The Guardian • Issue #1989

The cashless debit card – a “public whip”

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #1989
Debit card

What is a cashless “welfare” card? The cashless card, known colloquially as the “white card,” was a top-down policy developed by mining businessman Andrew Forrest as part of his 2014 review of Indigenous jobs and training. The Australian government commenced cashless debit card trials in Kununurra/Wyndham WA and Ceduna SA in early 2016.

The cashless welfare card program now applies to people who receive a working age welfare payment and is currently in operation in the Ceduna region, South Australia, the East Kimberley and the Goldfields regions, Western Australia, the Cape York, Doomadgee, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay regions, Queensland, and in the Northern Territory.

There is growing concern that the Morrison government, if it wins the next election, will extend this card to all pensioners. We raise this issue because, while the Morrison government publicly rejects the idea that they will extend the cashless credit card to all pension recipients, Minister for Social Services Ann Ruston has been quoted in the media as saying that she wants the cashless debit card to become a “more universal platform,” as reported by The Sydney Morning Herald, on 1st February 2020.

It is worth noting that John Howard, when he was re-elected leader of the Liberal Party in 1995, pledged to “never, ever” introduce a GST; however, he led the Liberal-National Coalition to a large victory in the 1996 federal election and introduced a GST in 1999.

Investigations show that the administration of the cashless “welfare” card currently in use was farmed out to a private company called Indue Ltd and costs $10,000 per person on the card and is costing taxpayers $18.9 million over its two-year period.

While this in itself is disgraceful, it should be noted that what is even more disgraceful is that the card’s extension after its initial trial was rejected by 37 major welfare organisations as being “unacceptable and discriminatory.” The St Vincent de Paul Society said it does not support the cashless debit card (September 2016):

“There is no evidence that it improves the wellbeing of individuals or communities, either by reducing substance abuse or by increasing employment outcomes. The cashless debit card carries a high risk of unintended and expensive consequences for government and the community, including social exclusion and stigmatisation, increased financial hardship, the erosion of individual autonomy and dignity and an increase in the overall cost of social security provision.”

Following the release of the Forrest Review, ACOSS and more than thirty community organisations, including many leading national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, urged the government not to proceed with the implementation of this recommendation. Yet those calls have fallen on deaf ears.

The welfare card, modelled on the Basics Card, is used to manage the income of people in disadvantaged communities and locations around Australia. This scheme of income management has failed to effect long-term changes in behaviour or outcomes, despite the high cost of the policy. Its introduction was supposed to run alongside new health, education, and housing services, but of course this did not occur.

Senator Pat Dodson has described the cashless welfare card as a ‘public whip’ designed to control Indigenous people and said the federal government should focus on holistic solutions to problems of alcohol, drug addiction and violence in remote communities.

Associate Professor Ruth Phillips, social policy expert from University of Sydney, argues the program should be scrapped altogether. She claims: “it is anti-welfare, punitive, costly and ineffective” (University of Sydney, 14th December 2020).

This government, and indeed most politicians generally, are totally isolated from community needs, blanketed as they are in the Canberra bubble, on incomes most can only imagine. If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we cannot rely on elected representatives to resolve our crisis, but community coming together to demand a new deal will change our world.

The Beacon

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