An extraordinary, radical experiment in welfare policy will begin on March 15 in the small town of Ceduna and several remote Aboriginal communities in south-western South Australia.
The cashless debit card — or “Healthy Welfare Card” as it was dubbed by its leading advocate, billionaire miner Andrew Forrest — will be trialled for 12 months.
The program is the latest version of Income Management, which first emerged in the Northern Territory as part of the racist Intervention in 2007. It has since been extended to numerous locations.
But this version is even more extreme.
All working-age welfare recipients in the region — roughly 800 residents or 20% of the population, 72% of them Aboriginal people — will have 80% of their payments quarantined in a cashless account that cannot be spent on alcohol and tobacco.
The proportion of payments being restricted and the blanket nature of the scheme make the Ceduna trial unprecedented. Not only will all working-age recipients be affected, but there will be no appeals or exemptions of any kind and no way for people on welfare payments to exit the program.
In other Income Management sites, clients can, at least in theory, exit the scheme by demonstrating that they are financially and personally competent, or by showing that being on Income Management is harmful either to their mental health or their housing situation. None of these options will be available in Ceduna.
While the federal government and Ceduna Council claim there is significant support for the policy, a growing backlash to cashless welfare has emerged over the past several months.
Consultations in the region have been criticised by the National Welfare Rights Network, other NGOs and many locals, as being mostly with heads of community organisations rather than affected individuals. This was even conceded in Senate hearings by Ceduna Mayor Allan Suter, a supporter of the scheme.
Peter Pav, a disability pensioner who is part of an energetic group of locals organising against this latest version of Income Management, said: “People who were signed off as consulted, complained at our community meeting: 'Yes, they came to see us, but when we said no (to cashless welfare), they just left and from what we can see they signed us off as consulted'. Those types of remarks came from more than one person.
“A full public meeting was called about BP wanting to drill in the Great Australian Bight [near Ceduna] but no such meeting was called to ask the public for their opinion on the unhealthy welfare card” — until after the legislation had already passed parliament.
When a meeting was finally called last November, with guest speaker assistant social services minister Alan Tudge, many locals were angry about the lack of warning, which made it particularly difficult for Aboriginal people living in the remote communities — some of them several hundred kilometres from the township — to make transport arrangements.
Kokatha elder Sue Haseldine said: “Consultations were non-existent until after the Memorandum of Understanding [which was signed by the heads of some Aboriginal community organisations, Ceduna Council and the federal government and which the federal government has used as evidence of widespread local support for its policy] was signed. People had no idea this experiment was about to happen.”
The local backlash against cashless welfare has brought together a number of white and Aboriginal individuals and organisations. Haseldine noted: “This card has brought black and white together as nothing else has ever before. Friendships have been formed because of the card.”
Her comments were echoed by another local activist, Sue Thiselton, who said: “The silver lining about all this is that it has brought us all together. Many people from around the country have pledged to help. We have been getting help and advice from all walks of life.
“We had a protest in Ceduna where 50 people marched and we have also had a petition sent to parliament with nearly 300 signatures [almost 10% of the population of the region], all taken by hand over a three-week period. We recently received around the same number of signatures again over three days.”
Pav notes local campaigners have had no help from the mainstream media. “We don't get any real media from our side. Maureen Smart and Keith Peters, leaders of the Yalata community, have withdrawn their support for blanket compulsory Income Management, but this hasn't rated a mention in any media.
“The campaigning we do is generally by word of mouth, telephone, Facebook, anything that allows the word to get out. We have achieved quite a bit through Facebook, as more and more Ceduna and remote community people are joining to fight this travesty. We have a line out to others.”
Last month, there was one last opportunity to stop the cashless debit card from coming to Ceduna, when Greens Senator Rachel Siewert of the Greens presented a disallowance motion to the Senate seeking to stop the trial.
But the motion was defeated when Labor, which sided with the Coalition in October to pass legislation introducing the cashless debit card, once again backed the punitive scheme.
It is worth noting that the South Australian Labor Senators who voted against Siewert's motion were defying state Labor party policy.
At the November 2014 state Labor party convention, a resolution was unanimously passed that condemned the Jay Weatherill state Labor government's support for Forrest's Creating Parity report, which included the original recommendation to introduce a cashless welfare system.
Many locals oppose the cashless debit card for much the same reasons that compulsory Income Management has been opposed elsewhere.
David Collins, who has been lobbying his union, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), to support the campaign, is angered by the unfairness of the blanket approach of the policy that “forces us all onto Income Management, when in fact people on welfare are the best at managing their reduced finances. We have committed no social offences or broken no laws, and are in every sense good citizens of our community, yet we will be treated in this discriminatory way.”
While defenders of the program such as Tudge and Suter argue that the inconvenience will be minimal, Collins notes: “There will be financial problems from the lack of access to cash, which normally allows people on welfare to buy second-hand from garage sales, markets and the classifieds.”
Thiselton agrees: “As in all small country towns, cash is a big part of our economy. Second-hand goods will not be bought or sold because of this card, but when you are on welfare payments you cannot afford new things — and I thought that we are supposed to recycle.” The need for cash often extends to shopping for “cars, wood, fridges, clothes and at farmer's markets”.
She is not convinced that cashless debit cards will do much for those with substance abuse issues. “People with addictions will find a way to get their substance.” Evaluations of Income Management have repeatedly failed to find that it reduces alcohol consumption.
She thinks a “rehabilitation centre here in Ceduna and proper wrap-around services to go with it” would be much more effective — an idea that has been proposed by many locals, but largely ignored by government.
Very recently locals received some good news when at its national conference in March, the MUA passed a resolution supporting the campaign against Income Management in Ceduna.
[Pas Forgione is an activist with the Anti-Poverty Network SA.]