Australian Senate passes two-year extension for 'racist' welfare quarantining system

Opposing senators labelled the Cashless Debit Card 'racist' and 'discriminatory', but the Bill that allows trials of the card to go on for another two years and have it enter the Northern Territory and Cape York, affecting mostly Indigenous Australians, has still passed the Senate.

The Australian government in 2016 introduced the trial of a welfare quarantining system, via a Cashless Debit Card (CDC), that aimed to govern how those in receipt of welfare spent their money, with the idea being to both prevent the sale of alcohol, cigarettes, and some gift cards and block the funds from being used on activities such as gambling.

Participants of the CDC trial have 80% their funds placed on card, which is managed by Indue, with the remaining 20% to be paid into a bank account.

As of early March, there were 12,150 participants in the CDC trials across Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, the East Kimberley, Ceduna, and Goldfields regions. The government placed a temporary pause on transitioning new participants onto the CDC in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but since then, it has quietly made the decision to both make the card permanent in the trial sites and roll out the card to 23,000 people in the Northern Territory and Cape York.

Legislation to extend the trials for another two years and "voluntarily" roll out the tech to the Northern Territory and Cape York was on Wednesday night passed by the Senate.

The Bill, titled Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020, removes the trial parameters to establish the CDC as an ongoing program, establishes the Northern Territory and Cape York areas as CDC program areas -- with individuals living in those areas to move onto the program in 2021 -- and removes a current exclusion to enable people in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay program area to voluntarily participate in the program, among other things.

An amendment introduced by Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston watered down the permanency element to, instead, be a two-year extension of the trial that includes making the CDC an option for those in the NT and Cape York currently on the Basics Card, rather than mandatory.

Facing questioning on her amendments, Ruston refused to provide information on when the amendment was prepared, what data backed up the government's desire to push the card through Parliament, how much the scheme would cost, and how many people would transition to the card, among other things.

Speaking on Wednesday prior to the vote, Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy introduced her party's requested amendment to the Bill, with the amendment simply asking that the Bill be withdrawn.

Labor's amendment said there was no evidence that compulsory, broad-based income management actually works. It also called out Ruston for giving the scheme the nod before reading a AU$2.5 million report from Adelaide University, which evaluated whether the card actually worked efficiently in the trial sites, and ultimately labelled the Bill as racially discriminatory, with approximately 68% of the people impacted being First Nations Australians.

"You have failed, you have not even spoken or given the opportunity to the people of the Northern Territory to tell you how they feel on the Basics Card, let alone expecting them to just roll across onto the Cashless Debit Card. There is no decency in that, it is not Australian," McCarthy said.

"No evidence has come forward in the Senate that says the Cashless Debit Card works.

"This legislation is wrong. It is unjust, it is racist, and so un-Australian."

Senator Penny Wong said legislation like this "would never be imposed on non-Indigenous Australians".

"This legislation comes in the context of generations of paternalism towards First Nations people in this country, generations of disempowerment," she said.

Similarly, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert called the CDC a "discriminatory, racist, punitive approach to income support".

"The Greens have stood in opposition to compulsory income management for the last 13 years and while I draw breath, we will continue to oppose compulsory income management because it causes great harm to communities and individuals," Siewert said.

"The government has finally come clean with its intentions. It always intended to make this card permanent … this was their plan all along, to entrench this racist, discriminatory, paternalistic, ineffective, top down, and blanket approach of compulsory income management in the middle of a global pandemic and Australia's first recession in 30 years.

"The government has chosen this moment as the right time to make the CDC permanent."

The Greens' amendment also asked the government to abandon all forms of compulsory income management currently operating in Australia. It was obviously shot down in favour of passing the Bill.

Senator Pauline Hanson, however, disputed that the card was not racist and backed the Bill.

"The cashless welfare card is a benefit to all Australians and it's going to help those people … it's about looking after and caring about Australians and helping them with their spending," she said.

"You talk about their rights and their human rights, well, you know what, so many people have said … the best thing to do is go and get a job. If you get a job, you earn the money, you're going to spend it whichever way you want to."

Despite many years of backing the card, Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie vowed to vote against the Bill, saying on Wednesday she was "washing her hands of this policy".

"I have to be brutally honest, when I first came out swinging for the Cashless Debit Card, I was thinking about what life was like for me on Centrelink. I was living on that little bit of money that they gave me for eight years. I know how hard it is, every single dollar matters," Lambie said, addressing the Senate on Wednesday night.

"I was so hopeful that it could help, that's why I wanted to give this card a shot, it gave me hope that things could change."

While she said she knew the card could do a lot of good, in isolation, she believed it was far from enough. "It's not a magic wand".

The senator said jobs, skills training, medical facilities, and counsellors are what is needed and not the government "constantly pulling the rug from under them" by funding short-term projects that often have not had enough time to make a difference.

"The Cashless Debit Card was never going to solve those problems but it could have been a way to start making change," Lambie said. "I've come to realise, the commitment from the government to make that happen has actually never really been there.

"What could have been something great for the country has taken us nearly five years to get the damn card right. We haven't even started on the rest and the rest is the hardest bit.

"What could have been so great for this country is now becoming heartbreaking."

Throughout debate, senators questioned the facts relied upon by the government to make its conclusion that the CDC was the best intervention option, with Labor Senator Anne Urquhart, as one example, saying the Bill was based on ideology rather than evidence.

Although he said he was voting against the Bill, Independent Senator Rex Patrick's requested amendment asked the government to provide a commitment that no recipient of the Age Pension or a Veteran or Service Pension be placed on the CDC. A handful of his amendments are included alongside Ruston's in the new Bill.

Speaking on Wednesday night, Patrick revealed he voluntarily placed himself on the CDC to experience how it felt. He also spoke with individuals on the card in trial sites.

"This card has an objective of reducing alcoholism, gambling, and drug abuse among welfare recipients … but does it do that? … We do not have any empirical data, any definitive dataset that would guide us as to whether or not it actually does achieve those particular objectives," he said.

"The government has not made its case."

With revelations during Senate Estimates in October that there was a CDC technology working group -- which includes the likes of ANZ Bank, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, National Australia Bank, and Westpac, as well as Coles, Woolworths, Metcash, Eftpos, and Australia Post -- senators during Wednesday's debate said it was clear the working group was a pre-cursor for a national rollout.

There has been a number of issues raised by those considered "participants" of the CDC. Many feel they would be disadvantaged by its Australia-wide rollout, with some feeling that the scheme places unreasonable restrictions on spending, making it more difficult to save, or flee from domestic abuse.  

It was revealed during Wednesday night's debate the amendments put forward by Ruston were the result of a deal struck with Centre Alliance, and despite publicly stating it was against the CDC, Centre Alliance did not show up in the Senate to vote and the Bill was waved through with 34 ayes and 33 noes.

All amendments agreed to by the Senate were on Thursday accepted by the House of Representatives.

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