Matt O’Sullivan: Abolishing cashless debit card will cause more harm in Indigenous communities

Matt O’Sullivan | The West Australian

How have we found ourselves in this position where Parliament is about to abolish the cashless debit card, a tool that is helping communities deal with alcohol, drug or gambling-fuelled violence and neglect?

The CDC functions much like the millions of debit cards in circulation in Australia which can be used to make purchases anywhere where VISA or EFTPOS are accepted.

The income management tool quarantines between 50 and 80 per cent of welfare payments and uses a range of controls to prevent the sale of restricted items. Restrictions apply to purchases of alcohol or gambling products and the withdrawal of cash.

By running on the VISA platform, the cashless debit card has moved with payment system developments and is widely accepted by merchants; it can also be used on phones through Apple Pay or Google Pay and for online purchases.

The controls on the card mean that communities are afforded greater protection from violence and harm that stems from alcohol, gambling, and drug abuse, while still having the freedom to decide where and how they want to spend their welfare payments.

So why does the Labor Party have this obsession with repealing the cashless debit card while consigning thousands of welfare recipients to the BasicsCard, a clunky and outdated product reliant on inferior and expensive technology?

Unlike the ubiquitous VISA platform that the cashless debit card runs on, the BasicsCard is based on a bespoke payment platform. It is expensive to maintain and is accepted by only a fraction of merchants compared to the cashless debit card — a significant impediment to cardholders.

The shameful answer is that in the lead-up to the recent Federal election, Labor ran an atrocious scare campaign based on a lie that the Coalition would put aged pensioners onto the cashless debit card. This lie was exposed multiple times, yet Labor was not deterred from preying upon the elderly. To exploit any political advantage from their scare campaign, they had to demonise the cashless debit card as a whole and position it as a paternalistic imposition on the community.

The cashless debit card was introduced in 2015 as part of a suite of measures to help people improve their circumstances, including more than $110 million to fund local support services in communities aimed at helping people to up-skill, become job ready and embark on pathways to employment.

It was implemented across communities that supported it and requested it, and that support is still there today. A recent Senate inquiry into the Government’s abolition of the cashless debit card learned how in 2022 alone, 70 people in Kalgoorlie-Boulder moved off welfare and into direct employment.

Independent research released in 2017 found that the cashless debit card has had a “considerable positive impact” in Ceduna and East Kimberley, with 41 per cent of participants who drank frequently reported drinking less. And 48 per cent of those surveyed who used drugs reported using drugs less frequently and 48 per cent of those who gambled before the trial now gambled less frequently.

An independent impact evaluation by the University of Adelaide in 2021 found that 45 per cent of cashless debit card participants reported that it had helped improve their families’ circumstances.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders in Laverton and Kalgoorlie-Boulder have said repeatedly that the card has lessened the alcohol-fuelled chaos and improved the lives of children in the community.

Cape York Institute founder Noel Pearson has told Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth that Labor’s decision to repeal the cashless debit card would ruin two decades of progress and reforms in Cape York, where the card is used to help troubled welfare recipients manage their income and get their lives back on track.

Their cries are falling on deaf ears.

The Government’s price for exploiting the lie that the Coalition would put aged pensioners on the card is to sell out the communities that are truly benefiting from the cashless debit card.

Repealing the card will make it easier for those at risk to spend their taxpayer-funded payments on activities and substances that cause harm to themselves, harm to their families, and harm to their communities.

The Albanese Government will be responsible for every additional violent crime and neglected child that will inevitably occur as a result.

Matt O’Sullivan is a Liberal Senator for WA.