Cashless Debit Card - 26/11/2019

26 November 2019



The cashless debit card is the next step in a long Liberal-National tradition of demonising Australians accessing the social security system. We see another proposal of which the main purpose is simply to demonise and stigmatise people. There is no problem that it is trying to address and there is no evidence that it will address any problems.

Our social security system should support people to live decent lives, but under this government it is keeping people poor. It is locking in inequality, and the cashless debit card typifies this government's approach to social policy. It doesn't trust people to make decisions for themselves. The Liberals say they are for the individual, for freedom. Clearly that doesn't apply to everyone. It certainly doesn't apply to the poorest and most disadvantaged Australians. Labor cannot support the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management to Cashless Debit Card Transaction) Bill 2019 in its current form.

There is no evidence to support a broad-based mandatory income management system for social security recipients. Eighty per cent of people subjected to income management in the Northern Territory, where it is being trialled, are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. This bill and the plans laid out within it are discriminatory. Our First Nations peoples deserve better than this. Our First Nations peoples should not be used as a trial case for a national rollout of the cashless debit card.

Labor supports income management being available when an individual or community feels it would be helpful to them. Income management should be available in communities only if and when those communities have determined it will be helpful for them, but forcing people onto the cashless debit card is not the answer. It is punitive, and there is no evidence to demonstrate that it achieves the benefits the government is seeking.

Our social security system has been fundamental to our egalitarian society, and I dare say I agree with member for Mackellar when he says it's one of the things that has made our country such a great country. But this government is destroying that. Our social security system has worked hand in hand with decent wages and conditions to ensure that people do not live in poverty and that we support people when they are unable to work, but, under this government, Newstart is currently so low that everyone except the Prime Minister agrees it is actually preventing people from finding work. We know people experiencing dire poverty are going to find it very difficult to find a job, go to an interview and engage in work.

A decent social safety net is an investment in a healthy and thriving workforce. Instead, the realities for our workers are tough. In October we lost 19,000 jobs from the economy. As the shadow minister said, the number of Australians over the age of 55 on Newstart represents a quarter of all Newstart recipients and the number of over-55s on Newstart has surged to 45 per cent under this Liberal-National government. It seems that, instead of developing a legitimate plan for the Australian economy and a legitimate plan to increase the number of jobs for Australians as well as the number of hours for the one million-plus workers currently underemployed, the government is resorting to bashing social security recipients like it always does, with plans like expanding the cashless debit card. They should be building an economy that employs people, but instead they resort to making the social security system more punitive with measures like the cashless debit card.

The negative reviews of this policy from peak bodies, academics and other advocates provided to the Senate inquiry into the cashless debit card are overwhelming. I was struck by this comment from Professor Matthew Gray and Dr Rob Bray from the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods here in Canberra. They said of their paper, in their submission to the inquiry into this bill:

It presents a review of data relating to child health and wellbeing, school participation and outcomes, alcohol consumption and impact, and crime and justice. The paper clearly shows that there has been a total absence of any improvement in the outcomes for Indigenous people in the Northern Territory which can be attributed to income management, despite the fact that the most vulnerable third of this population has been subject to the measure for over a decade.

…   …   …

Our view is that the evidence strongly shows that the simplistic conceptualisation of income management and the Cashless Debit Card, and the purported benefits of these policies, are false.

…   …   …

… the evidence is clear that when they are applied to broad populations based on some generic criteria they are an ineffective and costly policy with negative consequences.

Researchers from Griffith University and the University of Queensland provided a submission to the inquiry that included evidence they had been able to get from people who were on the cashless debit card in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, including the following anecdotes which outline problems with the card's functionality. I will quote some of the people interviewed as part of this study. Interviewee 22 from Bundaberg said:

I took my son to soccer and I went to use the canteen to get him a bottle of water and it declined at the canteen. … even declining at kids' soccer games, just to get water, it's pretty stressful and embarrassing.

Interviewee 1 from Hervey Bay said:

… I had to buy glasses, reading glasses, because I'm working … I have difficulty with my eyesight, so I had to buy glasses … and I couldn't use my Indue card.

Interviewee 4 from Hervey Bay said:

I went to pay my RACQ roadside assist on BPAY through Indue and it just wouldn't work.

Interviewee 7 from Hervey Bay said:

I can't even go to the markets because they don't have frigging EFTPOS machines at the markets. … I used to go to the markets on a Sunday, or Saturday markets. I don't go anywhere now.

Interviewee 4 from Hervey Bay said:

It was last week or maybe the week before I had to go to the chemist and get medicine. I went to use my cashless card and it didn't work. It wouldn't register. It wouldn't work. It wouldn't accept it at the EFTPOS machine.

Interviewee 5 from Hervey Bay said:

I needed to get the script done and the chemist wasn't accepting any cards.

These are frustrations and humiliations that people should not be facing in this country because of the government imposing the cashless debit card on them. Parents have also indicated that they were unable to pay for necessary items for children that required cash, such as tuckshop money, school uniforms, school photos, school holiday activities and tutoring. Interviewee 17 in Bundaberg explained:

Being able to pay for excursions, you know all those different things like sporting things. I'd love to get my son into little athletics, but I don't think I can pay for it, using the cashless debit card. Because a lot of these places want cash. I had $100 one week and $150 the next, so tell me how that's not making my children suffer, by not being able to give them a sporting thing. He loves to run, he loves to jump, he likes doing all that, he loves being outside. But to me, I don't know how I'm going to afford to put him in to football or whatever he wants to do, because they all want cash up front.

We should want all Australian children to be included, not excluded because their families are relying on social security. This completely undermines the objectives of the system.

Hervey Bay and Bundaberg are in the electorate of Hinkler, and shame on the Member for Hinkler, the Hon. Keith Pitt, for failing to protect his constituents from this punitive cashless debit card. In fact, earlier he was speaking about Senator Anthony Chisholm's consultations, saying that no-one was there and inviting us to talk to his office. Well, I'm sure he'd provide an honest assessment, because his constituents are affected. One such is Jodie McNally, who the Fraser Coast Chronicle has chosen as worthy to report about. First of all, she found that her card was sent to the wrong address, and then later found that if she accidentally used funds listed for rent, the next week she would find herself unable to pay rent because Indue had recorded her as already using the money allotted to that spending. She tried to opt out of the trial in July and has not yet heard back. These stories are not shocking for anyone who has dealt with Centrelink under this government.

What the government doesn't understand is how resourceful people need to be to get by on Newstart. Living on less than $40 a day will require you to be—


Mr Howarth: I wonder if the member will enable me to make an intervention.


Deputy Speaker: The honourable member for Petrie has sought to make an intervention. Does the honourable member for Canberra wish to cede to that request?


Ms Payne: No. Labor will seek to amend this bill in the Senate. First, we want to make the cashless debit card voluntary unless a community wants the card or a person is placed on income management for a specific reason, including for child protection or by the Family Responsibilities Commission in Cape York.

Labor wants to require the minister to demonstrate the support of each individual community before rolling out the cashless debit card, including consultation with women's groups and community members. Has the government learnt nothing about the importance of engaging with First Nations communities? The lack of consultation here is astounding. Labor, led in this area by our First Nations caucus committee, is committed to ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are involved in decision-making that impacts their lives. If only the government had this approach too.

Labor will seek to require further independent evaluation of the cashless debit card. We need to know the real impact of this policy, and it has not been shown yet. We need to know if it achieves the government's objectives; otherwise it is simply an ideological move yet again from the Liberal Party at the expense of First Nations peoples and anyone receiving social security.

Labor will seek to remove the minister's powers to quarantine up to 100 per cent of a person's payment. Technology has taken us a long way from the cash-reliant economy we had a decade or so ago. Card payments are prevalent, but we aren't a 100 per cent cash-free society. This is especially so in regional areas, where the cashless debit card trials have been held and where the government is proposing to roll out the card. For people living on payments below the poverty line, using cash is sometimes vital. Second-hand goods are often bought in cash. Things are sometimes cheaper when you use cash. Food shopping is often cheapest when conducted in cash. Instead the government focuses on its obsession with social security recipients being drug users, as we saw with their ridiculous attempts to drug tests all social security recipients.

Labor will seek to amend this bill to require ongoing wraparound services in cashless debit cards, as we have done previously. Our shadow minister, Linda Burney, has spoken about issues such as birth weights falling. She's talked about visiting communities where people don't have access to clean water and don't have food security. And there is a housing crisis in remote communities. Why not focus on these problems and actually address these issues? If the government wants to improve lives, why don't they focus on that rather than this policy with no evidence to prevent people from exercising their own choice and independence?

Why doesn't the government spend this money on a program that truly helps people to get work? The fact is that the cashless debit card will not create one job. How does it help people re-enter the workforce? How does it help the increasing number of people over the age of 55 on Newstart who want to work and can't find a job? How will it help people work until they are 70, like the Morrison government wants them to, and how will it help young people trying to get a foot in the door?

Why should someone who has never engaged in binge drinking or taken illicit drugs be forced onto the cashless debit card, which was introduced to address these behaviours? The answer is that they shouldn't. Today 23,000 people are on the BasicsCard and will transition to the cashless debit card and 83 per cent of these people are Indigenous. The cost has been substantial—approximately $2,500 per person per year. Imagine if the government had invested this money, over $50 million, into these communities and into services that are proven to assist people—into homelessness services or clean water? Instead the money has gone to a credit card company and imposed significant administrative burdens on businesses in these communities.

This bill is a precursor to government trying to introduce a national scheme. Senior members of the government have suggested all social security recipients under 35 should be placed on the cashless debit card. Some Nationals have argued that a national rollout should be a condition of any increase in the rate of Newstart. Labor has been calling for existing cashless debit card locations to be wound up by January 2020 unless the minister can demonstrate informed local community support. But there is no indication the minister has obtained this support. We also want a comprehensive, independent evaluation of the cashless debit card. We are rolling this program out blind, with only incompetent, incomplete or dubious analysis of the impact of the program available. And experts are saying it just isn't working. The Auditor-General has been scathing.

Once again, Labor is calling for wraparound services for people who are having their income managed. In Cape York, for example, where the cashless debit card has community support, individuals who are on income management are being supported more comprehensively than merely restricting their income. In Ceduna, $2.1 million has been invested in community safety, drug and alcohol services, mental health services, financial management support, extra funding for family violence support and free wi-fi connectivity. In the East Kimberley region, $2.9 million has been invested for a similar range of services, including youth activities. But, as the rollout has continued, the commitment to these services has waned. This is unsurprising given the comments of the government on this issue.

We should be building a social security system that helps people to build good lives. We should be using the system to reduce inequality. Instead, all the government is able to come up with is more punitive measures that make people's lives more difficult. I call on the government to work with Labor to make this bill better. I call on the government to rethink their approach to social security to support all Australians to achieve their full potential, not lock them into poverty.