The cashless debit card is the latest of a series of measures designed to tackle alcohol abuse in Ceduna. The Government has recently released an interim evaluation report on the measure.
Alcohol abuse in Ceduna
Alcohol abuse has been an ongoing problem in the remote South Australian town of Ceduna. In its submission to a 2014 Commonwealth parliamentary inquiry into the harmful use of alcohol in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the Ceduna District Council reported that many people in the community felt the problem was as bad as it had ever been.
In its submission the Council claimed that the problem was mainly to do with ‘indigenous people who do not normally reside in the Ceduna area and do not have permanent or long term accommodation in Ceduna.’
The Ceduna community has responded with a number of initiatives including declaring the township of Ceduna a dry area, funding Community Safety and Security Patrols, and introducing an ‘ID Tect’ system to restrict the sale of alcohol. This system limited customers to one two litre cask of wine per day.
The results of the ID Tect system were initially promising but problem drinkers eventually found ways around the restrictions. The Council then turned its attention to income management, lobbying the Australian Government to have Ceduna included as a trial site. On 28 May 2014 the Commonwealth Government announced that the Ceduna region would be a trial site for income management. The trial began on 1 July 2014.
While the Council considered the income management trial a success, the numbers involved were small (51 in January 2016) and many participants were volunteers.
The cashless debit card trial
The cashless debit card is a new tool to prevent income support recipients from spending their payments on alcohol or gambling. It works in a different way to the BasicsCard used in income management and was introduced in response to a recommendation in the Indigenous Jobs and Training Review (Forrest Review). The card cannot be used to buy alcohol or gambling products (other than lottery tickets) and cannot be used to make cash withdrawals.
In an August 2015 submission, the District Council of Ceduna argued that the new cashless debit card would improve the situation in Ceduna:
Over the past years we have learned that the target group of drinkers is extremely clever at devising ways to avoid the intent of various restrictions on the availability of alcohol. Often there is a noticeable improvement in the short term but the effectiveness of the measures has subsequently been reduced by innovative means.
Most other potential steps to improve this intractable problem have been tried or implemented. Voluntary Income Management has proved to be a great success for those choosing to opt in and we have heard positive comments from many of this group. This was limited by the fact that many who could benefit from this system are unlikely to volunteer.
In March 2016 Alan Tudge, the Minister for Human Services, announced that Ceduna would be the first trial site for the cashless debit card.
Findings from the interim evaluation report
The trial has now been running for a year and the Minister recently released an interim evaluation report from ORIMA Research that covers the Ceduna trial and a trial in the East Kimberley. The report claims that alcohol consumption has declined and that this is largely due to the use of the cashless debit card (p. 5).
Most of the evidence for a decline in alcohol consumption comes from survey data. ORIMA used trained Indigenous interviewers to conduct face-to-face interviews. Survey respondents were then screened into three groups—trial participants, family members, and non-participants.
Asked whether they had drunk ‘grog or alcohol’ more often, less often, or the same since the trial started, 79% of participants said they had drunk the same amount and 21% said they had drunk less. For family members, 81% said the same amount and 19% said less (p. 80).
Asked whether they had had six or more drinks at one time (a measure of binge drinking), 4% of participants said they had done this more, 76% said the same, and 19% said less (p. 80).
The evaluators also asked respondents whether they had noticed a change in alcohol drinking in the community since the trial started. Fourteen percent of participants said there had been more, 45% the same, and 22% said less (19% said don’t know). For family members the responses were 9% more, 56% the same and 22% less (13% don’t know). For non-participants responses were 7% more, 34% the same and 47% less (12% don’t know)(p. 79).
The difference between the perceptions of non-participants and the other groups is striking with non-participants much more likely to report less drinking in the community. The evaluators speculate that a particularly cold, wet winter meant that fewer people were drinking in public spaces during the trial period.
The evaluators also gathered qualitative data through in-depth interviews and focus groups. These were conducted in Ceduna and in three of the surrounding communities. According to the report:
Many stakeholders were reluctant to indicate that the [cashless debit card trial] had reduced alcohol consumption in Ceduna and surrounding areas as they felt that there were no direct, visible changes to alcohol consumption since the start of the Trial. However, some had noted broader changes that could suggest an indirect impact on reducing alcohol consumption (e.g. more money directed to other purposes and greater engagement with programs)(p. 148).
ORIMA are due to complete their final evaluation report in June 2017. If the Government decides to continue the trial, it would be useful to collect data on the longer term impact of the cashless debit card to see whether its effectiveness declines over time as users work out how to overcome its restrictions.