Senate debates

Tuesday, 28 November 2023

Regulations and Determinations

Social Security (Administration) (Enhanced Income Management Regime — Commonwealth Referrals and Exemptions) Determination 2023, Social Security (Administration) (Enhanced Income Management Regime — State Referrals) Determination 2023; Disallowance

6:58 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the following legislative instruments, made under the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, be disallowed:

the Social Security (Administration) (Enhanced Income Management Regime—Commonwealth Referrals and Exemptions) Determination 2023 [F2023L01172]; and

the Social Security (Administration) (Enhanced Income Management Regime—State Referrals) Determination 2023 [F2023L01173].

I am moving to disallow these instruments relating to compulsory income management. I want to first paint a scenario for you. Imagine the government restricts what you can spend your own money on. Imagine that you're planning your partner's big birthday party and you're heading out to buy some alcohol for the night, and the government steps into your private financial affairs and says: 'I'm sorry, that's more than you're permitted to spend on alcohol. Big Brother says no. It's for your own good.' You can tell them until you're blue in the face that you don't have a problem with alcohol, that it is a special occasion, that your kids are well looked after, but, no. The computer says: 'No, you happen to live in an area where the government's determined that some people have got a problem with alcohol and gambling and looking after their kids, so I'm sorry, that's how it is. One in, all in. Collective punishment. It's for your own good. Government knows best.'

That's effectively the situation for the vast majority of people on compulsory income management, particularly First Nations peoples who live in the Northern Territory. But it's worse for them, most likely, than it is for you. Because, if you're not living in poverty, you've probably got some money to fall back on and friends who will help you out. Why them and not you? Racism. It's pure and simple.

If you are a First Nations person in the Northern Territory who has been on JobSeeker, youth allowance, parenting payment or special benefit for more than a year, bad luck. You're black, you're living in poverty and, rather than increase the rates of income support to levels that would allow you to be above the poverty line and live a dignified life, rather than funding meaningful employment opportunities, the government wants to punish and to blame you. Most people subject to compulsory income management schemes are First Nations people. Around a third of the total population of First Nations people in the Northern Territory are on compulsory income management.

In the evidence given to the many inquiries into income management over the last decade, First Nations people, particularly those in the Northern Territory, have objected to compulsory income management as racially discriminatory. In evidence given to our Senate Community Affairs Committee's inquiry into poverty, Megan Krakouer, the director of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project, told us:

In terms of income management, I've seen how it's been rolled out in Kalgoorlie in so many respects, and it's had a very draconian, disastrous impact on a lot of the families that are forced to use it. The way forward is not about penalising the family. It's not about demonising the families. It's about providing that support, that love, that kindness, that respect and giving opportunities that every single Australian brother and sister is entitled to. Not by any means do I support income management, because I know that there are other ways—and it's called kindness.

Mr Damien Griffis, the CEO of the First Peoples Disability Network said:

Income management from a disability perspective is completely inappropriate. I can't possibly support it on any grounds.

… … …

When you place restrictions on people's cash, particularly when they need that cash to access disability aids and supports, that's a major problem, and we've seen that worsen. My personal view, from a disability perspective, is that this has gotten worse since the income management system was established. It's inherently ablest as well. It's not just institutionally racist; we would argue that it's institutionally ableist as well.

Yet in June the Labor government pushed through legislation that continued the destructive and punitive system of compulsory income management, and this was a complete betrayal to people on income support and to everyone who believed Labor's election promise that they would end compulsory income management. In opposition, Labor campaigned hard to abolish the cashless debit card and gave a clear signal it would end the BasicsCard as a compulsory scheme. But instead, Labor introduced the SmartCard regime, trapping more than 20,000 people under compulsory income management. I have said it before and I will say it again: Labor's SmartCard is just the cashless debit card with a different name and a different colour. The SmartCard regime is not simply a matter of improving technology, as Labor claim. It is a sneaky and insidious framework that significantly expanded the minister's power to roll out compulsory income management to new areas and effectively allowed the new cashless debit card to apply nationally.

When these measures were introduced to the parliament for the SmartCard, the Greens moved to disallow this rotten regime, but, not surprisingly, the two parties ganged up and voted us down. So today we are moving to disallow two of the legislative instrument Labor has introduced that seek to perpetuate the punitive system of compulsory income management. Under this system, certain groups of people on income support can be forcibly placed on the BasicsCard and have 50 to 70 per cent of the income quarantined. This can happen to you if you live in a region where income support is currently in place, if you have been on a social security payment for over a year, if you are a young person on income support for an extended period or if you are assessed as vulnerable due to experiencing things like financial hardship, domestic violence or risk of homelessness. You can also be placed on the BasicsCard and have your income support payments forcibly quarantined if a child protection worker refers you to the program.

This is a horrifying and paternalistic system. The BasicsCard was one of the many racist and discriminatory policies that the Howard government introduced in 2007 as part of the Northern Territory Intervention. Labor then expanded this program in 2010 to a wider cohort of income support recipients. Today the Department of Social Services reports that there are approximately 24,000 people on the BasicsCard in Australia, with the vast majority of these people living in the Northern Territory.

The legislative instruments that the Greens are seeking to disallow tonight enable the operation of these measures under Labor's SmartCard regime. What that means is that people on the BasicsCard don't have the option to exit compulsory income management; they only have the option to move over to the new SmartCard system or stay put. These instruments also allow for the government to force new income support recipients onto the SmartCard if they are assessed as fitting the discriminatory criteria. Of the 22,000 people on income management in the Northern Territory, only approximately eight per cent have volunteered to be on the program. Most have been forcibly placed on the program because they qualify as long-term welfare payment recipients and they live in the Northern Territory. Evidently, the existing income management regime is not voluntary, and neither will Labor's new SmartCard regime be.

This was made crystal clear in a recent Scrutiny report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. With regard to the instruments we're debating today, they concluded:

While facilitating the operation of a regime that provides participants with access to superior technology and improved banking functions is, in itself, an important aim, it remains unclear why this enhanced income management regime must operate on a mandatory basis (or why legislation is required to improve this technology).

The committee also noted:

For many years the committee has raised concerns regarding the compatibility of compulsory income management with multiple human rights. In particular, by subjecting an individual to mandatory income management and restricting how they may spend a portion of their social security payment, the measure limits the rights to social security and a private life, and possibly the right to an adequate standard of living. Due to the disproportionate impact on certain groups with protected attributes, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and children, the measures also engage and limit the right to equality and non-discrimination and the rights of the child.

Let me be clear: compulsory income management in any form, from the cashless debit card to the SmartCard or the BasicsCard, does not work. As the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights noted, it only restricts people's rights.

But this isn't a new finding. For the nearly two decades since the introduction of the BasicsCard in Australia, in 2007, we've heard evidence from parliamentary inquiries, the Australian Human Rights Commission, researchers and community organisations about how compulsory income management violates human rights. Compulsory income management demonises people on income support. It stops people from accessing the support they need. It removes their dignity and independence. Ultimately, it punishes people for seeking help from our income support system.

We've heard account after account of the real harm these programs cause. In addition to the evidence from a First Nations perspective that I shared earlier, other people have shared their experience in recent inquiries into compulsory income management. One person on compulsory income management explained:

It has stopped me paying rent on time to a private landlord. I could not purchase second-hand items which I needed when my fridge and washing machine died. I felt very alone and socially an outcast. I didn't have enough cash to buy cheap market goods.

Other people have echoed feelings of social isolation while in the regime. One person said they are 'not able to rent, not able to go out and meet people' and that it's 'not good for young people'. Another expressed how limiting having their income forcibly quarantined can be. They said:

Coming from an abusive past relationship I would have less access to flee as I would not have options that don't require cash. I could not hide from my partner to set myself up to flee. No life.

This is horrifying. Our social security system is supposed to provide people with a robust safety net. It's supposed to support people when they need it most, not restrict them in accessing basic needs like shelter or food or stop them finding social connections. Most importantly, it should never be an additional barrier to someone leaving an abusive relationship. Yet under compulsory income management this is the reality. This is the reality that Labor are forcing upon 20,000-plus people as they wilfully march forward with the SmartCard regime.

Labor made a clear commitment to end compulsory income management before the election. In April 2022, when asked about the BasicsCard, Labor's social services spokesperson Linda Burney said that they believed this regime should be voluntary. She said, 'If people want to be on these sorts of income management, then that's their decision.' We agree, Minister. If people find income management useful, they should have the option to enter into it voluntarily, but they should not be compelled to be on it. Labor also promised to leave no-one behind. Yet, since Labor has been in power, they have consistently made the decision to keep people who are on JobSeeker and other payments well below the poverty line.

Labor cannot be trusted with our social security system. They have broken promise after promise. We saw in the recent budget hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for the ultrawealthy, yet they only managed to find $4 a day for people on JobSeeker and other payments. Four dollars a day can't even buy a coffee, let alone pay for rent or groceries or medical expenses. So, as we debate this disallowance and the impact of compulsory income management on people relying on income support, this is a stark reminder that poverty is a political choice, and right now the Labor government is choosing to keep the millions of Australians who are on income support well below the poverty line. They are choosing to force over 20,000 people into the destructive practice of compulsory income management.

Labor may argue that this disallowance shouldn't proceed because it has unintended consequences. They'll say it will prevent people from accessing the so-called improved technology of the SmartCard. Let me remind Labor of the scathing assessment of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights of these instruments. It remains unclear why income management must operate on a mandatory basis or why legislation is required at all to improve this technology. So, Labor, what is your reason? Why are you choosing to perpetuate the destructive and racist policies of compulsory income management? If you actually listened to the people who are affected by these policies, if you paid attention to what First Nations groups and people with direct experience are saying, you would fund services that actually work instead of continuing to spend taxpayer money on the rollout of the discriminatory SmartCard regime. You could substantially increase your investment in social and affordable housing, and properly fund financial counselling services and First Nations controlled community organisations. You could raise the rate of income support to above the poverty line for everyone who needs it.

Until Labor comes to parliament with a bill that introduces income management that is genuinely voluntary, the Greens will not stop fighting until all compulsory income management is abolished. We will not allow the government to continue to force people on these punitive and damaging programs under the guise of another name. We will continue to disrupt, and to attempt to disallow, any harmful legislative instruments under Labor's SmartCard regime, and we will keep fighting until our social security system actually supports the people who need it. I move:

That the following legislative instruments, made under the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, be disallowed:

(a) the Social Security (Administration) (Enhanced Income Management Regime—Commonwealth Referrals and Exemptions) Determination 2023 [F2023L01172]; and

(b) the Social Security (Administration) (Enhanced Income Management Regime—State Referrals) Determination 2023 [F2023L01173].

7:13 pm

Photo of Dorinda CoxDorinda Cox (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I too want to make a contribution in relation to this disallowance motion moved by Senator Rice. I associate myself with the extensive commentary that Senator Rice has just made. I too have spoken on this particular issue many times in this chamber, and I express again the disappointment at the broken promises. Labor made very clear promises to people. We were all campaigning in the lead-up to the election last year, and Labor very clearly told people, 'We will end the BasicsCard as a compulsory scheme.' They were their words. In September 2022, just four months later, post election, Labor repealed the cashless debit card but did not abolish the BasicsCard, as they had said they would.

There are many pieces of commentary about the SmartCard or about the BasicsCard. It doesn't matter what you call it; it's still a compulsory income management regime. It is racist, as Senator Rice has already alluded to. It's basically discriminatory and racist. It comes from the Howard era, 2007. It's written in history in the Northern Territory intervention. They couldn't wait. They were wringing their hands together to expand this program to get a wider cohort of income support recipients.

As Senator Rice said, the majority of the recipients in the data from the Department of Social Services talk about those 24½ thousand people on the BasicsCard in Australia and the vast majority of those living in the Northern Territory being forcibly placed on the BasicsCard. I really like Senator Rice's example of planning a birthday party for a loved one and not being able to spend that money on what you need and being told that 50 to 70 per cent of your income will be quarantined. How, in 2023, is that being imposed on people?

I know the stories of my grandparents, who lived through the 1905 act of segregation and the regime of having to seek rations in this country, and yet we still have people who, by stealth, this policy still exists. Because Labor promised they would get rid of it. Since 4 September this year, they've been talking about improved technology of the SmartCard, where people can stay on the BasicsCard. That's like saying, 'Would you like to go to jail or would you like to live in a cage?' What sort of choice is that? Like, really? We're asking people who really don't have a choice to easily exit from income management altogether. We haven't given them a pathway.

Let's be real about that. We haven't set that up. There is no system. As Senator Rice has already said, there are no financial counselling services and no assistance with small businesses. People are running around talking about commercialisation and economic development in the Northern Territory. Are they talking to the black people? Probably not. They're talking to their mates in industry and big business. They're not worried about helping our people get off income support and giving them pathways to do that. If you haven't forgotten over there, Labor, it's one of your Closing the Gap targets, which is something you're not doing anything in.

These measures we are seeking to disallow enable the operation of what people call a vulnerable welfare payment recipient, a disengaged youth, a long-term welfare payment recipient, a child under the child protection system or supporting people at risk. Well, aren't they patronising terms? Where's the self-determination? Where is allowing us to be part of the decision-making? Where's the preservation and recognition of the trauma and loss that we've experienced in this country? There's none in any of that wording because all of these measures are already operational under that income management regime that Labor still continue to bandy around.

These measures also involve placing an income support recipient onto a SmartCard, and Senator Rice is right in saying that, if you live in a particular geographical location, you will be scooped up in the net. Right? It's a postcode lottery. That's what it is. What we know is that they've done this on purpose. There's the whole of the NT, the APY Lands, Playford in South Australia, Ngaanyatjarra Lands in my home state of Western Australia and the Kimberley, Logan, Rockhampton, Livingstone in Queensland and Bankstown in New South Wales—all low socioeconomic areas with a high population of Indigenous people.

By stealth, this government continues to roll out this regime. There have been numerous studies, but there is one from 2021 that talks about income management in the Northern Territory during the intervention and the ability for it to reduce children's school attendance during the first five months of its operation on an average of 4.7 per cent in remote communities. People come into this chamber and they are talking about the heightened emergency, just as Senator McKim was talking about, in the frame of migration. We are talking about the same thing being done to our people for generations in this country. We have to send the army into the Northern Territory to help these people! We have to send more police to help these people! That's the way people talk about us in this chamber. It's actually so patronising and disrespectful that we have no agency in that. We absolutely don't have any. Sometimes people need to check themselves because we don't need you to say that about us. We don't need you to do that to us in the way that you form your legislation and policies in this country. Countless reports show that income management doesn't help; it actually hinders. People being unable to get their kids to school is just one example, and I think it's significant. There is little evidence to support anything except abolishing this compulsory income management regime.

I want to share with you some very quick quotes in relation to First Nations people. As Senator Rice said, people right across this country people have given evidence, people like Megan Krakouer, from my home state of Western Australia, who runs First Nations trauma and suicide recovery and who works at the grassroots level with families and communities impacted by such traumatic life events. Whole families are affected by that. On top of that, to put an income support regime, putting management over income, means they are left living under the poverty line. As Senator Rice said, there are things that this government could do. The APO in the Northern Territory reminds the government of their support for the repeal of the Cashless Debit Card. While this has allowed some participants to exit income management or voluntarily opt out into income management, this isn't the case for the majority of people. That means that people don't want that. They want something different.

The NT participants who remain on compulsory income management have suffered, unfortunately, the longest under this regime, a regime this government continues to talk a big game about—now they're going to talk about consultation. They stated that their long-term aim is to have it on a voluntary basis, but that's not what they're doing. It's like saying, 'Look over here, people!' while legislating something completely different in stealth mode, giving powers for the extension of income management while some of the most vulnerable people in Australia are part of this regime. This bill continues that trend—there's no mistaking that. In particular, it becomes a permanent feature of the social services in Australia without adequate consultation—which this government said they would do and which they keep rolling out at each press release and press conference, telling people that they want to do. I don't know about you, but I feel like we're being gaslighted every time we read a new media release from ministers who continue to talk about what the legislative impacts of these bills are. They talk about the opposite of what they committed to when they were sitting across the other side in opposition in this place. In their pre-election statements, they said this should only occur on a voluntary basis.

The Central Land Council asked, 'How many times do we have to say it until the government listens to our voices?' The irony of that statement! Here we were on the back of a referendum where this government told everyone that they were listening to people's voices. Since income management was introduced in 2007, as part of the Commonwealth government's Intervention into the Northern Territory, we have said no. The people have said no. A different card, a different colour, but it's all for the same purpose: to control our lives. We are not guinea pigs. The Central Land Council calls for the government to end all forms of compulsory income management now.

The last quote that I'll share comes from the Arnhem Land Progress Association:

Compulsory income management was imposed on our member communities in 2007 as part of the NT Intervention—

as the emergency response was known—

When it was forced upon our members they were subject to the discriminatory and false assumption that they were all—

and this is the way they were talked about—

alcoholics, family violence offenders and problem gamblers.

ALPA's chair, Reverend Dr Gondarra OAM, has stated that the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians depends on them having self-agency, choice and control over their lives. ALPA's board believes that, regardless of what design a future income management program takes, participation in this program must be voluntary. That is a non-negotiable. It is a non-negotiable for black people in this country to not feel discriminated against—to have equality. We're a signatory. We've just had a whole conversation, a whole debate a few hours ago, about the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, yet self-determination; free, prior and informed consent; equality and non-discrimination; and being part of the decision-making is actually something that has not been committed to through this process, because no-one cares. Those people who are out in the bush—don't worry about them. Out of sight, out of mind. They're not going to be the people campaigning, sending letters to your offices by e-mail or calling your offices and demanding that you don't pass this. Do you know why? Because that's not who we are.

We have an expectation in our culture that you'll come and sit in dirt and talk to us about whatever you're crafting in your plan. But you don't do that, and that's disrespectful to us as the First Peoples of this country—and it is a constant thread in this place. It is so constant. People do not care about the impact. The impact will be not just in the here and now but for future generations of our people that are going to be impacted by this legislation. Since 2007, we've been fighting this fight. We, over here at the Greens, alongside Senator Rice, will keep fighting for change.

7:28 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

The government opposes Senator Rice's motion to disallow the following instruments under the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999: the Social Security (Administration) (Enhanced Income Management Regime—Commonwealth Referrals and Exemptions) Determination 2023, and the Social Security (Administration) (Enhanced Income Management Regime—State Referrals) Determination 2023. These instruments operationalise the changes to enhanced income management introduced on 4 September 2023, following the commencement of the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management Reform) Act 2023, the income management reform act.

Disallowing the instruments would mean that states and Commonwealth social workers would be unable to refer people to the program. People are only referred where a social worker considers that it would benefit the people to be on the program. Not allowing referrals from state and territory authorities would undermine the role of the states and territories in supporting communities in their jurisdictions—specifically, in the area of child protection or the misuse of alcohol.

Disallowing the instrument would also reduce access to exemptions for some participants—

Debate interrupted.