Cashless Debit Card and Income Management

Budget Review 2021–22 Index

Don Arthur

The Budget provides funding for the continuation of the Cashless Debit Card and an extension of Income Management to 31 December 2023 (p. 179).

The Cashless Debit Card measure includes funding to continue the program and for the addition of an Economic and Employment Support Services Package.

The cost of this measure is marked as ‘not for publication’ due to ongoing negotiations with potential providers.


Cashless Debit Card

The Cashless Debit Card program operates in six sites across Australia:

The program is designed to prevent income support recipients from spending payments on alcohol, illicit drugs or gambling. It can do this in two ways, firstly by automatically blocking transactions at certain merchant categories (for example, pubs and bottle shops) and secondly by blocking the purchase of particular products at some retailers such as supermarkets (this is known as product-level blocking).

Participants receive 80% of their payments on the card and are free to spend the remaining 20% how they choose.

As at 2 April 2021, there were 10,747 participants in the four initial Cashless Debit Card sites: East Kimberley, Goldfields, Ceduna, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay. The Cashless Debit Card only commenced in the Cape York and Doomadgee and the Northern Territory sites on 17 March 2021.

Income Management

Income Management currently operates in a number of locations around Australia. Under Income Management a proportion of participants’ income support is directed towards basic needs such as food, clothing, housing and utilities. Income Management includes the BasicsCard, a card that can be used to make purchases at approved merchants.

According to a 2020 regulation impact statement from the Department of Social Services (DSS), Income Management is ‘a complex and costly policy not suited for further expansion’ (p. 3). The scheme includes eight separate measures, some of which refer people to income management on a case-by-case basis and some on a group membership basis. For an overview of these measures see the Parliamentary Library publication, Income Management: a Quick Guide.

As at 2 April there were almost 29,000 people subject to Income Management with around 26,500 located in the Northern Territory.

From March 2021, the Cashless Debit Card operates alongside Income Management and the BasicsCard in the Northern Territory. Those subject to Income Management can choose to move to the Cashless Debit Card. The Government originally intended to move all Northern Territory participants onto the Cashless Debit Card but failed to gain support in the Senate for the necessary amendments to legislation.

Cashless Debit Card continuation

Funding for the continuation of the Cashless Debit Card will support:

  • the continued rollout of product-level blocking and other technology and
  • working with states, territories, and individual communities to examine opportunities to expand the program.

Economic and Employment Support Services Package

The Economic and Employment Support Services Package includes:

  • a $30.0 million Jobs Fund and job ready initiative (in the East Kimberley, Goldfields, Ceduna, and Bundaberg and Hervey Bay)
  • investment in new and existing drug and alcohol residential rehabilitation facilities (according to the Department of Health’s Budget 2021–⁠22: Stakeholder Pack, this measure will cost $49.9 million)
  • a one-off grant of up to $125,000 for the Far West Aboriginal Community Leaders Group that will help guide the Government’s work with remote communities in South Australia and
  • up to $2.0 million for data collection that will feed into an evaluation of the impact of the Cashless Debit Card.

In December 2020 the Minister for Families and Social Services, Anne Ruston, expressed disappointment about the lack of strong quantitative data on the Cashless Debit Card.

Speaking about the Economic Employment and Support Services Package, Liberal Party senator Matt O’Sullivan said:

Measures may take the form of additional wraparound services to assist participants to stabilise their lives, courses to improve skills, such as financial planning, or specific training opportunities to ensure that participants have the skills to capitalise on the employment opportunities that exist within the community.

Income Management extension

This measure includes funding for:

  • maintenance of income management in the Northern Territory for participants who choose not to move to the Cashless Debit Card and
  • an extension of Income Management at the remaining locations (see ‘Income Management locations’ on the DSS website).


Income Management and the Cashless Debit Card have long been controversial. The Greens have consistently opposed both Income Management and the Cashless Debit Card and Labor is now opposed to compulsory application of the policies.

The Government appears to be winding back Income Management in favour of the Cashless Debit Card. The Cashless Debit Card began replacing Income Management in Cape York from March 2021 and Income Management participants in the Northern Territory can choose to transition to the Cashless Debit Card. As discussed above, the Government attempted to replace Income Management in the Northern Territory with the Cashless Debit Card.

A 2020 DSS Regulation Impact Statement recommended against expanding Income Management to new locations, describing the scheme as ‘a largely incoherent policy that has a limited ability to create change within communities’ (p. 33).

Currently, Income Management operates at 13 locations. It is not clear what the Government’s long-term plans for these locations are.