‘This legislation is wrong’: Cashless welfare card faces Senate scrutiny
9 December 2020 at 5:38 pm
Welfare advocates are urging the Senate to reject the bill
The fate of the cashless welfare card hangs in the balance, with the Senate set to decide whether the controversial measure will be made permanent in four trial sites and extended into the Northern Territory.
The community sector, Labor and The Greens are strongly opposed to the card – which locks 80 per cent of welfare payments onto a debit card and cannot be used to withdraw cash or be spent on alcohol or gambling – but the federal government believes it’s helped reduce drug and alcohol abuse in trial communities.
With Senator Jacqui Lambie recently pledging her opposition to the card, the deciding vote comes down to independent Senator Rex Patrick, who is yet to make up his mind but has proposed an amendment to protect pensioners and veterans from the scheme.
ALP senator Malarndirri McCarthy on Wednesday called on the crossbench to reject the card.
“This legislation is wrong. It is unjust and so un-Australian,” McCarthy told the Senate.
“Listen to the Australians out there who are crying out for your empathy and to recognise the hardship that they are experiencing. All this legislation does is push people further and further underground.”
We’ve been at the cashless debit card for years, but it’s still not delivering the results. The Government keeps saying, “give it time, it’s getting there.” But sooner or later, you’ve got to call it. pic.twitter.com/4VNTUtcRJY
— Jacqui Lambie (@JacquiLambie) December 9, 2020
The card has been trialled in East Kimberley and Ceduna since 2016, and the Goldfields region since March 2018. It was also introduced in Queensland’s Hervey Bay-Bundaberg region last year.
Welfare advocates have long argued that the card is “ideologically motivated and discriminatory”.
The federal government has consistently defended the scheme, pointing to an independent report from 2017 that concluded that the card had reduced alcohol consumption, drug use and gambling in trial communities.
But a subsequent auditor-general report said the government’s approach to monitoring and evaluating the trial was inadequate, and argued the 2017 independent report did not use all relevant data available to measure the trial’s impact.
The University of Adelaide’s final evaluation of the scheme is yet to be released, but Guardian Australia has reported that these researchers found there was “little consensus” the scheme was fulfilling its intended aims of reducing drug and alcohol abuse.
If the bill passes, the scheme would be made permanent at the four trial sites and extended to more than 20,000 people in the Northern Territory and Cape York who are currently on the BasicsCard – another form of welfare income management.
Rejection of the bill would see the program expire on 31 December.
In a statement, the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU) said the evidence showed the scheme cannot be allowed to continue.
“The crossbench senators are on the record saying they want to vote for evidence-based policy and the evidence is in: the cashless debit card harms the communities the government claims it’s intended to help,” the AUWU said.
“It is now up to the crossbench to protect these communities from further harm and reject this bill.”
The Law Council of Australia has also urged parliament to abandon any plan to make the scheme permanent.
Law Council president Pauline Wright said that serious concerns around the methodology of early trial evaluations were enough of a red flag for the card’s continuation.
She said the card also unfairly targeted Indigenous people.
“The [card], especially as expanded, disproportionately applies to Indigenous peoples, and may be inconsistent with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth),” Wright said.
“The Law Council is not averse to some form of income management, but participation in the [scheme] and/or income management needs to be voluntary, based on full, free and informed individual consent… and meaningful community consultation.”
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, a long-time critic of the card, added that the card’s push into Indigenous communities showed it was a “discriminatory punitive policy”.
“This card has been imposed on communities without proper consultation and constantly extended on an ad-hoc basis year after year,” Siewert said.
“We can and should do better.”