Monday, 22 February 2021
Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, Cashless Debit Card; Order for the Production of Documents
That the Senate take note of the documents.
In taking note of this response, I think it is worth reminding those following at home of exactly where we are at this moment. It is a week since the passage through this Senate of a Greens bill to establish the protections needed for witnesses to give evidence to the disability abuse royal commission while being fully protected. That bill passed this chamber with the support of the crossbench. In response to that bill passing, the government said: 'Oh, no, we've got our own bill coming. It's going to be much better and it's going to address all of these other issues. We're going to do it before the end of the autumn sitting.' It was one of those rare occasions where a coalition government said, 'We support what the Greens want to do and we want to go further.'
Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting—
Unprecedented, Senator Whish-Wilson. Yet on the legislative agenda published for this week there was not a single bill listed that dealt with this issue—even though the government has had 18 months to deal with this issue. It has had 18 months to respond to the community, 18 months to respond to the demands of the commission itself, and the Attorney-General has failed to do so, once again seeming to stall a change which the community desperately needs.
There can be no excuse for this type of delay. I ask government senators to reflect upon it. Why is it that your government was dragged kicking and screaming to the establishment of the royal commission? It was established. People have begun to tell their stories. As part of that process it has become abundantly clear that this very simple legislative change is needed to extend the current confidentiality provisions so that they exist in perpetuity, protecting people's confidentiality and privacy and ensuring that they do not come to harm if they tell their stories to the disability abuse royal commission. You knew about it in February 2019; the chair of the royal commission wrote to you in February 2020; the interim report, published in October 2020, identified it as an impediment to the investigation; yet here we are in February 2021 and you still have not acted.
It seems very clear to me that the only thing that ever drew a solid statement on this out of you folks was that the bill ended up passing the Senate in the first place, spooking you into doing something. In some ways I bloody well hope that that is the case. If not, we have an Attorney-General's Department that takes 18 months to craft a basic piece of legislation, which is very worrying for this country. But I cannot think it is the case, because I do remember, as I'm sure Senator Whish-Wilson does, the speed with which the Attorney-General's office was able to respond when a few needles were found in strawberries. We had legislation dealing with that within a couple of weeks. If only disabled people were needles in strawberries; maybe we would have had action by now. If only disability abuse seemed to threaten some of the government's regional allies; maybe we would have had action by now. This is one of the most farcical stalemates I have seen in three years. Surely you cannot want to sit on that side of the chamber in the pocket of 'big abuse'? Surely you want to see people tell their stories? Surely you want to see people give this evidence as to how they have been so poorly treated?
This is something that could have passed in the blink of an eye in this place. We could have banged it through in non-contro with very little debate. It could have been done in March last year. We could have gathered an entire year of evidence. Instead, we have seen a structural impediment to this historic investigation continue. It is absolutely unacceptable that it is 18 months later and the government is still stalling. There can be no further delay from the Attorney-General or the Prime Minister. As I understand your conception of the autumn sitting, it ends at the end of March. That gives you two more weeks after the conclusion of this Senate sitting week to get that bill through—to get it through, get it done, get people the protections they need. While you're at it, could you be so polite as to respond to the royal commission's request for an extension of 15 months to its life? As it's owing in no small part to the fact that the commission has lost 18 months buggering about trying to get you to do this, that would be much appreciated. All you need to do is to do your job and get out of the way. The evidence will flow. Get on and do it. You have two weeks left. The community are watching you, and we expect action. I thank the chamber for its time and I seek leave to continue my remarks.
Last week we finally saw the University of Adelaide evaluation of the cashless debit card in Ceduna, east Kimberley and the Goldfields go up on the Department of Social Services website. One wonders whether that would have gone up if this OPD hadn't been moved in this chamber. This evaluation was released over a year and a half late after it was due, and most of the evidence was collected back in 2019. I'll tell you what: when you read it, you know very well why they didn't want to table it before we debated that bill. They extended the trial for another two years in the very dying days of parliament last year, because this report does not have evidence that the cashless debit card has, in fact, achieved its objectives. The government can't show that the cashless debit card has made much statistical success towards its stated goals.
The evaluation is quite clear that it is not possible to attribute changes in the trial sites to the cashless debit card alone. Changes in alcohol consumption can't be attributed to the card alone because there were many other measures put in place at the same time. Besides, if you read the report, 46 per cent of CDC participants report that they don't consume alcohol at all. Nearly 50 per cent don't actually consume alcohol, and yet this card was rolled on for another two years.
No discernible change in employment outcomes were reported in the evaluation across all three trial sites. There was little consensus amongst whether and how children's welfare had changed since the card was first introduced. Again, we were always told 'this is about the children' but the bottom line is that the government can't show that the cashless debit card has achieved its intended goals, because the data is so poor. Despite this, the researchers have drawn on the data to infer some possible perceived changes. I remember when there were perceived changes for the Northern Territory intervention, but when that was tested out it was shown that there weren't any changes. I bet you that's what's going on here. We're working on perceptions that there have been changes, not real changes.
The report talks about the degree to which the CDC is perceived to have decreased the use of alcohol or illicit drugs instead of using hard data to demonstrate statistically significant changes. This cannot be overstated. They can't demonstrate statistically significant changes. The government spent $2.5 million on this evaluation and they still can't tell us whether the CDC achieved its aims to reduce alcohol consumption or drug or gambling misuse. Perceived changes aside, what the evaluation does tell us is that the majority of the cashless debit card participants would prefer to opt out of the current trial.
Once again, we have a process here that the participants want out of. They don't want to be on the card, but stakeholders still want the card to continue. It is absolutely outrageous that the government can continue to push this so-called trial while they cannot demonstrate outcomes. Let me quote what it says in the report. It says that the majority of participants reported 'feelings of discrimination, embarrassment, shame and unfairness' across all trial sites. So stakeholders can say, 'We think there's a change,' but participants, the people on it, are suffering from discrimination, embarrassment and shame. Others have talked to me about loss of dignity, loss of control over their lives. That is what this report can show. It's not perceived. This is what participants are actually saying.
Disappointingly, this evaluation did not critically engage with the assumptions underpinning the cashless debit card itself. For example, the researchers accepted:
The academic literature suggests that there is a strong relationship between excessive D.A.G—
drug, alcohol and gambling—
consumption, social status and domestic violence and crime …
This literature is actually contested, and it is poor academic practice to present these claims uncritically. The researchers failed to include any mention of the growing literature of empirical research into the cashless debit card and income management.
We have yet again seen stakeholders given a platform in this evaluation, just like they were in the last set. That again didn't show any real outcomes for the cashless debit card. As you can imagine, stakeholders often express positive views and opinions about the cashless debit card, probably because they are not on the card and don't experience firsthand the shame, stigma and discrimination, which is what the participants report. The evaluation never justified why non-cashless-debit-card participants needed to be included in the research in the first place. While the authors say that they used mixed-methods research to triangulate the evaluation, more could have been made about the lack of pretrial data and how this stops any real insight into the 'changes' before and after the CDC.
I've said it before, and I will continue to say it: without proper baseline data the government will never be able to measure any so-called impact of the cashless debit card. These so-called trials were not set up in a way that meant they could be measured. I said it in this chamber when we were debating the very first bill, and I will continue to say it: you don't have the baseline data. This is an ideologically driven program. If the government are going to make any significant intervention in people's lives, they need robust evidence, particularly if they're going to continue it year after year in a program that causes shame, stigma and discrimination, as reported by the participants in their own so-called evaluations.
The minister herself acknowledged the lack of data around the cashless debit card when we were debating the bill to extend the card at the end of last year. Minister Ruston said:
But can I just put on the record that there is nobody in this chamber that's more frustrated than me about the lack of quantitative data around these measures.
She went on to say:
… what they haven't been able to provide, and what I want to get access to, is the hard, quantitative data.
I accept that it is incredibly disappointing that we're not standing here with the kind of information that we would have liked.
Let me tell you: the evaluation does nothing to fill that gap in quantitative data. We still don't know the actual number of hospital presentations or police call-outs. The Senate should have access to this evaluation data, and we should have had it when we were debating the extension of the cashless debit card last year. Would the card have been voted down once and for all if the crossbench had seen this abysmal evaluation? We will never know, unfortunately, which is what the government wanted. They did not want to present this when Senator Griff, for example, was making his decision that actually meant that this card continued for another two years.
These so-called trials were always targeting First Nations people, stigmatising people on income support and those with addiction issues, rather than addressing the underlying causes of disadvantage. We need to stop this racist, discriminatory, stigmatising policy once and for all and give people on income management the choice, because that's what the cashless debit card is. It is income management. We need to give people a choice. If they want to be on the card voluntarily, in a properly constructed program, fair enough. But don't make it compulsory, because it does not work. You've tried and tried and tried. There have been three evaluations—the middle one had a couple of evaluations tucked in there—and you have never been able to show that it works. This income management has been in place since 2007, going on for 14 years. You haven't been able to prove it works. Give it up and start putting the money into addressing the underlying causes of addiction and disadvantage. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.