Senate debates

Monday, 13 August 2018

Auditor-General's Reports

Report No. 1 of 2018-19; Consideration

4:44 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

This is a fascinating and very important document. These are supposed to be, we're told, the cashless welfare card trials—they're supposed to be trials—where they are supposed to test the concept. If you look at the conclusions of the report—and I'll come back to the rest of them shortly—one of them is, at the end:

Aspects of the proposed wider roll-out of the CDC were informed by learnings from the trial—

That's what's supposed to be happening—

but the trial was not designed to test the scalability of the CDC and there was no plan in place to undertake further evaluation.

I hate to say it, but the conclusions of the report around the cashless welfare card actually confirm what we, the Greens, have been saying in this place ever since the government came up with this foolish scheme: that it would hurt the people that were put on the card. And in fact that is the case. But the government was so ideologically driven on that that when they set up the evaluation process they did not even look at whether the card would have a detrimental impact on the participants in the trials.

The conclusions start with:

The Department of Social Services largely established appropriate arrangements to implement the Cashless Debit Card Trial, however, its approach to monitoring and evaluation was inadequate. As a consequence, it is difficult to conclude whether there had been a reduction in social harm and whether the card was a lower cost welfare quarantining approach.

It also talks about how the department:

…did not actively monitor risks identified in risk plans and there were deficiencies in elements of the procurement processes. Arrangements to monitor and evaluate the trial were in place although key activities were not undertaken or fully effective, and the level of unrestricted cash available in the community was not effectively monitored.

It goes on to say:

Social Services established relevant and mostly reliable key performance indicators, but they did not cover some operational aspects of the trial such as efficiency, including cost. There was a lack of robustness in data collection and the department's evaluation did not make use of all available administrative data to measure the impact of the trial including any change in social harm.

In other words, the government never set out to measure what impact the trial had or to effectively evaluate this trial and look at any social harm. We know from talking to people up there that there was social harm. We know from the limited evaluation that academic after academic has pointed out the flaws in their evaluation process and methodology, the whole process; yet the government goes blindly on. It has extended the cashless welfare card to Kalgoorlie and still plans to and thinks it's very shortly going to roll out the next trial in the Hinkler region in Queensland. This is based purely on ideology, because the Auditor-General's report shows very clearly that there is not the data there.

The evaluation does not support the further rollout of the card. In fact it was never set up, if you recall what I've just said around scalability of the CDC, and there was no plan in place to undertake further evaluation. The government's approach was not to further evaluate the ongoing trials. However, they have now, subsequently, put in some further evaluation process. But they never put in place the process to actually enable proper evaluation of the cashless welfare card, because they just think taking the punitive top-down approach will lead to better outcomes. What it is really about is income management—that's very clear. The cashless welfare card is further income management, and they have an ideological belief that income management will work. They've now had over 11 years worth of 'trialling' that in the Northern Territory, but of course the evaluation of that showed that it met none of its objectives. The ANAO report has further highlighted the flawed approach this government's taking. The minister representing the Minister for Social Services was in here lauding their approach to welfare today.

4:49 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to also speak to the Auditor-General's report and concur very much with my colleague Senator Siewert's remarks. I want to take the opportunity to note and acknowledge her tireless advocacy in pointing out the innate and inevitable flaws in income management for over 10 years. As she said, income management was first introduced into the Northern Territory as part of the so-called emergency response by the Howard government—unfortunately, with support from the then Labor opposition—an approach that Labor then continued in a modified form when they were in government. There is one comment that Senator Siewert made, though, that I may not be able to agree with. She stated that this government has the ideological view that this top-down approach will automatically lead to better outcomes. I'm not actually convinced that they do think that it will lead to better outcomes.

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

I'll accept that!

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you! This report is one of the reasons why. The government set up a trial but set it up, as the Auditor-General's report said, in a way where it was not even designed to test scalability—whether or not it would work if you ramped it up further. This report has shown that their own assessment processes of the trial are completely inadequate. It makes me think that this is solely about the politics of punishing the poor and—what I hope is also a mistaken belief on the part of the government—that somehow there are votes in that. I'm not convinced that there are. People are wising up to the fact that continually kicking unemployed people, pensioners, carers and sole parents isn't going to keep delivering votes.

The other reason why this government doesn't really care about whether or not the trial is going to work in reducing harm in the community is what we've seen in the approach this year, when the Senate rejected the proposal to extend this trial into the Hinkler electorate in my own state of Queensland. This government immediately bowled up legislation to try and force that through. They then sent it to a Senate committee. Did those government senators go to the community and hear from the community directly about what their concerns were and why they believed it wouldn't work? The government held, frankly, what was a pretty derisory phone link-up with people on the other side of the country, packing three or four witnesses into a 30-minute timeslot. You couldn't get a clearer demonstration of their contempt for the local community, and I'd like to acknowledge the community's work in trying to get their views heard.

I went to Hervey Bay with Senator Siewert last year, before I ended up back in this place, to attend a meeting. The local people there, many of whom are on social security payments and on low incomes by definition, are working very hard to have their concerns put forward. That includes plenty of people who won't be directly affected but who know the damage that that does to a local community. They know how harmful the deliberate stigmatising of people on social security payments is. I had the inspiring experience, again just a few weeks ago, to go to meetings in Hervey Bay and Bundaberg. We had over 50 people at the meeting in Bundaberg on a Monday night. They were people from a range of different backgrounds and walks of life, and they had a lot of experience working in the community with people with substance abuse and gambling issues. They put forward all sorts of reasons why this won't work, but no government senators were there to listen. To those senators on the crossbench who will be the deciding voices on whether or not to put through this punitive measure to punish people in Hervey Bay and Bundaberg: take the opportunity not to do this to the people in that part of Queensland when the government couldn't even be bothered to turn up there and listen.

There was a very good submission by the mayor of Hervey Bay, George Seymour, a person with a background in working with young people and other disadvantaged people. He not only said why it wouldn't work but talked about how it would stigmatise his entire community unfairly and unnecessarily, purely for political point scoring purposes, by punishing the poor. The fact that this government has refused to listen is evidenced by this Auditor-General's report and by their own behaviour in the Senate committee inquiry. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.