not doing that.

In estimates, it has been extremely difficult to find out what method of evaluation they were going to be undertaking and who was going to be undertaking the evaluation. I understand, through contacts in communities, that some evaluation has started and that there has been a survey put out to participants, who get a voucher as a reward for participating in the survey. This is hearsay evidence being collected—not appropriate, scientific, rigorous, data driven evidence. But we have had the minister, who has been behind this whole time, talking about anecdotal evidence that crime has been reduced and that there have been reductions in poker machine use.

I will stop for a minute here and interject on myself and remind the chamber that this is exactly what happened with the Northern Territory intervention. When it was first rolled out in the Northern Territory, you had ministers and the Prime Minister up there claiming there had been so much change in the way people bought fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as other changes. They trumpeted this as a wild success. In fact, it was not a success—as the evaluations, including the interim evaluations, clearly showed. I will also acknowledge that some of the evaluations of the place-based income management show that voluntary income management, in some situations, can be beneficial. But that, of course, is because people have chosen to make that decision themselves.

Going back to the issues around the hearsay and anecdotal evidence, I would like to read a quote from Adelaide's The Advertiser from just last month:

But the State Government has warned that figures used by Mr Tudge should be treated with caution because they are volatile and cover towns and councils hundreds of kilometres away from Ceduna, potentially skewing results.

So the coalition minister is struggling to find facts to support this ideological agenda. From the same article in The Advertiser, the South Australia Police say that they could not provide data in relation to Ceduna specifically:

A spokesman for SAPOL said that figures were only provided at the Service Area level and the database could not provide figures for Ceduna specifically.

Again, we have data being used by the government to try to say that there have been some improvements. We do not know, because we have not yet seen the specific data for Ceduna.

Most importantly, we need to be listening to the people in the community. That is what I have been saying all along. I have heard from members of the affected communities about this card—their concerns when it first started about not being able to pay bills, having to borrow money to pay bills, and the shame of having what some people call the white card or the Indue card. Just last week Mr Abbott, who is a strong supporter of this card, said, 'This card has no stigma. It's just like a normal Visa card.' Well, it does have stigma. Just talk to the people in Ceduna who have been telling me about that. The card is clearly different from a normal Visa card; it says 'Indue' on it. It is a different type of card, and everybody knows what that Indue card means.

Just last week—and it is of major concern—there were issues with power supply. I understand that the power outage extended into Ceduna and there were people on the cashless welfare card who were trying to buy things when the electricity ran out and they could not buy things. I heard a response implying that they should be able to get credit. That is not what I heard from community members themselves. Being able to access only 20 per cent of their payments in cash means that people have very little cash, because 20 per cent of the Newstart allowance is a very small amount of money. So they were not able to use cash. I had an email today saying that in some places the power was out for a substantial period of time, meaning that for a substantial period of time people were not able to buy things.

In the East Kimberley trial we have heard, already, of a black market operating. There have been some reports in the media about that—in terms of the use of the card and swapping it for cash. Now, it is my turn for anecdotal evidence, and I will say it is anecdotal evidence in the same way as the government's anecdotal evidence. So I do not put a lot of credence on it. The other thing we have heard is that there has been an increase in burglaries in the East Kimberley trial area. I will say right now I do not know if that is true—in the same way the government does not know whether their claims are true. They are taking information over a wide area and are trying to say that applies to Ceduna. This is a flawed approach. We should be coming from an approach that is community driven, that is genuinely consultative, that provides those wraparound supports, that addresses the systemic disadvantage that I addressed earlier in terms of those social determinants of health.

We do not support this punitive approach that does not work from a strength-based approach. Please, support this disallowance and let us move on to measures that genuinely work—measures that do not punish people, that do not cause people to have a sense of loss of dignity and that do not stigmatise people, and that work with their strengths.

6:38 pm

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

I will be brief. The government opposes this disallowance motion.

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That was briefer than I thought across the chamber. You did say you would be brief.

Labor will not be supporting this disallowance motion, either. I would just like to briefly outline our position on why we will not be supporting the disallowance motion. Labor does not believe in a blanket approach to welfare quarantining. We do not believe the debit card on welfare payment should be rolled out nationally. We understand that the vast majority of people on income support are more than capable of managing their own finances, but the level of alcohol abuse in communities like Ceduna and Kununurra cannot be ignored.

Labor supports community-driven initiatives designed to tackle alcohol abuse. That is why we offered support for the 12-month debit card trial in both Ceduna and Kununurra. We want to see the results of these trials. Trial participants include people who receive Newstart allowance, parenting payment, disability support pension and carer payments. It is important to note that new debit card arrangements are very different from income management. Unlike income management, participants on the new debit card will not receive assistance from Centrelink workers to assist in budgeting or to ensure that income support payments are directed at life's essentials, such as food, rent and clothing. The intent of the new debit card is to ensure that the majority of income support payments cannot be spent on alcohol or gambling products.

Labor does not see this card as a panacea for all the problems in these communities. We believe that the card must come accompanied by appropriate wraparound support services if it is to be successful in tackling complex, multidimensional and intergenerational social problems, which is something Labor argued successfully for in the legislation that passed the parliament last year.

As was pointed out during the debate of this legislation, Labor do support the quarantining of income support payments to ensure that money is spent in the best interests of children and families, and the most vulnerable people in the community. It means that more money will go to providing food, clothes and rent, and that less money will go to alcohol and gambling. Labor also believe that quarantining of income support payments can be a useful tool to help stabilise people's circumstances and to ease immediate financial stress. In finalising our position, Labor listened to people living in the possible trial locations and heard that they were desperate for action to assist in tackling the harm that is being caused by alcohol in their communities. Community leaders in the area have said they wanted to take part in the trial.

It is for these reasons that Labor will not be supporting this disallowance and will be waiting and watching to see how the first 12 months of this trial have gone. We will be talking with community leaders in these trial towns to get their firsthand experiences from the trials. Labor's Jenny Macklin has requested a briefing from the department to update the opposition on the progress of the trial at Ceduna and Kununurra. We look forward to that briefing and to finding out more about how the trial is progressing. As such, we will not be supporting the disallowance motion today.

6:42 pm

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

It seems that nobody else wants to contribute to the debate, so I will—

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

A right of reply?

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

Yes—well, wrapping up the debate. The government cannot even justify why they are continuing this trial, or why this chamber should not support my motion. I realise they are trying to ram through the budget omnibus bill, but at least they could do East Kimberley the dignity of actually responding to this debate. So I am greatly disappointed about that.

Also, Senator Gallagher, with all due respect, you just repeated what the ALP said in the debate—flawed, though it be, in terms of lack of consultation. There was not adequate consultation in Ceduna or in East Kimberley, in the same way that there has not been in Geraldton. I am extremely disappointed that you continue with the myth that this is not income management and that it is not different to what happened in the Northern Territory. It is different in that it is 80 per cent, not 50 per cent, that is being quarantined. And there was budget help for people in the Northern Territory—supposedly—when the NT intervention rolled out. So that is not a difference to what this particular trial is, compared to the approach on income management.

The ALP and the government, into the future, will be held accountable by the community for their flawed approach that they are taking to income support. If the ALP think that it is not on the government's agenda, it is certainly on the agenda of Andrew Forrest, who recommended this in his report in the first place. The recommendation there was to roll it out across Australia, and coalition members continue to talk about it. So wake up. That is their agenda—to roll this card out across Australia to people on income support. When the member for Durack was trying to convince the community in Geraldton about accepting this card, she was sort of saying, 'We won't apply it to people that are on the disability support pension or carers; we'll just apply it to people on Newstart or Youth Allowance. So we'll just try to change the facts.' But the facts are in the legislation there.

It is very clear that the government want to roll this out wherever they can—or certain members. To be fair, maybe it is not all coalition members, but there are a number who do. There are a number who want to see this approach taken to supporting the most vulnerable in our community. Please say no to this flawed approach, because it is punitive and does not help people in the long term, just as the Northern Territory intervention did not help people in the long term. We still have the entrenched issues of disadvantage in the Northern Territory in the same way that we will continue to have those entrenched issues of disadvantage in the East Kimberley and in Ceduna in the long term, until we start addressing the underlying causes of disadvantage, those systemic underlying causes that have clearly been identified.

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

The question is that the disallowance motion moved by Senator Siewert be agreed to.