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Thursday, 23 August 2018
Page: 5631

Senator STEELE-JOHN (Western Australia) (09:33): I speak this morning on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card Trial Expansion) Bill 2018, once again dismayed to hear the discriminatory and absolutely factless rhetoric around those who access and utilise their right to access the social safety net that we are once again descending to. We don't seem to be able to have a conversation about the nature of our social safety net, about the realities of being vulnerable in modern-day Australia, about the true nature of poverty in this country, without indulging ourselves in the most disgraceful rhetoric. If I hear once more in this place that the best form of welfare is a job by those who have sat in this place and not worked any semblance, in the last 30 years, of what the vast majority of the Australian public would consider to be an everyday regular job then I will puke.

We are so disconnected in this place. With the average income of those who sit here, the privilege from which we so often descend to take up these places and the absence in our everyday life of interactions with the realities faced by the vast majority of the Australian people, we do not know or experience—and we block our ears when people come before us and tell us about—the realities of life. This bubble in which we exist and this profound sense of unreality by which we are surrounded, combined I am sure with a wilful ignorance, are the only factors which can explain a legislature's desire to enact such a destructive, corrosive and fundamentally baseless policy as the cashless welfare card.

My esteemed colleague Senator Rachel Siewert has on more occasions than I can remember elucidated to this house in great detail each individual element which is so flawed and wrong about this proposed scheme, and yet it has fallen on deaf ears. It has been ignored, because fundamentally those in the government who propose this way forward do not care. They do not believe that poverty, vulnerability and economic struggle are the result of systems failing. They subscribe to the absurd belief that poverty is the result of moral failing and that success and living in wealth and comfort are the result of moral virtue. This is the world view to which this government subscribes, and it has the cheek, the audacity and the bloody-minded ignorance to suggest over and over again that the most vulnerable, those who are most struggling, must pull themselves up by their bootstraps and that if they cannot then that is their own fault. I notice at this moment that the honourable Father of the Senate, Senator Macdonald, is exiting the chamber.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Steele-John, it's not appropriate to reference whether senators are in or out of the chamber. You don't have any idea of the commitments or otherwise of other senators. I'd ask you to withdraw that.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Apologies. I withdraw that. I would note that certain members of the government have on many occasions advocated the continuation of—and set forth why they believe it is right that they should receive—previous parliamentary remuneration schemes that are quite generous in nature and, in the same breath, turn around and support schemes such as this.

My state of WA has been subjected to this experiment, this act of social engineering, that is the cashless welfare card. I observe that it is not, however, communities of great wealth in WA where this scheme is being trialled. It was not to Peppermint Grove that the government turned to trial this scheme. It was not even to metropolitan WA. No, they turned to rural communities. It just shows, once again, the disdain that the government has for communities who are struggling.

Make no mistake—this House can be under no illusion that the trial sites that have been set forward are the end. This is not an aberration; this is the beginning. This is what conservatives in this place would like to see our social safety net become. They look at the entrenched disadvantage and look at the intergenerational poverty, as seen in places such as the United States, and they think it right. They think it preferable. There they see a society where members of their establishment are not held back and don't have their wealth diverted for those as unworthy as people struggling. It is a disgraceful ideology. As somebody who comes proudly from an area of WA that experiences these things in reality, I do not speak against this bill today in the absence of lived experience of what it is like to experience poverty and fear and to not know what the next day will bring.

This chamber, this building, has been consumed for the last week with the most disgraceful forms of self-interested, self-obsessed naval-gazing. The nation is united in disgust with this legislature, with this parliament and with this government. We have seen a decade of an endless process of repetition and of replacement, of polls ruling political discussion and of weak-willed cowardice on behalf of leader after leader and minister after minister. This is all while extolling the urgent need to return to the business of government. What a joke that is. What a joke that is on mornings like today, when the business of government—if we bothered to return to it—would be the implementation of a scheme for which there is no evidential basis, the brainchild of a witless billionaire who manages to get the ear of Liberal policymakers because he makes quite sizeable donations. What a farce. What an absolute joke.

I cannot believe that the business of the Australian legislature is currently occupied, again, with the consideration of a scheme that is the brainchild of one of the wealthiest billionaires in this country, because he believes—unique among all other voices in this space—that he has the solution to entrenched poverty in this country. I cannot believe that a government which so often ridicules members of my party for pursuing policies, which they themselves characterise as idealistic and without an evidence base, pursues a policy approach, embodied in this idea—something which has been tried and tested over and over again and proven to be utterly useless. But not only that: not only didn't it work; it wreaked havoc in the lives of those were subjected to it.

The reality is that it is well-known exactly what things must be done to alleviate poverty in Australia: we must raise Newstart; we must ensure a living wage; and we must strengthen our social safety net and give it the people and skills that are needed to help people in times of crisis. It is the right of every Australian to know that we, as a society, have collectively agreed that poverty is unacceptable, that homelessness is unacceptable and that the hunger of children is not something which we are willing to walk past. It is their right, it is their human right, to access services for the prevention of those societal ills without being made to feel like criminals.

I wonder how long it is since any member of this government was forced to interact with Centrelink services. I do wonder. I wonder if you have experienced the shame, the fear and the self-loathing that is induced by having to admit that you need help. And why do people feel these things? They feel them because this government and previous governments—and the Labor Party is not innocent in this: though they may vote against this bill today, they have participated over the last 20 years quite happily in the demonisation of vulnerable people. They have, when it has suited them electorally, given credence to the idea that the best form of welfare is a job.

I'd like to remind both sides of this chamber that there are hundreds of thousands more people in this country who are out of work than there are jobs for them to go into. This is not a question of moral failing; this is a question of mathematics. Yet, you would condemn these people, both of you, either actively or passively, to a feeling of shame and of failure, the likes of which we, in here, probably cannot comprehend simply because it will win you some votes in Western Sydney, simply because it will swing a crucial seat in Queensland, simply because it will stem the losses in Victoria or maybe it will make you competitive in WA. And, God, don't we get a good headline if we go on about dole bludgers in this country. The Daily Telegraph will love us. The Australianwillgive us a go, and it might just be what's in it to win.

How cold, how cruel this place becomes when it talks about these issues. One side says, 'Let's bash 'em over the head,' and the other side says, 'Maybe not so hard' or 'Maybe we'll keep things exactly the same as they are.' And every single day thousands of people go to sleep on the streets of this nation. Every single day thousands of people go without food—kids go to school hungry. But, God knows, if you're a charity, if you're an NGO, one side will cut your funding and the other side won't guarantee your funding beyond the next bloody election cycle. But if you've got Great Barrier Reef Foundation in your name, well then, hundreds of millions of dollars fall from the bloody sky. What an absolute disgrace. I thank the chamber for its time.

(Quorum formed)