The Cashless Debit Card when seen in the context of robots and drug testing at Centrelink, tax cuts for the comfortable, religious protection laws, the Witness K trial and open slather for financiers adds to the impression that our country now resembles more closely Margaret Atwood’s Gilead than Ben Chifley’s Australia.
In the Summer 2018-19 edition of the Journal of Australian Political Economy Elise Klein and Sarouche Razi report on their 13 month study under the heading “Contemporary Tools of Dispossession: The Cashless Debit Card Trial in the East Kimberley.” The card trial commenced officially on 26 April 2016, originally for a year in the East Kimberley of WA and in Ceduna in South Australia. The Federal Government extended the trial for another two years in March 2017 in those areas and added the West Australian Goldfields to the programme in February 2018. The card restricts the amount of cash that can be withdrawn to 20 percent of the total money received. The remaining 80 percent is quarantined to purchases of restricted items with the goal of reducing gambling and consumption of alcohol and drugs.
Klein and Razi quote an earlier government-commissioned study by Bray et al who reported in 2014 on the original income management programme that followed the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response, known as The Intervention, when our government used our armed forces against our people. The Bray report concluded: “A wide range of measures related to consumption, financial capability, financial harassment, alcohol and related behaviours, child health, child neglect, developmental outcomes and school attendance have been considered as part of this evaluation …. Despite the magnitude of the programme the evaluation does not find any consistent evidence of income management having a significant positive impact.”
Klein and Razi examined the current Cashless Debit Card Trial from the lived experience of people on the card, whom they interviewed, and from political, economic and sociological perspectives. They conclude that the project is “disconnected” from the lives of those on the card. “The trial of the Cashless Debit Card in the East Kimberley is perverse contemporary policy. Not only did the trial bring material hardship through limiting the amount of cash to people in receipt of most social security payments, but it also further disempowered those marginalised by relational poverty.”
We should always pay attention to people working at the coal face, one of whom is Sydney psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed who sees every day the results of alcohol and drug dependence and is sympathetic to government policy. In the Australian Financial Review of 10 September he wrote: “Long-term welfare dependency is often linked to drug use. Asking people to take a test before receiving taxpayer money is not unreasonable. The debate around Newstart, drug-testing and expanding the use of Cashless Debit Cards all overlap this issue.” Generations of home-makers would have welcomed a card to buy groceries after their husbands had donated their wages to publicans and bookmakers.
My personal view is that the Northern Territory Intervention was a mistake and the Cashless Debit Card compounds the error and is dangerous. Aboriginal affairs is a purely academic field for the great majority of Australians who live in our capital cities where they are far more likely to encounter a native of Somalia than they are to meet a traditionally-oriented Australian Aborigine. It is a different story in northern and inland outback towns where Aboriginal people often constitute a significant percentage of local populations.
Officially the card is not aimed specifically at Aboriginal people but they know they are the primary targets. They know they are being put down. People don’t like being put down. Klein and Razi were on the spot when the trial commenced in the East Kimberley and they report that the card within weeks was called “the white card” by its Aboriginal users. This is not a reference to the colour of the plastic, which is silver. It is white as in “whitefella.” This exercise in electronic paternalism may just be the spark that ignites serious racial tensions. This could get ugly. Governments are bullies sucking up to the rich and famous, comforting the comfortable and putting the boot in to the poor and dispossessed.
There has been talk even from the Prime Minister himself of extending the use of the cashless card. Before going down this path legislators would want to study the performance of the project to date, including the research of Klein and Razi and the audit discussed by reporter Rick Morton in the 14 September edition of The Saturday Paper. People interviewed by Klein and Razi were under the impression that fees were charged against the card. If so, who receives the fees?
Legislators would want to study the original design of the card programme, the tendering process, the issues of intellectual property, the cost of the programme to the government and the workings of the programme in practice all the way down the chain to the beneficiaries, which are the businesses accredited to receive the card, some of them in monopoly positions in one-horse towns. Particular attention should be paid to the role of the private company Indue Ltd, the Commonwealth Bank and the Minderoo Foundation.
When it has looked at the evidence I expect the Parliament to wind back, not extend the use of the Cashless Debit Card. Linda Burnie has provided a face-saving solution for Canberra with her suggestion that the use of the card should be voluntary. Linda is to be congratulated for reminding her colleagues of the reason for their Party’s existence at a time when Labor is under pressure to slide to the right and be yet another insipid cheer-leader for the financial establishment, settling into the comfortable club that Murdoch’s smug commentators condescendingly call “the sensible centre.”
In Canberra we saw a joyous awakening of our Parliament on 19 September when Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar brought the Currency (Restrictions on the Use of Cash) Bill 2019 to the House. The Opposition Parties gave him short shrift and sent this tawdry piece of financial fascism to the Senate Economics Legislation Committee where experts can demolish the Government’s lamentable excuses that this set of riding instructions from the money power has something to do with curbing the black economy, tax evasion or organised crime. The $10,000 cash limit came out of the blue at a time when governments and reserve banks around the world are resorting to unprecedented radical measures in a sure sign of desperation. Any Australian who does not smell a rat must be a heavy smoker who has lost his olfactory senses.
As the political parties struggle to decide whether they are Arthur or Martha our best hope for the immediate future is that the Parliament will do its job, examine legislation and investigate the motives of the Executive with its links to vested interests and their lobbyists ….while ignoring the antics of Scomo and Albo, of Boris and the Donald.
Jerry Roberts is a former parliamentary reporter and a member of the ALP