Liberal backbencher lambasts Coalition’s ‘punitive’ cashless debit card welfare program | Welfare


A federal Liberal MP has issued a scathing rebuke of her own government’s cashless debit card welfare program, saying it is a “punitive” scheme that causes harm and stigma and is not backed up by evidence.

The Morrison government is seeking to pass legislation that will make trial sites in Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland permanent, and transfer more than 20,000 people in the Northern Territory from the Basics card to the cashless debit card program.

In a warning that contradicts government claims, Bridget Archer, who represents Bass in northern Tasmania, told parliament on Wednesday night it was “difficult to believe that this program will end with these current sites”.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has previously indicated he would be open to further expansion, although the government insists there are no current plans to introduce the card beyond the existing sites.

Archer said there was a “high level of anxiety” in her electorate and other areas that the card would be rolled out in other locations. She argued there was “just not enough evidence” to justify the “associated harm” the program caused.

“It’s claimed that the cashless debit card program is delivering significant benefits in the community in which the card has operated,” Archer said.

“The cashless debit trial final evaluation report indicates that those benefits are limited in nature and scope, and do not demonstrate an overall improvement in the conditions which the program is intending to address.”

She acknowledged the report found “some reductions” in alcohol and illegal drug consumption and gambling. “But it’s not clear the program delivers meaningful change long term, or just controls behaviour in the immediate sense,” she said.

“There is just not enough evidence that supports that this program is a gamechanger for these communities and the individuals placed on it to justify the associated harm that it causes.”

However, Archer said she would not vote against the bill, because there were no “alternative payment structures in place”.

“After such a long trial phase, it would require some work to transition away from it again,” she said. “I will continue to advocate for that to occur.”

The final evaluation of the program by the University of Adelaide is yet to be released. The Department of Social Services did not respond to a query about when the $2m government-commissioned report would be made public.

Labor’s social services spokeswoman, Linda Burney, said on Wednesday night: “Let’s be honest, if the University of Adelaide’s report had any positive or favourable light to shine on the cashless debit card, the government would have released the report by now. But it doesn’t.”

Guardian Australia revealed an independent quantitative study released last month found the card had no discernible impact in one trial site, Ceduna, in South Australia.

Archer also quoted a cardholder who told Guardian Australia that she understood the government’s aim with the scheme but felt it was punishing all welfare recipients.

“Just doing stuff to our communities is not the same as helping,” Archer said.

The backbencher, who noted she’d received government assistance in the past, said she could understand the “stress that so many forced on to this card would feel”.

“The cashless debit card is a punitive measure enacted on the presumption that all welfare recipients within the trial areas are incapable of managing their finances and require the government’s assistance.

“Whenever you approach a human program by inciting shame and guilt, you have already lost those you are seeking to help,” she said.

She also criticised what she said was the government’s failure to address payday lenders, while supporting income management for welfare recipients. Archer said the government had sought to address issues of stigma by improvements to the card.

But she added: “Despite the proposed changes so much damage has already been done, with many recipients reporting separate lines at supermarkets, or an inability to shop at some stores at all, as referenced by the recent Senate report. If that doesn’t make you uncomfortable, it should.”

Guardian Australia sought comment from Archer.

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