Cashless Cards And Rising Crime: An Intervention That Keeps On Giving


Facing electoral annihilation and media pressure, the Howard Government launched an unprecedented assault on Aboriginal rights and communities. A decade on, Senator Rachel Siewert says the federal government is still hiding behind its failures.

I’ll never forget the day the Government announced the Northern Territory Intervention.

It was a decade ago and I had been a Senator for two years.

I knew the going would be tough; John Howard controlled both houses of the Federal Parliament, decisions were being made that carved away at important industrial relations protections and our social safety net.

I thought that I had already built some resilience to these destructive decisions that sailed through the Parliament, but the announcement of the Intervention really took my breath away.

At the time of the announcement, and as the Government prepared to send the army into the Northern Territory, a group of senior Aboriginal women from the NT sat in my office for an unrelated meeting and sobbed.

The intervention ripped decision making powers away from Aboriginal people, and wrapped up into this policy was the Basics Card, a form of income management that to this day has failed in its objectives.

Greens Senator for Western Australia Rachel Siewert.
Greens Senator for Western Australia Rachel Siewert.

Disadvantage is still entrenched and KPIs not met, yet the Government still refuses to unwind it. The Basics Card was always set up to fail because health research suggests that control over one’s own life choices and autonomy are huge factors in good health outcomes. A top-down approach based on negative stereotypes is unlikely to deliver positive outcomes.

Despite the failure of the Intervention and income management, the Government decided to trial a card that quarantined 80 per cent of a person’s income support.

The cashless welfare card restricts anyone on a working age income support payment to just 20 per cent cash, and 80 per cent to a card supposedly to stop spending on alcohol, drugs or gambling.

The card meant people struggling to get by could not take out more than 20 per cent of their income support payment to pay cash at a garage sale, at a market, fair or fete, at an op-shop; they could not pool in for presents, or give their kids lunch money.

As anticipated, the year-long trial supported by the two old parties has turned out to be a rubber stamp; spruiked with premature evidence, anecdotes and ideology for the entire year of the trial. Some journalists would be cherry-picked and flown to the trial sites for a personal tour by the Minister for positive write-ups.

Journalists were sent snippets of an interim ‘confidential report’ that, according to the Department of Social Services in senate estimates, did not exist. It miraculously appeared a week and a half later and had clearly been thrown together. Raw data sets were not questioned; sweeping statements and anecdotal feedback were treated like gospel.

We have just seen the release of the first part of the evaluation report and, surprise surprise, the Government is using it to justify an extension of the card beyond the initial trial period when half of the participants on the card are saying they are worse off on the card.

Elder Kingie Ross, pictured in his humpy in the remote Utopian outstation of Irrultja.
Elder Kingie Ross, pictured in his humpy in the remote Utopian outstation of Irrultja.

Evidence pulled from the questionable research report claims the card has been a success. The report is largely based on qualitative, anecdotal ‘evidence’ and often reports peoples’ perceptions and second hand information. The report draws flawed conclusions and the methodology is questionable.

Key up-to-date statistics from the South Australian police and WA has been left out of the report. In SA the trial site and surrounds had seen a large jump in robbery and related offences (up 111 per cent), aggravated robbery (up 120 per cent), non-aggravated robbery (up 400 per cent) and serious criminal trespass (up 20 per cent).

The evaluation reports against just one of the Government’s supposed four aims of the trial. In my view, the trial failed on all four.

Despite all of this, the card trials have been extended, recipients told the trials would only last a year will no doubt be devastated; on top of this the Government is hinting at a national rollout, a regional rollout, or a youth-focused roll out.

The level of spin by our Government to shine the card in the best possible light is something we should all be talking about. By the time these cards are in the wallets of every person accessing the social safety net, it will be too late to unpick.

We must continue to point out the fundamental flaws in this approach before it is too late.

Rachel Siewert is a Federal Greens Senator for Western Australia. She is the Party's Whip, and spokesperson on family and community services, ageing, disabilities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, agriculture and rural affairs and the marine environment.