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Cashless cards stymie self determination



Late last month, with a cheery, ‘I’ll get that in the post to you this afternoon’, the administration official promised to send the hard copy of the Inquiry into the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Continuation of Cashless Welfare) Bill 2020.

Senator Patrick Dodson and Senator Malarndirri McCarthy arrive in the Senate (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

What is contained in the document of course is anything but cheery to those for whom the legislation is intended. It’s the latest push of the federal government to make permanent that which their rulers believe is best for the lower classes, in particular, the First Nations lower classes.

I guess it’s an aside but it seems puzzling that the adherents of opposition to state control of public services like our railways and telecommunications, at the other extreme are nevertheless proponents of minute state control of day-to-day affairs of individual citizens in the system of Income Management (IM).

Surely it’s shameful to the rest of us in our nation that we keep heaping burdens on those whose life is already so burdensome. As a Ceduna SA Aboriginal person framed the whole of the Income Management scheme: ‘We’re starting to feel like we’re back in the ration days when white people managed our lives and everything else and treated us like children. It’s the same now. We’re treated like children and so we can’t make decisions for ourselves. We’re moving backwards, not forwards.’

The stages so far of Australia’s IM regime stretch from 2007 under both Coalition and Labor governments.

Stage one was BasicCards for over 25,000 people originally as part of the Northern Territory Intervention. Stage two was BasicCards for the six chosen nationwide ‘Other Areas’. Stage three was Cashless Cards to the Ceduna region that is Ceduna/ Yalata Aboriginal Aboriginal Community/ Oak Valley Aboriginal Community (Maralinga Lands) and to the East Kimberley region. Later to the WA Goldfields and lastly Bundaberg and Hervey Bay QLD. All areas with high percentages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Stage 4 is the present CDC bill, which as the Greens dissenting report well summarises: ‘seeks to permanently entrench compulsory income management in the form of the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) as part of Australia’s social security system.’


'Both First Nations Senators are the signatories on Labor's Dissenting Report to the current bill. There is much to dissent about.'


Reading the government controlled Senate Committee recommendations regarding the current bill and then the dissenting reports is like reading about two parallel universes. In the former, the emphasis, while quoting various submissions, including from the some thirteen major submitting Aboriginal organisations, seems focussed primarily on fixing the technical problems of the process raised. This is not the point!

There are, as well, a few glowing reports of individual Aboriginal people made-good under present Income Management schemes. No mystery there however when footnotes reveal a number of these were from the Minderoo Foundation of billionaire miner Andrew Forrest. This is the man on whose recommendation to the Abbott government, the whole scheme of the already established BasicsCards of Stage 1 was moved along to Stages 2 and 3 of Cashless Cards in other Australian jurisdictions.  

In contrast, the comments of people on IM given voice in our Josephite SA Reconciliation Circle submission, make shameful reading. Firstly, there’s the inconvenience and waste, the frustration of the interference:

‘If you’ve got cash you can make better choices and get second-hand things instead of brand new expensive things. We used to be able to save more money when we had more cash and could buy more cheaply.’

‘There’s no cash money for going on ceremony for cultural business. We need food and other things for that, but we can’t pay for these things without cash.’

‘Because people are desperate, some people have been swopping the Cards for cash. Once they’ve used up their cash amount and are desperate for more cash, they sell their Card to someone for cash that’s less than the value on the Card.’

Then there’s the inequality:

‘We want to make our own choices and not be treated like children.’

‘This is another way of government controlling Aboriginal people; controlling their economic circumstances.’

‘The Card’s no good and it doesn’t help. It’s degrading us down and people have no hope.They feel hopeless. They’re not happy. They’re stressed because of the Card.’

It’s obvious with the addition to Labor’s ranks of Aboriginal Parliamentarians, including the Territorian Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and Broome based Senator Pat Dodson, that understanding of First Nations issues has undergone that required shift from the Rudd/Gillard era, which included the astonishing ten year extension to the NT Intervention including the BasicsCard.

Both First Nations Senators are the signatories on Labor’s Dissenting Report to the current Bill. There is much to dissent about. They quote Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT summary: ‘Our perspective on the cashless debit card, from the enormous consultation we’ve had with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, is that they don’t want it, hence we are calling on the Senate not to support this bill.’

In particular, 1.19 of Labor’s report notes, ‘Labor Senators are also incredibly disappointed that the Government’s insistence on this bill is counter to the Prime Minister’s partnership approach to Closing the Gap.’ Professor Jon Altman’s submission adds ‘with the ink hardly dry on the paper.’


'Once again, with Labor and the Greens opposing another federal bill attempting to be rushed through at this December stage of the year — before already commissioned evidence is publicly released — the CDC’s bill fate depends on the other five crossbench Senators.'


Regarding the government budget for these proposed changes to NT Communities (as well as a different scheme of things for Cape York not discussed here), once again money appears to be no object. $12.3m is named but just for support services. One can only imagine the actual costs of production and delivery — as the Greens note, conveniently unrevealed as ‘commercial in confidence’ agreements to Indue and other private companies.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders currently make up 3.3 per cent of Australia’s population. No surprise to anyone knowing the history of these last thirteen years of government concerning Income Management in Australia is the concluding sentence of Senators McCarthy and Dodson in Labor’s dissenting report: ‘Around 68 per cent of the people impacted by the restrictions and controls of this bill are First Nations Australians. Labor Senators believe this makes the bill racially discriminatory.’

Once again, with Labor and the Greens opposing another federal bill attempting to be rushed through at this December stage of the year — before already commissioned evidence is publicly released — the CDC’s bill fate depends on the other five crossbench Senators.

What is the solution? Many of the submitting thirteen key Aboriginal organisations including the Aboriginal Peak Oganisations NT offered many solutions based on genuine consultation with people. On 28th November another Parliamentarian, the NT’s Yingiya Mark Guyala MLA summarised: ‘...We say Yaka Cashless Card for the NT! … What we need is action on remote housing, culturally relevant education and better resourcing for economic opportunities on country — not more Intervention style policy from Canberra or Darwin that doesn’t include us in the conversation. Give us real Self-Determination!’



Michele MadiganMichele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent over 40 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of SA, in Adelaide and in country SA. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their successful 1998-2004 campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.

Main image: Senator Patrick Dodson and Senator Malarndirri McCarthy arrive in the Senate (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Michele Madigan, income management, cashless cards, First Nations, bill



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Existing comments

Many thanks Michele for your thorough expose of this discriminatory and punitive measure that is costly, ineffective, possibly damaging, and as recent research has shown potentially illegal - see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/02/the-cashless-debit-card-could-be-another-robodebt-style-fiasco. It is important that readers of Eureka Street recognise the forces that are being marshalled to support the cashless debit card (originally called the healthy welfare card) that Andrew Forrest recommended in 2014 - a quick glimpse at the Minderoo Foundation site shows that Forrest's Foundation employs about 150 people, with no evidence that the rationale for turning a trial with little evidence of success into a permanent program is being seriously considered. The income management social engineering experiment being applied to 45,000 Australian citizens, most Indigenous, most living remotely, needs to stop in the name of equality of all income support recipients in law.

Jon Altman | 03 December 2020  

Another name for cashless cards?: chains.

AO | 03 December 2020  

Thanks so much for this thorough and informative piece Michele. Your comment about the privatising of major services in contrast to the vice-like grip on people's personal finances is spot on. The blinkered ideology of small bureaucrats..... I really value your work Michele - thanks heaps.

Susan Connelly | 04 December 2020  

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a worth - Immanuel Kant. From Kevin Brophy's "From the Book of Examples": You have made such a perfect example of me,/I should not have given birth to this baby/in your custody, for now I must accept/imprisonment that is good for you/only for as long as it does not end for me.

Pam | 04 December 2020  

Thank you again Michele for keeping the pot boiling. The persistence of this unjust scheme needs our persistent attention. I mentioned it during the week to a women’s craft group in reference to the movement of people away from these fenceless compounds.

Kay McPadden | 05 December 2020  

I had to think carefully about this article; the writer has engaged a technique of quoting anonymous "somebodies" who appear to reject the card (but not the cash). I can't be sure how many elders who fight to maintain dry camps would agree with the sentiments that fairly clearly seek to free up the welfare payment for alcohol or other goods; I am troubled that the article appears to deliberately avoid mentioning the material items which the cardholder is "desperate" to purchase and necessitates "cash". I did find it an interesting juxtaposition that an advocate felt the need to take up the case for others and their "self-determination"...

ray | 06 December 2020  

a safe, PROVEN, targeted ( = cheaper) form of homegrown Australian Centrelink income management already exists, and was NOT offered in any ''trial'' sites - even just by way of comparison. Why was that? Already here, working discretely, seamlessly meeting all fair trade, privacy, banking and human rights laws and conventions - in ALL local _Australian_ banks and businesses. Voluntary or court ordered, setup in conjunction with accountable and qualified medical professionals, support workers and family to protect at risk, vulnerable - ie acquired brain injury, elderly in care/dementia, Disabled (incl veterans, victims of crime PTSD), substance abuse, child protection etc. There is no need for this imported, costly, retrograde, inhumane and dangerous mining/resource driven Policy, anywhere in Australia.

that jolly jumbuck | 06 December 2020  

The New Liberals (in absolutely no way similar to the Liberals of the LNP regime) have promised once in power to gaol those whose political chicanery has in any degree operated against the benefit and welfare of citizens. The proposals by these hyenas in power to demonise and treat as children via these Cashless Card provisions (profits to their "mates" of course) First Nations peoples - among others - can only be met by gaol. Confiscation of profits - and due compensation to those in any way affected by these patronising provisions. I remember well in the early 1980s watching the episode in "Women of the Sun" - a documentary-like recreation of the ugly McGuiggin fellow - in-charge (my stomach turns over) of the Mission just north of the Murray River called Cummeragunga where the entire mission walked off and crossed the river into Victoria - 1940 I think it was - the power over First Nations people. Disgusting then - Double disgusting now!

Jim KABLE | 08 December 2020  

In the midst of the Senate debate on the CDC legislation today I looked up my article responses on this matter of government intention to make all Cashless Card recipients permanent and NT and Cape York moved from BasicsCards to CC. The necessary word count is always a difficulty in big issues – so much must be left out in a brief article. But to ray Re anonymous somebodies. Sadly people can be unwilling to attach their names to a survey in which they criticise government processes in case there are repercussions. That anonymity must of course be respected. I did add in my accompanying email with article that the quotes were people in the Uniting Church Paper Tracker survey of 2017 in Ceduna SA, with a (Pitjantjatjara) interpreter,( Rose Lester). In enabling some voice to people affected, that is supporting their self determination, our Josephite SA Reconciliation Circle had already quoted some Ceduna area Aboriginal people’s responses – so it’s some of these I included. As Aboriginal people (3.3% of the population) point out and surely as a Gospel imperative it’s up to all of us to speak up when it’s our mainstream culture denying people’s rights.

Michele Madigan | 09 December 2020  

Michele, my apologies, the comment regarding quoted "anonymous somebodies" is perhaps counterproductive; the issue is not their anonymity (per se) but their qualification to protest the card or the Bill; where are they from and are they really affected? Typically, the regional "trial period" has not been appropriately observed with any meaningful findings or statistics so there's little social impact evidence either positive or negative, just some notional, emotional rejections of the CC. I have read the Bill and Ammendments; it is NOT specific to first nation persons, it applies to regions, territories and some other persons who wish to participate...however, the article turns it into a delberate cultural divide (first para) "in particular". Hopefully this next two years of CC will yeild appropriate evidence.

ray | 11 December 2020  

As Australian politician voted for the Cashless Welfare Card, worldwide billionaires added $1 trillion to their wealth while food lines grew and stress targeted more and more vulnerable families. Forbes magazine reported the three richest men are positioned to pay no tax. Elon Musk got $118,500,000,000 richer during the pandemic. Jeff Bezos got $71,400,000,000 richer during the pandemic. Bill Gates got $20,700,000,000 richer during the pandemic. During the debate Australian politicians failed to state how much money Twiggy, Gina, Stokes and other made on the back of access to Indigenous lands. The hypocrisy of the PM’s #Covid catch cry, ‘We are all in this together’ was on display as former politician, Mathias Corman flew around Europe with 8 staff in an Australian taxpayer funded aeroplane to set himself self up with a cushy OECD position in Europe. In contrast some Australians were facing eviction or wondering how to pay their bills. The tiered system of distributing wealth protects the rich, and threatens the poor. All citizens must demand that their elected politician reset Australia’s priorities and tax the rich. Invest in people. Invest in homes. Invest in caring for the most vulnerable. Invest in every person in their electorate, not just the powerful and rich. It seems the politicians selected the voiceless and the powerless for the cashless welfare card. In Australia, those selected for the cashless credit card have limited access to electricity, lack internet connections and English is a second language. Our politicians are paid by taxpayers to represent every single person in the country. Act now before it’s too late.

PBoylan | 12 December 2020  

Thank you for writing the truth directly and eloquently, PBoylan.

AO | 14 December 2020  

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