Keith Pitt MP Federal Member for HINKLER

Second Reading - Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card)

Mr PITT (Hinkler) (18:29):  Firstly, can I just say that I have great disappointment in the loss of the Labor Party's bipartisan support on this very important program, one which is clearly difficult to implement. It is a tough policy. I've admitted that publicly many times. I've also said on many occasions that it is not a magic bullet but it is a tool that we have in the toolbox. It is a policy which we can implement, and it's one which will make a great difference.

Can I say to the member for Barton: you missed one of the critical recommendations of the Senate inquiry, and that is the overall recommendation that the legislation should be supported. That was the outcome from the Senate inquiry.

It's not a blanket approach, and I'm going to talk specifically about my electorate, the electorate of Hinkler. It is not just the city of Bundaberg. It is the city of Bundaberg and Hervey Bay; it is the outlying areas such as Bargara, Childers, Woodgate and Booyal; and it is all of those smaller communities such as Toogoom and Burrum Heads. It does cover a very broad range. The consultation has been extensive, and I will talk about that in detail as we continue. It has extensive community support, and I'll talk about exactly how we managed to ascertain that early on before we worked forward with the Department of Social Services.

In terms of ways off the card, if you're on Newstart there's a very clear one: you can go to work. If you are employed, clearly you will not be on the card; you do not need Newstart. It is targeted specifically at those in my electorate who are aged 35 or under and are on particular payments, which we'll discuss a little bit later on. I say to those people in the Bundaberg area: we are continuing with the rollout. I'm disappointed that Labor is not supporting the recommendations for something which quite clearly works.

In terms of our community, I can only tell you that I was born there. It's part of my community. My family is there, I grew up there and my kids go to school there. I've had businesses there. I know extensively the difficulties we have, and I've got to tell you they've gotten worse. They've not gotten better; they have gotten worse. We need to do something which will make some changes, and the amendments proposed in the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017 will do that.

You don't have to believe me, as I'm sure the Labor Party won't. I can show you some absolute demonstrations from my local community, including the local press. The first one is an article in the Fraser Coast Chronicle by Blake Antrobus—this was last year—saying that $5 million a month is lost on pokies, just in the Fraser Coast. That is without Bundaberg. That's almost another $5 million, so some $10 million every single month for 12 months.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Hastie):  Order! I remind the member not to use props in the House.

Mr PITT:  Of course. I withdraw, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will use it for reference only. This is just one front page: $10 million lost in pokies--$10 million. The second one was in the Bundaberg NewsMail: 'Ice rife in Bundy homes; Bundaberg the worst for parental drug abuse'. And then there's '$30K inheritance blown on drugs'. On the other side of the coin, on another front page, was a gentleman who was looking for 30 people to come and work at his scallop-shucking business—positions he just can't fill. So we have challenges on both sides of the coin: we have employment available that people simply won't do, and we have real challenges around drugs and alcohol. This is one way forward. It is a policy which is on the table that has been demonstrated to work. I can go on and on and on here. We have dozens and dozens. In fact, there were so many in the local newspapers that my staff couldn't give them all to me. There were literally dozens over a very short period of time—'Thief takes off with aunt's ashes' and 'Mother's horror as husband slain in home'. We need to do something about this.

I've said publicly, and I'll say it again, it is not a magic bullet. There is no way that we can address every single issue simply with this change in policy, but it will make a difference, because it has been shown to make a difference in the two trial sites. It quarantines 80 per cent of a person's welfare payment onto the card. As we've said, the remaining 20 per cent is available for cash. It is a debit card like every other debit card.

I notice that the member for Grey, Rowan Ramsay, spoke about the challenges when the power goes out. I've got to tell you that it's the same challenge for every other card. Regardless of which card you have in your wallet, if the machine won't work, none of them will work. This is quite simply something which people use regularly and, in fact, if you're under the age of 35 I would suggest that nearly everything goes onto your debit card—very, very few of them carry cash.

The Minister for Human Services at the time, Alan Tudge, announced Hinkler as the next trial site on 21 September. It was announced in the budget for those two new locations, and the proposal for my electorate is different. After extensive community consultation, what's been determined is quite simply that, if you are 35 years or under and you're on a payment—which is Newstart, youth allowance, jobseeker, parenting payment single or parenting payment partnered—you will be included in this rollout. That is substantial. In the Hinkler electorate, that is 6,711 individuals at the time that we put the data together. I recognise that is a lot, but we do need to do something about this, because here are the numbers. It's very straightforward.

In my electorate, of those people who are under 30 and are on welfare today, 90 per cent had a parent who was also on welfare during the past 15 years, the majority of whom were on welfare for at least nine of those 15 years. The second one—and this is the most disturbing—is that it is projected that, without intervention, 57 per cent of those under 30 and on welfare will still be on income support in 10 years time.

We are failing a generation of children. We are failing them. Quite simply, this is something we can address, and we can do it with the cashless card, along with a lot of other measures. I've spoken about what we need to do for unemployment—how we drive infrastructure, how we continue to drive the economy. And along with the investment there'll be an additional $1 million for community services. That's on top of the already 70 federally funded services across the region, which includes drug and alcohol services, financial capability, employment, and family and children's programs. Earlier this year a further $½ million was dedicated to drug and alcohol programs. Surely we need to start to address the cause. We've got very bad statistics. We've got a very low demographic. In fact, the Local Government Association of Australia just put out its State of the regions report and the area of Wide Bay, the statistical region that includes my electorate and of course part of Wide Bay, Mr O'Brien's, indicated that this region has the lowest per capita income of anywhere in the country, at some $34,000—as it has had for some 20 years.

So we need to address that. We need to ensure that there are jobs. But we also need to ensure that people are actually using their money on the requirements for life. I don't think any taxpayer would be offended that people are restricted in purchasing take-away alcohol, by not using the money provided by the taxpayer for the purchase of illicit substances or to pour down the throat of a pokie machine to the tune of $10 million a month in the region. I don't think that is unreasonable in any circumstance.

Regarding the community consultation, my office originally did some mail-outs, up until the announcement. We contacted 32,000 constituents to get an indication of their views. That's a substantial portion of an electorate of just over 100,000 voters—32,000, in the form of a direct mail-out. We phone polled about 500 people. We sent an additional 5,500 direct emails, and we had many calls both in and out of the office. To date the feedback we've received shows 75 per cent in favour of the cashless debit card being introduced, 23 per cent against and two per cent undecided. That was just from the initial consultation to determine whether there was support in the community for us to look at this very, very difficult policy—and it is a difficult policy—in terms of the rollout of the cashless card.

Minister Tudge put in a letter to the editor of the NewsMail, the local paper, on 12 October 2017 about the consultation that was conducted on top of that by the Department of Social Services. They are very professional people. This is the Public Service. It's what they do. They've already been involved in the trial rollouts in other areas. They understand where the difficulties are, and all of those have been addressed. We conducted 182 consultations across Hinkler. That is not 182 individuals; that is 182 meetings with groups and with some individuals who have difficulty working in a group, across the board with those frontline service providers. Importantly, 55 of those consultations were local service providers, those on the front line, with disadvantaged families. We consulted with over 70 community members through direct correspondence or meetings. We held two broad community information sessions, another 26 consultations with local church groups, 25 with local government and three meetings with the state government. We also consulted with the relevant peak bodies.

That was just at that date in October. They continue to work, they continue to push forward, talking to people who are affected and ensuring that this will be functional, that it will roll out correctly with as little difficulty as absolutely possible, because this is about one thing: ensuring better outcomes for our community—and not just the individuals but the children who are affected.

What shocked me was what's come out of this community consultation. I thought, 'Okay, perhaps it'll be an age demographic—those on Newstart.' But what came back, particularly from those frontline service providers, was that we must include parenting payment, because the people who are being affected the most are children. We've had the former local Labor state member come out and absolutely decry it: 'We don't have a problem.' Schools run breakfast clubs. In fact, they run so many breakfast clubs that the state Labor government had to put another $2 million into it—more money for these difficult issues.

If we want to talk about those people in the community who don't have a dog in this fight—and let's call it what it is—this is a difficult challenge for the idealists. This is about a practical outcome. One of those is a gentleman called Brian Courtice. Mr Courtice is the former federal Labor member for Hinkler, a very well-known former member of the Labor Party, and he is 100 per cent supportive. I ask the rhetorical question: why is he so supportive? Because he knows what is happening to kids in our community. I can tell you that he is so supportive. He has written letters. He has spoken publicly. He has done media. He's been on TV and radio and all of those things, because he is concerned about his community and exactly what is going on, and he thinks this will help, and I agree with him. Now I'm just the local member. I've worked there and I've lived there, but I don't deal with it on a day-to-day basis like our frontline community services. I'll be taking their advice, and their advice is that this will make a real difference.

I know that the member for Grey spoke about the Orima report, and I'm not going to buy into too much of that; I'll leave that as stated. But what we do know is that we have support from those people who are not idealists. I spoke about the gambling issue previously and about the amount of money that has been spent. I would like to make special mention of Deputy Mayor George Seymour in Hervey Bay. I know George. I get on with George quite well. He is an intelligent, passionate man who's concerned about his community. But on the one hand he is complaining about the amount of money we are pouring down the gullet of poker machines, and on the other hand he is not supportive of the cashless debt card. This is one way to make a real difference. If we are not here to do that, what is our role? We are local members, first and foremost, to represent our community and their interests and the difficulties that they continue to have. My community, I have to say, needs the support.

I say to the Labor Party: you don't need to believe me. You can believe our local newspapers. You can believe the former federal Labor member for Hinkler, Brian Courtice. You can believe all of those people in the community who are willing to put their names on a piece of paper, to stand up, to be involved, to be in the community reference group and to do media—and they have been absolutely pilloried. People on social media have been basically giving them a very hard time, with all the threats. I know every member of parliament gets threats. We all do; that is just part of the territory. But these are people who have basically been out serving our community for years, and they are telling me, the department and the minister that this is a way that we can address a real challenge in our community. So I would say to the Labor Party once again: please reconsider, because it is not your community which is being affected. It is ours, and they are absolutely supportive.

I agree there are people out there who are idealistically opposed, and that is their right. This is a democratic country. They are entitled to protest, and they are entitled to start their protest groups. But the overwhelming majority of the support in the community is for the cashless card—more than 70 per cent. In fact, I've never seen a policy of government, on either side, supported as strongly as this. It has been quite incredible. I get stopped on the street. I get pulled up by people who say: 'Please do not give up on this. It is something that we need to do.' I see them out there every single day. We take phone calls in my office constantly, from people saying: 'We've got to do this. It is necessary.'

Once again, can I just implore those opposite: please reconsider. We've spoken about the Senate inquiry. Their results were clear. They support the rollout of the cashless card in the additional areas. It is funded. It is in the budget. It is ready to go. There is an opportunity here to make a difference in a community which needs the help. We have an unemployment rate of around nine per cent and a youth unemployment rate of around 23 per cent. In fact, the adjusted unemployment rate, the one used by the Local Government Association—if you remove those on a disability pension, for example—is over 16 per cent, the worst in the country. I say to all of those who may be listening to this broadcast, and with absolute humility: we do need the help. This is one way we can do it.

I once again implore those opposite: please support this legislation. I know there are those in your group who are idealistically opposed, and they are entitled to that view, but listen to my communities, the people of Bundaberg, the people of Hervey Bay and the people of Hinkler, please. I support this bill wholeheartedly, and we need to have it passed. Thank you.

 

Authorised by Keith Pitt, Federal Member for Hinkler, 41b Woongarra Street, Bundaberg QLD 4670

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