Senate debates

Wednesday, 28 February 2024

Regulations and Determinations

Social Security (Administration) (Declared Child Protection State — New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria) Determination 2023, Social Security (Administration) (Recognised State or Territory — Northern Territory) Determination 2023, Social Security (Administration) (Specified Income Management Territory — Northern Territory) Instrument 2023; Disallowance

6:06 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:

(a) the Social Security (Administration) (Declared Child Protection State—New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria) Determination 2023 [F2023L01274];

(b) the Social Security (Administration) (Recognised State or Territory—Northern Territory) Determination 2023 [F2023L01273]; and

(c) the Social Security (Administration) (Specified Income Management Territory—Northern Territory) Instrument 2023 [F2023L01269].

Before the last federal election, Labor made a clear commitment to end compulsory income management. They campaigned hard to abolish the cashless debit card and made clear their belief that the BasicsCard should be voluntary. Only one month before the federal election in 2022, Linda Burney, who was then Labor's social services spokesperson, said, 'If people want to be on those sorts of income management, then that's their decision.' The Greens and everyone who had been tirelessly campaigning against compulsory income management since its introduction in 2007 welcomed those words. We were hopeful that the Labor Party would finally take a stand against this harmful and racist system. We never imagined exactly how cynical the approach would prove to be.

Instead of abolishing compulsory income management as promised, Labor rebranded and expanded it. They took all the punitive and discriminatory elements of the cashless debit card and relaunched it as the SmartCard regime, which is a sneaky and insidious framework that significantly expands the minister's powers to roll out compulsory income management in new areas. Labor also broke their promise to make the BasicsCard voluntary. Instead, they told people on the card that they had two options: they could stay put or they could move to the SmartCard, effectively trapping over 20,000 people under compulsory income management.

Since the introduction of the SmartCard regime, Labor has tabled a series of legislative instruments that seek to perpetuate the punitive system of compulsory income management. To date, the Greens have moved to disallow the majority of these instruments. Unsurprisingly, Labor and Liberal have joined together to vote our disallowance motions down. Today we are moving to disallow three more legislative instruments that Labor introduced last year. These instruments are the 'declared child protection state' determination, the 'recognised state or territory—Northern Territory' determination and the 'specified income management territory—Northern Territory' instrument. These instruments enable the income management, or BasicsCard, regime to continue to operate until 1 July 2026.

Under this regime, certain groups of people on social security payments can be forcibly placed on the BasicsCard and have 50 to 70 per cent of their income quarantined. This can happen to you if you live in a certain area and you've been on a social security payment for over a year, you're a young person on income support for an extended period or you're assessed as 'vulnerable' due to experiencing things like financial hardship, domestic violence or being at risk of homelessness. Put yourself in the shoes of a person who's on income support. Every single person on income support who is renting is at risk of homelessness. This means that this BasicsCard, this compulsory income management, can be rolled out on a whim to actively suppress these people, through no fault of their own, just because they are at risk of homelessness. You can also be placed on the BasicsCard and have your income support payments forcibly quarantined if a child protection worker says that that should be the case—or, if you live in the Northern Territory, the Department of Health refers you to the program. The system is horrifying. It's paternalistic. It's something from a dystopian novel, and it is also the reality of tens of thousands of people—the overwhelming majority of whom are First Nations people who live in the Northern Territory.

The BasicsCard was one of the many racist and discriminatory policies the Howard government introduced in 2007 as part of the Northern Territory intervention. This regime was expanded by Labor in 2010 to a wider cohort of income support recipients. As of December, the Department of Social Services estimates there are over 21,000 people with an active BasicsCard and over 8,000 people on the SmartCard regime. Around 90 per cent of the people in each regime live in the Northern Territory, and around 80 per cent of those in the Northern Territory on the SmartCard are First Nations peoples. Of the people in the Northern Territory, approximately only two per cent have volunteered to be on the SmartCard and about eight per cent of people have volunteered to be on the BasicsCard. I note that in other states where income management is in effect the rates of voluntary income management are proportionally higher. But the fact remains: for the vast majority of people with a SmartCard or a BasicsCard, their autonomy is completely removed. Compulsory income management doesn't work. That's why this is so serious. If it worked, you'd think there might be an argument for it. But it doesn't work. It is paternalism on steroids.

For nearly two decades, since the introduction of the BasicsCard, we've heard evidence from First Nations people, parliamentary inquiries, the Australian Human Rights Commission, researchers and community organisations about the failures of compulsory income management as a tool for alleviating poverty, addiction and other social issues. We've heard time and time again how these disproportionally impact First Nations peoples and violate human rights. This long history of evidence was reinforced by the recent Senate Community Affairs References Committee's report on the review of these legislative instruments on income management. This review examined six legislative instruments made by the Labor government—the three we are seeking to disallow today, the two we attempted to disallow last year and, finally, the volunteers determination. Overwhelmingly, the committee heard evidence that compulsory income management should be abolished and that these regimes are ineffective and incompatible with human rights.

The Central Land Council wrote in their submission:

… while Indigenous poverty rates are decreasing (albeit to a small degree) across most parts of the country, in remote NT and the West Kimberly, they are escalating—significantly. In these regions, poverty rates are more than 50 per cent, and in some cases, much higher. This level of poverty is unparalleled elsewhere in Australia and evidence of serious policy failure—and income management is a wholly inadequate policy to address it.

…   …   …

Genuine efforts to address the poverty crisis in remote NT will focus on policy measures that are preventative, strengths-based and systemic—designed with Aboriginal people and their representative organisations, consistent with the commitments under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

Mr Christopher Arnott, director of First Nations owned and operated think tank the Kulila Research and Advocacy Institute, told the committee:

If you put someone on income management because they're suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction, then taking away the ability to access cash isn't going to fix the problem, because addiction is a medical issue … You can't just remove cash and not expect people to find other means. You're not addressing the problem. You're not going to treat anyone. If you go to a doctor to deal with a medical condition—you can't just take away one component and not treat the underlying cause.

Mrs Leeann Ramsamy, the chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory, noted:

When we put a blanket over things and we make it mandatory, that's when we start to breach people's human rights around managing their own money. Even if it is unemployment, it's still part of their economy while they're unemployed.

  …   …   …

Income management should be a choice. Someone may opt in and may find it very beneficial, but we can't say that that's going to be the majority. Legislation cannot decide what's best for the majority of women. Not all women and not all families need their income managed.

Charmaine Crowe from the Australian Council of Social Service told the committee:

So the compulsory income management policy that is operating in the Northern Territory and in a select few other areas essentially discriminates against people on the basis of where they live and the difficulties they may have in securing a job. That's essentially what you're doing. As has been—for quite some time now—found, it doesn't do anything to increase people's chances of getting paid work. Therefore, why are we subjecting people who are long-term unemployed to this very stigmatising and paternalistic policy that, particularly now—but it has always done so—grossly discriminates against First Nations people?

Not only did evidence at this inquiry reinforce years of proof showing that compulsory income management doesn't work, but it also exposed the complete inadequacy and unsuitability of the legislative instruments underpinning Labor's Enhanced Income Management regime. Despite the fact that we heard from a range of organisations and people across various sectors—including the Queensland Indigenous Family Violence Legal Service, Economic Justice Australia, the Accountable Income Management Network and the Australian Council of Social Service—an overwhelming majority of inquiry participants told the committee that they had not been consulted on the legislative instruments under review. Additionally, many participants raised concerns about the level and type of consultation with First Nations communities.

There were other significant issues that were raised through the inquiry about these legislative instruments. These were the lack of relevant and adequate explanatory material, which restricts the parliament's and the public's ability to properly scrutinise their impact, and the failure to address years of documented human rights concerns that have been raised by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. It's clear that, in developing these legislative instruments, the Labor government had no regard for transparency, human rights or working in partnership with First Nations communities. It's completely astounding, given this and with the evidence being so strongly against compulsory income management, that the Labor government has tabled these instruments in the first place. However, sadly, they will most likely vote down this disallowance motion today.

So, Labor, what did happen to your promise to leave no-one behind and hold no-one back? Poverty is a political choice, and since coming into government Labor has consistently made choice after choice to keep people in poverty, by maintaining this racist and discriminatory policy of compulsory income management, despite pledging otherwise before the election, and by refusing to listen to the calls of unemployed advocates, social service organisations and Labor's very own hand-picked Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee to substantially raise the rate of income support, instead opting for piecemeal changes that keep people on income support well below the poverty line. Labor continues to publicly back the punitive system of mutual obligations and the privatised model of human services, despite media report after media report and the harrowing evidence given at the Workforce Australia inquiry, which again exposed just how harmful, largely ineffective and pointless these systems are. Finally, Labor recently left people on income support and everyone earning less than $18,000 a year completely out of their cost-of-living tax cuts measures. Instead of supporting people and providing support to low-income earners, they gave tax cuts to the wealthy—$4,500 a year to everyone earning over $200,000—rather than supporting the people who need it the most.

Labor can't be trusted with our social security system. If they actually cared about supporting people in poverty, and if they listened to people impacted by their policies, they would raise the rate of income support and abolish all forms of compulsory income management. Instead of continuing to spend massive amounts of taxpayers' money on this compulsory income management scheme, you can substantially invest in services that genuinely support people who are living in poverty and who potentially face addiction issues—things like affordable housing, making health care more accessible and properly investing in financial counselling services and First Nations controlled community organisations. The evidence is clear. Compulsory income management doesn't work. Rather, it is a punitive and harmful regime that disproportionately targets First Nations peoples.

I want to end by saying that there is a glimmer of a hope for change. Today in the report that I have just tabled into the extent and impact of poverty in Australia, Labor senators have agreed with a recommendation to the government to continue to reform income management with a view to replacing compulsory income with voluntary models that empower families and communities. So I call on Labor to urgently make that commitment a reality and to end compulsory income management as soon as possible. But, until Labor does that—and sadly I think it's probably going to take some time—and until Labor comes to parliament with a bill that introduces genuine, voluntary income management, the Greens will not stop fighting until all compulsory income management is abolished. We will continue to disallow every instrument that locks in compulsory income management that comes before us in this place. We won't allow the government to continue to force people on these punitive and damaging programs. We will continue to disrupt any attempt by Labor to push through unsuitable, harmful and inadequate instruments that continue compulsory income management. We will keep fighting until our social security actually supports the people who need it most.

6:21 pm

Photo of Lidia ThorpeLidia Thorpe (Victoria, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to thank Senator Rice for moving to disallow these instruments and bringing to light another attempt by the government to control us. These instruments allow child protection workers to decide that our families need to go onto income management. Shame! It shows how the so-called child protection services do not protect us. It is the opposite: it takes our children away. We're in a child removal crisis, and this is what Labor does. Child protection is another way that the government polices our communities. They are removing our children at higher rates than ever, with over 25,000 First People children currently removed from their families, making up well over 40 per cent of removed children, when we are a small minority of the population. Guess what, Labor? That is genocide. And now the same people removing our kids would have the power to put us on the government's racist income management scheme: the smart card. It is clear that by 'protection', this government actually means 'control'.

The very idea that First Peoples need protecting from ourselves is a racist, colonial narrative. We have seen this type of protectionist, racist, colonial interference in our lives before. We live it every day. Our people were once subject to near total control of movement—control over who they could marry, who they could have kids with and what jobs they could do. Our wages were stolen, our savings were taken and our property was seized. You go to jail for that now, don't you? Let's lock up every politician that has subjected us to this genocidal regime. How would you like that? Let's put you on a BasicsCard. The police services of this country stole our children from their families and put them to work. Today, police and child protection services continue to steal our children. Now, apparently, you'll be trying to put us back on rations through the smart card. The smart card is rations. We're not rounded up on the missions no more, Labor. We know that something like eight out of 10 people on the BasicsCard and more than half the people on the CDC are First People. No surprise, there. The government knows this, and it's no accident.

There was a recent review into the new enhanced income management which introduced the smart card. All the witnesses except one pointed to how harmful the scheme is and called for abolition of compulsory income management. Yet this will be just another report that the government will file away under 'Look away; not our problem' and give themselves a pat on the back for having such good intentions in the way they control black people.

If the media wants a story about broken election promises, look no further. Labor went to the election promising to get rid of the cashless debit card. Last year I gave a speech recounting all the times they promised this. It is so clear that the government does not intend to abolish compulsory income management. The Australian Human Rights Commission has warned time and time again that the cashless debit card bill is not in line with this country's international human rights obligations. How do you sleep at night, Labor? Honestly: how do you sleep at night? If the minister cared for what our people needed, they would be bending over backwards to fully fund and resource Aboriginal community controlled organisations to provide services to our people on our terms. Instead, they opt for control, coercion, native police, and power over us yet again.

The systems aren't broken; they are working exactly as designed. This is a continuation of the genocide on our people, and every Labor politician in this place is complicit—some in their own genocide, as we know. If there is no intent on genocide, the government must stop its forcible control of First Nations people once again and listen to our sovereign voices. So I call on the government today to make good on their promise and call for all forms of compulsory, racist income control of our people to be abolished immediately. Thank you.

6:27 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

The government opposes Senator Rice's motion to disallow these instruments under the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999. These instruments are required to ensure that existing income management participants have uninterrupted access to income management until such time as they either choose to move to enhanced income management or otherwise lose legibility for the program. The legislative instruments specify the locations in which the disengaged youth, long-term welfare payment recipient, child protection and supporting-people-at-risk measures of income management operate.

The government is committed to working with communities on what comes next, with a focus on jobs, economic opportunity and better services. We remain mindful that some First Nations peoples and other stakeholders have called for a measured approach to reforming income management. Decisions impacting First Nations people must be made in partnership with them. To demonstrate our government's commitment to ongoing and meaningful consultation on the future of income management, these instruments have been made for an appropriate amount of time that will enable community based consultation on the future of income management to be completed and decisions made on future reforms. We have heard that any further reform needs to reflect the complex needs of participants and to mitigate any disruption to the ability to manage their money. We're also committed to consulting with communities and to working in partnership with First Nations people to consider what the future of the program looks like.

The three income management legislative instruments will operate through to 1 July 2026. This will allow time for genuine consultation to occur and for further decisions to be made by government on longer-term reform to income management.

Photo of Karen GroganKaren Grogan (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion put by Senator Rice be agreed to.