Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 28 March 2023
Page: 51

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (16:43): It gives me pleasure to join the debate on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management Reform) Bill 2023 immediately after my friend the member for Bass. I congratulate her on what I thought was a very thoughtful and considered presentation on what is a very complex issue. The level of complexity in this issue is reflected in the fact that, while I completely respect her point of view agree and everything the member for Bass had to say, I disagree with a large amount of it. I guess that probably indicates just how challenging this area of public policy has become.

As a National Party member of parliament, I am very passionate about localism. I believe very strongly that local communities are best placed to solve local problems. Local communities can find local solutions and apply them broadly across their own townships, preferably with the support of state and federal governments where required. I was very interested to hear the presentation from a couple more of my friends and colleagues—the member for Parkes, the member for Grey and the member for Hinkler—who have been directly impacted by the cashless debit card and in fact advocated for those cards in their own communities because of the impact they'd seen on systemic and widespread social dysfunction emanating from a range of areas but primarily around alcohol addiction, drug addiction or gambling problems. What I do take from the member for Bass's speech and also the contributions from the member for Parkes and the member for Grey is the level of unity we have in this place and the desire we have for change in grappling with these complex and difficult issues. The member for Bass I think made a very important point that we do need tailored case management as much as we possibly can to help families faced with these challenging issues. I did find the now government's attacks on the cashless debit card when they were in opposition to be more based on ideology than based on the facts of the situation on the ground as the local members were dealing with those challenges.

There is a great divide in Australian politics today, and it's a divide which is largely based on geography. What you will see when you look at the electoral map today is that the Labor Party, for all its success in the cities and the suburbs, is largely unrepresented in rural, regional and remote communities—with a couple of exceptions; I do note the member for Lingiari and, I'd suggest, the member for Eden-Monaro. But once you get a couple of hours out from the major capital cities, the Labor Party is largely unrepresented. I don't make that point as a particular criticism; just to point out that there are going to be times in this place where ministers and the Prime Minister would be well advised to talk to local members in those communities and get an understanding about localism and an understanding about what local solutions might look like in those communities. The member for Parkes and the member for Grey are two outstanding examples of that—people who know their communities well and know the challenges they're facing every day in dealing with social and economic dysfunction.

I make my comments again today from a positive position and one trying to be of value to what the government's trying to achieve here, and I make a very simple point that Australians should be very proud of the welfare system we have in this country. We have a welfare safety net which has been added to, created and improved over generations. We have a safety net that provides a helping hand for Australians when they need it the most. That helping hand also requires obligations that the money is well spent by the government and well spent by the taxpayers who receive it. From the last figures I've seen it's about $230 billion per year in the overall welfare budget, taking into consideration the whole range of pensions and different payments the federal government makes. It's about 34 per cent of Australian government expenditure. I think Australians can be proud of that. They can be proud of the fact that we do provide a system of government that supports Australians when they need it most.

Income management was intended to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society, including those who have drug and alcohol dependencies and children who are subject to abuse and neglect. This was not a step the previous government leapt to as a first option in those communities where it was introduced. I sincerely believe income management should always be a last resort and it should always be locally supported before it proceeds. The coalition introduced the cashless debit card in 2016 and implemented the card in regions across Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. One of the criteria for trialling the card at that time was it had to be accepted by the community.

As I said at the outset, localism matters. The communities were at their wits end in trying to deal with the challenges they were facing with abuse of government payments and money being used for alcohol, drugs and gambling and not being used to support the families it was meant to support. These communities spoke to the ministers responsible about the need for a better income management system to protect the vulnerable people who lived and worked in and visited their region. The cashless debit card, as it was introduced, worked just like a regular bank card that, however, couldn't be used to purchase alcohol, drugs or gambling products. Cardholders received 80 per cent of their welfare benefits as a credit on the card, with the remaining 20 per cent deposited into their bank accounts. And the CDC allowed for product-level blocking and could be used in around 900,000 merchants.

During the election campaign the incoming government chose to campaign against the cashless debit card. One of the first moves of new Prime Minister Albanese and the Labor Party was to abolish the cashless debit card, regardless of the fact that the locals in those communities were, by and large, still supportive and recording positive outcomes, particularly for women and children, the most vulnerable people of those communities. But, as a result of abolishing the CDC, from the information on the ground, the anecdotal evidence, the reports in the media—everything we have seen since then—the rivers of grog have again started to flow. They've started to flow, and we're seeing more violence in some of those communities. I don't pretend for a second that the cashless debit card is a panacea that's going to solve all our problems. The problems are far more complex than that. I respect, again, the contribution of the member for Bass, when she went into great detail about some of those complexities.

Since the repeal of the CDC, vulnerable communities are again feeling the devastation, and we're seeing an increased influx of violent crime, gambling, alcohol fuelled violence and child neglect. These are challenges that the new government is going to have to deal with and I guess is attempting to deal with today by what amounts to a rebranding and a backflip on their own policy. We have had the mayors of towns like Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Leonora, Coolgardie and Laverton—areas affected by Labor's abolition of the cashless debit card—reporting a surge in violence, child neglect and dysfunction since the last election. These reports are echoed in another former CDC trial site, Ceduna, with locals witnessing an increased use of pokies, violence and public intoxication. An article in the Australian newspaper on 24 March states:

Crime in Ceduna exploded after the abolition of the Cashless Debit Card, with new police numbers confirming the crime rate almost doubled in the South Australian town.

South Australian police data show 111 offences were recorded in Ceduna—population 3000—in January. This is almost double the number of offences being recorded monthly when the card, which quarantined 80 per cent of welfare payments for some vulnerable recipients—was abolished four months ago, and is almost triple the crime rate of the previous January.

The minister responsible, Minister Rishworth, is quoted in this article as saying:

The picture of chaos that some are trying to paint of Ceduna as a result of the Cashless Debit Card program ending is just not reflected in fact.

She goes on to say:

The most recent reports I have received from my department is that Ceduna has no issues to report as a result of the CDC program transition.

This again goes back to the question of localism. The locals know better. That is not what the locals are telling the minister; that is not what the locals are telling the media that visited to report on this increase in violence. The article continues:

Ceduna resident Richard Wilkinson said he believed the increase in crimes was a result of the abolition of the cashless card …

Mr Wilkinson said he had lived in Ceduna for 15 years and never had a problem, but was burgled three times over 10 weeks this summer, losing food, alcohol, bedding, and on one occasion his car.

…   …   …

"It's definitely got worse since the card was abolished," Mr Wilkinson said.

"The crimes up, the drinking's up. The police do a great job but they're sick of it."

I don't want to get into an ideological war about income management, but, for goodness sake, Minister, listen to what the locals are saying. The locals understand the challenges they have in their communities, and they are now being exposed to more crime, more grog and more violence, and it's a less safe community for women and children. There's no shame as a minister in trying to make changes to make a difference in people's lives and then realising quickly you've made a mistake and cleaning up the mess. This government needs to clean up the mess it's creating in many communities by abolishing the cashless debit card.

I fear that, while Labor today is showing some signs that it's listening to our local communities in regional Australia, it really is just an afterthought and just an attempt to try and smooth things over and pretend that somehow everything's going to be alright. I urge the minister to listen more to people who are on the ground in those communities, whether they be local members or residents, who have such an incredible wealth of experience from representing their communities in this place but also from being on the ground every day listening to the shopkeepers, listening to the police, listening to the schoolteachers, listening to the mums and the children who can't go home because dad's got a bellyful of grog and wants to beat them up. Listen to these people because they're hearing these stories every day, and income management was one of the tools which was available to us to try to reduce that cycle of violence in those communities. I have to say to the minister: stop listening to inner-city elites who may have some principled ideological view about how welfare works in a perfect world, and get out on the ground in regional communities and hear the screams from people in those communities. Hear what they're saying to you about income management and how it's keeping their communities safe and putting food back on the table.

The last point I want to make is that this was never a race based card. It should never have been portrayed as a race based card. This card applied equally to Indigenous welfare recipients and the rest of the community in the communities where they were consulted and wanted access to this system. At its heart, this was not a punishment; this was never intended as a punishment for those communities but as an attempt to get food back on the table for some of the most vulnerable people in Australia. It was an attempt to stop taxpayers' money going to bottle shops and poker machines, and there is evidence that in the early stages it worked. Evidence on the ground from those communities—from the women and from the children—was that they felt safer, that there was food on the table, that less money was being spent on grog and that there was less violence in those communities.

I say to those opposite: you're a party that likes to talk a lot about your support for women right across Australia, so go out and ask them in those communities whether the cashless debit card was working in their homes. Ask them if they felt safer when the income management system was in place. Ask them if their community was better off with the system that was put in place to try to keep them safe and their families safe. I thank the House.