The Coalition government is rolling out the cashless debit card across Bundaberg and Hervey Bay in Queensland this week to address the issues of intergenerational welfare dependency and high youth unemployment.
The card is an integral reform for this region. It was selected for Bundaberg and Hervey Bay following calls for its implementation from key stakeholders.
It was a visit to the Goldfields region of Western Australia late last year that demonstrated to me why the cashless debit card is such an important reform to our welfare system.
In one town police told me the number of call-outs for domestic violence had dramatically reduced since the card had been introduced, and staff from the local medical clinic said they were seeing significantly fewer presentations from domestic violence.
A chemist said that parents were coming into his shop to buy medicines for their children because they now had the money to do so. I heard senior Aboriginal women and men expressing their support; one told me, ‘this is important for our people.’
A social worker said some people supported by the service she works for were now able to save money for the first time. And people repeatedly commented that their town felt safer, there was less public drunkenness and the streets were quieter at night.
The cashless debit card has operated since March 2016. Today it is being used in three locations — Ceduna, East Kimberley and the West Australian Goldfields — with some 5400 welfare recipients taking part.
A total of 80 per cent of your benefits are paid on to this EFTPOS-like card, which can be used to buy the necessities of life — but cannot be used to buy alcohol or drugs, or to gamble.
It is a powerful and practical tool to fight the scourge of welfare-funded drug and alcohol dependency — and it means that welfare money goes to pay the rent and put food on the table rather being handed across to grog sellers and drug dealers.
The formal assessments are consistent with what I heard on the ground: the cashless debit card is working.
An independent evaluation found the cashless debit card is having a “considerable positive impact”, with 41 per cent of participants who drank alcohol reporting drinking less frequently; and 48 per cent of participants who were drug users saying they now used drugs less often.
The people of Bundaberg and Hervey Bay are now moving on to this successful system.
This will more than double the total number of people on the card — and, as in other locations, it will be the subject of a rigorous independent assessment.
This region was chosen as the fourth trial site because it has high rates of intergenerational welfare dependency and youth unemployment — despite significant local employment opportunities in sectors such as tourism and agriculture.
It also allows the effectiveness of the card to be further tested in an area with some important differences to the three existing sites: it is a regional rather than a remote area, and the population on the card will be 86 per cent non-indigenous, compared with just over half in the Goldfields region.
If the latest trial works out as we expect, it will set a direction towards further positive change in our welfare system.
Of course, if Labor gets into power the cashless debit card is dead. Bill Shorten last week announced that Labor would roll it back.
The Greens have been consistently hostile to the cashless debit card and Labor is joining them.
Winning some votes from wealthy inner-city, left-leaning and Greens voters is apparently more important to Shorten than supporting vulnerable Australians who have been seeing real improvements in their lives.
Labor is moving well to the Left when it comes to welfare policy.
This week’s announcement comes a few days after Labor revealed a plan to greatly weaken mutual obligation requirements applying to jobseekers on Newstart.
The cashless debit card is making life better for thousands of Australians. But it is now clear that at the next election the future of this positive change in welfare policy hangs in the balance.