Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017 - Second Reading


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (12:28): It's a pleasure to take part in this debate following Senator Bernardi, who has a wonderful turn of phrase. His perspicuity in his comments about the Nick Xenophon Team and the Greens are worth recording for posterity. I congratulate Senator Bernardi for his understanding and shouting out of two political parties who are really a waste of time and a waste of space—one might say oxygen thieves—when it comes to serious policy debate in in chamber.

The cashless debit card, as many senators have said, was first introduced on a trial basis in March of 2016 at Ceduna in South Australia, and this was followed by further trials at Kununurra and Wyndham in the Kimberley. These trials, by anyone's assessment, have been an unmitigated success. Alcohol consumption in these communities has fallen, gambling and illicit substance abuse has been curtailed and alcohol related violence has been reduced. It's also been reported that 30 per cent of people impacted by the reform have reported being better able to care for their families and save money. Some cynics might say, 'It's only 30 per cent; it's not 100 per cent,' but in this area of social policy having 30 per cent of a selected group better off is well worth the effort of undertaking the exercise.

The measures in the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017 will remove some limitations on the rollout of the cashless welfare card and allow the program to be introduced into my state of Queensland, and that's really why I am contributing to this debate. I know that in the last budget the government announced that the cashless welfare card would be expanded to two new locations. One of them is in my home state of Queensland in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay region—in the Maryborough area of Central Queensland. It is one of the parts of Queensland that perhaps has the lowest socioeconomic profile, and it's one where there are real concerns with family violence, with alcohol and drug abuse and with various other forms of addiction that have impacted on so many families.

The rollout is good news for my state of Queensland and certainly good news for the people of Bundaberg. I know that the local federal member for Hinkler, Mr Pitt, consulted widely, as did the department, in relation to the introduction in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay area. All sensible and mature community leaders support the extension of the trial into that region.

I'm very hopeful that a similar initiative will be taken in the Townsville region—where I have my office and where I live, south of Townsville, in a place called Ayr—because Townsville, regrettably, has been hit by very high unemployment and all of the social problems that follow unemployment and despair. Small business has been struggling. The unemployment is too high, but there are some bright lights on the horizon. For example, 800 families have been employed in Queensland by the Adani company as part of their railway line construction for the coalfields in the Galilee Basin.

I cannot understand why Labor politicians, particularly those like the Labor member for Herbert, Ms Cathy O'Toole, are lukewarm—that is the most positive way I can say it—in their support for this construction initiative which would mean so much for the Townsville district. I and my party support the Adani project because of the jobs it would create. Already, I repeat, 800 families have jobs in Queensland thanks to Adani. The Labor mayor of Townsville, Councillor Jenny Hill, is a very courageous person. Councillor Hill is fully committed to the Adani project. Why? Because it means jobs for Townsville people and a real boost for small business in Townsville.

I've asked Councillor Hill to join with me in seeking a clarification from the Labor opposition leader, Mr Shorten, on the comments he made as part of his campaign to maintain the seat of Batman and stem an onslaught from the Greens political party. Unfortunately, it seems that the opposition leader is trying to match the Greens promises in any way that needs to be done to retain that seat. Quite frankly, I don't care what happens in Batman but I do care about the impact of the promises Mr Shorten is making in Batman on the workers of North and Central Queensland.

Similarly, I cannot understand why the CFMEU—the 'M' being for 'mining'—are not wholeheartedly supporting the Adani project for the jobs it would create in railway construction, mine construction and eventually in an export-oriented mine in Central Queensland. The construction workers and mining workers would be members of the CFMEU. I know the CFMEU has a huge influence in the operations and policy of the ALP. It simply beggars my belief why the CFMEU would just be following the old Labor line of anti-everything, because it's their members who would benefit from Adani. But I digress slightly.

This cashless welfare card helps many jobseekers establish the security and stability they need in their lives to effectively re-enter the employment market. The card has been proven to work. It has been proven to reduce domestic violence and it has been proven to have better outcomes for those who do use some of their welfare money for alcohol and drugs. It's clear that not everyone does that, but there is a significant proportion of the community on welfare who do use the money for alcohol, for drugs, for gambling, which means their family and their children do without.

There are reported cases of alcohol-fuelled violence and violence because families don't have enough to eat. They don't have enough to send the kids to school properly, and that causes family problems. Here is a solution, which has proved to have worked in Ceduna and in the Kimberley. It's has proved to have worked and it does bring benefits. That's why I support this rollout to the Bundaberg-Maryborough-Hervey Bay area of my state of Queensland. That's why the community leaders in those communities also support this. And I look forward to the day when community leaders in Townsville will petition for the cashless welfare card to be introduced in the their region.

Again, I cannot understand why the Labor member for Herbert, Ms Cathy O'Toole, opposes this. She knows better than I do the impact of alcohol-related family violence, the problems of children not having the right money for school or food, because the welfare recipient has used the money for gambling or drugs or, more often in my region, on alcohol. Again, I acknowledge this is not 100 per cent of the people; I'm not putting everyone in that same basket. But this proposal will not affect those who already manage their welfare cheques well one iota.

Why Ms O'Toole would be supporting the Greens in their opposition to this real initiative to stop child abuse, lack of food for children, lack of proper schooling—I simply cannot believe it.

Senator Siewert: It's not true.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I hear Senator Siewert screaming something from the crossbench about this not being true. I'm sorry, but I will take my advice from people who know—that is, the department that is interested, that does the surveys and that follows these things. It is not part of a political party that simply wants to compete with Labor in the rush to the left in the hope that it might win the seat of Batman.

These are proven results. Although it won't affect 100 per cent of the people, even if you can see a noticeable difference in those impacted, of 30 per cent, then that's got to be a good thing. I repeat: the evidence shows that those who are doing the right thing with their welfare won't be impacted at all. They already spend their money not on alcohol or on drugs or on gambling, but on buying food for their families and children and making sure their children have sufficient resources to attend school as part of the school community in the normal way. Those people are already doing it, so giving them the cashless debit card is not going to make one iota of difference. I cannot understand people like Ms O'Toole who claim some interest in this area, or some expertise in this area in a past life. She would know better than I the impacts on families of drug and alcohol abuse and of gambling abuse. This cashless debit card is a great way to go and assist those families.

The government that doesn't try to break that cycle of loss of self-esteem is being irresponsible in the extreme. The social impacts on affected communities, as everyone who involves themselves in this area will know, are disastrous. Add to that the psychological impact on people who are receiving benefits and who abuse substances. This is a recipe for entering a never-ending cycle of self-harming behaviours that include gambling, alcohol abuse and illicit substance abuse. We as a government feel we have a responsibility to try to help those families who, for whatever reason, are not able to help themselves. I repeat: this won't make any difference to those who can help themselves, because those families already spend the money on the right things. This will only impact upon those who do abuse alcohol and gambling, and it will try to put those families in a situation where—

Senator Pratt: Are you saying everybody on welfare abuses alcohol?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I will take the interjection, Senator Pratt. If you'd been listening to me, you would have heard me say twice already that I am not saying that 100 per cent of people on welfare abuse alcohol and drugs. But 30 per cent of affected families have been proven to be better off. Isn't even 30 per cent worth it? I cannot believe that people who are supposedly compassionate, who abhor domestic violence and who allegedly abhor substance and gambling abuse cannot see that this is a good step in the right direction—it's not the panacea, but it's a step in the right direction. It is helping some families get proper food for their kids and properly equipping them to attend school. It gives those people in those families the self-esteem to try and move forward to get one of these jobs in the Townsville and Bundaberg regions when they come from initiatives being taken by the federal government, and, I repeat, from the employment that will be created when Adani gets into full swing.

I support this project very, very strongly. As a Queenslander, I hope it can be introduced into the Hinkler region, as the department proposes, very quickly and as soon as practically we can do it. I hope the Townsville community will embrace this, to lead to a better life for their citizens.

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