Press Conference at Parliament House


Topics: Cashless debit card repeal, support services, The Voice 

AMANDA RISHWORTH, MINISTER FOR SOCIAL SERVICES:    The legislation to enact an Albanese Labor Government election commitment to abolish the cashless debit card has just gone through the House of Representatives. It went through the Senate last night. I'm very pleased that as a result of this passing of legislation, in four of the trial sites of the cashless debit card those participants who wish to get off the card will be able to now do so on the fourth of October. There are a number of pathways that people will be able to use to \get off the cashless debit card in the four trial sites. One being calling the debit card hotline on 1800 252 604, two by visiting the Services Australia website to complete a form and thirdly there will be Services Australia staff on the ground in these communities having one-on-one consultation and meeting with individuals on the card. We've taken the transition off this card and through the legislation very seriously. We've listened to the Senate inquiry and that's why amendments the Government moved last night did a couple of things. It not only ensured people could get off the card that wanted to get off the card in the four sites, but it ensured that the Family Responsibilities Commission was able to still do its work and provide for a seamless transition on the sixth of March from the cashless debit card to other income management on an enhanced card. It also provided the provision for people to volunteer in the cashless debit card sites to income management. We know that some people may still choose to do this, but it will be their choice. And so there will be a seamless transition outlined in the legislation also on the sixth of March. And finally those participants in the Northern Territory, who would still be a subject to income management under the pre-existing income management will also be transitioned seamlessly on the sixth of March. This has been an important commitment before the election that the Albanese Government is now delivering on. My colleagues will speak in a minute about the immense toll that it's taken on so many people being forced onto this card. Whether you touched a drop of alcohol or had taken an illicit drug. You may never have touched anything, yet you were still forced onto this card by the Government. We've listened to people, we've enacted these reforms and I am very pleased that the transition will start occurring. Finally I wanted to make a comment about the investment that we've announced in these communities. It is really clear from an abundant amount of evidence that the card itself did nothing to curb alcohol misuse or drug misuse in these communities, but what I heard from communities - it was the services on the ground, the programs on the ground like the youth mentoring program in Ceduna that made a difference. Now, what we know looking at the Budget papers is that the former government put no money in the Budget for these services past next year. And so what we have done is ensure that there is long term funding for these services and money put aside to develop new services. We will also ensure that money is put into drug and alcohol rehabilitation services. And of course, money put in for economic development. Economic development is something that these communities have said is desperately needed in terms of investment, and that's what this government will do. So our focus really is on solutions. Dealing with what are complex social issues by delivering the support that communities need, not a one size fits all continuing on, really what was an ideological quest for something that didn't work. People didn't want it. We've ended all of that. I'll now hand over to my colleague, Linda Burney.

LINDA BURNEY, MINISTER FOR INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS:    Thank you, Minister. The obsession with this card from the opposition was enormous. It was in ideology and nothing more. The evidence shows from repeated examinations of this card, repeated reports that it was not working. It was not making an ounce of difference in the areas that it proposed to change. The fact that most of the people on this card are First Nations people also said something very loudly. Labor has not come to this in the last few weeks. This has been the position of Labor in opposition as well as Government and I am very proud and very indebted to the Minister and the Assistant Minister for the incredible consultations that have taken place around this card. We haven't just decided we do this and not talk to people. We've consulted. We've gone out and we've spoken to people. I know that the Assistant Minister was taking calls as late as midnight last night about what this meant to people. This card diminished lives. This card diminished lives enormously. And that is what we heard. I was at a bus stop in Ceduna and a woman said to me "this card has not improved my life - we don't want this card". So we have listened, we have acted. We have talked about it. We have debated it, we have consulted and that has all culminated in the fact that the abolition of this card went through the Senate last night and just a few minutes ago went through the House of Representatives and I am very proud to be part of the government that has listened to people, that has enacted self-determination and it has put in safeguards for people on this card. We made it voluntary. So let's be clear about that - we made it voluntary and we have delivered on our election promise.

JUSTINE ELLIOT, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR SOCIAL SERVICES:    I am so proud to be a part of the Albanese Labor Government and to be abolishing the cashless debit card. This card has destroyed lives. That's why we made the commitment to abolish the card and today we're delivering on that. People's lives have been ruined because of the cashless debit card. Many couldn't pay their rent. They couldn't make car payments. They couldn't buy uniforms for their children. We've travelled throughout the country and heard firsthand from individuals who've just been severely impacted by this card and it has been devastating. I really also want to acknowledge all of those that have worked so incredibly hard to get rid of this card. In particular the No Cashless Debit Card Australia and also to Say No Seven. I've spoken with them last night and this morning and people that have been on the card as well in tears, in tears because of what today means for them. They fought so hard to get rid of it. And because of them and because Labor has listened the cashless debit card is gone and this is a victory for everyone who fought to get rid of the card and Labor has stood with them every step of the way. And I particularly want to acknowledge both Minister Rishworth and Minister Burney for their remarkable work. Today is a great day - we've abolished the cashless debit card.

JOURNALIST:    So, start to transition off the card on Monday. I believe it takes seven days for that transition to occur. What services are in place from Monday that will help people who are addicted to drugs, people who might be experiencing domestic violence in these communities while they transition off the card? 

AMANDA RISHWORTH:    I guess your question predisposes or pre-assumes that they don't have an alcohol problem now and they will as they transition off the card. That's just absolutely not the case… 

JOURNALIST:    People who are on the card now, their funds are quarantined. They currently can't access alcohol and gambling… 

AMANDA RISHWORTH:    What we've heard is for people that have had drug and alcohol problems, the card has not stopped them from accessing drugs and alcohol. There are plenty of workarounds that were explained to us in communities. But your question goes to what support will be available for those in communities with these complex problems. And of course, if people ring up Services Australia and speak with someone on the line they will check to make sure that there is no financial direct debits associated with the card, any Afterpay problems or other buy now pay later issues. So they will work with them to make sure that all the financial arrangements on the card are in place. Of course we will have Services Australia social workers and also financial information officers on the ground in communities from Monday supporting people around this transition. But of course there are existing drug and alcohol services and other services in these communities that are needed and that are used in these communities. They will continue to operate. But unlike the former government that announced money for drug and alcohol services, but did not deliver on those drug and alcohol services, we will actually properly fund drug and alcohol services in communities that are co-designed with communities to fill the gaps that they need. But it is a fallacy to suggest that in these communities, that whether that people are on the card or not that there were no drug and alcohol problems and other complex problems. That is a myth peddled by the opposition. And it just has no evidence to back it up.

JOURNALIST:    Minister for CDC participants in the Northern Territory and Cape York, can you explain to them why they're being transitioned with different income management? Why don't they get an option to make their income making voluntary?  

AMANDA RISHWORTH:    When it comes to Cape York - unlike the other sites not everyone who is on a Government working age payment goes automatically on to income management. In fact, there's only a small number - around 100 People in the Cape York region - who are on income management. How they arrive on income management is after a conference with elders, underpinned by Queensland law, that looks at perhaps some of the problems they might be experiencing and puts in place a number of tools. And one of those tools could be income management. It is not broad based income management that we see in the other sites and it is a self-determined process that local Indigenous leaders have worked in community and have set up this process as something that is self-determined. We have always said when it comes to income management, it is up to communities to choose how they use income management, how they enable people to get on to income management. Now when it comes to the Northern Territory, once again it is not everyone on a working age Government payment. But there are many long term unemployed people who have been put on to pre-existing income management that was there before the cashless debit card. A lot of people know this as the BasicsCard. We will work with those communities about the future of income management in the Northern Territory and the other twelve place based sites to work out what the transition to voluntary will look like. But we need to do that within consultation with community. And we plan to do that in the coming months.

JOURNALIST:    How are you expecting this legislation to go in the Senate?

AMANDA RISHWORTH:    We have put forward a comprehensive package, a transition plan and importantly compelling evidence that this program did not work. Obviously, the Senate will make its own decision. But I think there is compelling evidence in addition to the fact that this was an election commitment that Labor made. 

JOURNALIST:    The coalition suggested that the fact that you're keeping those programs, which is outlined there, in those two areas is racist. What would be your response?

AMANDA RISHWORTH:    I find it quite amusing that a government that compulsorily put everyone on a working age payment. I don't know how they pick the sites - but the sites they picked with the cashless debit card, put a significantly higher proportion of Indigenous people onto the card. I think that is quite laughable. And really playing politics with this. We need to transition people safely off income management. We're starting with the cashless debit card, but I might see if Linda would like to make any comments about that.

LINDA BURNEY:    The position has been clear for a number of years in terms of the BasicsCard. We will work as the Minister said, community by community, in terms of a BasisCard. Labor's fundamental position is that we do not believe in mandatory income management. The Minister and the Assistant Minister has listened to people in the Northern Territory in the way in which they wish to proceed. And that's what's happening.

JOURNALIST:    Following on from Josh's question, you eventually want to transition to no compulsory income management. So what's the timeline looking like? You said further consultations would happen? What timeline do you want to see income management abolished in the Northern Territory? And why were these consultations done before you announced the policy to scrap the CDC?

AMANDA RISHWORTH:    What you're talking about is two different parts of the legislation. The CDC was a different part of the legislation to income management which predates it. So we are dealing with really two parts of the legislation and what we're doing is we are enacting our election commitment to start off with the cashless debit card sites, in which people were put on compulsorily. And we will work through when it comes to other income management sites. But we need to speak with community by community, we've got to understand that the BasicsCard has existed for a lot longer than the cashless debit card. And so we need to speak with communities about what self-determination looks like, just to be clear, that's in the Northern Territory. In Cape York, they don't have a compulsory broad based income management system, it is a self-determined process, which we are respecting. So there is no plans to change what is happening in Cape York because that is a self-determined process, where it isn't mandatory broad based income management. 

JOURNALIST:    In terms of consultation, who will be leading that from the Government. We you be travelling up to The Territory? 

AMANDA RISHWORTH:    Look between myself, Minister Elliot, Minister Burney, Assistant Minister McCarthy, Marion Scrymgour our local MP - we've already started at that engagement, and we will continue to do that engagement right across the Northern Territory, and the other twelve place-based sites as well.

JOURNALIST:    So one that you've obviously outlined a couple of times, there'll be an 18-month consultation on future income management and that sort of thing. Obviously, I'd imagine this question will be answered by part of the consultation, but do you see a point where the BasicsCard will become voluntary, like you're making the cashless debit card voluntarily? And if so, what sort of timeframe again,  will it be two years or three years?

AMANDA RISHWORTH:    That will be dealt with the by the consultation. When it comes to income management in the Northern Territory. We will be looking at both individuals ability to volunteer as well as community by community. The Northern Territory Government has been working on a legislative framework about local decision making. It may be the case that with income management, we're able to use that framework when it comes to income management. What I'm saying is that it can't be Government saying we're putting you all on this across this, this location or this location. We want to hear from communities about what that local decision making looks like. 

JOURNALIST:    In the Senate the opposition questioned if the cards not working, why keep the voluntary aspect at all. That wasn't part of the original bill, that was put in there after negotiation with the crossbench...

AMANDA RISHWORTH:    No it wasn't, our election commitment was always to have voluntary income management. What the amendment did was allow for seamlessness transition for those currently on the cashless debit card on to an enhanced product. So it was never about including voluntary income management in the first bill. There was always the ability and always the desire from the Government to have voluntary income management. And the proposition is pretty basic. If people want a product of income management, then they can choose it. That shouldn't be a hard proposition for the former government, the now opposition, to understand. Pretty simple concept, and it's pretty disappointing that really I think with that line of questioning, they're playing politics.

JOURNALIST:    Can I ask about the enhanced card, just nuts and bolts of it. What vendor will be actually running that card and is it's going to be a better enhanced version of the cashless debit card or a different card?

AMANDA RISHWORTH:    Firstly the enhanced card will be underpinned by the Income Management legislation to start harmonising the legislation. Secondly, at the moment with the cashless debit card, people are dealing directly with a private company that was not working for so many people. We have been clear that income management should be managed and the interface should be Services Australia.  So an enhanced product would make sure that it is dealing with Services Australia and that if a participant has a problem, they give Services Australia a call not a private company. So we will be working with a third party provider to provide the technology and the back end and the capability but when it comes to the participants experience they will be dealing with Services Australia.

JOURNALIST:    Can we know the details of the vendor you will be working with?

AMANDA RISHWORTH:     We are working through the details on who is able to support us in this transition. And the details are commercial in confidence. 

JOURNALIST:    Again, this might be covered by the consultation period. Can you just walk through the review process? About how you're going to monitor what's happening in different communities? What happens once they transition off the card? Will there be benchmarks or kinds of indicators that you want to see reductions in?

AMANDA RISHWORTH:     Well, thanks for that question because one of the scathing parts of the ANAO report was that the former government, didn't put in any indicators. They didn't measure any secondary impact. They didn't do any of the work which really demonstrates that this was an ideological folly. Now of course, not having a baseline makes it very, very hard, but we've got a commitment from the states that are affected by this, to share information to monitor the situation and to make sure that the right services are in place. But the message from communities and the evidence really showed that the cashless debit card had not delivered on its intended consequences. In saying that, we have committed that we will have an independent evaluation as we move through the transition process. But to suggest that somehow as a result, we will we have a good baseline of data from the from the opposition is just not true because they never properly measured anything. 

JOURNALIST:    This is one is for Minister Burney, I understand that there is a working group on The Voice meeting here in Parliament, is it a formal meeting? What’s on the agenda? 

MINISTER BURNEY:    There are two groups meeting tomorrow, the working group as well as the engagement group. What is on the agenda is examination of the fabulous outcome of the research that we heard during the week, which showed that there was a majority of Australians that supported the notion of The Voice. It also told us there are 20 per cent of people that want more information. So obviously there will be discussions about what groups we need to reach, what sort of campaign we need to have. We will be also looking at some of the more tedious aspects I suppose  of what sort of legislation changes need to be made to put in place for a  modernised system for the referendum and what timeframe we would be on We will also be looking at the issues around the questions that might go to the Australian people that the Prime Minister proposed in Garma and what the amendments might be to the Constitution. But these two groups are permanent groups that will provide advice to the government and to the parliament on our way through to reaching a date for a referendum.

JOURNALIST:    So those groups will be consulted, not just in the design of the voice but also in the campaign and the approach?

MINISTER BURNEY:     The whole idea of establishing these two groups, and there may be others. But these two groups are all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And this is also a way of saying that this referendum is not the plaything of politicians and the media it is actually a nation building exercise for the Australian people. And these two groups are part of making a reality. Thank you.