It is important that this bill, the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management to Cashless Debit Card Transition) Bill 2019, be debated in the House, because it certainly shouldn’t be supported. This card, the cashless debit card, takes away the rights of vulnerable people and this bill is discriminatory, disproportionately impacting on First Nations Australians. The people already on income management, on the BasicsCard, are going to be the people affected by this bill. More than 80 per cent of the 23,000 people currently on income management in the Northern Territory are Indigenous. These are the people who, as a result of the actions of this government, will be forced onto the cashless debit card. This government’s taking a one-size-fits-all approach to policy that’s predominantly targeting our First Nations Australians, regardless of their individual or community circumstances and needs. What we’ve got here is another trial of a program which doesn’t work, with no community consultation and with no plan to support communities, to support jobs or to support the vulnerable people most affected.
There are so many problems with this bill. The bill removes the right of an individual to seek a review of the decision to be issued with the cashless debit card notice. We all know this government’s appalling record of managing the paperwork of welfare recipients, most evident recently through the robodebt debacle. Now they’re looking to remove procedural fairness for those who may have been placed on the cashless debit card in error, instead leaving them to apply for an exemption or exit from the scheme. It’s also known that Indigenous Australians are well documented to often have greater difficulty accessing exemptions than non-Indigenous people, adding to the disproportionate effect this bill will have on Indigenous Australians. For the people living in remote communities whose lives will be affected by this, without adequate access to telecommunication services, it will be especially difficult for them to manage their participation in the cashless debit scheme and apply to get out of this unfair and discriminatory regime.
This government is imposing all of this on communities with little to no consultation. Communities and stakeholders have either not been involved or have simply been told how cashless debit cards will take effect, instead of being asked whether they want them, whether they will be useful to their community and what set-up will make sense for their community—none of that. This government just rolls in and tells people how it will be.
More than 20,000 people will go onto the cashless debit card with no consultation or understanding of how it will affect their lives—for example, the Yolgnu people of the community of Milingimbi, who created a submission regarding their experiences for the recent Senate inquiry. I want to quote from that submission. This is what the Yolgnu had to say:
We want to tell you from our heart about our concerns about this decision, which was made by members of the Australian Government and the Parliament in Canberra, a long way away from Milingimbi. We are telling our stories and are hoping that the government will listen and balance the scales of justice.
We were not told about these plans: the Government did not come to talk to us in Milingimbi. They did not sit down with us and talk about it. The decision was unexpected, and the decision is happening very quickly. When we heard about it we started talking about it, in our community and in the Yolgnu communities in Arnhem Land.
The BasicsCard and the Cashless Debit Card take away freedom from the people who are told that they have to use it. It enslaves people’s choices and stops them making decisions about their own lives. This payment quarantining has been going on for a long time. Some people have been quarantined their whole lives. When the Government takes choices away from people, they lose their self-esteem. We respect the Government, but this decision takes too much freedom away.
What is the point of us in this place if we are not going to listen to the voices of these people, if we are going to impose these radical measures on them without listening to what they have to say about what’s going on in their lives, if we’re going to restrict their rights without hearing what that means? What they want, what they’re calling for, is a government that engages with them, listens to them and treats them equally and fairly. That seems to be something that this government is completely unwilling to do, instead imposing cashless debit cards on communities like Milingimbi and communities across the Northern Territory and other remote parts of Australia without evidence or consultation.
Twelve years after the start of the Intervention and the introduction of income management, there is no evidence that compulsory income management works—12 years, and yet they still call it a trial. It’s not a trial. We know it doesn’t work—admit it! The Auditor-General has found no evidence that cashless debit cards are effective. In fact, one of the only credible pieces of evaluation on income management in the Northern Territory, which was completed back in 2014, found:
Despite the magnitude of the program the evaluation does not find any consistent evidence of income management having a significant systematic positive impact.
In fact, there’s growing evidence that income management actually harms communities. The Menzies School of Health Research has found that birthweight, a strong predictor of and outcome of disadvantage declined under compulsory income management. The Danila Dilba Health Service in Darwin provided a submission to the Senate inquiry, sharing their experiences since income management was introduced in 2007. They said that there was an absolutely astonishing lack of credible evidence that income management has made any significant improvement to any of the key indicators of wellbeing: child health, birthweight, failure to thrive and child protection notifications and substantiations. There were no improvements in school attendance, and certainly nothing we can see would suggest that there has been a reduction in family or community violence.
So multiple sources, including the Auditor-General, tell us that there is no evidence it works. A local health service, the people most concerned with the lives of vulnerable people in remote communities, said they are seeing no evidence. The very people who we should want to protect most—vulnerable children at risk of being taken away by child protection or of being born vulnerable through low birthweight—none of these are having any benefit. Instead, these communities are being subjected to a punitive regime because of some ideological bent that this government is convinced is better for them than what they think is better for them in their own lives.
When is this government going to stop experimenting with people’s lives in this way? They’re pretending that this is still a trial, when we’re years down the track and we lack any credible evidence for it. It seems almost as though this government doesn’t care about the evidence because, again, we’re so many years down the track and yet we’ve had no rigorous evaluation of cashless debit cards in any of the existing trial sites, about their effectiveness in reducing social harm, and yet they’re going to be rolled out more broadly. We all know that is the intention of this government; this is just a furphy to roll out the cashless debit card more widely.
There are also some very strange anomalies in the system the government is proposing. We learned during Senate estimates last month that participants would be able to use their cashless debit cards to pay off credit cards. In fact, there is actually no barrier then on what they can buy on the credit card. So if the point of this card is to limit the types of items that people can buy with it, it makes absolutely no sense that they can then use their credit card to buy alcohol and use the cashless debit card to pay it off. Money can be transferred between cards for any reason. Cards can be used to purchase lottery tickets and scratchies. These are loopholes that are easy for people to use. As the member for Cowan said before, if we’re looking for behaviour change this is not the way to go about it. People will be looking for loopholes; they’re not looking for the behaviour change if this is a punitive and draconian measure, as is being introduced by this government.
We’ve also seen examples of this card preventing people from being able to make purchases that really make sense and which they should be able to make. The limits on the card make it difficult for people to purchase goods in the cash economy—second-hand goods that they might need for their home or to support their children and things that might be cheaper to buy in that way. They’re forced out of that market and into the more expensive way of buying things because of this card.
I’m not going to say that there may not be some occasions where income management is helpful in supporting people to manage their finances. One of the only credible pieces of evaluation of income management, the evaluation of the system in the NT, did find that, while compulsory income management does not bring about improvements in people’s lives, voluntary income management may. So there may be a case for a voluntary system where communities are well informed, understand and are properly consulted. But that’s certainly not what has been happening here.
There may be a case for communities who, after consultation, have made decisions about how a system could work for them and with their input. In Cape York, the Family Responsibilities Commission makes decisions about who is going to be placed on income management. That’s a very different situation to what’s happening with this government’s rollout of the cashless debit card. In Cape York, there is a local commission made up of local people who are making decisions about who is being placed on income management and how that’s operating in their lives. It’s been consented to by the community. That’s very, very different to what I was just talking about and how the Yolngu people feel about how this may work in their community.
In Cape York, the rate at which payments are quarantined is variable, with some people having as much as 90 per cent of their payment quarantined and others less. There are currently 150 people there who are subject to income management. It’s a very different system from that in the Territory, because the decisions are made locally by community leaders and based on an individual’s circumstances. This is a community making a decision for themselves, having their voices heard, and not being singled out and punished from Canberra.
But what else should we expect from this government—a government that seeks to stigmatise and punish the most vulnerable. This is the same government that has refused to raise Newstart despite business, welfare and ordinary Australians telling them it’s impossible to live on. They’d rather demonise and punish people who need that support. This is the same government that’s proposed drug and alcohol testing for people who receive welfare. Again, there is no evidence that it works. In fact, we’ve heard from numerous health professionals that that system doesn’t work. You see the trend here, don’t you? If you’re vulnerable, if you need support, this government says: ‘You’re not worthy of having that support. We need to impose on you conditions that we don’t impose on any other Australians. We’re not going to talk to you about it. We’re not going to make sure you understand it. We’re not going to make sure it helps you and your community. We’re looking to stigmatise and punish you.’ This is the same government that introduced robodebt. We’ve seen how well that’s worked out.
The government hasn’t apologised for robodebt; it hasn’t apologised for the situation it’s put families in. Families have been put under immense stress. In many cases they’re getting debt notices for debts they should never have had to pay. This is the same government that is using the NDIS underspend to prop up its budget bottom line. Again, it doesn’t get much more targeted at vulnerable people if that’s where you are. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this government has an agenda to target vulnerable Australians in this way; it is planning to roll out the cashless debit card across the country and perhaps this is the first move. But I really would urge this government to consider it before it moves further. Listen to the people who are affected. Look at their communities. They are telling you there is no evidence that this works. Birth weights have not gone up. There is no evidence that child protection notifications are decreasing. This system has been in place in various forms for a number of years now. If you are going to impose it on people, you need to base it on evidence.
But that’s not what we’re seeing at the moment from this government. We are seeing from this government a system where they are also refusing to allow people to make decisions that the rest of us can make. People who may have lived upstanding lives all their lives are being told they can’t buy that second-hand fridge to look after their family this summer. I heard of one woman who, while in difficult circumstances and receiving some welfare, supported her community as much as she could. She bought things not just for herself but for the rest of her community. But the way this card is changing her spending habits means she is no longer able to give back to her community. She is forced to buy more expensive things in the marketplace than she would have been able to before she got this card.
Of course, as I outlined, there are loopholes. If you are not putting the support services around it, if you are not helping people to know how they might be able to make changes in their life and plan for the future so that they can budget better and have enough money when bills come in and look after their family and make sure the kids have clothes when they go to school—if you’re not putting any of that in place, you can’t expect change; and, let’s be honest, none of that has been put in place by this government. You can expect people to be using loopholes that are in the system. You can expect people to feel aggrieved, upset that their voices aren’t being heard—stigmatised and punished by a government that has very little idea about the reality of what will bring about change in their lives and that certainly has no care for some of the most vulnerable people in our country. These are people who, let’s be honest, we have not done a very good job of supporting for decade after decade after decade. It is shameful that this government is once again stigmatising these people and punishing them in this way.