Speech to Parliament: Repeal of Cashless Debit Card Bill 2022

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One of the things I wanted to do when I was appointed the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians was to get out of Sydney where I live and out of Canberra and go and see some people in Indigenous communities, to come and see the joys, the culture and the challenges that Indigenous people face around the country. I know I am sitting here at the table, as is the member for O’Connor, who represents large Indigenous communities in his electorate, my friend from Wide Bay with his community in Cherbourg. One of the things I was very keen to do was to visit communities in particular where the cashless debit card had been so I can have a first-hand experience of talking to people about how life was like and about how the cashless debit card has affected and changed things for them.

I’m sorry that the government has brought this legislation in so quickly because it hasn’t enabled me in the time available to get around to more communities but I will be visiting more communities. The community I did have the privilege of visiting was the community of Ceduna, which is very, very well represented by the very popular member for Grey, Rowan Ramsey. Unfortunately, although the member for Grey had organised a terrific experience for us in Ceduna meeting a wide range of different stakeholders and people, he had COVID in the time visiting but I was very delighted that our new Senate colleague Senator Kerrynne Liddle joined me on that visit. Indeed, she knew a number of people from the Indigenous community that we met on that particular visit.

Ceduna sits on the west coast of the Eyre Peninsula. It is about halfway between Sydney and Perth. It is a very small community. About 2,000 people live there and about 20 per cent or more are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. When I went to Ceduna as the shadow minister, I listened to different people in the community. I met with the council. I met with a range of people of social service stakeholders. I met with Indigenous people. I wanted to find out from the people of Ceduna what affect the cashless debit card had had on that community.

I think it’s important to remember, in the context of Ceduna, the reasons for the introduction of the cashless debit card. This occurred in the aftermath of a 2011 South Australian coroner’s inquest into the untimely deaths of six Indigenous Australians in and around the township over a five-year period. Each of these individuals died well before their time, aged between 36 and 42. The inquest into the six deaths found that alcohol abuse had played a significant part both in their lives and in their deaths. These six Australians represented the profound hardships that the community in which they lived had to contend with and for the most part that was due to alcohol abuse. The impact of alcohol abuse can be devastating not just for the person who is addicted, but for the community in which they live and for the service providers who have to respond.

One of the images seared in my mind is from the visit to Ceduna. I was talking to one of the local officials who said that before the cashless debit card, when alcohol was more freely available, the activities of people in broad daylight were quite shocking. He told a story of a man who had taken a triangular fence post from a farm and was beating a woman in broad daylight in front of the council chambers. Just think of the horrendous injuries that would have been caused to that woman as a result of what was happening there—

Mr Rick Wilson interjecting

I will take the interjection there from the member for O’Connor who said, ‘It will happen again.’ The feeling, very strongly, from people there, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, that we spoke to was that the cashless debit card—in limiting the amount of cash that was around, in limiting the discretion of people to spend money on alcohol and on gambling—had had a significant effect in making Ceduna a much more liveable place. It had actually given people who were on the card freedom, because they had their own money that wasn’t being taken off them. It gave people a chance to dry out and a chance to get their lives in order. It made the community a much happier and more liveable place.

In Ceduna in particular they have a wide range of people from communities outside Ceduna coming to visit at different times. And because of the people coming to visit from time to time you can tell when some of the issues of violence and alcohol abuse go up, because there are outsiders who have come in. The cashless debit card has been a very important mechanism in terms of improving the lives of everyone in Ceduna.

When the cashless debit card was trialled in Ceduna in 2016 it markedly reduced the purchase of alcohol and gambling products, because only 20 per cent of the welfare payments could be withdrawn as cash.

The card wasn’t introduced without deep thought and extensive consultation. It had extensive consultation. It was a trial. The cashless debit card was an important recommendation of the Forrest review report Creating Parity. It was regarded as a realistic means of reducing the social harm caused by welfare fuelled alcohol, gambling and drug abuse.

I make the point that the cashless debit card was never about punishing people who were on it. Any participant could apply to exit the program at any time by demonstrating a reasonable and responsible management of their financial affairs. The cashless debit card was part of a suite of measures to help improve people’s lives and their circumstances.

The Morrison government invested more than $110 million in support services for those communities that were using cashless debit cards. This included a $30 million jobs fund; a job ready initiative to strengthen local services and to help participants in cashless debit card communities to upskill, to become job ready and to join pathways to employment; and a $50 million investment in drug and alcohol residence facilities.

The coalition’s focus has always been to help those out of work prepare themselves to get into the workforce. Under the Morrison government the unemployment rate fell to 3.9 per cent—the lowest in 48 years. The cashless debit card was just one of the important policy tools which allowed the coalition government to achieve this figure. Everybody who moves from welfare to work achieves a personal victory in terms of self-esteem, a sense of contribution and, of course, improving their financial position.

If Labor seeks to remove the cashless debit card it should at least be managed with the same care and consultation that underpinned its initial implementation. The feedback I had from locals in Ceduna was that in opposition the Labor Party was not visiting a full range of stakeholders to get a real sense of the nature of the benefit of the cashless debit card and how it had contributed to a safer Ceduna. Again, in government, they felt that they weren’t being listened to, because people in the community realise that, as there’s more money for the purchase of alcohol, the situation in Ceduna will become worse.

Yet this bill before the House removes access for new entrants to join the cashless debit card program. In time, it will force more than 17,000 existing participants off the card, terminating a very effective support mechanism for income management. The fears expressed by the Ceduna community, that more available cash means more access to alcohol, which in turn leads to more alcohol fuelled violence and antisocial behaviour on and off the streets, are shared by communities across Australia. As declared in the coronial inquest report I referred to earlier, the culture of excessive alcohol consumption deeply damages those who abuse it, but it also scars the families and children faced with the destructive behaviours that so often arise from it.

The card doesn’t solely apply to Indigenous Australians, and there are many non-Indigenous Australians who use the cashless debit cards to access welfare payments. As at 2021, Indigenous Australians accounted for 76 per cent of participants in Ceduna, 82 per cent in the East Kimberley, 48 per cent in the Goldfields and 18 per cent in the Bundaberg-Hervey Bay region.

A crucial outcome of the cashless debit card was raised with me by so many women in the Ceduna community. They benefited from the quarantining of welfare payments, as, instead of having to share their welfare payments or watch family payments squandered on alcohol and gambling, those payments were available for the essentials for which they were intended. The cashless debit card protected vulnerable women and children in communities. For many women, it meant a reduction in alcohol fuelled violence. For children, it reduced their exposure to alcoholism and helped to ensure they got to school with full stomachs. Other members of the community who didn’t drink alcohol told us they welcomed the card because it protected their income from the desperate pressure for loans from relatives affected by alcoholism.

Allan Suter was the mayor of Ceduna from 2006 to 2018. Like many in his community, Allan is incredibly distressed by Labor’s attempt to remove the cashless debit card. Allan shared a story with me that should be heard by all my colleagues in the House.

Prior to the implementation of the cashless debit card, on any given night anywhere between 50 and 100 children could be found walking the dark streets of Ceduna. When Allan asked a few of the children what they were doing out so late, their answer was heartbreaking. It was safer for these children to be out on the street than in their homes, confronted with alcohol fuelled violence, abuse and neglect. Once the effects of the card were felt by the community, the streets were quiet. There were no longer children wandering the streets, because, with limited access to alcohol or drugs, these children had a safe place to call home. The biggest beneficiaries, Allan confirmed, were the vulnerable members of the community—the children, the mothers and the women—who had previously been exposed to neglectful parenting, domestic violence or alcoholism. They now have a safe place to call home. All of that is under threat by the government’s bill, which I oppose.

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