Wednesday, 22 August 2018
Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card Trial Expansion) Bill 2018; Second Reading
I was discussing the idea of the government conducting an independent review for the evaluation of the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay trial. This review would have to be undertaken by independent evaluation experts with significant expertise in the social and economic aspects of welfare policy. It would begin immediately when the minister receives the evaluation, and would be completed within six months, conducted by an independent panel with expertise in the social and economic aspects of welfare policy. The expert would consult participants in the trial and make recommendations as to whether the cashless welfare arrangements are effective and should be implemented elsewhere. My hope would be that the National Audit Office, given the quality of its work and its expertise in this particular area, conduct this review, but it is not within the powers of the Senate to make a direction in that regard.
I know that many are opposed to the trials, and that there has been criticism of the extent of community consultation, the implementation of the card, its outcomes and the shortcomings of the evaluations themselves, but there are recipients of the cashless debit card in the trials to date who have welcomed it. They say, for example, that in their cases it has prevented others—be they spouses, family members or not—from accessing their social security payments and excessively spending them on nonessential items, usually alcohol, to the harm of those whom the payments need to assist. In my consideration of this bill I have noted these people, as well as those recipients and advocacy groups that have not welcomed these initiatives in the cashless debit card.
I will not support further trials or extensions of the cashless welfare card if these trials are shown to be detrimental to its objectives; however, I genuinely believe in giving initiatives a chance if they have the potential to help the vulnerable in society. I will always seek to conduct my politics based on reliable data and evaluation. Therefore I will be asking the Senate to support an independent evaluation of the government's review of the card. If we can get reliable data out of this trial and have the review of that data independently evaluated and reported, we will significantly better understand what we should do in the future with regard to the cashless debit card.
I rise to oppose the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card Trial Expansion) Bill 2018. I have participated in some but not all of the committee hearings in relation to the cashless debit card, but I did participate in the most recent hearing—I think it was slightly longer than two hours—for the trials to commence in the Bundaberg region. I have very real concerns about this particular trial in Bundaberg. I listened very carefully to what Senator Storer said about his support for this particular bill. I would ask him to reconsider and look at what has been happening. Labor supported the Ceduna and East Kimberley trials, because we believed there'd been proper consultation and local people on the ground were keen to participate in the trial. On that basis we agreed to those trials.
We wanted to see a decent evaluation occur. I hear Senator Storer calling for an independent evaluation. The government would argue that the ORIMA evaluation was independent. So I think we need more than an independent trial. But the ORIMA evaluation has been widely discredited by all quarters of our society, except, of course, by the Turnbull government. It's been discredited because there was no baseline data. We didn't really know what was happening in the East Kimberley or Ceduna before we commenced the trial. And it was done in such an ad hoc, unprofessional way. People were stopped in the street and were asked their personal views about whether they thought their use of alcohol or drugs had declined. We all like to underestimate how we might overuse things that aren't particularly good for us, so I'm sure that most people, if asked whether their alcohol consumption had decreased, would probably say yes. Perhaps most of us are unaware of what our real alcohol consumption is. But that isn't the only reason the ORIMA evaluation was discredited. It was discredited by academics, by organisations who work with people who need support and by a whole range of other people, who just said that this trial really didn't prove anything—and it absolutely didn't.
You will hear the government make claims about crime reduction, domestic violence reduction and all sorts of harm-inducing behaviours having been reduced, but there's no proof of that. Everything is anecdotal. Of course, the ORIMA research was never able to do a proper evaluation of that, because there's no baseline—there's no baseline data. What we do know is that the cashless debit card is very, very expensive. In the East Kimberley and Ceduna it's costing about $10,000 per participant. Just imagine if we were able to take that amount of money and put it into support services in those communities. I think that would make an immediate difference. What we know from Mr Lawford Benning is that lots of services were initially promised by Minister Tudge, particularly for the Kununurra region, and none of those were delivered. Certainly in evidence at the Kalgoorlie hearing, Mr Benning told us that Mr Tudge was contacting a group of local leaders on an almost weekly basis until they agreed to trial the card, and then, once they agreed, that support completely dropped away.
Labor is still waiting for a decent, proper academic evaluation to be done in the East Kimberley and in Ceduna. We understand from the government that that will be done, but the proof will be in the pudding so that we can get a sense of what is actually happening on the ground in those communities in my state of Western Australia. So, while we have this trial site that the government set up at the behest of 'Twiggy' Forrest, we shouldn't be rolling out any further trials, because we really don't know whether what's happened on the ground in the two trial sites has made any difference at all. Yet, not only have we seen the government continue to roll trials out; they've completely changed the goalposts.
After the debate in this place enabled the card to be put into the Goldfields regions, I went there recently—about four weeks ago—and, along with the local Labor member for Kalgoorlie, Kyle McGinn, we held an opening meeting. It was advertised as an open meeting. We wanted people who supported the card to come; we wanted people who opposed the card to come. But, most importantly, we wanted people who were on the card to come. As I said, it was an open invitation. It was advertised widely in the media, on social media and through organisations, because we wanted to have an open consultation. We wanted to hear the good and the bad.
It was very clear, when we held the Senate inquiry on the cashless debit card in Kalgoorlie, that local people had not been consulted. I heard Senator Brockman today say there had been broad consultation, and I heard Senator Georgiou say a similar thing. But the consultation was with the local councils in the Goldfields region. You know, 10 points to the government for being very clever about that: 'Tick, we've consulted, because we've brought the local governments together and they've agreed with the cards.' Thankfully, the local government organisations came to the hearing that we had in Kalgoorlie, and so I asked each and every one of them what consultation they'd undertaken as local governments. The answer from all the councils was that there had been none. They saw themselves as elected representatives, and they saw it as their responsibility to agree or not agree with the card. I really pressed the Mayor of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Mr John Bowler, about the consultation that occurred in Kalgoorlie, and it was very clear from his evidence that there had been none. That was certainly backed up by evidence that we heard from organisations and individuals in Kalgoorlie that they hadn't been consulted. We know that in Kununurra local people were not consulted as widely as Labor was led to believe, because we know that in Kununurra people initially thought the card was like a gift card and, once you'd used it once, you didn't use it again, so they threw it away. We heard some evidence of that happening in Ceduna as well. So the Labor senators on the inquiry were very committed to trying to work with the witnesses to find out how much consultation had actually taken place. As I said, the councils believed it was their decision to make, and so they made the decision.
It's also evident that the kinds of supports that we need in the towns are not there. Of course, people from all sorts of communities, including the lands where the card doesn't operate, come down to Kalgoorlie when they need to visit a hospital, to deal with a Centrelink office face to face, to deal with some other community organisation face to face or, of course, to visit family and friends. What's happening with the people from the lands, if you believe what the Kalgoorlie council told us, is that they're getting caught up and not being able to get back to the lands. Most councils—in fact, I think all the councils—told us that the issues of poor behaviour and other social issues weren't really from locals in the town. All of them saw it as people coming in from other areas and creating those social problems. So here we have this very blunt instrument that captures everybody on a benefit, except an age pension benefit, across a massive geographical region, when every single council told us that it was people coming in from other areas who they believed were their biggest challenge. So it is absolutely incredible that we would use this blunt instrument to capture what seems to be an itinerant issue and not a local issue.
The Labor senators managed to find some people who would be affected by the card, and they gave evidence. It's fair to say some people wanted the card and some didn't. The other thing I'll say before I move on is that both Senator Georgiou and Senator Brockman, in their responses, talked about the broadscale consultation that happened in the Goldfields. I just went back and looked at the transcript. We had Mr Brian Champion, who is the deputy chair of the Goldfields Aboriginal Reference Group. He said they were not consulted.
We had Mr Brownley, who I think is now a councillor. He is an Aboriginal person—that is how he described himself—and a business owner. He said there'd been little consultation. We heard from Mr Donaldson of the Goldfields Land and Sea Council, who told us there had been little consultation. In fact, Mr Donaldson said that the Kalgoorlie Council, in particular, had hand-picked a group of people that they wanted to take to Ceduna. Mr Donaldson not only made the point that they hand-picked a group of local people—no women, and he objected to that—but he said he wanted to go to Kununurra and not Ceduna, but the council was offering Ceduna only. So, here we had this hand-picked group, which was also going to be used as a tick-off for consultation, being taken to Ceduna when they actually wanted to visit the East Kimberley also. We heard from YMAC, the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, which is the native title body for the traditional owners of the Pilbara, Mid West, Murchison and Gascoyne regions. YMAC doesn't support the expansion of the cashless debit card, but said it had had little information about the card and its implications. So, I'm not sure what Senators Brockman and Georgiou are reading from, but it is certainly not from the transcript.
The other point that I want to make a statement about is that in Senator Georgiou's contribution earlier today he held up—and I wish he had tabled it—what he said was a media release from the Mayor of Kalgoorlie, Mr John Bowler. I'm not doubting that it is a media release from the mayor, but my office has gone to great lengths to try to find that media release. It is not anywhere on the council's website—in fact, the last time I'm aware of that Mr Bowler made a media comment was a couple of weeks ago in relation to mining issues in Kalgoorlie. It hasn't been published at all. The Kalgoorlie Miner certainly hasn't published the statement reportedly made by Mr Bowler, according to what Senator Georgiou read out, that there is less crime in Kalgoorlie. So, we ended up phoning the council and saying, 'The mayor has put out a media release saying the cashless debit card is doing wonders in Kalgoorlie in terms of reducing crime, and we'd like a copy of it.' Do you know what they said? 'Oh, we don't keep copies of the mayor's media releases. We don't really see them.' So, I'm led to believe that maybe it's a concocted media release to put on the Hansard for the Senate.
I take issue with two things: first, how dare the Mayor of Kalgoorlie make an assumption that there's some link between crime and people on benefits—what an outrageous statement to be making; and, second, to say there's been a reduction in crime. Now—Acting Deputy President Sterle, I know you know Kalgoorlie well—that might be because the Western Australian Police are targeting Kalgoorlie. They've had an operation in place there since the introduction of the cashless debit card. It's a coincidence. There's a greater police presence on the street, which I'm sure the mayor must know about. I don't know if it's in this fictitious media release, which can't be found anywhere, except for the copy that Senator Georgiou has. I'm just wondering whether it's a made-up media release. To actually make a link between crime statistics and people on benefits is an insult, when there are no statistics at all that hold that kind of statement to be true. Also, to not acknowledge—and I'm assuming it's not acknowledged in the media release, and, as I said, it's a shame it's not tabled—that the police have a particular operation going on in Kalgoorlie, as I speak, is very dishonest.
I return now to the meeting I held with Kyle McGinn, the Labor member up there in Kalgoorlie, which, as I said, we opened up to everyone. We had representatives from the Kalgoorlie council come along to the meeting—two of them, the CEO and another gentleman. They didn't bother to identify themselves. Quite frankly, I wouldn't have known who they were except that participants in the room told me. How dishonest is that? I was quite happy to have dissent there, to have the good and bad. It was widely advertised. At the start of the meeting I stood up and said: 'I want this to be a respectful debate. There are people in here who support the card and there are people in here who oppose the card. I'm simply trying to get a read of what's happening in the room'.
There were two representatives from One Nation, who, equally, tried to hide and not identify themselves. There were two other representatives from one of the other councils who also didn't identify themselves. Thankfully, as I said, Kyle McGinn knew who they were and so did many of the participants. To sit in a meeting, in some kind of cloak-and-dagger way, and not identify yourself is, quite frankly, really dishonest. If you're going to support something, have the courage to stand up to your convictions and not chicken out. I've written to those councils saying, 'It's a shame you didn't identify yourselves', and they haven't responded. I find that completely unacceptable.
We heard horror stories about the cashless debit card in Kalgoorlie. We had one woman who'd worked all of her life. She was in her early 60s. She has anxiety issues. She found it very difficult to come to the meeting, but she was so determined to put her story on the public record that she came. She'd worked all her life. She hurt herself at work and is now on a benefit and so was captured by the card. This is a very conservative woman, a very traditional woman. She always had a joint bank account with her husband. She broke down in tears as she told us that the cashless debit card forced her to open her own bank account. I explained to her that there are good reasons as to why we want women in particular to have their own bank accounts, but this was a very conservative, traditional woman. For her whole working life, her whole married life, she had shared a bank account with her husband and suddenly was being asked to do something different. The words of Twiggy Forrest rang in my in ears, when he said, 'This card will provide stability'. Well, it certainly hasn't for that woman. He said, 'This card will provide reliability'. Well, it didn't for her. She was torn apart by that card. She tried to get off it and was refused.
There was no-one in the room who was a heavy drinker. There was no-one in the room who was a gambler. There were grandmothers. There were single men with responsibilities for children. There were mums. There were dads. There were a whole range of people who were having real, everyday issues with that card, like the person who was paying their rent but couldn't pay a water bill without ringing the department and asking for permission. If that isn't an invasion upon your personal wellbeing, I don't know what is.
This is a blunt instrument. It's not doing what it's designed to do, because people need that one-on-one support, not this blanket response. Now we're rolling it out into Bundaberg to people under 36. We see those goalposts move again. I remain opposed to this. Let's get a proper evaluation out of the single trial that's going at the moment and get on with the job.