Cashless welfare card shunned at inquiry

Public money earmarked for making the cashless welfare card permanent would be better spent on urgent housing, education and health services for Indigenous communities, senators have been told.

The Morrison government revealed plans in last month’s budget to make the debit card permanent in its current trial sites, and to move welfare recipients in the NT and Cape York to the system.

Legislation cementing the plan is before parliament, with a Senate inquiry probing the bill on Thursday hearing from academics, charities and Indigenous groups.

Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory chief John Paterson urged senators to dump the plan, accusing the Morrison government of walking away from its commitments on Closing the Gap.

He says the large amount of funding needed to make the cards permanent would be better spent on positive policy measures to address urgent housing, health and education needs.

“We want to get people off the welfare treadmill, we want to create jobs,” he said.

Theresa Roe from APO NT said the cashless welfare card had not been properly evaluated in areas using it, yet the government was rushing to make it permanent.

“We want to know where the evidence is,” she said.

Social Services Minister Anne Ruston has not read or received an evaluation of the debit cards by the University of Adelaide, but the government wants the bill to pass by the end of the year.

Tony Dreise from ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research says there should be evidence to show the plan is necessary.

“When you have a program of this magnitude – not only in financial terms, somewhere around $80 million, but impacting thousands of people and their lives – then it would be reasonable in 2020 to be looking for a strong evidence base to underpin this bill,” he said.

“We aren’t seeing it.”

Businessman Andrew Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation argues the cashless welfare card has had a positive impact on Indigenous communities where it’s currently imposed.

Minderoo believes the system should be extended to all Youth Allowance recipients.

The cards freeze the majority of Centrelink payments so the money can only be spent on essential items.

It prohibits people from spending money on alcohol, drugs and gambling.

Taxpayers won’t know how much making the cards permanent would cost as it’s a commercial deal.

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