The Morrison government’s cashless debit card was extended for a further two years last week, after Centre Alliance Senator Stirling Griff abstained from a series of votes on the issue.
The government had originally wanted to make current trials at Ceduna in South Australia, the East Kimberly and Goldfields regions of Western Australia, and Bundaberg and Hervey Bay region in Queensland permanent.
Instead, the cashless debit card scheme was extended at these “trial” sites for another two years, and people in the Northern Territory will be given the option of moving from the BasicsCard to the Cashless Debit Card, instead of being forced to do so.
These last-minute amendments put forward by Social Services Minister Anne Ruston were enough to satisfy Senator Griff. He abstained from the voting, giving the government the numbers they needed to pass the legislation.
Senator Griff did not explain his decision to abstain from voting, despite his previous opposition to the bill. His Centre Alliance colleague Rebekha Sharkie had earlier voted against making the scheme permanent in the House of Representatives. It was reported that Senator Griff left parliament long before the final vote.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said that the Centre Alliance’s decision to “back out at the last minute is just heartbreaking and unforgiveable”. She said it was a “shameful, dirty deal”.
Senator Griff has since said there was “nothing sinister” in his decision to abstain from voting.
Labor, the Greens and independents senators Jacqui Lambie and Rex Patrick opposed the bill.
While Senator Lambie acknowledged there were people who have benefited from the cashless card, she said she was “washing my hands of this policy”. In years past, she had shown support for the card but now says it’s not delivering results.
“There are people who feel the pain of this policy failure, by being forced onto this card without getting any benefit from it,” she said.
We've been at the cashless debit card for years, but it's still not delivering the results. The Government keeps saying, "give it time, it's getting there." But sooner or later, you've got to call it. pic.twitter.com/4VNTUtcRJY— Jacqui Lambie (@JacquiLambie) December 9, 2020
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.
Only 10 of the 132 submissions to a Senate inquiry into the scheme supported the cashless card, and there is a host of research that suggests the theory behind the card does not work, and disproportionately targets Indigenous people.
The card was originally proposed as a recommendation in mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s 2014 National Indigenous Jobs and Training Review and was lobbied for by the business and political elite.
Independent Senator Rex Patrick did not support the legislation, and said the government failed to provide any data that showed the scheme was effective. In the absence of data from the government, Senator Patrick said he visited and consulted with the communities effected by the scheme.
“On balance I can’t support the card. It doesn’t do what it’s intended to do. It causes too much harm. After weighing everything up, I’m not convinced,” he said.
Prior to the final vote, Northern Territory Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said the crossbench should not “reward a government who has been lazy, inefficient and abrogated the responsibilities of this Senate in having the right kind of evidence”.
“The Cashless Debit Card legislation is wrong. It is unjust. It is racist. It and un-Australian. It is a complete abrogation of the Morrison Government’s responsibility to do its job properly and listen to Australians,” she said.
Labor’s Linda Burney said the card was “structurally racist”, with two thirds of participants being First Nations people and 83 per cent in the Northern Territory. She said it was also clear the government is planning to roll out the card nationally.
“The Gov just confirmed it has spent $3m on tech-fixes for the Cashless Debit Card,” she said. “And they’ve set up a working group with the big four banks, the supermarkets and Australia Post.”
“The only reason to do this is if you’re planning a national rollout.”