Speech by Senator the Hon Anne Ruston

Continuation of Cashless Welfare Bill Second Reading Speech

I rise this evening to speak on this Bill that continues our commitment to improve our welfare system and deliver a real difference to the lives of Australians. This Bill, the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020, allows for the continuation of the Cashless Debit Card in existing sites and provides for the transition of income management participants across the Northern Territory and Cape York region to the Cashless Debit Card.

The Government thanks the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee for its report on the Bill. The committee published the report on 17 November and recommended that this Bill be passed. The report identified that the Cashless Debit Card program is delivering significant benefits for the community where it operates. The program has the objective of reducing social harm caused by excessive alcohol, gambling and drug use; helps welfare recipients with their budgeting strategies; and encourages socially responsible behaviour.

I want to spend a moment taking the chamber back to where this all started, because when we consider why this card was put in place there can be no doubt about why it is so important to continue with this program. In 2011 the South Australian coroner handed down a heartbreaking report of the ‘sleeping rough inquest’ into the deaths of six people in the state’s far west coast. It found that efforts to curb alcohol abuse in the region had not been successful and that it was having devastating impacts on individuals, their families and their communities. Indigenous community leaders approached the government and said they were sick of their people dying because of alcohol. That is the reason the communities in the Ceduna region asked for the Cashless Debit Card.

It is clear to anybody who visits Ceduna now that the community has come a long way, and there is a returned sense of pride in the region. The card is not a silver bullet. This government has been clear on that from the outset. But it’s clear that it has provided a circuit-breaker that, in tandem with wraparound support services and a lot of hard work within communities, is making a difference. Across the four sites, card participants are spending more of their welfare payments on essential items for themselves and their families, such as food, paying Bills, clothes, household goods and fuel. This is confirmed by our card usage data, which shows that spending at supermarkets is up by almost 35 per cent and spending on household goods by over 160 per cent. Over the life of the program over $125 million has been spent at businesses that sell groceries and food that could not be spent on restricted items like alcohol, drugs and gambling products.

There have been more than a dozen evaluations of the CDC, which have provided consistent evidence about welfare quarantining. The policies show decreases in drug and alcohol issues; decreases in crime, violence and antisocial behaviour; improvements in child health and wellbeing; improvements in financial management; and ongoing and even strengthened community support.

I also want to put on record that the government is not interested in telling people where to spend their social security payments. We have no issue with people having a beer or putting a punt on from time to time, which is exactly why there is a percentage of the payment that is exempt from quarantine. What this program seeks to do is to reduce spending on alcohol and gambling products which, when consumed in large quantities, cause significant social harm for individuals, their families and their communities.

It is also the reason the government has been investing heavily in the technology that sits around the Cashless Debit Card. It is practically no different to the debit cards that any of us in this chamber have in our wallets. It can be used in more than 900,000 stores across the country, basically anywhere an EFTPOS machine is available. It is for this reason that we are committed to transitioning income management participants in the Northern Territory and Cape York onto the Cashless Debit Card. It provides income management participants with greater consumer choice and autonomy while reducing red tape for businesses. For example, it provides interest on participants’ funds, gives access to new technology such as contactless payment, provides greater choice as to where participants can shop and enables participants to know when and how their money is being used, just like you or I do every day with our own bank cards.

The government has trialled income management through the BasicsCard and the Cashless Debit Card in different communities to improve financial management and reduce harm. The government recognises that the BasicsCard was defective and can restrict an individual’s ability to have choice. It is simply that—basic—and only works in around 16,000 stores that have signed a merchant agreement with Services Australia. The government is disappointed that those opposite are not willing to provide participants in the Northern Territory with the benefits of the Cashless Debit Card, which is more user-friendly and works everywhere, except when individuals try to purchase alcohol, gambling products or some gift cards or to withdraw cash, at over 900,000 stores.

I also want to correct claims from those opposite that the Cashless Debit Card is only targeted at Indigenous Australians. Across the four existing sites, about 34 per cent of total participants are Indigenous. The card applies equally to all eligible welfare recipients and is in locations where it has been identified that it can support people, families and communities experiencing high levels of welfare dependency and social harm. Anyone residing in locations where the Cashless Debit Card operates and receiving an eligible payment will become a participant.

You just have a look at the positive impacts the Cashless Debit Card has had across the current four program areas, from a reduction in drug and alcohol related presentations in emergency wards and fewer police call-outs late at night to a general feeling of improved safety on the streets in those towns. We cannot stand by and allow these communities to return to the levels of disadvantage and dysfunction that were so prevalent before their leaders had the courage to come to government and ask for the Cashless Debit Card. As I’ve met with people who are on the Cashless Debit Card across the country, many have told me how it has helped them improve their lives and helped them budget. From business leaders, local Indigenous leaders, local government, police and health officials there is a consistent message: the card must stay. It’s the view of these people who actually live in Cashless Debit Card regions that we should be listening to and considering in this debate.

I would like to take this opportunity to read a joint statement from eight community leaders: Ian Trust, Jean O’Reeri, Robyn Nolan, Corey McLennan, Tammy Williams, Maxine McLeod, John Bowler and Faye Whiffin, who provided the following statement in support of the Cashless Debit Card. This statement was prepared at the request of Senator Patrick, who, I’m extremely disappointed to note, has heard the feedback from the community leaders who have asked for this to continue and dismissed it. The statement reads as follows:

We, the undersigned, support the passage of the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020 to pass. In principle, we support the continuation of the CDC as an ongoing income management program, to make the existing CDC trial sites permanent, and to transition income management in the Northern Territory and the Cape York region from the BasicsCard to the CDC.

We agree to continue working together to support the Commonwealth Government in delivering the objectives of the CDC, and identified that the ongoing implementation of the CDC should be underpinned by:

  • Economically thriving, healthy and strong communities;
  • A collective and culturally respectful voice on the positive impact the CDC does and can have;
  • Enhanced technology to ensure CDC participants have access to a world-class cashless banking and payment experience;
  • Improved delivery of wrap-around services to support CDC participants;
  • Improved financial literacy for CDC participants and the broader community.

Since the introduction of the CDC, we have observed positive changes in our communities. Fewer vulnerable people have been harassed, or ‘humbugged’, to hand over cash to others. More children are attending school, families have money to spend on groceries, and alcohol-fueled violence has decreased. Our communities are safer, people are saying they have the money they need to provide for the basics of life such as buying clothes and food, and paying rent and Bills.

We agree there are differences of opinion and the CDC is not perfect, but we are collectively committed to working with Government to support the changes the CDC can bring about. We recognise and accept the CDC model must continue to evolve in response to community needs, such as reflecting the importance of local authority by involving community Elders in the decision-making processes, and there is much work to be done to achieve the changes we so strongly want for our communities.

In order to create stronger, safer and healthier communities now and for generations to come we call upon our parliamentary representatives to pass the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020.

I acknowledge those in this place who, as part of the consideration of this Bill, have taken the time to visit these communities and hear from people this measure is impacting firsthand. Specifically, I’d like to thank Rebekha Sharkie and Senators Griff, Patrick, Lambie and Hanson, who, despite not necessarily supporting the government’s position, have decided and genuinely engaged on this issue. To those who haven’t, perhaps you should. I also undertake the government’s current support package in the existing sites will contain wraparound supports, and the government will continue to work community leaders to identify the most appropriate way to target those supports.

This Bill gives four communities and the new region of Cape York further confidence about the government’s commitment to reducing the devastating effects of the overuse of alcohol, drugs and gambling through a two-year extension to the program. We must continue to support the communities that put their hands up and drive positive change and improved outcomes for vulnerable individuals within their communities.