Minister Rishworth on Radio National Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas


PATRICIA KARVELAS: Australians in abusive relationships will be given ten days paid leave to help them escape violence and find extra support if Parliament passes new laws being introduced this morning. The new Labor Government has made the area a priority, quickly putting forward the reforms as well as promising progress on the national plan to end violence against women and children. As the government plans changes to workplace law, it's also making changes to welfare, vowing to scrap the Coalition's cashless debit cards. Amanda Rishworth is the Minister for Social Services and she joins me now in our Parliament House studio. Minister, welcome to Breakfast.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Great to be with you.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Government will introduce legislation to give 11 million Australians, including casual workers, ten days of paid family and domestic violence leave. What will that do for people who are trying to leave abusive situations?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: What it will do will make sure that if women particularly are working and they need time off to- whether it's to leave to attend court appointments, to attend counselling or to access help, they won't have to choose between lying to their employer or having to quit their job. They'll actually have this entitlement that will allow them to take time off. It'll be paid so you won't have that financial consequence of not turning up to work, and actually allow them to be able to deal with some of these issues and not be punished as a result of not getting an income or perhaps losing their job.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: When would a person be able to activate this leave and what kind of circumstances would it cover?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: This leave will be coming in large organisations from February and there will be a six-month delay to implement it in smaller businesses. But what they'll have to do is provide some evidentiary information to their employer. It could be a statutory declaration. It could be- whether it's a letter from a doctor or a counsellor, and that will trigger the opportunity to access that leave.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Casuals are included in this. How will it work for them and is that a sign Labor wants to extend other protections for casuals, usually reserved for ongoing employees?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, I think we recognise that this type of leave, we hope, won't be accessed by the vast majority of employees, is really unique and very difficult circumstances. So that is part of the reason we have said that we want this to be extended to casuals. For casuals, what it will be is that they will be able to get paid for any rostered shifts they might have had and that they need to take this leave, they will get paid for those shifts.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: As you say, it's expected to start in February next year. Small businesses get this longer period of time. Will the Federal Government offer assistance in terms of education or guidance? I mean, a lot of those businesses are concerned about this. They've shared that with you. They've said they don't really, you know, it's financially going to be an impost on them. And also they're worried about the implementation. What are you offering?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: We said we will work with business to provide an education and support to make this transition. Most employers actually understand this is an issue and do want to help their employees if they are in a situation where they need to access this. Really, what employers are saying they need support with is, for example, how is it going to be recorded on a pay slip? Making sure that that's confidential. And so working through some of those implementation issues are important. But we have definitely committed that we will support business, particularly small business, in how they transition and make this leave available. But most employers have not baulked at the concept of it. It really is about getting the implementation right.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And if they need more than six months, would you revisit that?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: We're putting that in legislation. I think it gives us ample time in which to get on with this. We've striked the right balance between giving some time to implement it, but also recognising that this is a really big problem and something that many in the union movement and outside of the union movement have been campaigning for a long time. So we also need to get on with it as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to ABC Radio National Breakfast and my guest is Social Services Minister, Amanda Rishworth. I want to move to another topic that you are also going to be implementing some change on. You're saying you're getting income management, you're getting rid of income management, Minister, but can I confirm that you're keeping the BasicsCard, which operates in much the same way for people on welfare in the Northern Territory?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: At the moment we are abolishing the Cashless Debit Card and that is our first step in ensuring that income management is truly voluntary. The Cashless Debit Card affects about 17,300 people across the country, in Ceduna, in Bundaberg, in a range of places. That is the first piece of legislation that we have put in to ensure that it gets abolished and that we transition people off that card after this bill passes the Parliament. In terms of the BasicsCard, the income management that pre-dates the Cashless Debit Card, we've said that we want to work with communities in the Northern Territory about what the future of that type of income management looks like. So I would like to have a lot of consultation about that. But our first step is the Cashless Debit Card and we need to meet with people individually if they don't contact Services Australia to make sure that transition is smooth. I'm not underestimating the job of transitioning over 17,000 people off that card - that is the first order of business. And then we will consult around what the future of income management, commonly known as the BasicsCard, looks like.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So Minister, to be fair, you're not actually getting rid of income management. You're getting rid of one element?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, our commitment in the election was to abolish the Cashless Debit Card, which we're doing. We have said…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Interrupts] It's not the end of income management though.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, we never said there would be the end of income management. We said there would always be a voluntary income management option for individuals that chose it or communities that chose it. And I would point to the Cape York, who has a structure in place called the Family Responsibilities Commission, who have said that they want still the option to refer people to income management. So we're keeping that in the legislation. When it comes to the BasicsCard, which is a broad based in the Northern Territory, we want to consult about how we move forward with that.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Those remaining on the BasicsCard, particularly in the Northern Territory, as you know, are overwhelmingly Indigenous. Do you understand that for many people that have written into our program they see this as a racial- basically a policy that some have described to me as racist, that the NT remains on income management, Aboriginal people stay on it, and in fact the people who come off are largely white?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, I'd make the first point. The Cashless Debit Card affected predominantly First Nations people as well, and that is why we have taken steps to remove it. When it comes to the Northern Territory, as I said, I want to consult with communities. There are some communities that have indicated that they would like to stay on, as a community, on income management, and we need to work through how that looks like. Cape York, as I said, has a model of a referral process. Some states and territories have a referral process for child protection, for example. I'd like to consult and work through that. 

But the first step is the Cashless Debit Card. It was due to sunset in December. We have over 17,000 people to work with to transition off that card. I want to do that in a responsible manner. But I do also want to reassure people that once the legislation goes through, if you want to get off it, there will be no hoops to jump. You'll merely have to ring up Services Australia to get off that card.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, but if you're on a BasicsCard and you're an individual and you don't want to be on that BasicsCard but perhaps your community has agreed to be on it, should there be the ability to come off?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: That is going to be a conversation that we need to have when it comes to the BasicsCard with the communities, with the Northern Territory. And I am committed to do that. As I said-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Interrupts] And what time frame - sorry to interrupt - but just what sort of time frame is that going to happen in?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Our first order of business is to get people off the Cashless Debit Card. That time frame, once the legislation goes through the Parliament, is baked into the legislation - that’ll be no longer than six months. So it's a big piece of work once the legislation goes through. And then I will be turning my attention to consulting with communities around the BasicsCard.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And how long will that consultation go for?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Look, I- how long's a piece of string, Patricia? We're going to work through this to make sure that people have a voice. But what I am committed to is listening to First Nations communities about this issue and making sure that they have a say over the things that govern them. And I have to say, that was what was very concerning, particularly about some of the trial sites with the Cashless Debit Card. I mean, when it comes to Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, the decision was made because the local member wanted it. It was almost like an election commitment to impose this card on a broad base, to everyone over 35, to say you have to go on this card. That was almost like an election commitment from the local member. That is not local decision making.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But in terms of- Just on the principle, first principles - if you think the BasicsCard still has merit for those that think- don't know cashless card is different but the same principles - doesn't it demonstrate that perhaps the principles work? Or that you have some sympathy that the principles work?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well as we've said, there will be an option for voluntary income management. But if we go back to the Cashless Debit Card, one of the other problems with it, it was actually not run by government, it was run by a privatised company. Indue was the company that had a bank account and that you dealt with if you had a problem with your card. We heard countless stories of having problems with the card, and you had to contact a privatised company. So there were concerns with that part of it. There were concerns with the 80 per cent that was stored on the card, that you couldn't access cash. I heard countless stories where you can't buy a second hand fridge because you didn't have enough cash, so you had to go and buy a new fridge, and the ability to manage money was very difficult.

So I think there was some principles. We need to work through what income management looks like. But I've made a commitment to communities that if income management is something they would like into the future, then that will be a voluntary option, and there will be some people that will choose that. But we're not going to have it across a community because the local member decided it was so.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Final one, Minister, on another question in relation to cost of living. We know it's going through the roof, the inflation figure revealed yesterday made that crystal clear. The Treasurer today delivers the economic statement. The people most at risk are people really who are disadvantaged. They’re in your portfolio. That's your area – people on fixed incomes, particularly people on unemployment payments and so forth. Are you agitating internally? Or can you share with us whether you will be doing more to try and ensure those people on those payments get some assistance at this time of crisis?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: It is a very, very difficult time for Australians, the Treasurer has outlined that, and those that have the least amount of money is particularly difficult. What my job is is to make sure that I am talking with Australians to make sure that we do get, you know, the supports in place. When it comes, though, to JobSeeker, it will be indexed in September, as will the pensions to take into account some of those cost of living figures. But in addition, our Government is also working on reducing the costs of medicines, of driving down electricity prices, of addressing the cost of childcare. So I think we've got to look at this in a very broad view.

In addition, of course, we've made a commitment about building public housing. Not all of this can be delivered overnight, but we do have a plan to address the cost of living but also make reforms in the long term.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, many thanks for coming in and I look forward to many conversations. Thank you.