The Australian Greens remain opposed to compulsory income management. The evidence we have heard during this limited inquiry confirms our concerns about the harm being caused by compulsory income management and the lack of evidence of positive outcomes clearly indicates that these so-called trials should not continue.
The Australian Greens therefore oppose the measures contained in the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management to Cashless Debit Card Transition) Bill 2019 (the Bill).
This Bill will extend the end date for existing Cashless Debit Card trial sites in East Kimberley, Ceduna, Goldfields and Bundaberg regions from 30 June 2020 to 30 June 2021. The Bill establishes the Northern Territory and Cape York as Cashless Debit Card trial areas. As a result, approximately 23 000 income management participants in the Northern Territory will be transitioned to the Cashless Debit Card from 1 January 2020.
The Bill removes the cap on the number of Cashless Debit Card trial participants and allows participants in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay trial areas to voluntarily participate in the Cashless Debit Card. The Bill also makes changes to the evaluation process, the right to appeal decisions and gives the Minister the power to vary the portion of income quarantined to 100 per cent.
The Australian Greens note that this is the fifth legislation inquiry into the Cashless Debit Card, none of which have provided quantitative evidence of the positive impacts of these measures.
We further note that the ANAO evaluation of the Cashless Debit Card found:
The Department of Social Services largely established appropriate arrangements to implement the Cashless Debit Card Trial, however, its approach to monitoring and evaluation was inadequate. As a consequence, it is difficult to conclude whether there had been a reduction in social harm and whether the card was a lower cost welfare quarantining approach.
The Australian Greens continue to hold deep concerns about punitive compulsory income management and staunchly oppose the extension of these so-called 'trials'. Extending the Cashless Debit Card to the Northern Territory disproportionately impacts First Nations peoples and undermines human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The Australian Greens reject the committee view that the Bill be passed.
In addition to our dissenting reports from previous inquiries into the CDC, we outline further concerns below.
Lack of evidence to support compulsory income management in the Northern Territory
One of the recurring themes that emerged in the submissions and at the hearings into this Bill was the lack of evidence to support compulsory income management in the Northern Territory. People in the Northern Territory have been subject to compulsory income management for over 12 years.
In 2014, the Federal Government's independent evaluation into compulsory income management in the Northern Territory concluded that:
A wide range of measures related to consumption, financial capability, financial harassment, alcohol and related behaviours, child health, child neglect, developmental outcomes, and school attendance have been considered as part of this evaluation… Despite the magnitude of the program the evaluation does not find any consistent evidence of income management having a significant systematic positive impact.
Key findings from the evaluation included:
There was no evidence of income management having resulted in changes to spending or consumption, including on alcohol, tobacco, fresh fruit and vegetables.
There was no aggregate improvement in financial wellbeing at the household level.
There was no evidence in changes to school enrolments or learning outcomes that could be attributed to income management and no significant change across child wellbeing outcomes.
One of the authors of the evaluation, Dr Rob Bray, recently undertook an updated analysis on the social impact of income management in the Northern Territory. Dr Bray discussed the paper in his submission:
The paper clearly shows that there has been a total absence of any improvement in the outcomes for Indigenous people in the Northern Territory which can be attributed to income management, despite the fact that the most vulnerable third of this population has been subject to the measure for over a decade.
The inquiry also heard evidence from a number of people around the harmful impact of compulsory income management.
Professor Sven Silburn, Mary-Alice Doyle and Associate Professor Stefanie Schurer recently undertook a study of the population-level effect of income management on the birth outcomes of First Nations children.
Professor Silburn noted in his submission:
The study's key finding of relevance to this Senate Committee hearing regarding the draft Bill to extend the implementation of the Cashless Debit Card to NT communities, is that the Aboriginal birth cohort affected by the 13 month roll-out of Income Management resulted in an average reduction in birth weight of 100 grams and a 30% increase in the likelihood of being born with low birth weight (i.e. below 2,500 grams). The magnitude of this effect is comparable to what has been reported from other international studies of births to women exposed to famines or extreme weather events such as cyclones.
Low birthweight can have lifelong consequences and is associated with childhood behaviour and learning difficulties, as well as chromic health conditions in adults. The link between a reduction in birthweight and the rollout of income management is deeply concerning and demonstrates the harmful effects of compulsory income management.
Ms Olga Havnen, Chief Executive Officer, Danila Dilba Health Service, said income management has not increased access to healthy food for people in remote communities:
The other comment I would make is that income management has done absolutely nothing to ensure that Aboriginal people in remote communities have increased access to healthy, affordable foods. The cost of healthy foods in remote areas is widening….There is no evidence from store turnover or sales data that there has been any significant change in people's purchasing or consumption patterns. There has been no significant discernible difference between the volume of healthy foods purchased pre Intervention and post…
The Human Rights Law Centre noted in its submission that poverty continues to grow in remote communities that are subject to income management:
Income Management has failed to alleviate poverty in remote communities. Data collected through the census in 2016 demonstrates an appalling increase in poverty rates in remote communities since 2011. Between 2011 and 2016, there was a real decline in disposable incomes of low income households in very remote areas at the same time as costs of living in remote parts of the Northern Territory rose.
The Government's proposed introduction of the Cashless Debit Card in the Northern Territory fails to acknowledge the harmful outcomes associated with compulsory income management.
Hardship under the Cashless Debit Card
The Committee heard extensive evidence that the Cashless Debit Card is making people's lives harder. The Australian Greens reject the committee view that 'the Cashless Debit Card will greatly contribute to the improvement of wellbeing outcomes' and highlight some of the concerns that were raised which clearly indicate that this approach does not improve peoples' wellbeing.
At the Canberra hearing, Dr Michelle Peterie, Research Fellow, University of Queensland, provided evidence about the results of in-depth interviews conducted with Cashless Debit Card participants in the Hinkler region. The study found that the card was making it harder for people to pay bills and provide for their families, payment issues were negatively impacting on individual's health and wellbeing and that significant stigma surrounds the card. As a result, people are withdrawing from participation in their communities. Dr Peterie concluded:
The evidence from our study suggests that the cashless debit card is not only failing to achieve some of its core objectives but actually making things a lot harder for some people.
Queensland Council of Social Service undertook two Cashless Debit Card Trial surveys in the Hinkler region. The most recent survey found a growing number of people oppose the card:
A significant majority, 81 per cent of respondents oppose the CDCT outright (up from 65 per cent). An overwhelming majority of 93 per cent of respondents oppose the CDCT in its current compulsory form (up from 75 per cent), this proportion increases to 98 per cent when filtering for those with direct experience of the CDCT. 12 per cent saying they would support it if it was voluntary. A significant majority (89 per cent) have concerns about the CDCT (up from 77 per cent), and a significant majority (82 per cent) say they experience no benefits from the CDCT (up from 65 per cent expecting no benefit).
Many submitters also discussed the additional fees and costs associated with the Cashless Debit Card. Professor Matthew Gray and Dr Rob Bray noted in their submission:
Additionally a range of factors associated with the BasicCard/Indue card involved directly increased costs for those placed on the system. These costs include the imposition by some merchants of credit card surcharges on purchases which directly increase costs, or of minimum purchase requirements which involve having to purchase additional items when small purchases are made.
The Australian Greens have serious concerns that the Cashless Debit Card will make people's lives harder. We also have strong concerns that harsh and punitive compliance programs, such as compulsory income management, could be contributing to the growing number of people disengaging from the social security system.
At the Alice Springs hearing, several witnesses discussed how some people disengage with the social security system after being subject to compulsory income management.
Mr John Adams, General Manager NT, Jesuit Social Services said:
I think people really struggle engaging with the system generally. A couple of years ago I was working in a demand reduction program around alcohol. Consistently, people who had severe addiction issues with alcohol would have BasicsCards with substantial money on them. They'd lose the card or they wouldn't access it. They didn't deal with Centrelink. There's definitely a problem.
Ms Deborah Di Natale, Chief Executive Officer, Northern Territory Council of Social Service, discussed their ongoing investigations into the numbers of people dropping off income support:
But that's work that NTCOSS are trying to get some evidence around so that we can get some numbers to demonstrate how many people who are eligible for any type of social security payment but are not receiving any, or those that have been breached, and the measures have been very punitive and it's very hard to get back on, and as a result of that, it's all too hard, so they are in fact not receiving any income support at all from government.
Concerns of this nature have also been raised at the current Senate inquiry into the adequacy of Newstart and related payments and alternative mechanisms to determine the level of income support payments in Australia.
The Australian Greens have serious concerns that extension of compulsory income management by the introduction of the Cashless Debit Card in the Northern Territory could see more First Nations peoples disengaging from the social security system due to its punitive and discriminatory nature.
Perverse outcomes of compulsory income management
Many witnesses and submissions discussed the perverse outcomes of compulsory income management that are harming communities and individuals.
There are claims by proponents of compulsory income management that it will stop so-called humbugging, however the evidence that was received indicates that it doesn't and can make it worse.
Ms Sandy Marty, Board Member, MoneyMob Talkabout Limited, spoke about the impact of humbugging on communities:
A lot of young people humbug family for money because they don't work. Because they don't work and have been cut off from Centrelink, they ask for money all the time. If they get cut off from CDP they don't re-engage, so there's no money around. Some of them want money for gunja or grog and get very angry if they don't get it. The situation happens to a lot of people who are aged, have disabilities or mental health issues. The quarantining of welfare payments has not stopped this.
Professor Sven Silburn noted in his submission that welfare restrictions can make humbugging worse:
In the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children dataset, family members who moved from no welfare restrictions to welfare restrictions were almost 100% more likely to report an incident of harassment for money and family arguments (in which children are involved).
Mr David Tennant, Chief Executive Officer, FamilyCare and Accountable Income Management Network, discussed how the Cashless Debit Card could see people disengaging with the banking system:
I think there's a real possibility that a much broader rollout might do really perverse things. It might, for example, reduce the number of people in Australia who are connected to basic transaction accounts. Almost 97½ per cent of our population are banked. We didn't get that way by accident; we got that way by providing a range of services that people can engage with on just terms. This winds that back. If the only choice available to people is to disengage entirely, they might take that choice.
The Cashless Debit Card could impact the viability of small businesses being trialled which are cash based. Mr Liam Flanagan, General Manager Community Services, Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation, discussed the harmful impact on small business:
These incubators are supporting Yolngu entrepreneurs to transition from welfare to small-business ownership, at the same time as bringing new products and services to market within their communities. At this stage, all these businesses are cash based, with the majority currently lacking the sophistication or the economic viability to move to an ecommerce platform to accept the Indue card. This new barrier could impact severely on the viability of these businesses, particularly if the board of director's fear comes to fruition and the amount of money quarantined is increased at a later date.
The Australian Greens share these concerns that the continuation of compulsory income management, especially through the introduction of Cashless Debit Card in the Northern Territory, could have unintended consequences that harm communities.
Government's approach flawed and contradictory
The Australian Greens have strong concerns about the Government's blanket approach towards the transition from compulsory income management to the Cashless Debit Card in the Northern Territory and Cape York.
Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory (APO NT) noted in its submission:
Extending compulsory income management in the NT perpetuates the imposition of a one-size fits all policy on income recipients that largely targets Aboriginal people. It is, in every way, a top-down policy which, in the case of the NT, will be imposed on a significant number of Aboriginal people regardless of their circumstances.
Many witnesses gave evidence about how the Government's imposition of compulsory income management contradicts its commitment to Closing the Gap Refresh.
Mr John Paterson, Chief Executive Officer, Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory, said at the Darwin hearing:
The establishment of the joint council and commitment from all governments to a partnership approach to a renewed closing the gap strategy stands in stark contrast to the government's approach in imposing the cashless debit card on us. This measure is likely to undermine progress on closing the gap.
Dr Josie Douglas, Manager Policy and Research, Central Land Council, said at the Alice Springs hearing:
Time and time again, the Aboriginal residents of the Northern Territory have been subjected to top-down imposed policies. Compulsory income management typifies this approach. It is not consistent with the collaborative and consultative spirit of the next phase of Closing the Gap or the broad reform agenda of the NIAA seeking to return decision-making and control to Aboriginal people across a range of sectors, including health, housing and education.
Ms Liza Balmer, Chief Executive Officer, NPY Women's Council, articulated how the Cashless Debit Card is at odds with the Government's commitment to the Empowered Communities initiative:
We are also one of the key partners in the Empowered Communities initiative in this region, which is very much around the empowerment of Aboriginal people, self-determination, local decision-making, governance, coming up with their own solutions to meet their own needs, which is also very well supported by the Commonwealth government. So I find it interesting that, on the flip side, this very disempowering initiative would also be running in parallel to that.
The Australian Greens share these concerns that the continuation of compulsory income management will undermine the Closing the Gap Refresh process.
One of the Government's supposed aims in the use of compulsory income management is addressing over consumption of alcohol however witnesses point out that this ignores the fact that many remote communities are dry communities.
Ms Havnen, Chief Executive Officer, Danila Dilba Health Service said at the Darwin hearing:
By the way, most remote communities don't have alcohol sales, so it's not like you can go down to the local supermarket and buy a carton of beer or whatever. Only the people who have alcohol permits are able to have access to alcohol. By and large, for people in Central Australia, for example, there are no alcohol outlets, there isn't a licensed club and you don't have takeaway sales. Why are we continuing to manage the money of people who aren't out there doing that stuff?
In addition many witnesses and submitters noted that a reduction in alcohol harm in the Northern Territory can not be linked to compulsory income management but is clearly as a result of other reforms such as the banned drinker register and implementation of the recommendations of the Alcohol Policies and Legislation Review (also known as the Riley Review).
Ms Georgia Stewart, Senior Policy Officer, Central Land Council highlighted the impact of these reforms at the Alice Springs hearing:
In summary, with the combination of the floor price of $1.30, the police auxiliary liquor inspectors—which are not in every site; they're predominantly in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and, I think, now Katherine, but not Darwin—and the reintroduction of the banned drinkers register, there is a 26 per cent decrease in alcohol related assaults in the Northern Territory; a 21 per cent decrease overall in domestic violence incidence in the Northern Territory; a 43 per cent reduction in alcohol related assaults and a 38 per cent reduction in domestic violence in Alice Springs.
This Government ignores this evidence.
Inadequate consultation with First Nations communities
Both in the submissions and at the hearings, an overwhelming number of witnesses from across the Northern Territory were critical of the lack of consultation over the rollout of the Cashless Debit Card and noted they were not consulted on the Bill. The Australian Greens have strong concerns about the lack of consultation and the absence of free, prior and informed consent of First Nations peoples, who will be disproportionately impacted by this Bill.
At the Darwin hearing, Ms Clara Mills, Managing Civil Solicitor, North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency said:
In brief, the bill is a major legislative decision that imposes significant restrictions on at least 22 and a half thousand individuals in the Northern Territory. Given this, it is deeply concerning that it has been rushed through parliament without a strong evidence base and without proper consultation.
APO NT said in their submission:
The proposal has not been widely discussed nor explained to income recipients across the NT. It is our understanding from briefings with staff from the Department of Social Services, that consultations undertaken focused on the logistics of when and how the changes will be implemented. Many people currently on income management are unlikely to be aware of the planned changes until they are delivered a notification letter or receive a card from Indue.
Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation said they were unable to fully consult with their members in the short timeframes given for the inquiry:
Alongside the lack of evidence there has been little to no consultation undertaken in the Northern Territory to date. ALPA has been unable to fully consult across our membership footprint in the time allotted to prepare this submission. To consult properly in our region means sitting down with individual families and clans, translating words and concepts between languages and dialects.
Dr Douglas, Manager Policy and Research, Central Land Council said at the Alice Springs hearing:
Information sessions or briefings being conducted by DSS staff do not constitute consultation, a lesson that should have been learned by governments long ago. Following this week's meeting of 90 CLC Aboriginal delegates, it is abundantly clear that very few people are aware that the change is coming or understand the details.
The Australian Greens reject the committee view that the Department of Social Services is 'actively engaging with stakeholders'. We are concerned about the fundamental lack of genuine consultation with First Nations communities. The Government's paternalistic approach to income management is further evident through the short inquiry process and absence of hearings in remote communities in Northern Territory or Cape York. This demonstrates the Government is ignoring calls from First Nations peoples for meaningful co-design, self-determination and collaboration on measures that affect their lives.
Previous supporters are now calling for income management to be voluntary
When compulsory income management was initially rolled out in the Northern Territory, Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women's Council supported this approach to address particular issues in the community. However, the NPY Women's Council have now withdrawn their support for compulsory income management and reject the introduction of the Cashless Debit Card in their community.
Ms Liza Balmer, Chief Executive Officer, NPY Women's Council, said at the Alice Springs hearing:
I suppose our primary concern is the mandatory nature of this and the lack of empowerment that creates for people—that they are not able to make their own decisions. In the past, we have certainly supported any voluntary income management, where people can determine that that's what they want and need themselves. We definitely don't support any form of mandatory income management.
Mrs Maimie Bulter, Chairperson, NPY Women's Council, discussed her opposition to the Cashless Debit Card and the lack of consultation:
If this card comes along, it'll just really put us down. We wouldn't know where we're heading. Already it's a shock to us, because we don't know nothing about government changes, you know. We just live along every day, every second day. It's the day—how we live. These changes have been frustrating for us, you know. We just don't know happening to us. What's happening? If this card does come along, it'll take us right back to when our ancestors first walked into the mission and were fed by rations.
The Australian Greens urge the Government to listen to the communities who have lived through compulsory income management and do not support it.
Broader application than existing income management provisions in the Northern Territory
One of the key concerns raised by witnesses and submitters was that this Bill expands income management to a broader number of people in the Northern Territory. Under existing income management provisions, there are different categories with specific eligibility criteria for the BasicsCard. For example, under the Long Term Welfare Recipient category you must have been receiving a Category E payment for at least 52 weeks in a 104 week period.
Under this Bill, there is no restriction based on the time a person has been receiving an income support payment. This means both short and long term income support recipients will be placed onto the Cashless Debit Card.
Accountable Income Management Network said in its submission:
Rather than a person's length of time on social security being a key trigger, it will simply be a question of which category of social security payment they are receiving.
The Australian Greens have concerns that this removes current safeguards in place that target income management in the Northern Territory. Instead, this Bill applies a blanket approach subjecting all people on income support payments to the Cashless Debit Card.
Ministerial discretion to change the amount of income quarantined
This Bill allows the Minister to make a notifiable instrument that increases the amount of income quarantined on the Cashless Debit Card from 50 per cent to 100 per cent. Several submitters expressed their strong opposition to the Minister having such a broad power.
There are concerns from a human rights perspective that this would further restrict access to cash availability through income support payments, which is particularly problematic in remote communities.
Dr Shelley Bielefeld said at the Canberra hearing:
If there was the discretion to put the quarantine portion up to 100 per cent, I think that would be really problematic based on the types of consumer problems that I've mentioned that arise for people. Because then they don't even have a small component of cash to be paying for legitimate expenses in a not quite cashless society that we are living in.
Adrianne Walters, Senior Solicitor, Human Rights Law Centre, said at the Darwin hearing:
Increasing the percentage that is quarantined is a decision to impose an even greater denial of a fundamental freedom, and that's something that should come before the parliament and be rigorously scrutinised by parliament.
The Department of Social Services clarified that increasing the proportion of income quarantined would be considered at the request of the community. However, at the Canberra hearing the Department of Social Services explained they had not done any work around what form this would take nor had they discussed this issue with communities.
This is deeply concerning as under the current system in the existing Cashless Debit Card trial sites, the process for decision making on the percentage quarantined is secretive, lacks transparency and accountability.
The Australian Greens hold significant concerns about the Minister's power to vary the amount of income quarantined to 100 per cent. We note that this provision only applies to the Northern Territory. It further restricts the nature by which First Nations peoples in the Northern Territory can access income support payments and should be removed from the Bill.
The Australian Greens believe that further clarification about the Minister's discretionary powers as recommended by the committee will not go far enough.
Decisions are not reviewable by the Secretary or the Administrative Appeals Tribunal
The Australian Greens have concerns that this Bill removes the ability of the Secretary and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to review certain decisions relating to trial participation.
The Accountable Income Management Network noted in its submission:
In effect, this means that an individual cannot seek a review from the Secretary or the AAT at the time that they are placed on the scheme (for example, because they think that they have been placed on it in error) and will instead need to apply for an exemption or exit to the scheme.
This is highly concerning and appears to be in direct contradiction to procedural fairness afforded to other income support recipients not subject to welfare quarantining. We note that the application of this measure in the Northern Territory will disproportionately target Indigenous peoples, who are well documented to have more trouble accessing exemptions than non-Indigenous participants.
The Human Rights Law Centre noted the removal of this right to review a decision will mean people who are referred to the Cashless Debit Card in error will need to rely on the exemption and exit provisions, which are fraught with difficulties.
The Australian Greens believe the removal of a right to review decisions to place people on the Cashless Debit Card is unjustified and will disproportionately impact First Nations peoples.
Changes to evaluation provisions
This Bill maintains the requirement for any review of the Cashless Debit Card trials to be evaluated. However, it removes the requirement for such an evaluation to be completed within 6 months of the Minister receiving the review and removes the requirement for the evaluation to be conducted by independent experts. It also removes the requirement for the independent experts to consult trial participants.
The Government claims this will 'improve the workability of the evaluation process'. However, it was clear from the inquiry that this will weaken the evaluation process and its independence. The proposed use of desktop evaluations is not appropriate for a trial that has no credible evidence to support its continuation.
Central Australian Aboriginal Congress noted in its submission:
Given the lack of objective evidence about the effects of the CDC trial in Ceduna and the East Kimberly [sic] and its expense, it is worrying that the Bill proposes to reduce the requirements for evaluation to a desktop exercise.
The Australian Greens have serious concerns with the watering down of the evaluation process, especially given the Cashless Debit Card is now being trialled on an additional 23 000 people. The Government has a responsibility to ensure this transition is evaluation independently and rigorously.
Broadening of information sharing powers
This Bill provides the Secretary with additional powers to obtain information and documentation to determine whether a person should or should not be a trial participant. The Australian Greens echo the concerns of submitters about the breadth of information sharing powers under these new provisions. The fact that personal information can be shared between federal governments, state and territory governments and community panels has serious implications on a person's right to privacy.
No support from the Northern Territory Government
The Northern Territory Government does not support the introduction of the Cashless Debit Card in the Northern Territory:
The Northern Territory Government does not support the roll out of Cashless Debit Card in the Northern Territory unless it is a voluntary scheme or unless it is consistent with existing Northern Territory Government policies and legislation whereby an individual is referred to the program by a court or an authorised practitioner.
Compulsory income management has been trialled in the Northern Territory for 12 long years, it has not reduced social harm, it has not reduced disadvantage, the evaluation of the approach showed it met none of its objectives. It has in fact caused harm and distress to many. The continuation of compulsory income management through the introduction of the Cashless Debit Card is not supported by the evidence, is not supported by the community and will cause further distress and potential harm. It is time that compulsory income management was abandoned.
The Australian Greens recommend that the Bill not be passed.