JERRY ROBERTS Income management by the Cashless Welfare Card

Oct 10, 2019

The Cashless Debit Card when seen in the context of 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.

As a cub reporter the only time I drove a car to work was for the early morning shift when we sorted the overnight cables. The car park attendant would say: “Good morning sir. Don’t forget to turn your lights off.” Later he was replaced by machines and given a policing job riding a scooter and writing out fines. On a wet winter’s afternoon motorists returned to their cars to find they had a flat battery because they had forgotten to turn off their headlights.

At that time we had conductors on suburban trains who would issue tickets and tell school children to stand up and give their seats to elderly gentlemen and pregnant ladies. They were replaced by machines and now we have a para-military railway security force in uniforms looking just like police officers.

Even check-out chicks are being replaced by self-serve machines in Coles, Woolworths and K Mart. We are de-humanising our society. Just a few months ago when many of us expected Labor to win the 18 May election I wrote to Honourable Members saying the first priority for the new government should be to double the number of front-line staff at Centrelink. Instead we hear that Centrelink is using robots to hound people to death. How could any Minister of any Australian government countenance such a policy?

Centrelink employees are dedicated and helpful but they are under-staffed. This country can afford generous staff levels in Centrelink providing a friendly and sympathetic atmosphere for people who need help, not drowning them in even more forms or sending them “on line.”

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 recipients receive. The remaining 80 percent is quarantined to purchases of restricted items with the goal of reducing consumption of alcohol, drugs and gambling.

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 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 systematic positive impact.”

Klein and Razi examined the current Cashless 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 getting taxpayer money isn’t unreasonable. The debates around Newstart, drug testing and expanding the use of cashless debit cards all overlap this issue.” Doubtless generations of home-makers would have welcomed a card to buy groceries after their husbands had donated their wages to publicans and bookmakers.

Nevertheless my personal opinion is that the Northern Territory Emergency Response known as The Intervention was a mistake and the Cashless Debit Card compounds the error and is dangerous. Aboriginal affairs is a purely academic policy field for the great majority of Australians who lilve in our capital cities where they are far more likely to encounter a native of Somalia than they are to meet up with a traditionally-oriented Australian Aborigine.

It is a different story in the north 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 its primary target and they know they are being put down. People don’t like being put down. I don’t like being put down.

Klein and Razi were on the spot when the card 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 high-tech neo-colonialism 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 into 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 our 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 being charged against the card. If so, who receives the fees? Was this card investigated by the Hayne team during the banking Royal Commission?

Legislators would want to study the original design of the card programme, the tendering process, the issues of intellectual property, the cost of the project 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 Limited, the Commonwealth Bank and the Minderoo Foundation which brought George Orwell’s doublespeak into the 21st Century with a flight of poetic fancy, calling the cashless debit card “the healthy living card.” When it has looked at the evidence I expect the Parliament to wind back, not extend the use of the Cashless Debit Card. Labor’s Linda Burnie has provided a face-saving solution for Canberra with her suggestion that use of the card should be voluntary.

In Katherine in the Northern Territory on a Friday night Anne and I bought fish and chips, paying an extra tenner for the barramundi. It was worth it. Beer seemed the appropriate accompaniment for this fine dining but first I had to present my driving licence to the uniformed police officer blocking the entrance to the bottle shop, then again to the sales person, who slotted the licence card into a computerised gadget that would have identified me had I been a person banned from purchasing alcohol. Only then did we collect our six-pack of mid-strength ale. It was worth it.

The procedure reminded me of my childhood in Iowa in America’s mid-west where Presidential candidates are warming up for the first Primary. Americans could buy beer at the grocery shop but American beer was undrinkable for Australians and my Dad loved American whisky, also known as bourbon. To buy it he had to produce what he called his “dog licence” at the government-run liquor store in Iowa City, a legacy of the bootlegging era of Prohibition. Ogden Nash expressed the teetotallers dilemma: “Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.”

Now our dogs and cats have microchips inserted into their bodies and I guess we will be next. Singapore airport has facial recognition technology up and running. These technologies spread faster than the Ebola virus and will soon be ubiquitous. Because they have such an array of tools to keep us humble peasants under the thumb we all know that governments with an ounce of political will and a couple of stiff drinks for courage would have no trouble at all going after the real bad guys — the multinational corporations, chief executives, bankers etc — and could easily wipe out all the offshore tax havens.

It is high time for all Australians, not just politicians and pundits, to ask Cicero’s famous question — cui bono? The common English translation is who benefits? With policies such as the Cashless Debit Card and the $10,000 cash transaction limit the translation might be broadened to “what is going on here? — what is this all about?” It sure as shootin’ is not about the official reasons given by government and vested interests.

It is about tightening the control over society held by a small group of financiers, old families, corporations and their lawyers and docile political stooges. This is the largely anonymous mass that John Curtin’s drinking mate Frank Anstey called “the money power.” Reducing or at least moderating the influence of the money power is the reason for the existence of the ALP, indeed for the existence of the modern nation state.

It is the reason the founding fathers called our young nation “The Commonwealth of Australia.” It is the reason King O’Malley campaigned for the Commonwealth Bank. This is not today’s uncommon wealth of tycoons and disgusting chief execs. It is the ye Olde English word “weal” meaning well-being or welfare. The welfare of the common man. The mission according to Nugget Coombs is “to civilise capitalism,” a task which he said “should not be beyond the wit of man.”

We will not accomplish the goal with robots and plastic cards. We need people, people who care, people in our Parliaments and public service who are not afraid, not intimidated, duchessed or corrupted or even impressed by the rich and powerful. There are signs of a fightback by democracy against the money power, starting exactly where it should, in the American Congress and the Australian Parliament. Thanks to an educated whistle-blower we know that Trump is guilty and Joe Biden is finished. I expect Elizabeth Warren to be the Presidential candidate and I hope Bernie Sanders will be her running mate, giving the Democrats a blend of brains and passion. That doesn’t mean they will beat Trump. Indeed Scott Morrison is gambling that they won’t.

In Canberra we saw a joyous awakening of our Parliament 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 anything to do with curbing the black economy, tax evasion or organised crime.

I began writing this when sitting at a coffee table in the Olive Pink Memorial Botanic Garden in Alice Springs while Anne looked at the flowers. A wallaby jumped up on the adjacent table. Rangers ask visitors not to feed her but she is the artful dodger of breakfast thieves. We were on our way to Uluru, Coober Pedy and the old South Australian copper mining town of Burra, having driven from Kununurra via Katherine and Tenant Creek.

My reading for the trip was British philosopher John Gray’s short but pithy paperback called “Seven Types of Atheism,” a title he borrowed from William Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity.” Gray often questions the concept of “progress.” As a Beethoven man I agree with him. How can there be progress beyond Opus 111? It is a contradiction in terms. Beethoven takes us to the summit of our humanity then carries us away into outer space. So does Shakespeare in The Prince of Denmark and Van Gogh painting the Church at Auvers.

Gray quotes Spanish philosopher George Santayana who died in Rome in 1950, having spent the last years of his life in a nursing home run by the Little Company of Mary, known as the Blue Nuns because of the colour of their habit. Santayana saw progress as only possible in technology and the mechanical arts. Gray summarised his point: Progress in this sense may well accelerate while the quality of civilisation declilnes.

The passage from Santayana’s “Dominations and Powers” is apposite to the matters discussed here and to the relationship between contemporary society and the various religions and the world of our Aboriginal hunter-gatherers: ” We all feel at this time the moral ambiguity of mechanical progress. It seems to multiply opportunity but it destroys the possibility of simple, rural or independent life. It lavishes information but it abolishes mastery except in trivial or mechanical proficiency. We learn many languages but degrade our own. Our philosophy is highly critical and thinks itself enlightened but is a Babel of mutually unintelligible artificial tongues.”

A feature of our journey through the East Kimberley and Northern Territory towns with which we are familiar in the Pilbara are the couples and small groups of Aboriginal people in parks and shopping centres, some of whom have had too much to drink and are prone to arguing in loud voices. These people are the prime targets of the plastic card brigade. They have never head of Josh Frydenberg but a lot of them know me and I knew their mums and dads, their grandmothers and grandfathers.

I have the impression they are not interested in our materialistic, consumer society. Neither am I, which may explain why we get on well. Subjecting them to electronic plastic card paternalism will not make them more interested in us. We need to get more interested in them and we all need to learn a lot more about our country, this harsh but strangely beautiful island, nation continent.

Jerry Roberts is a former parliamentary reporter and a member of the ALP

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