Second Reading – Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management Reform) Bill 2023

Monday, 27 March 2023

Mr PITT: To those who might be listening to this debate at home or elsewhere: you might think that the cashless debit card trials were only in Aboriginal communities, but they were not. In fact, the biggest trial site in the country was in my electorate of Hinkler. At one stage there were over 6,000 participants, roughly the equivalent of the other three trial sites put together. Those numbers change over time—they move up and down depending, particularly, on youth unemployment—but the trial site in my patch was very, very different to the other three. Roughly five per cent of the community, that’s all, identify as being of Aboriginal heritage. The trial was for those aged 35 and under in the electorate of Hinkler, who were on four payments: Newstart, youth allowance, parenting payment single or parenting payment partnered. It took literally months to put this in place. There was a significant plan and there were significant support services. We had support services both online and face to face in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay. If anyone had any challenges, they could talk directly to somebody.

Do you know what, Mr Deputy Speaker? After a very short period of time, those services hardly got used. But what did get used was the cashless debit card, to make a real difference for people who found themselves in difficult circumstances. I had never before dealt with any policy that had such strong support in the electorate; in fact, no matter what you looked at, it was almost 70 per cent supported. We had media doing ReachTEL polling and we had what we did locally. There were all sorts of claims all over the place, but ultimately my community supported this. They supported the cashless debit card rollout because they wanted to see change. They know change is difficult, they know this is tough policy and they know it is necessary.

Mr Deputy Speaker Buchholz, I know you get similar things in your electorate. There were a number of times when a constituent would come in and yell—you can tell when there’s potentially a spray on its way—but overwhelmingly people would say, ‘Keep fighting for this.’ They’d talk about their aunties, their uncles, their cousins—their grandchildren, in particular—who’d had enormous benefit from the card being in place, because they simply couldn’t spend all of their support on alcohol, drugs or gambling products.

I know it’s tough—there’s no doubt about that, and I have said it many times—and I know there are no silver bullets, but the reason we fought so hard for this is that it works. If there is one kid who gets fed because we put this in place, I’ll continue to fight for it. I’ll tell you what, Mr Deputy Speaker, there are a lot more than one. There was feedback from teachers and school principals, all of whom, as you know, can’t talk about this publicly because they are prohibited from making those contributions by their agreement with the state, as state school principals and state schoolteachers. Police very rarely can go on the record. They are all enormously supportive because it works. We had feedback on rent rolls improving and being paid. I had produce agents tell me people whom they’d never seen before were coming in regularly to buy food for their pets.

We see that those opposite have knocked this out based on an ideology, based on the socialist alliance of the people in Sydney and Melbourne. It’s not those people who live in these communities. It’s not those people who need to make changes. It’s not those people who see the consequences. On the other side of the chamber we have an absolutely idealistic government that rubbed this out because it didn’t like it. That’s what it comes down to.

I go back to the commentary from the Minister for Social Services, Minister Rishworth. In an interview on 23 June 2022 she said, ‘The government wants to talk about the transition and the pathway forward because we have said that we’re getting rid of this privatised card.’ In the same interview she said, ‘So we’re getting rid of the privatisation element of it.’ I’ll go to another statement, on 4 June 2022: ‘We are abolishing the privatised cashless debit card.’ On 2 August 2022, in the West Australian, she said it was:

… privatised welfare that was born of a Liberal Party ideological obsession forced on communities …

…   …   …   

It was privatised welfare.

On 30 June 2022 she said it was a ‘privatised compulsory cashless debit card’, and on 28 July 2022, once again from the now minister, we had: ‘That was privatised welfare.’

Yet what do we see, Mr Deputy Speaker? I draw your attention to the estimates hearing of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee on 15 February 2023, where officials made some statements under questioning from Senator Ruston. She asked:

I’m just wondering if you could give us a quick rundown on the functionality differences—that is, the technical functionality of the SmartCard versus the BasicsCard.

There was this contribution from Mr Thorpe:

… the enhanced income management and SmartCard, which will be available from 6 March, works on a broader range of services.

Well, it’s the same range of services, because it’s a debit card. It makes no difference whatsoever.

Senator Ruston:

I’m more interested in the technology that sits behind the card. On that basis, from the technology perspective …

Mr Thorpe:

The same organisation, Indue, is providing the banking services …

The same one. The exact same one. What did it cost? Well, just under $12 million and, would you believe, it was a limited tender or a limited approach. In fact, it was exceptionally limited; they only approached one provider. Guess who that was? Indue. So Labor, by their own definition, have privatised welfare. Do you know what the only substantial change was, Deputy Speaker Buchholz? The card’s going to change colour. It will be blue instead of silver, because silver is actually the most popular card colour. Call me a cynic, but Labor have privatised welfare by their own admission. It is exactly the same. The only difference is that it is not mandatory.

I’m advised—I’ll have to confirm these numbers—that in my patch there are now fewer than 30 participants on the card. Can you imagine the cost per card for that? For those opposite to rail against what we tried to do when we were in government, well, it was exactly what they are doing now. We tried to get people off the BasicsCard and onto the CDC because it has much better technology and it works. They are getting to the point where they can get down to product-level blocking, which is so much better. The technology works. It is a debit card. It is much better for those individuals. What we saw throughout the election was a scare campaign run by Labor, who have now done exactly what they said they weren’t doing. So, if it is privatising welfare, I come back to the same point: by their definition Labor have privatised welfare—the same card doing the same things from the same provider, except it has changed colour.

We had all sorts of information coming through the office over a period of time about breakfast clubs having less demand, about kids going out on events and excursions—kids who never got do those things before—that were paid for. People had additional money. We have seen those horrible reports from places like Alice Springs. We have seen what’s happened. We have heard from my good friends and colleagues, including the members for Grey, O’Connor and Durack. I would say to those opposite: this is lived experience.

This claim is that it is about politics and that people hate it. Well, those members all got re-elected, as I did. They all got re-elected, and you don’t get that unless you have the majority of your community onboard and they do, because what we did made a difference. You only have to listen. I heard the contribution from the member for Grey; he has actual numbers. There is a reason we couldn’t get these numbers in Queensland, because the Queensland state Labor government wouldn’t give them to us. We tried. If you look at the Auditor-General’s report, it is scathing of the department for not delivering what the minister asked for—scathing. Yet my community still supports the rollout, still supports these changes. They want to see change in their community, because we have significant challenges with multigenerational welfare dependence. My patch still has, as far as I’m aware, the lowest per capita income in the country. It is not these remote communities; it is ours. These are large—very large—regional areas. We on this side put forward millions of dollars in support services. In fact, when an audit was done at the commencement of the cashless debit card, there were almost 70 providers providing support throughout my electorate—almost 70—fully funded. Yet what do we continue to see from those opposite? We see all sorts of claims about privatisation, all sorts of claims about scare tactics for pensioners. I don’t see how you are an aged pensioner if you are aged 35 or under. That applied in the trial site in my patch—age 35 or under.

While I have the opportunity, I want to thank the local community reference group in the electorate of Hinkler, who came under not only significant pressure but, in some circumstances, abuse from those individuals out there, those keyboard cowards who chase individuals down on Facebook and other social media platforms and abuse them simply for being involved. The reference group just want their community to be better. They volunteered and they did it pretty tough, I have to say. Even the location of an information session was attacked by these so-called activists online because the organisers dared to take the money from Department of Social Services to run an event to give people information. These were the types of things that we were up against, and yet my community continues to support it because it matters to them, to their kids and to their grandkids. We cannot continue to do the same things and expect to get different outcomes. If you want to make change, you have to make tough decisions—and these are tough but necessary decisions.

I’ll come back to where I started. For four of us on this side of the House these are lived experiences. We know what it is like to implement the trial. We know what it takes. We know how hard it is. We know that there are members of the community who are opposed. They are entitled to their views. I sat in here and I heard those opposite rail against this because they said there was no way off the cashless debit card. Guess what? There is a really simple solution. You can go to work. You can get a job—right now, we have an unemployment rate under four per cent—and you can do whatever you like. It’s your money.

We saw when this was implemented a significant change in youth unemployment alone. I want every single one of those kids to get an opportunity, I had one when I came out of high school. At the time, I did not realise how fortunate I was to be offered a trade. How was I to know there were 280 other kids lined up? I simply didn’t know. But it was an opportunity that I was given and one which I utilised and, to be honest, took for granted for some period of time. I don’t take it for granted anymore. I want those kids to have that same opportunity. I have to tell you that they are not going to get it while they continue to be isolated in multigenerational welfare dependent families. We need to do something about that.

We are in the place where we can make a difference. We are in the place where we can make decisions that will help them. That is what this is about. It is not about being difficult. It is not about challenges for individuals whom we know have issues with alcohol and other problems. This is about those fundamental pieces of being involved in the community. You have to feed your kids. You have to take the opportunity of the support that’s being provided to utilise it for the right things.

Why do you think we have seen so many people come to this parliament from places like Laverton, Kununurra and the Goldfields over in the west? The biggest activist in my patch against the cashless debit card was an individual who would never be on it and who didn’t live there, and yet over and over we saw those opposite take those types of submissions as reasons to make the decisions that they have. It is the wrong approach. The overwhelming majority of my community supports the cashless debit card. Those opposite should hang their heads in shame. They fought against us when we tried to do exactly what they are doing with the BasicsCard. They removed this without community consultation. It was an across-the-board decision—’We are doing this because we are opposed based on our ideology.’ As the member for Grey has said, it has unleashed chaos in some of these communities. Mine is very, very different, but it works and I will continue to support it.

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