Minister Rishworth Interview on 2GB with Ben Fordham


BEN FORDHAM: Well, there’s growing concern about the loss of the cashless welfare card. We have been going on about this for some time now because it's so important, and because of the feedback that we have had over many years from challenges in communities - communities that have got all sorts of issues going on. And when you're able to say to families in those communities, well, look, I'll tell you what - 80 per cent of the welfare money will go on the important things like fruit and vegetables and bread and rice and milk and nappies and schoolbooks, then that's good for families, and you can spend the rest of the money on whatever you want. But the Albanese Government is getting rid of the cashless welfare card. This is despite a whole range of people saying: we need it.

Amanda Rishworth is the Social Services Minister in the Albanese Government and she's on the line. Minister, good morning to you.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Good morning. Great to be with you.

BEN FORDHAM: You would’ve heard a lot of this feedback, no doubt. I mean, obviously you've got feedback telling you otherwise, which is why you're getting rid of this card. But you would’ve had that advice balanced up by many other people - well-meaning, good, hard working people with their heart in the right place, saying to you, Minister, whatever you do, don't get rid of this card.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: I recognise that there is a lot of emotion attached to this card. But, as Minister, I've got to look at facts. And I've got to look at the facts of is this card working, is it delivered- delivering on its outcomes? And whether it's the ANAO report that said, no, it's not; whether it's the Adelaide University report that said no, crime isn't going down, domestic violence isn't going down; or, whether it's the lived experience of people in these communities saying: this has made my life harder, I've got to listen to that evidence as well and I've got to make a decision. And that decision has been that, on the balance of evidence, the card just hasn't worked and it actually has made many people's lives harder.

BEN FORDHAM: Alright Minister, when you say that you've had a look at what various people have had to say after having a look at this card, what about the Auditor-General's report into the cashless card from June? It did not recommend scrapping the card. It found the trial had ticked off all four key performance measures regarding harm reduction. It showed an $8 million reduction in problems relating to alcohol; a 15 to 20 per cent reduction in alcohol misuse; a $2 million reduction in gambling. That report points to some very strong positives coming from the cashless welfare card.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Actually what it said was: that there were measures in place, but it was a pretty damning finding to say that the Cashless Debit Card program was not meeting its intended objective, and therefore did not effectively implement the recommendations made by the previous report.

What it clearly said is: there are a number of things going on in communities. And I think if you go out and speak with many people in these communities, they are still tackling some issues when it comes to domestic violence and alcohol. And indeed, there's been some statistics published today, crime statistics, that shows in Ceduna, domestic violence went up during the Cashless Debit Card implementation.

BEN FORDHAM: Well, I don't think that is going to be helped in any way by you allowing more welfare money to be spent on alcohol. You just mentioned the University of Adelaide Report. It said the Cashless Debit Card led to a 21 per cent decrease in gambling, and 45 per cent of people believed it had improved their lives. So that's in the report you were just quoting.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, it also said that 46 per cent of the CDC participants had never consumed alcohol and they had been forced onto this card. There were-

BEN FORDHAM: But what does that matter? They're the people who don't have an alcohol problem. We're talking about the people who do.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Yeah. And so what the people with- never touched alcohol in their life, they were perhaps on a carers’ pension- what they told me is they couldn't buy any second hand goods because they could not have enough cash. One father told me he couldn't buy a second hand bike because he had not enough cash for his child. They told me that they couldn't take their kids to the local footy or buy things at the local fete because they didn't have enough cash. So those people that had never had an alcohol problem in their life, maybe have never touched alcohol, they were forced onto this card which made their life harder in really practical ways. And I've listened to that evidence and I have listened to the fact that their life became harder as a result. So…

BEN FORDHAM: [Interrupts] Well, should the card have a larger cash component if people are struggling to get enough cash to buy a second hand bike? Or shouldn't you have the option of leaving it in place for those families who really need it? Because the community leaders who have begged for this card to remain, they're saying, look, when we had the card, there was fruit and veggies on the table, lunch and dinner, breakfast cereal before school. And the people who’ve been saying, we want to keep this card are women, the daughters, the mothers, the aunties. What do you say to them?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, look, a lot of mothers and parents have told me that they don't have enough cash to send their- send to their kids in boarding school. They- a lot- I've spoken- I went to the...

BEN FORDHAM: [Interrupts] Well, they pay cash on school fees?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: They transfer money to other accounts, which they can't do with the Cashless Debit Card. So there are a lot of barriers put up for people as a result of this. I have visited a DV shelter in remote Western Australia where those women told me it made no difference. So- but your point to how do we help people, individual people? We have said that we are interested in looking at voluntary income management, that we see the role of- and the discussion of voluntary income management being a tool for those people that may see it as having a role in their life. And so we're talking with communities about what that might look like. So I'm not saying that we are not going to have a discussion about what voluntary income management looks like, but you've got to remember, with the Cashless Debit Card, we completely removed government. This was a completely privatised arrangement in which if you had a problem with the money on your card that you had to contact a private company. And that…

BEN FORDHAM: [Interrupts] Well, can I just jump in and just make the point that if there are issues with the card around money being transferred from one account to another to pay school fees, then they're clearly issues that should be addressed and fixed. But I'm just reading here, and I'll share them with you right now - the Indigenous leader, Janice Scott from Laverton in Western Australia, who says the biggest difference was for kids. Because of the card, the kids had food and clothing. People used to throw rocks on my roof in the middle of the night saying I'm hungry. The card slowed that down. You've got Marty Seelander, another Indigenous leader, who says what you didn't see any more is gambling. Families were buying groceries and people with serious drinking problems are getting really drunk once a fortnight rather than three or four times a fortnight. David Newry from Kimberley saying people now have money for food and things for their children. The young mothers have found it as a good way to save money. So what do we say to David and to Marty and to Janice?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, I know that we might disagree on the specific details, because I've got a list of people, Indigenous leaders, Elders, that said it made their life hard. I've got Beverley Wally from the East Kimberley that said that life deteriorated on the card. Christine Donaldson, who said that people in the Goldfields region had their lives gone backwards and the stigma attached to it. And of course, Pat Turner, who has welcomed the Cashless Debit Card. So I do understand this is a really emotional issue, but I will reiterate that we are looking about what voluntary income management looks like for people. They may feel they could benefit from income management, perhaps they may have identified a gambling problem, or indeed there's a structure in the Cape York called the Family Responsibilities Commission, in which Elders work with young people to work out whether income management is the right tool for them. I'm certainly open to those discussions about where income management could work but what I'm saying is that across the board, no matter who you are, if you're on a carer's payment, a disability payment, and they've never touched alcohol in your life, why should you be forced onto a card that makes it harder for you? And that's what I've heard from people [indistinct]…

BEN FORDHAM: [Interrupts] Alright. Can we wrap it up with me just planting another part into this conversation which is this is public money, this is taxpayers’ money. There's also an element here, Minister, where on the whole taxpayers would like to know that their taxes are going towards essential things as opposed to grog and gambling.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: I think taxpayers would also like to know that money for programs to support people is actually effective, and we've had $170 million spent on the cashless debit card and the evidence coming through is that it doesn't work. So, look, I want solutions that work. I want to support people if they have drug or alcohol problems. I want to make sure they get the support that works and I think that's a responsible use of taxpayer’s money.

BEN FORDHAM: Alright, we'll have to agree to disagree on this one, but let's talk again. Thank you for coming on. 

AMANDA RISHWORTH: No worries. Thank you.

BEN FORDHAM: Amanda Rishworth, the Federal Social Services Minister.