Indigenous groups, Labor, Greens attack expansion of cashless welfare card | Australia news
A proposed expansion of the cashless welfare card has been heavily criticised by Aboriginal organisations, Labor and the Greens, leaving the fate of the income management crackdown in the hands of the Senate crossbench.
After the government tabled the proposed cashless debit card bill in Parliament on Wednesday, the Greens accused the Coalition of attempting to entrench the cashless welfare card “by stealth”.
The legislation extends the existing trial sites for the cashless welfare card and expands its roll-out to Cape York in Queensland and the Northern Territory, where the government wants it to replace the Basics Card.
The cards are already being trialled in Ceduna in South Australia, East Kimberley in Western Australia, the Goldfields in WA and Hervey Bay in Queensland, but have been criticised as overly punitive and paternalistic.
There are more than 21,000 people on income management in the NT, and 83% of them are Indigenous, according to Social Services data provided to Senate estimates.
Under the bill, they would be transferred to the cashless debit card (CDC) system, which would increase the portion of their quarantined income from 50% to 80%, meaning 80% of a person’s welfare is stored on a debit card and cannot be spent on alcohol or gambling.
In Queensland, up to 100% of a person’s income could be quarantined on the card, according to the legislation tabled on Wednesday.
The government is proposing about $18m to support the expansion into the NT and Cape York with wraparound services.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has spruiked the card as a key plank of the Coalition’s “compassionate conservative” welfare agenda, dovetailing the push with the government’s revival of a plan to drug test welfare recipients.
But the Greens senator Rachel Siewert said the extension of income management was unjustified, saying it had been proven to be a “spectacular failure” after 12 years in operation since the Howard government intervention.
“It is a failed approach and they need to be taking a new and different approach that is working with the community,” Siewert told Guardian Australia.
Labor has previously supported trials of the cashless debit card, but opposed an expansion in Hervey Bay and the WA Goldfields that passed Parliament last year.
Aboriginal organisations in the Northern Territory say the bill is being rushed through without proper consultation with the communities who will be most affected, and “makes a mockery” of government promises to work in partnership with Aboriginal organisations to close the gap.
The bill is expected to be referred to the Senate community affairs legislation committee, a move that is supported by the NT’s Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance.
“The bill would significantly alter the controversial income management that is already in place in the NT and put it in place indefinitely, yet communities are largely unaware of the proposed changes,” the alliance’s chief executive, John Paterson, said.
“This feels like the Howard-era intervention all over again,” Paterson said.
“The last time the government intervened in the NT, and did things to us instead of with us, it failed at great cost to families and communities.
“Without due consideration this proposal makes a mockery of government rhetoric around Aboriginal controlled decision making,” he said.
The shadow social services minister, Linda Burney, said Labor did not support a national roll-out of the card, but is yet to determine whether it will support an extension of its operation in Ceduna and the East Kimberley.
“It goes to whether or not it’s effective … and the evaluations so far have been quite inadequate and there needs to be proper evaluation,” Burney told ABC radio.
“If a community has proper consultation and proper consent, and the community wants the card then Labor would not stand in the way.
“But we do not support a national roll-out of this card.”
Siewert said that Labor should stand firm against the expansion of the card and say “enough is enough”.
Without the support of Labor and the Greens, the government will need to convince four crossbench senators to back the measures.
Jacqui Lambie and Centre Alliance, which was formerly the Nick Xenophon team, have previously supported the cashless welfare card, but have yet to confirm how they will vote on the new legislation.
A government commissioned report released last year found the card had been effective in “reducing alcohol consumption and gambling” in Ceduna and the East Kimberley, with almost half of people who identified themselves as gamblers doing so less.
Among drug takers, 48% self-reported using illegal drugs less often.
But despite some positive improvements, only 17% reported feeling their lives were better as a result of the card, and 24% of parents reported their children’s lives were actually worse.
The social services minister, Anne Ruston, said that her experience was that there was a “whole heap of good news stories” about the card.
“I have not met with anybody who is currently on the card who is not either saying that they accept that it has improved their life, many of them are actually saying that it has made a substantial improvement to their quality of life,” Ruston said on Wednesday.