30 October 2019

The Morrison Government plans to impose a cashless debit card on 23,000 people in the Northern Territory.

Speech to the Senate
18 September 2019

Senator McCARTHY (Northern TerritoryDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (13:22): I rise to talk about this government's plans to impose a cashless debit card on 23,000 people in the Northern Territory. We have a long experience of compulsory income management in the Northern Territory. On 21 June 2007, the Howard government announced a national emergency response to supposedly protect First Nations children in the Northern Territory from sexual abuse and family violence. I was then the member for Arnhem in the Northern Territory government, a seat that represented mainly Indigenous communities. The emergency response or the intervention, as we call it in the Territory was a blunt instrument that slammed into Indigenous communities, demonising and disempowering First Nations people. There was certainly no discussion and no consultation, and overnight First Nations people in the Northern Territory lost control over their lives.

Compulsory income management, the lime-green BasicsCard, was a measure introduced to the Northern Territory under the intervention. It applied to 73 communities in prescribed areas of the Northern Territory, associated outstations and 10 town camp regions. The compulsory income management measure was meant to reduce discretionary disposable income by quarantining 50 per cent of all Australian government income support, family assistance payments and the then CDEP wages for an initial period of 12 months. According to the explanatory memorandum for the relevant bill at that time, the primary aims of income management were to: a) to stem the flow of cash that is expended on substance abuse and gambling; and b) to ensure funds that are provided for the welfare of children are actually expended in this wayand to protect vulnerable people from financial exploitation, including the practice known as, as we call it, humbugging.

The original legislation introducing income management contained provisions that limited the application of the Racial Discrimination Act and other antidiscrimination legislation. The legislation and the intervention generally treated people differently on the ground of race. The overwhelming majority of people subject to income management in the Northern Territory are Indigenous. Twelve years later, even though the BasicsCard provisions were extended to urban, regional and remote areas of the Northern Territory, it is still the case that the majority of Territorians with a BasicsCard are Indigenous. Similarly, the government's proposals to impose a cashless debit card will overwhelmingly affect First Nations people in the Northern Territory.

First Nations Territorians are still dealing with the ramifications of the intervention, and it is really important that the Senate and the House of Representatives are very aware of the concerns that are emerging in the Northern Territory around the whole debate with the cashless debit card. It is quite difficult to describe the impact, because it happened well over a decade ago. As I said, I was a member of the Northern Territory parliament. I was the member for Arnhem and as a parliamentarian I certainly felt powerless and voiceless at the time, as the Howard government rolled out these measures. If we in the Northern Territory parliament at the time felt disempowered, just imagine how the First Nations people and constituencies felt. In rolling out the intervention, the government had control over the smallest decisions that people could make. The Army, certainly, came into communities. People were scaredthey were worried their children were going to be taken away again and men, in particular, were demonised as paedophiles. It was scarring, it was debilitating, and the end result only seemed to be an increase in dysfunction and disconnection in remote communities.

Senators, when you take away people's ability to make decisions about their lives, to look after their families' interests, to govern their communities and to decide what to spend their money on, it has a deeply profound effect. Remember, compulsory income management doesn't exist in isolation. It's part of a system that now includes CDP, the Community Development Program, and that is designed to disempower First Nations people. Whether we like to hear it or not, that is the reality on the ground. And disempowerment leads to anger and, often, to hopelessness. To impose a new system of compulsory income management across the Territory on people who've already been subject to this experiment is going to reveal, as we travel across the Territory, the real depths of how people feel. It is important that our committee, the Community Affairs References Committee, is going to travel to listen to the concerns that people are going to raise.

The majority of people affected by this change, approximately 79 per cent, will be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander income support recipients. So I'm sharing with the Senate that, after 12 years of having the system under the Northern Territory Emergency Response, or intervention, imposed in the Northern Territory, there is little evidence that compulsory income management results in widespread or long-term benefit. That evidence is not only academic; we will certainly hear it anecdotally, and it's something I see consistently in my work across the Territory.

I've been hearing from many Territorians since the government flagged that it wants to introduce a cashless debit card. They're certainly very angry that they've not been consulted. As I've pointed out to them, our committee will be travelling to, certainly, the Northern Territory at this particular point in time to hear from them, and I do urge people across Australia to make sure they put in their submissions to our inquiry. But that anger is there, as is the realisation that they do want to be heard and not only heard, but to have their concerns legitimately followed through on.

The Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory CEO, John Paterson, said, 'The cashless card proposal makes a mockery of government rhetoric around Aboriginal controlled decision-making.' Mr Paterson said: "This feels like the Howard era Intervention all over again This directly opposes recent commitments by the Federal Government and COAG to work with us in partnership on Closing the Gap."

But I reiterate that, whilst I certainly know those concerns are out there, it is important that our committee hears quite clearly from everyone.

The Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation, a strong Aboriginal controlled organisation with successful enterprises under its umbrella, are very concerned by the negative effect it will have on Yolngu communities. Keith Lapulung of Milingimbi, who's the director of the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation, or ALPA, said of the card: It will add to the negative effects of the Intervention in our communities, not only taking away peoples control over their lives but by making it harder for small Indigenous businesses who may not be able to accept the card to survive.

Again, this historical context is going to be quite critical to our committee as we travel. ALPA have direct experience with a system that actually works. The ALPA FOODcard is a voluntary family budgeting tool. Customers can choose to have money paid into the FOODcard card at any time and then spend that money over the remainder of the pay cycle on a selected range of food and household essentials. Why do I mention this? Because the FOODcard assists by voluntarily protecting money that people want to put aside for food, away from the pressures from other, non-essential expenditure. It is a system that is working, it is voluntary, and, most importantly, it was developed on community, by community, as a solution to some of the issues they identified.

I certainly ask the government to take a new approach. Listen to First Nations people and communities in the Territory who have innovative ideas and solutions to these issues. If a community genuinely wants to use this cashless debit card, they should be properly consulted with and provided with the necessary supports. Labor are not opposed to income management in all circumstances, but we're opposed to the broad based compulsory programs that ensnare and disempower all people.

LINK:Full Hansard transcript