Government's cashless debit card scheme passes through Lower House by one vote

Government’s cashless debit card scheme passes through Lower House by one vote


The Coalition’s plan to make the cashless debit card a permanent fixture at four trial sites and expand it into the Northern Territory and Cape York was passed through the House of Representatives on Monday.

The policy passed through the Lower House by one vote, as Tasmanian Liberal Bridget Archer abstained from voting following her criticism of the cashless debit card scheme last week.

The bill will now go to the Senate, where the vote will likely come down to the crossbench.

The cashless debit card scheme quarantines 80 per cent of an individual’s social security payments to a cashless card, which cannot be used to buy alcohol, illegal substances, gambling products or to withdraw cash. The card is currently in place at four trial sites – East Kimberley and the Goldfields in Western Australia, Ceduna in South Australia, and Bundaberg and Hervey Bay in Queensland.

The bill would legislate the scheme’s expansion into the Northern Territory and Cape York and would see approximately 23,000 “Income Management participants” transitioned onto the card.

Currently, the scheme applies to those who receive a working age welfare payment in Ceduna, the Goldfields and the East Kimberly. In Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, the scheme applies to people aged 35 and under who receive welfare payments including JobSeeker and the parenting payment.

A host of research has indicated that the cashless debit card scheme does not work, and disproportionately impacts Indigenous people.

One study from the University of South Australia and Monash University examined data from the trial in Ceduna, noting the scheme had “no substantive impact” on measures of gambling, drug and alcohol abuse, crime or emergency department presentations.

In a speech to parliament last week, Liberal MP Bridget Archer, who represents the electorate of Bass in Tasmania said the scheme was a punitive measure. Despite her stated opposition, Archer did not vote against the bill on Monday, instead choosing to abstain from voting.

“The cashless debit card program is a punitive measure enacted on the presumption that all welfare recipients within the trial areas are incapable of managing their finances and require the government’s assistance,” she said last week.

“Whenever you approach a human problem by inciting shame and guilt, you have already lost those that you are seeking to help.”

According to an independent report released in September from the Parliamentary Budget Office, before the pandemic, the most likely person to be on JobSeeker was a woman over the age of 45. Between March and June this year, more women than men experienced job losses. The number of women on the parenting payment also increased during this period.  

In 2019, the Australian Human Rights Commission made a submission to the Senate Inquiry on the card, raising concerns about a lack of consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and called for a community driven approach to income management.

“Limiting people’s ability to access their welfare payments in cash does not address the reasons for drug and alcohol misuse, poverty, trauma, and lack of education,” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar said.

“The imposition of the cashless debit card diminishes the equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms for particular geographic groups where the proportion of Indigenous residents is significantly above the national average.”

On Monday, The Law Council of Australia urged the government to abandon any plan to make the cashless debit card an ongoing program.

“The CDC, especially as expanded, disproportionately applies to Indigenous peoples, and may be inconsistent with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth),” Law Council President, Pauline Wright said.

“The Law Council is not averse to some form of income management, but participation in the CDC and/or income management needs to be voluntary, based on full, free and informed individual consent (opt-in), assessment of an individual’s suitability to participate, and meaningful community consultation.

“The CDC itself should also not been seen as the solution to all problems.”

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