Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers


3:02 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Families and Social Services (Senator Ruston) to a question without notice asked by Senator McCarthy today relating to the cashless debit card.

Hon. Senators:

Honourable senators interjecting

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator McCarthy, please resume your seat. Senators, order! Senator McCarthy has the right to be heard in silence.

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Deputy President. I pick up on the minister's response, and clearly this has been the problem with the government: it's about picking and choosing the things that work for you in the sloppiness of how this government has brought forward the CDC legislation. You've got a $2.5 million evaluation report which you have not provided to this Senate. You had said you would do it before the legislation went through to the House, and you did not.

Let me go to the ASIC letter, and we are going to dissect this, Minister. You said in your response to my question that you did not agree with my interpretation of this letter, and I think it's important to restate this. You said:

… it's clear that directing someone's social security payment to the cashless debit card does not fall under the provision which Senator McCarthy referred to.

Well, I would very much like to see the advice that you received from the department on that, because it certainly is not the advice from what ASIC says. Minister, you have not answered the questions of legality raised by this ASIC advice, because you have not done your job properly.

As well as the complete lack of independence evidenced from 13 years of income management in the Northern Territory and years of trials in places like Ceduna and the Kimberley, we now know there are significant questions about the legal operations of this legislation—perhaps a robodebt 2 issue right here for this government. Section 12DL of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001, the ASIC Act, provides that a person must not send another person a credit card or a debit card except in specified circumstances. These circumstances are, in summary, where the person who will be liable to the issuer of the card in respect of its use has requested the card, or in renewal or replacement of, or in substitution for, a card that has been so requested or previously used for a purpose for which it was intended to be used. These circumstances do not apply to the cashless debit card, which is mandatory, not voluntary, and which the government wants to impose on more than 23,000 Territorians.

Labor wrote to ASIC last week asking for their advice on this legislation, which will lead to thousands of cards being sent to recipients who have not asked for them. They have not asked for them. That is the key to this response from ASIC. The advice from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission about the government's rollout of the cashless debit card shows there are unresolved legal issues with the legislation. In the letter they sent in response to our questions, the ASIC acting chair, Karen Chester, said:

If the eligible recipient has not given a written request for the card to be sent to them, there may potentially be a contravention of section 12DL.

For the benefit of senators, the letter goes on to say:

In 2016, an application was made to ASIC for a no-action letter in relation to the initial trial of the CDC program.

A no-action letter granted by ASIC is a statement by ASIC that it does not propose to take action in relation to the contravention or possible contravention identified in the letter in the circumstances set out in the letter. It does not affect the operation of the law itself, and does not affect the rights of other persons to take legal action in relation to a contravention of the law.

ASIC does not have the power to grant an exemption from s12DL of the ASIC Act.

The 2016 no-action letter granted by ASIC was specified to apply to the trial of the program. Accordingly, it does not cover the proposed ongoing and broader program to be enabled by the Bill.

So ASIC advises that the issues mainly rest with the sending of the cards. This is a key issue for potential recipients of the card in the Northern Territory and other remote areas. In many cases they would have to travel hundreds of kilometres to get to the nearest Centrelink office to stand in line and sometimes wait for days to be issued with the grey card. What do this minister and this government expect those people to do—just have no card? None of you have any idea of the realities of life for people on welfare. To get around this issue with section 12DL for the original trial, Indue, with the backing of the Department of Social Services, was granted a no-action letter by ASIC. But it is illegal to send these cards.

3:07 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It gives me great pleasure to stand here and take note of the answers given by Senator Ruston this afternoon on the cashless debit card. It's no secret to those in this place that I've been involved with the cashless debit card since before it was even an idea that the government was considering, because I was part of the Minderoo Foundation, and it was an idea that came out of the Forrest review, based on consultation with people in communities across Australia—in particular, the trial communities that were first initiated through the cashless debit card: the communities of Ceduna in South Australia, and Kununurra and Wyndham in the East Kimberley. What we heard from people up there was the need for a circuit-breaker to help these communities deal with the very devastating effects of chronic alcohol and drug abuse. People come into this place—and I have been listening to the debate on this topic today—and speak of many different things about the card. They say, 'The people in these communities actually don't really even know what it is that they're wanting; they wouldn't actually know what would be good for them.' That's essentially what they're coming in here and saying. Frankly, it is probably the height of paternalism to say that to people in the communities that have the cashless debit card, that actually want the cashless debit card, that called on it in the first place to help them deal with some of the issues. None of them ever thought that it would be the solution to all of their problems—none of them. What they wanted was a circuit-breaker to help them deal with the challenges that they were facing as a community. This government has been supporting those communities in that endeavour, and it is demonstrating success across those communities.

I want to deal with some facts, because there haven't been a lot of facts brought out. There have been a lot of feelings brought out, but not a lot of facts. The cashless debit card is a Visa card. It works like a Visa card that any other bank customer in Australia would have, with two exceptions: that card cannot be used at liquor stores or pubs and it can't be taken to an ATM to withdraw cash. It will work at the 900,000 merchants that have signed on that have an EFTPOS machine operating in their retail outlet. It also works online. You can pay your bills online. You can, actually, buy second-hand furniture because you can use things like PayPal. You can link your card to those sorts of services to be able to pay for things.

Throughout COVID, we have seen a dramatic acceleration in the use of contactless payments. More and more, Australians are going about their days using contactless payments, cashless payments, all the time. In fact, many people will say that they have cash in their wallet but it's something they don't even go to use any more. It used to be the case that you almost felt guilty using your card to buy a $4 or $5 coffee, because it was an inconvenience to the retailer. But now it's commonly accepted. The cashless debit card is operating on the Visa platform and works just like any other card. It just won't work at a liquor store. But, if somebody does want to buy alcohol, to enjoy a drink for a celebration or with friends over a meal, over dinner, they can, because there is 20 per cent that's available through their standard bank account. Lots of feelings are given as evidence from the other side of this chamber, but not a lot of facts have actually been brought out here today.

I often speak about the impacts on the ground and I'm told, 'Well, they're just anecdotes that are being used.' When you talk to Foodland in South Australia, in Ceduna, they say they're now selling more fresh fruit and vegetables and have actually got less theft, less shoplifting, happening in their store. Yet those opposite say we can't use that because it's just an anecdote. But all the anecdotes about people feeling stigmatised, people feeling targeted, are somehow more acceptable than the senior sergeant of police in Kununurra saying that this card is actually having a very positive effect— (Time expired)

3:12 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I also take note of answers to questions today asked by Senator McCarthy and Senator Dodson. I've listened very closely to the debate that we've had regarding the cashless debit card over the last couple of days and I'm more convinced than ever that the government's trying to roll out the cashless debit card on a more permanent basis is the wrong move for the individuals concerned and for the regions in which the cashless debit card will be entrenched if the government gets its way.

What Senator McCarthy was highlighting in her question today is that there is serious doubt over the government's capacity to even roll out the cashless debit card, even if it were to get its legislation through this chamber. What the letter from ASIC shows, very clearly, is that the government has previously been given dispensation by ASIC to roll out the cashless debit card and to send it to people in a way that would ordinarily breach legislation because, quite rightly, banks and other credit providers are ordinarily prevented from rolling out credit cards willy-nilly to people.

The government has previously been given dispensation to dispatch the cashless debt card in a way that would not normally be permitted but that was done on a trial basis only. We on this side don't dispute the fact the government previously had power to send cashless debit cards to individuals in those trial regions. What we dispute is that it continues to have the power to do so on a more permanent basis, because we've seen no evidence whatsoever that the government has received a similar dispensation from ASIC for what it seeks to do into the future. So if the government doesn't have the power to send the cashless debit cards to new participants in the scheme in the regions that are affected, then how does it actually expect this is going to work?

Some of the areas in which the cashless debit card has been operating so far and the government wants it to continue on a more permanent basis are some of the most remote places in this country. There aren't shops that people can walk into and there aren't courier services that drop things off. In a big city, you get something dropped off if you order it on eBay. I've spent a bit of time in Cape York and I know a little bit about Cape York. This may be news to you, but courier drivers are not in the habit of rolling up to the doors of people in Cape York to drop off a cashless debit card or something ordered on eBay or anything else, so there is real doubt over the government's ability to roll out these debit cards, even if it actually manages to get this legislation through. So I'd ask some of the more sensible voices in this government to have a look at the legislation and quickly work out whether they can even do what they want to do.

That leaves aside the issues of whether the cashless debit card is a good idea at all, and I will have a bit more to say about that in the debate on this bill later today. But the fundamental point to be made—and a number of my colleagues have done this in the debate—is there is no evidence whatsoever that backs up what the government is seeking to do. This is an ideologically driven exercise from the government, which wants to take away from unemployed people, particularly First Nations people, the capacity to make their own decisions about how they spend their money and, instead, impose the heavy hand of government in what people can do, which is a very surprising thing for a government that claims to be all about small government to actually want to do. The practical effect of the cashless debit card is that it is racially discriminatory because it overwhelmingly applies to First Nations people. It is flawed and without evidence. The so-called research the government has provided to back up its arguments doesn't stand up to any scrutiny whatsoever, and there is a plethora of research which has been published by academic and other experts to show the cashless debit card does not work. It's not too late for the government to retreat. It should reconsider what it's doing, it should drop this legislation and it should drop the cashless debit card altogether.

3:18 pm

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a pleasure to rise to take note of the responses given by Minister Ruston in response to questions today, although I regret I may not quite do the topic such justice as my good colleague Senator O'Sullivan, who, I know, is incredibly passionate about the cashless debit card; indeed, he just spoke very passionately about it. I know Senator O'Sullivan has worked extensively in this space, both in his career prior to coming to this place and as a senator for Western Australia, to ensure that we get this policy right. He and many other members of the Morrison coalition government have been working very carefully and closely over the last 18 or so months to ensure that we get this right.

One of the comments that Senator O'Sullivan made in his contribution earlier that I would like to dwell on was that the communities we're talking about were calling on the government to implement the cashless debit card in the first place. I think that that is something that has perhaps been forgotten in the debate around the legislation that we've heard and will be hearing in this chamber later on this afternoon—that it is these communities in these areas that have requested this policy, that have suggested that this policy is a way to solve some of the problems that we are seeing in these communities. Senator O'Sullivan used an expression that this cashless debit card could be a 'circuit-breaker' to help people in these communities deal with some of the social issues that are causing such great problems locally, reducing alcohol, drug consumption, gambling and these sorts of things. So I think that this policy will certainly go some way to dealing with these issues, and that can only ever be a good thing.

Senator Watt said in his contribution just now that—and this is something we are hearing over and over again—there is no evidence that backs up what the government is trying to do with this policy. I absolutely refute that assertion. Fortunately, in the Senate, we have these things called committees that conduct inquiries into legislation. One of the great joys of my job as a senator is that we can come to this place and take legislation that has been passed in the other place to its relevant committee, put that legislation out to the broader Australian community and have a conversation around whether or not what is in the legislation is going to deal with the issues that we're trying to rectify. Indeed, the cashless debit card legislation went to the Community Affairs Legislation Committee, chaired by my good friend and fellow Tasmanian senator Wendy Askew. That committee has conducted a number of hearings at which evidence has been presented that this policy is needed and that this policy will work.

I would like to quote from Robyn Nolan—the president of the National Council of Women Australia, a great Western Australian, like Senator O'Sullivan—who said at the Community Affairs Legislation Committee, earlier last month, on 5 November:

I've spoken to women and family members in the Kimberley. They are pleased with the card. They can feed their families. Kids aren't going to school hungry and, according to those working in the refuge, serious assaults and domestic and family violence reports have declined. Kids who were caught trying to steal food have also declined …

If this isn't evidence that this policy is a good idea, will work and will make lives better for the people in these communities where the cashless debit card is being rolled out then I don't know what is. I do wonder whether or not those on the opposition benches have read the report of the Community Affairs Legislation Committee, which of course recommended that this legislation be passed by the Senate. Like I say, we have Senate committees so they can take legislation to the Australian public, ask them for ideas and feedback and make a recommendation to this place.

Question agreed to.