Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Opposition mounts to Abbott Government's Cashless Welfare Card

Greens Senator Rachel Siewart has made clear her party's opposition to the Abbott Government proposal to introduce a cashless Welfare Card for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Her media release is below.

Legislation for a 12 month trial of  the Welfare Card in a number of locations will be introduced into Parliament this week, but can only pass with the support of Labor or at least 6 crossbench senators.

The idea for the Welfare Card was originally proposed by philanthrocapitalist and mining billionaire Andrew Forrest who recommended a cashless welfare card for all working-age Centrelink clients in his 2014 review of Aboriginal employment.

The Welfare Card aims to prevent welfare recipients gambling or buying alcohol or drugs. The intention is that the card will apply to every adult  who happens to be on welfare. It is promoted as a way to stop alcohol fuelled violence and abuse of women and children.

There are two distinct elements to the proposed Welfare Card.  Firstly, the introduction of a cashless welfare payments system, and secondly, the implementation of universal restrictions on the spending of those welfare payments (including the inability to withdraw cash).

In the trial sites the card will target Indigenous and non-indigenous people and veterans, aged pensioners and others will be able to opt into the card should they choose to do so. 

In the trial sites 80 per cent of all welfare payments will be placed onto the cashless debit card and the remaining 20 per cent will go into an ordinary cash account.

However, as Eva Cox has shown there is no evidence such programs work.  She argues that such programs start with the wrong assumptions, that the spending of income recipients is the problem.

Cox argues that they can undermine recipients’ capacities to make their own choices, costs a lot per person to administer, which could be better spent on other services, reduce the focus on external problems (such as job seekers greatly outnumbering jobs and employers' prejudices affecting work prospects) and blames the most vulnerable and reinforces hostile public views

An independent evaluation of the Northern Territory Income Management Program concluded:

The evaluation could not find any substantive evidence of the program having significant changes relative to its key policy objectives, including changing people’s behaviours.

More general measures of wellbeing at the community level show no evidence of improvement, including for children.

The evaluation found that, rather than building capacity and independence, for many the program has acted to make people more dependent on welfare.

Unsurprisingly, there is division among Aboriginal leaders, with some supporting the proposal and others opposed to it.

ACOSS's statement opposing the Welfare Card is here.

Critiques of the Welfare Card proposal are here, here, here, here and here.

Christopher Chew from Monash University analyses the proposal from an ethical perspective and concludes:

In summary, it seems that the proposal for a Healthy Welfare Card is disproportionately paternalistic, rests on controversial and elitist assumptions about welfare recipients and the nature of welfare system, and will only serve to infantilise and alienate an already vulnerable part of the Australian community. It is most certainly not empowering, will not give people complete freedom and will certainly not end paternalism. Perhaps the intent of this amazing doublethink is that “welfare recipients” will become as demonised as the ‘illegal boat people’ of election campaigns past.

The proponent of the card, Andrew Forrest has contributed to this important social policy debate by dismissing anyone who critiques the proposal  as 'useless “hand wringers and pontificators'.


Extract from media statement by Senator Rachel Siewart

"I urge the Labor party to be genuine opposition when it comes to voting on legislation that will seek to rollout the healthy welfare card trials.

“It is incomprehensible that a paternalistic thought bubble by a billionaire could materialise with the support of the Labor party, rolling out as early as next year.
80% of someone’s income support forcibly quarantined to a card will make life remarkably harder for this already struggling group.

“Limiting access to cash will severely restrict the ability to budget and decision making. Whether it be at the markets, lunch money for their kids, or a bus fare – all these things add up and may not be available via card payment. 

"Most importantly people have spoken of being made to feel like second class citizens when talking about their independence and dignity.

“We know that paternalistic top down measures do not work. Income management has not worked. We know from evaluations that income management hasn’t delivered results. The healthy welfare card is just a continuation of this approach.
“The Government should focus its energies on a range of measures and wrap around supports; just restricting spending and access to cash doesn’t address the underlying causes and people will find other ways to buy alcohol and money for gambling.

“The Government and it appears the Opposition are desperately supporting silver bullet measures, these are complex issues that need to be addressed.

“The Australian Greens will not be supporting the healthy welfare card in the House of Representatives or the Senate. We will move to send this measure through to a Community Affairs inquiry so that it can be further scrutinised.

“We must abandon top down approaches that have failed in the past and will fail again. We must work closely with community members to address disadvantage."