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Tuesday, 13 October 2015
Page: 7506

Senator WILLIAMS (New South Wales) (18:20): I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015. I applaud this initiative that will enable a trial phase of a new cashless welfare arrangement and a cashless debit card. It will try to reduce the harm caused by alcohol, gambling and drug abuse.

When I read the details, I cast my mind back to a Senate inquiry that I was involved in in 2009. It was the Senate Select Committee on Men's Health. There was plenty of evidence about disadvantage from rural and remote communities, and I always remember the evidence given by Risk Welsh, who was the Aboriginal Men’s Health Project Officer with the Men's Health Information and Resource Centre. I will quote what he said:

I recently visited a community in north-western New South Wales, at Wilcannia—

probably far-western New South Wales is the correct description—

and that is a pretty grim place, because the average life expectancy for Aboriginal males out there is 35, so they are basically lucky to see their kids hit high school.

That the average life expectancy of an Aboriginal male at Wilcannia was 35 shocked all committee members. I actually went out to Wilcannia on a couple of occasions to see for myself.

On one occasion, the then minister for Indigenous affairs, Senator Mark Arbib, actually came out at my request and met with the council and local groups to discuss how some of these problems could be addressed. We heard of children having to get themselves ready for school—dressing themselves and, most likely, not getting breakfast. We heard that the school bus often did a second run to ensure that those children who wanted to go to school did get the opportunity. This is just one example of a community that needs help.

The reason I support this trial, which starts in Ceduna, South Australia, is that we cannot stand by and watch these communities killing themselves and their children. For too long governments of all persuasions have thrown billions of dollars at these communities in the belief that it will fix the problem, but it never has and it never will. This is why we are here today discussing the need for a cashless welfare card.

I live in a country town that has a good and decent reputation but is not without its problems. When you drive through the business centre late at night and see young children, who are primary school age, walking around the streets or on their skateboards, and you wonder about their home life. Are they rebellious? Do mum and dad have no control over them? Have they just given up on trying to discipline them? Are mum and dad at home or at the pub affected by alcohol? Is there a mum or a dad? What is the future for these children? We can close our eyes and block our ears and pretend that it is not happening, but I can assure you that, unless something is done to arrest the alcohol, drug and gambling issues affecting some communities, we cannot expect future generations to be any different.

I was interested to read the speech given in the other place by my National colleague, the member for Parkes, Mark Coulton. He mentioned that Moree in the north-west of New South Wales would be a good place for a trial, and I would agree with him. For those who do not know their geography, Moree is only a 90 minutes' drive from my home town and has produced some very good sportsmen over the years, including the Sutton cycling family and NRL star, Ewan McGrady. I am pleased to say that in this year's group 9 rugby league grand final, the Inverell Hawks just outlasted the Moree Boomerangs to win the title. Mr Coulton pointed out that about one quarter of the population of Moree is Aboriginal and the welfare split of Indigenous and non-Indigenous is about 50-50. This is not about the colour of people's skin or their background; this includes all in the community. For various reasons, including misinformation that was spread, the trial in Moree will not go ahead and so we will never know what impact it may have had.

It will go ahead for 12 months in Ceduna in South Australia and it will then be reviewed. When you read the shocking statistics in that location you will understand why some form of intervention or control is needed. In 2013-14 presentations to the hospital emergency department due to alcohol or drug use exceeded 500—more than one per day and nearly two a day. The Ceduna Sobering Up Centre had 4667 admissions in 2013-14 financial year. Hospitalisations due to assaults are 68 times the national average. Minister Tudge said on Monday that for the last year in Ceduna there were 4600 admissions to the local sobering up centre, despite the population being only 4400. I will repeat that: there were 4600 admissions to the local sobering up centre despite the population being only 4400 people. If those stats alone do not make Labor and the Greens sit up and take notice, nothing will, and so Ceduna is a good choice for the first trial site. The community leaders of Ceduna actually approached the government to explore the idea of the cashless debit card and they have supported a trial to address some of the alcohol and drug abuse affecting the region.

I want to stress that this is not income management. Participants in this trial can use the card anywhere and purchase anything except alcohol and gambling products and will not be able to withdraw cash with the card. Participants in this trial will receive a mainstream everyday debit card, which will be connected to a Visa, MasterCard or Eftpos platform. Cash will not be available from the card, and the holder will not be able to purchase alcohol, gambling products or illicit substances. Eighty per cent of a person's social security payments will be placed into a debit card account and the remaining 20 per cent cash will be placed into their existing bank account.

All working age social security support recipients within the Ceduna region will be part of the trial and receive the card. Aged pensioners, veterans and workers may volunteer to opt in. This is how it works: 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 your payment on the card. If you are on a parenting payment, single with four children and live in a private rental, you will receive over $220 cash per week with the remainder of your payment on the card. If you are on a disability support pension, partnered with no children, you will receive over $85 cash 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. It is adjustable. If it is found that a person needs more cash and they are known to have been responsible with their spending in the past, then the arrangement can be adjusted to allow them more cash.

How will this be achieved? The package focuses on areas where there are existing gaps in funding and where it has been identified locally that people are likely to need the greatest support during the trial. Funding is being made available to support a new mobile patrol team to operate 24 hours, experienced drug and alcohol counsellors, increased rehabilitation services, intensive financial counselling, family violence services and other services. This package is not being forced on the community; it has been codesigned by the Ceduna community.

I was interested to read the comments from the Greens back in March, when this program was first made public. That then Green leader Senator Milne said it was offensive for the Prime Minister and mining magnate to tell people throughout Australia who are less well off how they should manage their income. Even Senator Siewert was quoted in the article as saying that 'this patronising and paternalistic policy decision will not work'. It was interesting to read the exchange between Senator Siewert and the chair of the Australian Indigenous Studies at Melbourne's School of Population and global health, Professor Marcia Langton, at the Senate hearing.

Prof. Langton …First of all, this is not income management.

Senator SIEWERT: But it is.

Prof. Langton : No, it is not income management.

Senator SIEWERT: Why not?

Prof. Langton : 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.

Professor Langton earlier said that she supported the legislation and that it certainly was not paternalistic. She pointed out that Aboriginal leaders wanted the measure because, as she said:

…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.

…      …   …

…children are unsafe, women are unsafe and, more and more, people are being dragged into the drinking culture….

I also refer to the evidence of the Mayor of the Ceduna District Council, Allan Suter. He said:

In this case, council support for the trial of the cashless debit card was made on condition that we got strong support from the senior Aboriginal leaders, and I am happy to say that we have got that. We are also satisfied that we have got strong support from our non-Indigenous community, with, of course, a few exceptions. Some of the objections are very genuine and passionate. Being a small town, we have a good knowledge of people's motives. Some objections are from people who wish to have money to purchase drugs or alcohol. Some are even from people who are very anxious that their customers will be able to have money to purchase drugs and alcohol. We respect the opinions of the genuine and passionate objectors, but they really are very few.

Andrew Forrest, a man who has a great passion to ensure people get off welfare and get some self-respect, had this to say at the Senate inquiry:

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.

This week, we saw the report of the Community Affairs Legislation Committee. In part of its summing up, the committee said it was:

… satisfied that the trial is strongly supported by community leaders in the proposed trial communities in Ceduna and the East Kimberley. The committee considers that the expected benefits of the trial to reduce the social harm caused by alcohol and gambling, particularly for children, justify the measures outlined in the Bill.

The committee recommended that:

… the Minister for Social Services include safety net provisions in the proposed legislative instrument to ensure that vulnerable people impacted by the trial are able to be exited from the trial, where appropriate, to ensure they are not further disadvantaged.

The committee recommended that the bill be passed.

Mr Deputy President, I want to take you back to the mid-1970s, when I was driving livestock transport. We would go out to places like Wertaloona station in the Flinders Ranges, where four or five semitrailers would show up late in the afternoon. Bob Wilson would be in the cattle yards with three or four Aboriginal stockmen—bandy-legged, slim fellows with high-heeled riding boots and big hats. They were good stockmen and good workers. It was hot. They did their job well and tied their horses up under the trees as they drove the cattle that we would load at daylight the next morning. I think if I took you out there today, Mr Deputy President, you probably would not find many Aboriginal workers out there. There would be some but certainly not like there were back in the 1970s.

What did we do? I will tell you what we did. We threw money at these people. We on all sides of politics over the last 40 years thought money would solve the problem. We threw money at these people, and what did they do? They gave up their jobs, they went to the pub, they got drunk and they probably bashed their wives when they got home—not only people of Aboriginal descent, I can tell you, but also people of Anglo-Saxon descent as well. We are not focusing on one colour here or anything like that. Colour does not come into this debate. It is about looking after taxpayers' money. But we threw money at these people, and I think we did a great deal of harm to them. It is a good lesson to all of us that lack of money is not the problem.

Here is a situation where these people will get some cash and a debit card, just like most people have. They can buy products that are essential items—food, clothing or whatever they need—on those debit cards at the stores, but they cannot be used for gambling or alcohol. That bring us to the situation where the social security cash is simply spent on Friday and Saturday, much of it at the local pub or perhaps gambled or spent on illegal drugs. What do the mums and kids live on for the next week? This is where it is so wrong. There is abuse of social security. Hardworking Australians are paying their taxes to give money to these people—people who are certainly not well off, perhaps unemployed, perhaps obese and perhaps not in good health. But throwing money at them makes their situation worse.

I commend Ceduna. I have been to Ceduna many times. It is a good community, a beautiful place on the Great Australian Bight off the Southern Ocean and a lovely place to drive through. In my previous job, I actually had an agent who sold my products there. I would visit the town quite often and go right back through Streaky Bay, Elliston to Port Lincoln et cetera. To think that this community has such a terrible record of alcohol abuse—4,660 admissions out of a population of 4,400 in a year—is just unbelievable. That is outrageous. It is crazy.

So what do we do? If we do nothing, nothing will change. I have always had the attitude that to try is to risk failure but to do nothing is to guarantee failure. The government, under Minister Tudge, is working with community members such as Twiggy Forrest and the local government representatives at Ceduna to give this a go. We should give it a go. I encourage everyone to have their say on this issue. Let's help these people. Let's try to get them off their problems of alcohol and drug abuse and especially unemployment. As I said, throwing money at the issue does not always solve the problem. Of course money helps in many respects. We in Canberra collect a lot of money from the taxpayers of our nation—and, of course, too much is being borrowed—and we must spend that money wisely. Sometimes that money is going out there and actually destroying people's lives.

I take you to a trip I did to Wilcannia with former Senator Mark Arbib where I found out the average man in Wilcannia has a life span of just 35 years. I put it to you, senators, where could you go on this planet, to what other country, where the average life span for men is less than 35 years? Maybe Ethiopia or some other African country or somewhere else? I do not know. I do not think you would find a place or a country on this planet where the average life span of a man is just 35 years. I think this is a disgrace. Of course Wilcannia is a community with a high Aboriginal population. I have been travelling through there for 40 years. I know why they have problems: they are unemployed, they have little to do and they have alcohol, drugs, a bad diet, obesity and a lack of exercise. All of the above contribute to that terrible statistic that the average man in Wilcannia will live to just 35 years of age. As I said earlier in my presentation, they probably will not live long enough to see their children get to high school. If you were to search the world for a worse statistic, I do not think you would find anywhere worse.

So we have to trial this. We have to do something. We are throwing money at these people who can then go to the pub and fill up with grog. I have seen them. I have been driving through Wilcannia for 40 years. On social security day, where is everyone? They are lined up outside the pubs.

Then of course there is that terrible drug ice, which seems to be right throughout Australia. It is in the big cities, in the bigger country towns, in the smaller country towns and even out in the shearing sheds. Ice is a big concern. People who are peddling these rotten drugs are destroying people's lives. If we hand out cash, when people are bored and do not have a job, what are they going to do? Just one shot of ice and people are totally addicted to it. It is a terrible drug and is causing so much damage. People are going off their brain in anger, bashing the women around them and committing all sorts of crimes. I know they are bashing the ambos and the police when they are arrested. They are bashing the nurses and the doctors in hospitals. If we are going to hand out people's hard-earned cash—governments do not have the money; we either take it from the people or we borrow it—and promote more social unrest, more social harm and more harm to women and kids especially, when the money is all gone at the pub on grog or on drugs at the start of the social security week, what is mum cooking? What is she feeding the kids? How are the kids clothed? How are they getting off to school? We have seen too much at Wilcannia. These are issues which each and every one of us in this chamber should work to correct.

What we have done is not working. As I said, I doubt whether those great . What we have done is not working. As I said, I doubt that they would be there today . Those great Aboriginal stockman would be out there today. Why? Because they worked hard in those days. They earned their living and then we threw money at them. I think it is shameful—not only the Aboriginal community but the community as a whole. I commend the minister for this program and the committee for its report and the research. We have to give it a go. It is a trial. It is not running right across Australia. If it works, and I hope it does, let us hope it is broadened out so that when people receive taxpayers' money they do not blow it in the pub or blow it on drugs or gambling. I hope they use their debit card to buy food and clothing, the things they need to care for themselves and, more importantly, for their families, for their wives, for their children, to see that they are treated well and that they live properly. Hopefully in time things will be better so that the average man in Wilcannia will live longer than just 35 years of age.