Cashless welfare card entrenches racism, poverty, corruption

Sydney protest against the cashless debit card October 2019. Photo: Australian Unemployed Workers Union / Facebook

The Coalition federal government is pushing to make trials of the Indue “cashless welfare card” unlimited; it wants to extend its reach to a wider section of social welfare recipients.

The federal budget on October 6 allocated an undisclosed amount to make trials of the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) ongoing and, two days later, a bill was introduced to the House of Representatives.

The Senate is expected to vote on the CDC by Christmas; an inquiry is accepting public submissions until October 23.

Under the government’s scheme, 80% of a person’s Centrelink payment goes directly onto a CDC system, operated by the Indue company. It has been designed to restrict their spending.

Since 2016, the card has been trialled in the East Kimberley (Western Australia), the Goldfields (WA), Ceduna (South Australia) and the Bundaberg-Hervey Bay region (Queensland).

The bill would make the four trial sites permanent and introduce the CDC to about 25,000 people in the Northern Territory and Cape York.

If implemented, welfare recipients who have been forced to trial the CDC could be stuck in the system permanently.

The government’s patronising reasoning for the cashless card is that it will curb gambling, drug and alcohol abuse.

Indigenous NT Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said in February that the system would hinder, rather than help, First Nations peoples. “When we look at policies like the CDP [Community Development Program] policy, the cashless debit card, which entrenches First Nations people in poverty in this country, then of course we’re not going to see the outcomes that we want to see in health, in education, in housing, in life expectancy.”

She said the cashless debit card was “bad policy”.

WA Greens Senator Rachel Siewart has said the card should be abolished, arguing the trial had not achieved its stated goals. “[The government] need[s] to make sure that people have access to services where they do have poor mental health, where they do have drug and alcohol issues, where they have poor housing; we need to be addressing those issues.”.

Others, including the Australian Council of Social Service and First Nations organisations in the NT, have condemned news of a CDC expansion.

Michael White, from the SA Network of Drug and Alcohol Services told the New Daily in February that such programs have been shown to “not necessarily assist people to move out of poverty”. Rather, he said, they can exacerbate poverty.

“They often leave women and other vulnerable card users open to exploitation; the controls that they put on spending are easily thwarted usually to the detriment of the person named on the card; and they are deeply stigmatising for those forced to use them — 75% of whom are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander” peoples.

He said another major concern is the cost of the card’s administration. The fees paid to the private corporation Indue to manage the card are $10,000 per card holder per annum. Compare this with the amount a single person on welfare receives — just $21,000.

“A standard bank debit card costing as much would be subject to banking regulation relating to price gouging,” White said.

He wants the government “to cancel this clearly dysfunctional program” and instead invest the funds in delivering services to people in need of better social support.

The Indue company has existed in some form for 50 years. According to Eddy Jokovich writing for New Politics in August 2019, Indue “has developed a range of tentacles that reach out to a range of political players, primarily within the conservative domain”. The most prominent of these is former National Party MP and current federal president Larry Anthony.

“Up to June 2018, the amount received by Indue was at least $8.8 million and, reportedly, up to $21.9 million as at August 2019. If the roll-out of the cashless welfare card is extended on a widespread basis, the value of the Indue company, and the shares held by Larry Anthony and other Liberal and National Party operatives will increase exponentially.”

He said the system was ripe for corruption.

“Australia is on the verge of instigating a wholesale transfer of its welfare system towards a private company that has no interest in the wellbeing of welfare recipients.”

It sets up a “very thin line between government, private corporations and political parties”. Just like the experience a decade ago of private childcare provider ABC Learning, Jokovich said it is “another social and political disaster in the making which the public will be forced to bail out”.

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