HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Mr Speaker, as an Independent Member of this House I see my role as built on three main pillars. These are advocating for the needs of Indi, maintaining the best interests of the nation and diligent application of the principles of good governance. When assessing this proposed legislation against these pillars, I cannot support this Bill.
Many of my constituents believe that the cashless debit card is punitive. Law-abiding, frugal people living as best they can on social security payments are concerned they will be scrutinised and judged for their spending choices. Spending which they budget into rent, food, school expenses, transport – and if the week goes without an unexpected event there might even be something left over for an outing. A constituent told me that the restrictive income management of the CDC would make them feel like a “second class citizen”.
Mr Speaker, the overarching aim which is to reduce the expenditure of public funds on harmful alcohol, illicit drugs and gambling is worthy of the House’s consideration. Public funds which are intended to support Australians in difficult circumstances with the fundamentals of daily life.
On the face of it this Bill tries to combine health promotion with responsible governance of public funds.
However, I believe the policy naively and unnecessarily attempts to change the behaviour of some by structurally imposing a remedy on all.
To date, the CDC trials have cost about $10,000 per participant, or over $25 million in total in administrative fees. Yet the amount spent on financial counselling, drug and alcohol, and family support services – $2.6 million – pales in comparison. If the intent of the policy is to ensure proper use of public funds and to effect positive behaviour change then based on these figures alone the trials do not pass muster. Similarly, when applying the fundamental principles of behaviour change theory this bill does not stack up.
Mr Speaker, this Bill has two major issues which mean I cannot support its passage through the House. Firstly, I want to highlight the Government’s own evaluations which have found no widespread benefits from the imposition of CDC on entire communities. Secondly, I have significant concerns regarding the restrictive impacts this Bill would have for regional people’s ability to spend their payments as they see fit.
An essential component of modern good governance is the application of robust evidence to develop policy and ultimately to ensure the laws made in this place are having the effect intended for our communities. This is something that I believe that all members of this House agree on.
The Government has disputed the validity of community concerns by characterising this Bill as tough but necessary. Yet, what is indisputable are the flaws of the independent evaluation process commissioned by the Department of Social Services. In 2018 the Australian National Audit Office criticised this evaluation for its “lack of robustness in data collection” and noted the “trial was not designed to test the scalability of the [program]”.
The issue of scalability is of key concern, as data gathered in one community will often tell us little about whether a program will work in another community.
But as this Bill reflects, these documented flaws in the evaluation have not stopped the Government from seeking to extend community-wide CDC to even more communities.
Even if we ignore these issues related to scalability, the Public Health Association of Australia noted that even in original CDC trial sites, CDC “did not show positive outcomes for the majority of participants [who] were more likely to say that the program had made the lives of them and their children worse rather than better”.
The Bill, it seems, may not necessarily be the best tool to help participants.
An Indi constituent who is single parent in a rural area, told me this card would only add even more stress to an already stressful existence. Another constituent who is a recipient of a government payment, having spent their working life paying taxes and now in diminished circumstances , told me how if the CDC was imposed upon them, they would feel that they were “no longer allowed to exercise control over [their] life”.
This constituent was concerned that they wouldn’t have the flexibility to save money by shopping at local markets or on local buy-sell-swap pages to make their household budget go further. They worried that if these measures were rolled-out nationwide they wouldn’t be able to shop at the local supermarket because their local supermarket also sold alcohol.
In line with my constituents concerns, the Consumer Action Law Centre warns that any extension of these trials has the potential to create a secondary economy and prevents people from shopping around to find the best deal. This shows that community concerns are not an illogical leap.
Mr Speaker, the significant over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people among trial participants is also an important concern among people from my electorate. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who already live with discrimination and racism, face added stigma through the imposition of the CDC.
Dr Jackie Huggins AM, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, says – and I quote:
“The cashless debit card has fundamentally undermined the self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The card shames and stigmatises our peoples for their disadvantage, robs them of their financial freedom, and exacerbates pre-existing social challenges such as financial harassment.”
While the Government has sought to assure the nation that these measures would never be rolled out nationwide – and the Government can protest that they are being unfairly criticised – public concern remains high.
While the cashless debit card can be used at any store that has not been blocked by the Department, the reality is that many stores in regional and rural areas sell a mix of both excluded and non-excluded goods.
If rolled out further, this could prevent people from shopping at their favourite local stores and prevent them from supporting their community’s local economy. It is not hard to imagine how this may isolate people in their own community.
The evaluation did find some evidence of reductions in alcohol consumption, illegal drug use and gambling. However, the accuracy of these measures is widely disputed by credible bodies such as the RACGPs, The Public Health Association of Australia, ACOSS and the Human Rights Law Centre.
The St Vincent de Paul Society summarised it best when it said that compulsory income management and I quote:
“…Does not result in widespread or sustained benefits – either to the individual or to their community, leads to no discernible improvements in employment outcomes, is poorly targeted, and is not cost-effective.”
As it stands this Bill removes the requirement that an evaluation be conducted by an independent expert within 6 months of completion of a CDC trial. What is the point of extending the trials of the CDC if no independent evaluation is produced?
This House should be encouraging independent evaluation rather than seeking to avoid it. It is independent experts who challenge us on our pre-conceptions and help us to see the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be.
If the Government is so confident that community-wide CDCs do work, then why not allow an expert to prove it through a properly independent evaluation?
Another aspect of this Bill concerning to many in my electorate is the absence of voluntary participation. I welcome that this Amendment enacts changes to allow people in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay area to opt-in to the trial as a voluntary participant. Allowing opt-in’s for some is a good start – but it is only one half of ensuring voluntary participation. Allowing participants who are automatically include to opt-out is more difficult and sees participants having to bear the burden of proving to the Department that they are reasonable and responsible citizens.
It is important to remember that even though some participants would undoubtedly feel that income management has helped them, this is not a justification for imposing it on entire communities. Rather it is an argument for voluntary participation.
As the Independent Member for Indi, I promised to bring a community-driven approach to my work in Parliament. Enabling communities and individuals control over their lives is an important principle and one which I know the Minister supports. Yet this Bill in its current form would only serve to remove agency from families, parents and communities as to how they spend their payments to which they are legally entitled.
By ensuring participation in the CDC is voluntary, communities would be able to choose the option best suited for their circumstances, something that the Australia Human Rights Commission agrees would promote “participation in decision-making based on free, prior and informed consent and good faith”. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples advocates for the CDC to operate on an “opt-in” basis.
“It should be up to the people who want to participate in communities. We are strongly opposed to further rollout unless an opt-in system is put in place, and all trial areas are properly evaluated,” said Rod Little, National Congress Co-Chair.
I welcome the announcement by the Member for Barton that her party would seek to move amendments in the Other Place aiming to ensure the CDC is only implemented after community support has been demonstrated through consultation, or in response to specific reasons such as child protection.
In principle, these amendments address some of my concerns and should be supported.
In the future, we should ensure that no person is placed on such restrictive income support without their or their communities express permission.
In light of the preliminary evidence and documented hardship experienced by many participants, I call on the Government, at a minimum, to make participation in all existing and future trials opt-in.
Even the Parliament’s own Joint Committee on Human Rights advised that voluntary participation would improve the Bill’s compatibility with Australia’s human rights obligations.
The Minister talks rightly about the need to help those who are receiving social security payments and have issues with alcohol consumption, gambling or illegal drug use.
As always, I seek to be constructive in this place.
We can do many things to help those with substance misuse and gambling issues – whether they are on social security payments or not – but what will not help our communities is blanket solutions to complex, multilayered problems.
Primarily, these issues are health issues. The Australian Council of Social Service have rightly argued people in our communities who have alcohol, drug or gambling issues need more coordinated health and social support services. Isolating people by restricting their ability to fully participate in their own communities is not the answer.
As it currently stands this Bill fails to reflect the economic and social realities of those receiving government payments across our nation and most especially in rural and regional areas.
Without significant amendments, I cannot support the passage of this Bill through the House.