A remote West Australian town is pleading for an emergency contingent of police officers and paramedics in anticipation of a surge in violence when thousands of local residents are taken off the scrapped cashless debit card by the Albanese government as early as September. Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders in Laverton, one of the debit card’s main trial sites in WA’s northern goldfields, have said the card has ensured children have been fed and clothed, and they fear what will happen when the scheme officially ends. Laverton shire president Patrick Hill said the town, a 10-hour drive northeast of Perth with a population of 1300, had been brought to its knees by alcohol abuse in the years before locals opted to support a trial of the cashless debit card in March 2018.

Labor’s bill to abolish the card could pass within weeks and Mr Hill has implored Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth and WA Premier Mark McGowan to help his community. “We had the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) here constantly to pick up Domestic Violence victims, kids were not being looked after and not going to school, and you know it’s bad when the ambulance needs a police escort to go to incidents,” Mr Hill said.  “We wanted to explain all that to the government before they took the card away because it’s the only thing in 30 years that has made any difference.” Mr Hill has told the state Labor government that Laverton will need an influx of frontline workers to cope with the return to 100% cash welfare payments. “We are going to need more of those people; police, paramedics, hospital workers,” he said.

Wongatha elder Janice Scott, who established a residents group in Laverton in 2016 out of concern for the welfare of local children, said the cashless debit card was not perfect but it had made a difference in Laverton. “The biggest difference was for the kids. Suddenly they had food, they had clothing,” she said. “People used to throw rocks on my roof in the middle of the night saying ‘I’m hungry’ and that stopped. They had food at home.” Ms Scott, who has cared for up to 10 children at once at her Laverton home, agreed that some people had found loopholes for the cashless debit card by overpaying for items then getting cash back, or by getting family to buy them alcohol and paying them back by letting them use their cashless card to buy groceries. However, Ms Scott said the card did “slow people down”.

Indigenous man Marty Seelander, chief executive of Laverton’s Paakanu Aboriginal Corporation, said his organisation wanted the card and it had “put things on an even keel in town”. “What you don’t see anymore is the gambling, where people are sitting around playing cards with cash. That finished,” he said. “Families don’t use the food program at the school as much. They are buying groceries. “And people with serious drinking problems are getting really drunk once a fortnight, not three or four times a fortnight like they used to.” Ms Rishworth is seeking the views of communities where the cashless debit card is operating and has said she wants to know what income management they want in their towns. Her assistant minister Justine Elliot is due to travel to the goldfields to meet Mr Seelander, Ms Scott and other Laverton residents soon.

“I will be telling her the truth. They need to replace it with some kind of basics card where they can’t transfer money over for alcohol and drugs,” Ms Scott said. “A lot of people didn’t like it. They were in uproar about that but it worked, it did work to a certain extent. “What they did wrong was they didn’t put in the support services they promised. The mental health support, the help for people drying out, it never came.” Mr Seelander said he would tell Ms Elliot: “If you take the card away you have to replace it with some sort of mechanism that has a similar effect. “I am going to tell her what the card has done for our town. It has really, really balanced things out for us,” he added. Ms Rishworth pointed to a series of reports that failed to quantify benefits of the cashless debit card since it was first introduced at Ceduna in South Australia in March 2016.

It was later rolled out to the east Kimberley, the WA goldfields, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, Cape York and the Northern Territory. The trials cost $170m. People on the card can withdraw a maximum 20% of their Centrelink payments as cash. The rest can be used only to make purchases from business that are not bars, bottle shops or casinos. “There has been no evidence whatsoever that the card itself made a difference to alcohol misuse. We’ve got to remember, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve ever touched a drop of alcohol. If you were on a government payment and under the age of 35, in some areas you were forced to go on this card,” Ms Rishworth said. Labor’s bill to abolish the cashless debit card program is before the Senate. Ms Rishworth said that if this legislation was passed, participants in this program would be able to leave the cashless debit card as early as September.

Six months after that, or on a date to be decided by Ms Rishworth, even people who want to stay on the cashless debit card will not be able to. “I am consulting with communities on the future of income management,” Ms Rishworth said. “We are taking our time with determining the future of the Basics Card. Right now we are focused on the cashless debit card and abolishing that. That needs to be done in a safe way. “There is a lot to unpick so we want to get this right.” A University of Adelaide assessment of the cashless debit card published in January 2021 found alcohol consumption had decreased at the trial sites but it was not possible to attribute this to the cashless debit card alone. Supporters of the card in Laverton claim the report would have been very different if local police officers had been allowed to talk to the researchers but they were banned from doing so by order of head office in Perth.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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