March 24th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Media ensure a comfy rise for Bill Shorten

CANBERRA OBSERVED Can Liberals' broad church survive schism?

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Middle-East time bomb: youth unemployment

ENVIRONMENT Europe's freeze further proof of global warming!

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cashless debit card records positive results

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Liberals' Tasmanian victory: the implications

OPINION The height of absurdity: education as business

ECONOMICS AND CHINA Eyes averted from the dragon in the marketplace

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM The state attacking the Church: lessons from history

FAMILY POLITICS A Trojan horse for monitoring children

NORTH AMERICA The cultural and political mosaic that is Canada

CINEMA Mary Magdalene on film: a new interpretation

MUSIC Audio-visual: or, how to watch your music

CINEMA The Adventures of Tintin: A light amid the bleakness

BOOK REVIEW Taking arms against the gender fluid fad

BOOK REVIEW Narrative history from a great writer



INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Sexual exploitation at Oxfam symptom of culture of death

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Cashless debit card records positive results

by Chris McCormack

News Weekly, March 24, 2018

The recent reports of a Tennant Creek toddler who had been raped being placed back into the care of her abusers, known to be heavy drinkers,[1] and of underage Aboriginal girls contracting syphilis at 60 times the rate of non-Aborigines,[2] highlight the necessity of curbing alcohol and drug abuse in remote indigenous communities.

The Federal Government’s cashless debit card (CDC) aims to curb alcoholism, gambling, violence (sexual or otherwise) and neglect.

Under the scheme, indigenous and non-indigenous welfare recipients in certain communities, with some exceptions including aged pensioners and veterans, receive 80 per cent of their welfare payment on a debit card. The card can be used to buy anything except alcohol or engage in gambling. Thus it differs from the Basics Card of income management used in the Northern Territory and certain areas of all states except Tasmania, which worked only at registered venues and saw direct government control over how welfare was spent.

The CDC works anywhere there are eftpos facilities, excluding businesses that primarily sell takeaway alcohol or gambling products, and it cannot be used to withdraw cash. The remaining 20 per cent of the welfare payment is paid directly into the recipient’s usual bank account. The total amount of the welfare payment remains unchanged.[3]

The CDC trial began in March 2016 in the East Kimberley, Western Australia, and Ceduna, South Australia.

ORIMA Research was commissioned to make an independent evaluation in three stages of the card’s effectiveness. It concluded in September 2017 that the trial in the East Kimberley and Ceduna region “has been effective in reducing alcohol consumption and gambling in both trial sites and [is] also suggestive of a reduction in the use of illegal drugs”. It added: “There is some evidence that there has been a consequential reduction in violence and harm related to alcohol consumption, illegal drug use and gambling.”[4]

Speaking to The Australian newspaper, head of the Wunan Aboriginal development organisation Ian Trust said that in Kununurra “[t]hings had got too bad to just tinker around the edges; you only have to look at the suicides, the number of children born with foetal-alcohol disease, the rates of domestic violence, alcoholism and child neglect to see that life is not normal here”. He welcomed the introduction of the CDC after pleading with the Federal Government to introduce welfare cash controls.[5]

Among those on the ground in affected indigenous communities, there is majority support for the card. Mr Trust admits that a third of welfare recipients are opposed to the CDC because they see it as paternalistic and controlling, but he maintains that in Kununurra there is more fresh food, hardware, furniture, and so on being sold and less violence and alcohol abuse in public places.

In Wyndham, Aboriginal leader Jean O’Reeri reiterated the positive effects of the CDC saying there was no fighting or drunkenness, truancy was down and supermarket spending up.[6]

The charge of paternalism is a moot point as the CDC applies to indigenous and non-indigenous welfare recipients alike and will soon be introduced in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, predominantly non-indigenous communities.

Foundation chairwoman in Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne Marcia Langton argued in an article for The Conversation in May last year that those who say the CDC causes social and economic harm are “simply wrong”. Rather, it tackles the problem of welfare being a systemic enabler of illicit drug use, alcohol abuse and free-range gambling, with the resultant low life expectancy of Aboriginal people.

She maintains that women and children are most at risk from the abuse of social security dependence and that “[i]f welfare exists as a safety net, it should not be an enabler of harmful alcohol and drug use that contributes to high rates of violence and abuse, and traps people in poverty”.

The CDC trial has yielded mixed, though mainly positive, results, but its reliance on self-reporting means further investigation is required before any definitive conclusion can be reached.[7]

The Senate Inquiry into the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015 heard from the Ceduna Aboriginal Corporation that in the period 2013–14 there were over 500 admissions to the Ceduna Hospital Emergency Department attributed to alcohol and drug use, including assault, and 4,667 admissions to the Sobering-Up Shelter, a rate of alcohol-related assault that is 68 times the national average.

Greg Franks, chief executive of the Yalata Community, told the committee: “People in the community are fed up with alcohol harm, family violence, kids not attending school. There is so much harm within our communities that we have to do something.”[8]

The committee also heard that the rate of reported incidents of family violence in the East Kimberley affected 10 per cent of the population. There were high rates of child abuse and neglect, the suicide rate was nearly seven times the national average, and the hospitalisation rate for assault in Kununurra was 68 times higher than the national average.[9]

Wunan Foundation’s Mr Trust told the committee: “The people who are suffering the most in all of this are the children. They tell us they are on the street in the first place because they do not want to go home because it is unsafe there. There are parties going on during the week and all sorts of things are happening there, so a lot of these kids do not want to go home. It is a situation that we just cannot allow to continue.”[10]

Ultimately, governments have the right to impose conditions upon anyone receiving taxpayer dollars in the form of welfare payments where endemic abuse is evident, in the hope of eliminating it. Taxpayers rightly demand accountability, knowing that welfare payments are being spent building communities rather than destroying them.


[1] Amos Aikman, “Raped girl could be returned to ‘abuse home’ ”, The Australian, February 22, 2018.

[2] Amos Aikman, “Protection agencies swamped by ‘tsunami’ of sex abuse”, The Australian, March 5, 2018.

[3] Cashless debit card, Families and Children, Australian Government-Department of Social Services.

[4] Cashless debit card: Evaluation, Families and Children, Australian Government-Department of Social Services.

[5] Sue Neales, “Local indigenous leaders back cashless welfare card trial”, The Australian, October 2, 2017.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Marcia Langton, “The Cashless Debit Card Trial is working and it is vital – here’s why”, The Conversation, May 4, 2017.

[8] Report, Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Bill 2015 [Provisions], chapter 2: “Key issues”, p6.

[9] Ibid. p8.

[10] Ibid. p9.

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