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Thursday, 23 August 2018
Page: 5643

Senator RICE (Victoria) (10:40): I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card Trial Expansion) Bill 2018. This legislation sums up everything that is wrong with our current government. It's basically an attack on poor people. It's trying to make life harder for poor people. It's telling poor people that it is their fault that they are poor. Why should we be surprised? This government has such a track record of absolutely putting the screws on people who have the misfortune to not have much money, while at the same time supporting the very wealthy in our community and the large corporations. We saw only yesterday their attempt to get big tax cuts to the big end of town through. Fortunately, enough members in this place saw that was not what we needed to be doing in Australia today. We saw $144 billion of cuts to income tax, rather than seeing that there is a need to spend that amount of money, those hundreds of billions of dollars, on services to give everybody in Australia the opportunity to live a good quality life.

The other key thing is that it is very clear from the reviews of the trials that have been done so far that this approach doesn't work. Not only is this crackdown going to make life more difficult for poor people but it is also ineffective at achieving the outcomes that the government wants to achieve. The evidence we already have today is that this approach—quarantining people's money to deal with issues such as substance abuse, gambling and other behaviours which we genuinely want to address in our community—doesn't work. There is so much evidence across the board that there are other ways to address issues like substance abuse and gambling, but you have to ask some questions and dig deeper to see why people have drug and gambling problems. It's not because they get to spend their money whichever way they want; it's because they are quite reasonably struggling to survive in life without education, support, housing and money, or due to family violence issues. When you're in those sorts of circumstances, life's pretty tough and stressful. You are often trying to see the way out. There is then the temptation to abuse drugs or to throw what money you have into gambling, hoping it might actually give you something that will enable you to improve your life. They are the measures that people feel they have to resort to in order to deal with those pressures.

There are other ways of going about dealing with these pressures—rather than absolutely attacking poor people, actually giving them the opportunities, giving them high-quality health care and education and, in particular, increasing the rates of benefits so that people have actually got the ability to live. We should increase Newstart payments, youth allowance and other welfare payments so that people don't feel that life is just one eternal struggle of trying to just hold it together. If we did that, people would then be able to get their lives back on track, engage in education and know that they're not going to be thrown out because they can't pay the rent on their house.

These are the sorts of things that, as a society, we can afford. We are a rich country. We know that, rather than giving massive tax cuts to the big end of town, we can afford to support everybody in our community and to give them the opportunities to live a good life. But no. Just because of, basically, the fundamental approach of this government of saying, 'Those who have should get more, and we should just grind those who are struggling into the ground,' we have these very appalling punitive measures being imposed upon people.

So then we say, as I referred to: does this approach work? Does this populist attack on poor people—this populist appeal saying, 'Oh, well, you've just got dole bludgers, so you've just got to stop them spending their money'—work? Is there the evidence to say that it works? It's very clear that there isn't. That goes to my second main point: the community would think that governments should be making their decisions based on evidence and that, where there is evidence to support a course of action, we should be following that evidence. It's very clear that the evidence from the trials so far, where the cashless welfare card has been used, is that it doesn't work. It's not just random Greens or random members of the community who are saying it doesn't work. It's not just people pulling things out of the air to say it doesn't work. It's one of the institutions that we depend upon to conduct good-quality, objective research. That's the Australian National Audit Office, who of course have done a report on the implementation and performance of the cashless debit card trial. You would think that, if the Audit Office have done a report on the trial as it's gone so far, you would listen to what they have to say. You would think that, in the interests of good governance and evidence-based decision-making, you would pay attention to what they're saying before proceeding to roll out this measure.

The summary of the audit report which I have here lays out what the Audit Office aimed to do in their report. They say:

The Cashless Debit Card Trial (CDCT or the trial) aimed to: test whether social harm caused by alcohol, gambling and drug misuse can be reduced by placing a portion (up to 80 per cent) of a participant's income support payment onto a card that cannot be used to buy alcohol or gambling products or to withdraw cash; and inform the development of a lower cost welfare quarantining solution to replace current income management arrangements.

They say:

The CDCT was selected for audit to identify whether the Department of Social Services (Social Services) was well placed to inform any further roll-out of the CDC with a robust evidence base. Further, the audit aimed to provide assurance that Social Services had established a solid foundation to implement the trial including: consultation and communication with the communities involved; governance arrangements; the management of risks; and robust procurement arrangements.

So what did they find in their conclusions? They found:

The Department of Social Services … approach to monitoring and evaluation was inadequate. As a consequence, it is difficult to conclude whether there had been a reduction in social harm and whether the card was a lower cost welfare quarantining approach.

So you would think, with that overarching conclusion, now is not the time to extend, massively extend, this trial to another major part of Australia. You would think, before you go any further, given that you've got trial sites that are already underway, you would go back and do more monitoring and evaluation until you knew that you had a robust evidence base from the areas where the cashless debit card is already in use. That would be the evidence based thing to do. But, no, instead we've got this government, on the basis of populism, attacking poor people, saying they're going to go on and roll this trial out to thousands and thousands of more people—young people, poor people, people on Newstart, people on youth allowance. Rather than listening to the most credible agency that looked at the effectiveness of the card, they're saying: 'No. We're just going to continue to roll it out somewhere else.'

The ANAO further concluded:

… it—

Social Services—

did not actively monitor risks identified in risk plans and there were deficiencies in elements of the procurement processes.

They said:

Arrangements to monitor and evaluate the trial were in place although key activities were not undertaken or fully effective, and the level of unrestricted cash available in the community was not effectively monitored … and … they did not cover some operational aspects of the trial such as efficiency, including cost. There was a lack of robustness in data collection and the department's evaluation did not make use of all available administrative data to measure the impact of the trial including any change in social harm.

It is extremely concerning that the ANAO are saying that Social Services did not make use of all available data. You might be forgiven for thinking that Social Services had some preconceived ideas, in terms of its conclusions as to the effectiveness of the trial, and that it wanted to show that the trial was effective, even though it wasn't. Again, I go back to the issue of good governance. The people of Australia want to see good governance. They want to see decisions being made on the basis of evidence. For Social Services to undermine and not use the evidence that's available is extremely disturbing. It's an appalling way to run major parts of our social policy.

The ANAO continued:

Aspects of the proposed wider roll-out of the CDC—

the cashless debit card—

were informed by learnings from the trial, but the trial was not designed to test the scalability of the CDC and there was no plan in place to undertake further evaluation.

And yet here we are being asked to vote and support a bill that would expand the use of the cashless debit card in a major way to thousands and thousands of more people in another part of the country. This is not the way that we should be doing government here.

This is a very comprehensive report, and there are many areas that were identified for improvement. Some of the findings included: some identified risks were not actively managed; aspects of the procurement process to engage the card provider and evaluator were not robust; the department didn't document the value-for-money assessment; and, in terms of monitoring and analysing the card, Social Services didn't complete all the activities identified in the strategy, including the cost-benefit analysis. So, not only did it not use the data to determine whether the card worked, given it didn't do that cost-benefit analysis either, one could presume that maybe the trial wasn't an effective way of trying to achieve what it was trying to achieve, and that it's not only attacking poor people for being poor, but it's a really expensive way to attack poor people for being poor—and it's being done just to suit the populist agenda, to appeal to people who have this belief that all the problems of Australia could be solved if we had fewer people on welfare. And yet we know that the reason that people are on welfare, the reason that people are on unemployment benefits in areas of regional Australia, is not because they are dole bludgers or because they are sitting back and not wanting to work; it's because the work isn't available.

We also know that there are so many other ways in which we could be providing work. Again, there is so much good work that the government could be funding and putting the billions of dollars into, instead of giving— (Quorum formed) As I was saying, the issue is with people who don't want to be on welfare, who don't want to be guinea pigs in these trials, who want to have the freedom to spend money where they wish to. They don't want to be in this situation. And the reason they are there isn't that they are dole bludgers, that they don't want to work; it's because the work is not available. There are so many opportunities that government could be providing. They could be providing funding for these people to undertake work that is to the benefit of society, to the benefit of our community, as well as to the benefit of individual people. I'm thinking about things like rolling out Indigenous ranger programs across the country. You'd then have Indigenous people looking after country and looking after our natural environment. There's a massive amount of employment that could be provided through resources being put into that. And it's very cost effective, because it means that we're tackling some of the really key natural resource problems that we face, such as pest animals and plants and dealing with erosion and land degradation. All of these things could be tackled by actually providing the resources to employ people to tackle these problems in our natural environment.

There are other employment opportunities that people are crying out for in regional communities—communities where, for example, they haven't got adequate health services. There are opportunities to support community health services, supporting the rollout of health services across regional Australia so that everybody has the opportunity to access high-quality health services. That means employing people to work in those services, to be there as nurses. It means employing more people in aged-care facilities. And then there are the opportunities in educational settings—employing more teachers' aides in schools, employing more people to be working with people with disabilities. There are things from across the whole of society where we know there is so much potential to spend money in employing people to do jobs with really good social and economic benefits. It would pay for itself over and over again and would give employment to the sorts of people who are being attacked, who are being pilloried, by being in this proposed trial that will be rolled out through the legislation we have before us today.

They are some of the findings of the Audit Office. So it's pretty clear that we should not be expanding this trial while these key questions of the Audit Office about the existing trial sites remain unaddressed. The Queensland Council of Social Service, who are deeply concerned about expanding the trial in the areas of Bundaberg and Hervey Bay in Queensland, where the rollout is proposed, did a comprehensive review of the cashless debit card trial and evaluation. Their findings are well worth noting. In summary, they said:

there is insufficient evidence of success to warrant any further expansion of the trial at this stage

there is a lack of clarity on the key goals and outcomes of the trial …

the evaluation methodology is questionable and the outcomes inconclusive. In addition, the two new sites represent a markedly different environment and Trial scope which has yet to be tested and evaluated

that operating in complexity requires testing of multiple options, preferably options that are supported by evidence and expert opinion …

Again, this comes down to the fact that the evidence goes against expanding the trial. Certainly, the evidence is not there to expand the trial. Just because Senator Macdonald happens to say, 'I think it should go ahead because I think it's a good idea,' that's not evidence. We need to have the evidence base to justify such a major expansion of the cashless debit card. In particular, they say:

The CDC Trial is currently the only option being considered to address these complex social issues and is not supported by the evidence of what works …

They go on to say:

community support has not been clearly evidenced …

So, again, not only doesn't it work, but the community actually don't want it. They want to see options that would really address some of the underlying social issues that people are concerned about—putting more money into drug rehabilitation, putting more money into drug counselling, putting more money into supporting young families who are struggling, and supporting families who are really having difficulties. Putting the resources into those support services is a much more effective way of dealing with the issues that we are facing in Australia, rather than these punitive measures designed to attack people.

The final dot point of the Queensland Council of Social Service's review is:

accountability for public funds would recommend that there is clear articulation of costs and benefits of the trials prior to any further expansion.

That's pretty clear, and that's what the Greens are actually saying: we are an evidence based party. We say: put the evidence in front of us. And the evidence so far does not support the expansion of this trial. The evidence in front of us says there are other things and other measures that we should be using to address the issues that we're facing as a society. An expansion of the cashless debit card is certainly not that.