Too many unanswered questions and too little evidence to support cashless welfare card

Opinion article published in The Australian newspaper on Monday 12 October 2015

The Federal Government must respond to concerns about the planned trials of a cashless welfare card following this week’s rejection by the Halls Creek and Kununurra communities in Western Australia and division in Ceduna in South Australia.

The Shire of Halls Creek’s Aboriginal advisory committee, which is representative of Aboriginal people right around the town of Halls Creek and surrounding communities, has voted against participating in the 12-month trial, citing similar concerns to those expressed in the ACOSS submission to a Senate Committee inquiry released last week.

Community representatives say they are reluctant to take part in a trial which is not supported by additional investment to deal with the town’s social problems. They also highlight the lack of evidence from previous income management schemes in the Northern Territory, which have largely failed to change spending patterns or alcohol consumption.

We share these concerns about the NT model in which compulsory Income Management is applied automatically to people receiving certain payments. The official evaluation of that scheme found that it was ineffective and stigmatizing.

We cannot make the same mistakes again. For this reason ACOSS has asked the Senate Committee to withhold supporting the Government Bill until a number of important issues have been properly addressed.

ACOSS’ long-standing position is that compulsory income management schemes are intrusive, ineffective and costly. However, we do not oppose schemes which are genuinely sought by individuals or communities, where income management forms just one of a suite of measures designed to address complex social issues and is used as a last resort and where adequate protections for individuals are in place.

Last week ACOSS was described in an article in this newspaper as the ‘Anti-card lobby’ (October 1, 2015) and the ABC reported that we had called for the trials to be ‘cancelled’. Both media outlets said we had called for the Senate Committee to ‘withdraw support’ for the Government bill to establish the trials, rather than to withhold support until concerns have been addressed. This is an important distinction.

Our legitimate interest is in ensuring that the design of any radical policy intervention like this is done in partnership with communities, supported by a strong evidence base and delivers appropriate safeguards for vulnerable people. For this reason, we have reached out to community members in recent weeks to hear directly from the Ceduna community. Given that the proposed trials are ultimately intended to inform the possible future rollout of income management, these trials have national policy significance. It is critical that they are properly conducted and evaluated, including examining the cost, financial support provided and issues particular to each community.

We know from our direct consultations and from public statements from community members that views in Ceduna remain mixed, and that much of the consultation has been with organisations as distinct from individuals. Many members of the local community don’t feel they have a proper understanding about the implications of the policy process.  We have also heard real concerns about the capacity of local services to address the likely increase in referrals from people seeking to treat addiction, improve their financial skills or prepare for and find employment.

This week South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon described Ceduna as divided on the issue after his visit to the community, calling for more debate and further meetings before the government proceeds with any trial.  If this is to be an evidence-based trial it should be approached in a spirit of openness, mutual inquiry and learning. Yet there is little public information about the government’s consultation process which makes it difficult to assess the actual level of community support.

Quarantining 80% of people’s income support payments and only allowing access to 20% in cash for people’s day to day survival is an unprecedented level of intervention in people’s lives. It is therefore reasonable to ask the Senate Committee to ensure crucial protections are in place for individuals before recommending that the trials should proceed.

Proceeding before resolving these questions could result in trials being undertaken with limited chance of reducing violence and harm related to alcohol and drug use, the Government’s stated objective. Worse still it would likely have significant detrimental impacts on people in the trial locations.

Ultimately any trials must not simply be about controlling how people use cash.  They must actually help people to address the issues that lead them into these circumstances. While voluntary income controls might be used as part of a set of measures to support people to take control of their lives, just controlling access to cash will do nothing to address the broader issues people face.

Cassandra Goldie is chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service and Ross Womersley is executive director of the South Australian Council of Social Service.