Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015 – Second Reading


Senator SESELJA(Australian Capital Territory) (17:30): I am pleased to be supporting the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015. This bill is absolutely critical to finding ways to deal with social harm, particularly violence against women and children, caused by welfare-enabled alcohol and drug abuse. This bill will allow for the introduction of a cashless debit card trial for up to three different communities. These communities will be selected for the trial on the basis of high-welfare dependence and high-social-harm indicators and also openness from community leaders to participate in the trial. The trial will run for 12 months, be limited to 10,000 participants and be subject to independent evaluation. This card is an important recommendation from the Forrest review report, Creating Parity, as a way of dealing with significant harm occurring in heavily welfare-dependent communities.



I would like to respond to some of the things Senator Siewert had to say on consultation. I found them a little bit ironic. I met with the Yalata community and the Ceduna Aboriginal Corporation, whose leaders came to Canberra in the last couple of days to talk to senators about this legislation, and I am told that Senator Siewert refused to meet with them.


Senator Siewert interjecting


Senator SESELJA:You talk about consultation, but then you refused to hear from the very community leaders who are going to be affected by this trial, who are affected by the problems right now and who are best placed, in my opinion, along with other community leaders and other community members, to have a view on why this is necessary.


Mr Andrew Forrest, whose Creating Parity report recommended this reform, gave evidence to the community affairs committee inquiry a few weeks ago on 11 September and set out the tragic and troubling context for this reform. We should pay tribute to Mr Forrest. He is clearly committed to getting better outcomes for Indigenous Australians. I do not think we should question that at all. I think there is a genuineness to him, and certainly that is the way he presented as a witness. If we look at his record, he has done some great things. We should commend significant Australians like Mr Forrest who are looking to put something back. Mr Forrest told our committee:


Unfortunately, over the 40- or 50-year period that I can remember, I have seen the degradation of communities at the hands of alcohol and drugs. As many would know, in those communities there is a very high rate of attendance at funerals of friends and people who, like me, were bright-eyed, confident, happy and looking forward to living a full and secure life in Australia as youth. I feel that has been denied to so many of our vulnerable Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, through disproportionate access to alcohol and drugs in vulnerable communities. These are the great destroyers of community, of lives.


Ceduna in South Australia will be the first site where this trial will take place. Ceduna and its surrounding region has a population of 4,425. It is a town on the midcoast of South Australia around 800 kilometres west of Adelaide. In 2013-14 there were over 500 presentations to the emergency department due to alcohol or drug abuse—more than one a day. The Ceduna Sobering Up Centre had 4,667 admissions in that same year. Hospitalisations in the region due to assault are 68 times the national average.


The Ceduna community leadership, who also made a submission to the community affairs committee and appeared at the public hearing, have called for this reform and see it as a crucial way of addressing the wide-ranging drug, alcohol and gambling problems in their community. When the government announced they would like to bring the trial to Ceduna, these leaders said:


We want to build a future for our younger generation to aspire to and believe we cannot do this if our families are caught up in the destructive cycle of alcohol or drugs that destroys our culture, our lands and our communities.


At the heart of this reform is a change that is being shaped specifically to meet our local needs. It has been a true collaboration to ensure that we can give our mob and our Communities every chance to create real and genuine change in their lives.


We have grasped this initiative; we have helped shape this initiative; and we are confident that this initiative is for the betterment of all people within our region.


These are very powerful words coming from these community leaders. They are saying that they want to empower their community and deal with the scourge of drug and alcohol abuse in their communities. We as a government want to work with those communities who are willing to take these steps. We want to work with them and trial these technologies to see if we can make a genuine difference to some of these horrifying statistics. That is what this reform is about. It is about improving the lives of people in the regions. It is about protecting people from harm and giving people who have been caught in a cycle of welfare dependency, addiction and abuse some hope that there is a better way and a better future. Ceduna community leaders told the committee during the public hearing:


We understand the introduction of this trial is not the silver bullet to solve all of our issues, but we strongly believe that it provides part of an overall plan aimed at reducing easy access to alcohol, drugs and gambling addiction. As community leaders, we are very much aware of the social consequences of sitting back and not doing anything. We are at the forefront of alcohol and drug related violence. Families are going without food and children are not attending school, and there are other social issues which impact on the general health and social wellbeing of our people.


In the past, measures to reduce alcohol fuelled violence and chronic alcohol misuse—contributing to the premature deaths of our people—have been tried and tested and have failed. It is our belief that as a first trial site, amongst a possible three across Australia, we now have an opportunity to make positive change in the lives of our people.


Again, these are powerful words coming from those on the ground. The government is listening to those communities and working with them to get better outcomes.


Let’s go to some facts about the card. This card will look, feel and act like the normal debit card product that we all use every day and will be connected to the Visa, MasterCard or EFTPOS platform. Participants in the trial would receive this cashless debit card for the cashless part of their welfare payment, and their existing bank account will receive the cash component of their payment. Government consultation with community leaders has determined that 80 per cent is the sensible cashless figure.


Under the trial, if you are on Newstart, single with three children and live in your own home, you have over $145 cash per week, with the remainder of the payment on your card. If you are on parenting payment, single with four children and living in a private rental, you will receive over $220 cash per week, with the remainder of the payment on the card. If you are on disability support pension, partnered and with no children, you will receive over $85 per week, with the remainder of your payment on the card. If you are single and on Newstart, you will receive $60 per week cash, with the remainder of your payment on the card.


This card will work like any ordinary debit card from any ordinary bank except for those store categories which have been switched off. These stores would include liquor stores and gambling outlets. Participants will also not be able to withdraw cash using this card; however, the 20 per cent that goes into their usual bank account can be withdrawn and used without restrictions. Participants will be able to benefit from banking technologies, including online budgeting options. Participants may also be able to manage their welfare payments and develop their budgeting skills through setting daily spend limits, maximum transaction values and maximum numbers of transactions per day should they wish to.


The card will include push text technology for recipients and their mobile phones. This will help people develop their financial literacy and financial management. People will receive these notifications when their Centrelink payment has arrived in their account, to show them the remaining balance after a purchase over $10 and when their balance is running low.


It was made clear that many in the communities affected by this proposal were generally in favour of it and those against it were often external to the community. For example, Professor Eva Cox gave evidence at the hearing to oppose this measure. I asked Professor Cox if she had actually spoken to people in Ceduna about the trial. Her answer was, ‘No, I have not.’ The committee also heard from Mr Rob Bray of the ANU, who, when asked if he had spoken to people in Ceduna, replied, ‘No, I’ve not spoken to any of the community of Ceduna.’ Professor Ilan Katz of UNSW also opposed this measure; but, again, when asked about his involvement with the people of Ceduna, he said, ‘I’ve not spoken to them either.’


Many of those opposed to this measure went on to mount a straw man argument about income management with regard to this bill. This issue came up during the committee hearings, and it needs to be made clear that this is a false comparison. This trial is not income management. It was emphasised a number of times during the committee hearings that this debit card is not to be confused with the BasicsCard or any other type of income management. Professor Marcia Langton, who has worked in some of the affected communities, made it clear that this measure is not income management. She told the committee:


It is quite a different model. Income management works in a kind of reverse way. What is being proposed here will work substantially differently and it is important to trial this in order to see if this kind of approach will work better. Under this scheme, there will be something like the Families Responsibilities Commission—that is, a committee of responsible members of the community, including elders, who subscribe to good social norms, who hear cases to remove the high levels of the cashless component of the income to enable people to access the cash, depending on, critically, whether or not they are sending their children to school every day.


Mr Michael, Haynes, the CEO of Ceduna Aboriginal Corporation and one of the community leaders actually from Ceduna, also told the committee:


… this is not about income management. This is a cashless debit visa card. We see it as totally different …


Mr Gregory Franks, the CEO of Yalata Community Inc, expanded on Mr Haynes’s comments to the committee by saying:


The difference between this card is that it has a 70/30 minimum split, a standard split of 80/20 and potentially 90/10, so it has the variable. It has very strong Aboriginal leadership commitment to it. It has very strong community support. It is a standard visa-type card that you can use anywhere in the country. It is a catch-all for everybody, black or white—anybody who is receiving benefits. But the big aspect of whether this will work or not will be around the fact that the trial will have a range of support packages provided with it, things like financial counselling, alcohol and other drugs counselling, and grief and loss counselling, as well as support for employment programs, support for economic development activity and support for diversionary activity. That is where this card will succeed or fail. It is not the mechanics of the card or the card itself. I know that I, and probably you, do not use more than 20 per cent of my own cash when I do most of my transactions. It is a normalising behaviour and it facilitates that normalising behaviour. It has very strong community support and very strong Aboriginal leadership support, but it is the support packages that we are still negotiating that will determine whether the card does or does not work.


Some critics of the trial also talked about it being a paternalistic measure or limiting people’s human rights. When asked about this during the hearing, Professor Langton said:


I do not believe that it is paternalistic at all. Aboriginal leaders in these communities want this measure, and they want this measure because you have to see alcohol abuse to the extent that it occurs in these communities at firsthand to understand their concerns. What has happened over the last 50 years is that Aboriginal people have become normalised to welfare dependency. The proposition that a capable adult could go and get a job is simply regarded as impossible by many Aboriginal people because they have a mindset that their permanent destination is social security dependence.


…   …   …


This is not a paternalistic measure; this is a protective measure that leaders have examined closely and want for their communities because children are unsafe, women are unsafe and, more and more, people are being dragged into the drinking culture and increasing the proportion of drinkers in the community.


Professor Langton went on to say:


In relation to human rights, this is not a human rights abuse. The proposition is not race based. Both of these towns are open towns that have multicultural populations, including Australian settler folk, various kinds of Australians from elsewhere in the world, and very large Aboriginal populations—and much larger Aboriginal populations in the Hinterland of these towns.


Mr Forrest also addressed this issue, saying:


… this card is not remotely paternalistic. Anything which gives thinking adults caring for community—experienced adults—an ability to further help their community is not paternalistic. To deny those Australians that basic right without a trial, to deny them access to a better technology which has transformed our own lives in this inquiry … is very paternalistic.


I also note that the committee looked at the value of this trial in helping teach those on welfare important habits such as budgeting and saving. Mrs Michele Pucci of the east Kimberley region told the committee:


I think there is a general feeling and acceptance in the East Kimberley that there needs to be something done around addressing some of the antisocial behaviour. There is a belief that the card will in some way limit that as it limits people’s access to alcohol and drugs.


…   …   …


I also believe there is an opportunity. People may be able, through this card, to better manage their spending, and I think that there are some services that then will be able to get in behind those families.


This is an absolutely critical bill. It will help address the significant harm being done in small, welfare-dependent communities where alcohol, drug addiction, abuse and gambling are rife. This is not income management. This is a card that will operate like any card that everyday Australians have. The only difference is that it will have stores that are switched off, such as liquor stores and betting agencies. In addition, people will have access to 20 per cent of their income in cash, which they can use on absolutely any product they choose to spend their money on.


This is about empowering communities. This is about addressing the scourges of alcohol abuse, drug abuse and gambling addiction, and some of the terrible, negative effects that we see in some communities as a result of those scourges. I would urge all senators to get behind this. It is a trial, it is an important trial and it is a trial which has overwhelming support in the community. I think that we in this place should always be looking at ways in which we can improve the lives of Australians. But importantly, as we do that, we should be looking at ways in which we can work with local communities, in consultation with local communities, to deliver local solutions which will make the lives of ordinary children, men and women in these communities much better as a result. I commend this bill to the Senate.