Independent senator David Pocock has expressed concern over Labor’s legislation to abolish the cashless debit card, urging the government to establish a clearer pathway to transition away from compulsory to voluntary income management. The calls come as several senators challenge Labor over the Bill, arguing there has not been enough consultation with Indigenous communities despite a promise to have done so before proceeding with legislation. A Senate inquiry into the government’s Bill to abolish the Cashless Debit Card (CDC), which quarantines 80 per cent of a person’s welfare payments on a debit card, last week heard evidence from federal bureaucrats warning it could take at least a year to find a technologically equal replacement for the CDC.

Indigenous leaders have also said the government risks leaving a “vacuum” if it rushes the abolition of the CDC, calling for an adequate replacement and warning of “dire” impacts for Aboriginal people if there isn’t one. Labor passed legislation through the lower house in August to abolish the card amid concern it was unfairly stigmatising First Nations people, fulfilling a promise it made during the election campaign. The legislation will end compulsory income management in most of the CDC’s program areas, other than in the Northern Territory and Cape York. Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth says communities outside the NT and Cape York can “self-determine” whether or not to accept a new form of income management following the abolishment of CDC. However, Indigenous leaders have grave concerns about a return to the BasicsCard which was used before the CDC was introduced.

Former Labor minister Graham Richardson says he hopes there will be a Labor backflip on the abolition of the cashless debit. “We have to ensure we have the best technology and it is clear it is not the BasicsCard which is very limited and limiting,” he said. “It’s a big problem to resolve and has to be done in a way that’s managed appropriately. “There needs to be consultation with First Nations communities and how that is managed with additional services. “For people in Cape York, the system that they developed relies on the technology of the CDC and it is important that they have access to an equivalent.” Senator Pocock supports the CDC model in place in Cape York, initiated by Noel Pearson and Queensland’s Family Responsibilities Commission. Mr Pearson told the Senate hearing that abolishing the scheme in Cape York would wipe out 20 years of work.

“You will repeal the card and then you will walk away and leave us to the violence, leave us to the hunger, leave us to the neglected children,” he said. Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie and United Australia Party’s Ralph Babet both expressed concern about the removal of the CDC without a clear transition plan. Senator Lambie called on Labor to “reassure” communities about the next steps. “The Cashless Debit Card is going, but there’s thousands of people on it who are afraid of what comes next,” she said. You can’t just rip the card out of these communities and expect them to be OK. Labor needs to reassure these communities that there’s a plan for what comes next.” Senator Babet advocated for a “clear” solution needed to address drug and alcohol problems in Indigenous communities, after meeting with Indigenous Country Liberal Senator Jacinta Price, who is a strong proponent of the CDC program.

A Northern Territory Labor MP says many Aboriginal women and older people are in support of the CDC.  “I have spoken with Senator Jacinta Price and Aboriginal leader Warren Mundine, who both have real-life experience living and working in remote Aboriginal communities,” Senator Babet said. “From those conversations it is clear that a solution is needed to address the very serious problems of drug and alcohol abuse and the resulting domestic violence. I will be liaising with Senator Price to visit remote Aboriginal communities in the coming weeks where I will be speaking with members of the Aboriginal community for their views on the CDC.” Opposition health and aged care spokeswoman Anne Ruston is preparing to introduce amendments to the Bill in a bid to suspend all debate and force the government to undertake community consultation.

Senator Ruston said the Coalition’s CDC was built on very advanced technology that allowed users to access welfare payments through a superior banking platform, while the BasicsCard operated as a pre-loaded gift card that required merchants to opt in.“The government needs to come back with what their long-term income plan is,” she said. “There is about 4500 people in the NT who voluntarily chose to go on the CDC who will overnight have nothing. What’s going to happen to them? Will they be forced back on to the BasicsCard? “We have no information as to what’s going to be put in place to support these people.” An Australian National Audit Office report in June highlighted a lack of evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of the CDC.

Implemented in 2016, the scheme was designed to encourage socially responsible behaviour by quarantining 80 per cent of a person’s welfare payments on a debit card to prevent it being spent on alcohol and gambling. It was introduced in Ceduna, South Australia, East Kimberley and the Goldfields in Western Australia, and then expanded to Bundaberg and Hervey Bay in Queensland. The cost reached $36m in 2020-21, with nearly 17,000 people participating as of February this year.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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