The Politics    Thursday, October 15, 2015

Cashless welfare

By Nick Feik

There is a strong case for the trial of the Health Welfare Card in some Indigenous communities

Last night brought “a watershed moment in how we deliver welfare”, according to the government.

Readers might suspect the language hyperbolic, especially given how little exposure the legislation has received. And perhaps “watershed” is not the term others would use. But it is certainly a major development.

The Senate last night approved the trial of a cashless welfare card. Recipients will have access to 20% of their welfare payments through their normal bank account and the remaining 80% will be available via a special Visa Debit card. Cardholders won’t be able to spend welfare payments on alcohol, drugs or gambling, and won’t be able to use the card to draw cash.

The legislation will allow the card to be trialled in three sites, beginning next year. What is not mentioned in the legislation is that it is primarily aimed at Indigenous communities wracked by drug and alcohol abuse, ones with heavily welfare-dependent populations.

The welfare card has been extremely controversial, among the political left especially, for the following reasons: it seems paternalistic, giving the government control over some Indigenous people’s spending habits and personal choices in a way never attempted with non-Indigenous communities; it is a relatively untested program and therefore not backed by much evidence of effectiveness; and it was first proposed by mining magnate Andrew Forrest.

Labor, however, voted with the government, along with all the crossbenchers apart from Ricky Muir and the Greens, who are up in arms.

What should be of equal or greater weight is whether the proposal has the support of the affected (trial) communities themselves, and whether it has the support of the broader Indigenous community.

In one of the towns slated for an initial trial, Ceduna in South Australia, indigenous leaders are supportive of the trial. The Ceduna Aboriginal Corporation told a senate committee that children were going without food and clothing and failing to attend school because of alcohol abuse, and that this card would help. The town’s mayor is also supportive. Indigenous leader Marcia Langton wrote in the Monthly late last year in support of the concept, and her reasoning is starkly compelling.

Indigenous communities are being singled out, that is undoubtedly true. It’s also true that they suffer from a range of problems, historical and cultural, that are unique. It would be hasty to ignore the history of harmful and failed interventions. But it would be just as hasty to discount the need for new or different solutions.

As put simply by Ceduna community leader John Isgar on ABC 7.30, “People who don’t get educations, people who can’t transition into work, people who can’t fund and maintain their own economies and look after their own families are gonna find something else to do. I mean, if you got up in the morning and had nothing to do, why wouldn’t you go and have a grog?”

It’s entirely possible that the card will be ineffective due to design or implementation. It could also prove to be a dangerous stalking horse for other changes to the welfare system.

Does a government ever have the right to dictate how benefits are spent? This depends to some extent on whether you see welfare as a right or a privilege. Overlaid as it is with cultural politics, it’s no wonder the terrain is heavily disputed.

But it seems inarguable that community leaders seeking to prevent the worst effects of welfare dependence must be heard, and their wishes respected.


Today’s links

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.


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