Mr Tony Abbott: I am pleased to rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017, because, when an adult’s right to unconditional welfare denies a child his or her right to sustenance, we have a problem. I don’t think anyone who has looked at the situation in large parts of remote Australia and some parts of metropolitan Australia could possibly deny that we have a problem.
The purpose of this legislation is to extend and expand some trials which have been going on now for a couple of years. This is a legacy of the Abbott government, and I’m pleased that the Turnbull government wants to extend and expand the trials that my government began. I should, in speaking to this legislation, commend the former Minister for Human Services, Alan Tudge, who has certainly been the principal architect within government of these trials.
We do have a problem of welfare money being spent not on the essentials of life but on alcohol, drugs and gambling. We all know that there are many parts of Australia where, very regrettably, the booze, the drugs and the gambling are contributing to an epidemic of family dysfunction. For instance, in the Kimberley, which I’m reasonably familiar with from two trips to Kununurra over the last couple of years, the suicide rate is almost double the WA Indigenous average. In some parts of the Kimberley, domestic assault rates are 20 times the West Australian state average. This card is colour blind, although so far it has operated predominantly in Indigenous communities. I should say that, around the country, Indigenous women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised from assault than non-Indigenous women, and almost 90 per cent of partner violence among Indigenous people is alcohol related. Even though in the Kimberley many Indigenous people don’t drink at all, because they have seen the ravages of alcohol, per capita alcohol consumption is almost double the national average.
So there is a problem, and I doubt that anyone in this chamber, regardless of his or her ideological preconceptions, could possibly deny that there is a problem. And it is reasonable for this parliament to say that, particularly in places where local people want this cashless debit card, we should put it in place so that we can be absolutely sure that the vast majority of welfare spending is for the necessities of life. It’s not for alcohol, it’s not for drugs and it’s not for gambling. It’s for rent, it’s for food, it’s for clothing, it’s for education, it’s for health and it’s for transport. And, let’s face it, if you are a welfare dependent person, wouldn’t you need 80 per cent plus of your welfare income to spend on the necessities of life? It’s true that a single person on Newstart only gets $650 a fortnight, but a single parent with four children in private rental gets almost $2,150 a fortnight. The problem is that in too many cases not enough of this money is being spent where it should be spent.
The cashless debit card has a long history. You might remember that my government commissioned Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest to do a comprehensive report on ending Indigenous disadvantage. One of the principal recommendations of that report was the introduction of this cashless debit card. But, as members opposite were keen to stress, the government accepted that this should only be introduced where local leaders believed it was necessary for their communities. I want to congratulation the Indigenous leaders of Ceduna in South Australia and Kununurra in East Kimberley in Western Australia for their courage in saying that this cashless debit card would help their communities.
I’ve heard a suggestion opposite that the cashless card is somehow punishing people. That is dead wrong. The cashless debit card is an acceptance by the relevant community leaders that there is a problem. I’m not saying that everyone is an alcoholic, a gambler or an addict. I’m just saying that in this community there is a problem of people spending money suboptimally—sometimes through poor choices, sometimes perhaps because of a poor local culture—and that this is necessary in order to do the right thing by the most vulnerable people in those communities. There is no proposal from this government—not then, not now—to extend the card beyond communities where it is wanted. Down the track perhaps it might be good to extend it further, but that is not contemplated by this legislation. It is absolutely required by this legislation that it can only go where communities want it, and even under this legislation new trials will be subject to disallowance by this parliament.
So, Twiggy Forrest made the recommendation and the trials got under way in Kununurra and Ceduna. I saw Kununurra when the trial had been in place for just a couple of months. I was told by local police, local health workers, local community workers and local community leaders that the trial had made a very, very positive difference. In August last year back in Kununurra, when the trial had been place for 15 months, that message was repeated and reinforced. I perfectly accept that some members opposite might have had complaints from some individuals, but I have been there. I have spoken to people on the ground. I have spoken to welfare recipients. I have spoken to those who deal with the social problems that misuse of alcohol, drugs et cetera creates, and there is a near-universal view amongst the people on the ground that these trials must continue. In order for even the existing trials to continue, this legislation must pass, because if this legislation doesn’t pass the existing trials will automatically terminate by law in the middle of this year. So it is essential for the continuation of the existing trials, let alone for new trials, for this legislation to pass.
While there was a fair bit of gratuitous abuse of the government from the member for Herbert, it was encouraging to hear her concession that Labor had not yet finalised its position. May I say that this is the kind of legislation, the kind of issue, where we should put our ideology to one side and ask ourselves what we can do as a parliament in practice to solve problems. Let’s forget about whether we are pro free market or pro big government. Whether we believe that people are victims who need government help or they are responsible citizens who need to stand on their own two feet, let’s put all that stuff aside for a moment and be practical. The most practical thing we can do in this parliament right now is to pass this legislation so that the existing trials can continue and even be expanded in the months ahead.
Yes, there have been some problems with the technology, but as we all know technology is improving all the time. I can’t go to the petrol station with a government fuel card and buy anything other than fuel. It ought to be possible for technology to be further stroked and refined so that with the cashless debit card you can go to any store in Australia that takes a debit card and not be able to get out cash and not be able to buy alcohol or anything that is illegal or harmful. The technology will come good. It’s better than it was and it will get better still, but the trial has to continue. It has to have the potential to be expanded. I should point out for the benefit of members opposite that none of this is about cutting spending. It’s not about slashing welfare. It’s simply about ensuring that existing welfare payments, existing Commonwealth spending, are as effective as possible, and that should be something that unites every single member in this House.
This is important legislation. It’s carefully targeted legislation. It addresses a real problem that everyone here would say does need to be addressed, so I really do hope that members opposite will give this particular piece of legislation the careful and generous consideration, in the spirit of goodwill, that it deserves. We cannot have rivers of cash, particularly rivers of taxpayers’ cash, turning into rivers of grog in some of the most difficult, marginalised and vulnerable communities of our country. This is no panacea. Yes, there are all sorts of other problems that won’t be addressed by this legislation, but it will make a difference. On its own it won’t get the kids to school. On its own it won’t get the adults to work. But on its own it will help to make communities more safe, and that is a big step in the right direction to a better life for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
One of the things that please me most about this particular legislation is that the next two communities in line for the cashless debit card are much less predominantly Indigenous than the first two. Yes, there is a significant Indigenous issue in Kalgoorlie, but in Hervey Bay and Bundaberg the Indigenous welfare population is by no means the largest component of the group that would be impacted by this card. If you are someone doing the right thing by your family, you have nothing to fear and much to gain from this card. If you are failing to do the right thing by your family, this card will help you to be a better person and to do the right thing by the people who need you. I commend the bill to the House.
Chamber House of Representatives on 5/02/2018 Item BILLS – Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017 – Second Reading Speaker: Abbott, Tony, MP Source: Attributed to Parliament of Australia website Including Image/ website is provided under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia licence.