Report Tabling Regional Development and Decentralisation Committee
Posted on Monday, 5 February, 2018
Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (17:59): I'm very proud to stand in this chamber as the member representing the first community in Australia that had the gumption to attack one of the great social evils within its midst—in particular, excessive alcohol consumption. That community is Ceduna and the surrounding communities of Yalata, Oak Valley, Koonibba and a number of homeland communities around Ceduna. Ceduna isn't an Indigenous town as such—about 20 per cent of the population is Indigenous—and problem drinking is not just an Indigenous issue. That's why I was so proud of the community, with the charge led by their mayor, Allan Suter, and a number of Indigenous representatives who walked the mile with us and saw the introduction of the cashless welfare card in Ceduna.
I was very pleased with the interim report on the trial, which came down a little over 12 months ago, but was particularly pleased with the final report. The trial has been extended. I thank members opposite for their support of that extension, but I am incredibly mystified by their intention to try to deny the current legislation.
Let me tell you how good the cashless welfare card has been in Ceduna. It is extremely popular with the broader population, but also, from my interactions, with the majority of those who are on welfare, because the welfare card is so designed that it really won't impact on your lifestyle at all if you are managing your life well. If you are taking the payments that the Commonwealth gives you to care for yourself and your family in a correct manner, it will not have an impact. Increasingly in this world, as we all know, in the supermarket and in almost any shop you can just wave the card and it debits the account. One of the problems with the BasicsCard is that it came with a level of shame. The BasicsCard looks different—the blue card. When people that hold a BasicsCard go into a supermarket, everyone can see that they are on the blue card. But a cashless welfare card looks just like everybody else's debit card, so there is no shame. That's a great move forward.
So it is that I come to some of the key evaluations in the final report. In the first six months great improvements were made, with a reduction in alcohol and illegal drug use and gambling. After the wave 2 data, the second evaluation, we found that those reductions were not only sustained but also broadened, with a larger proportion of cashless debit card participants reporting reduced levels of those behaviours. I will start with one, being the reduction in gambling. For those people in the Australian community who gamble responsibly, it's a good thing—it is no problem if you manage it correctly. For those who have less disposable income to lose on gambling machines, there can be very harmful results for their families. If you are on a welfare payment, you must remember that that payment is for you to look after yourself and your primary responsibility—your family.
The intake of poker machines was shown to have dropped by 12 per cent. That does not sound like a big reduction, but the figures from the South Australian government survey actually cover another four communities besides Ceduna in the cashless welfare area. Those figures, which include Cummins, Lock, Streaky Bay and Elliston, where there are poker machine outlets, are likely to be much, much higher—I would suggest around a 50 per cent reduction, but certainly 40 per cent. That is considerable. The shops in the region have reported increased turnovers. In the case of Oak Valley, a remote Indigenous community some 300 kilometres out, there was one food truck every two weeks. Now there's a food truck every week. What a wonderful outcome for the people living in that community!
In the wave 1 examination, we found that 25 per cent reported they were drinking less frequently. In wave 2, that went to 41 per cent. In wave 2, people were asked how often they have more than six drinks on one occasion. Thirty-seven per cent more people said they are drinking less drinks than previously. Thirty-eight per cent of participants who reported drinking alcohol stated that they drank alcohol weekly or more often, which was a substantial reduction from the 63 per cent that were measured in wave 1, which we had considered to be a reduction on what existed prior to the welfare card. This is having an incredible impact.
Let me tell you a story, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was out in Ceduna—I visit it frequently—visiting the drying out centre about three or four years ago. They have a drying out centre there with 12 beds. I was talking to the staff—it was all quiet during the day—and I said, 'What was it like last night?' It was full. I asked, 'What was it like?' There were two couples. The men were bad enough. The women were far worse. That was the nursing staff's assessment. One lady was eight months pregnant, and she could not stop throwing up. Now, we know what damage fetal alcohol syndrome is causing in these communities. How can we stand in this place and deny a path that has shown it has effective results?
If this were a positive education type of touchy-feely thing that was working to the extent that these figures we are given tell us, it would be acclaimed not just in Australia but worldwide as an incredible breakthrough. That's why I'm so mystified, now that the Labor Party has walked away from what I thought was a very good mutual understanding that we would go softly, softly, consult with communities and build trust. It's worth pointing out that, when the 20 per cent designated figure was arrived at in Ceduna, we reached that by negotiation with the Ceduna community. It was suggested at one stage that 15 per cent of their income should be delivered in cash. They insisted on 20 per cent. The minister at the time, Minister Tudge, agreed to the 20 per cent. They had their fingers on this reform. I said to them at the time, 'You've got the chance, really, to set the parameters for the rest of Australia to address itself to.' And it has so happened. After that time Kununurra, of course, came on.
For so many things, across so many indicators, there have been great outcomes. In fact, it's really hard to find the flaw in the process. It comes back to this basic tenet that, if you're managing your income well and you're doing the right thing with your income, it won't affect you. As I said, 48 per cent of people are gambling less and 48 per cent of people are taking fewer drugs. I remember speaking to the mayor on one occasion. There was a little protest group and I said, 'Who's that over there?' He was a little dismissive but he said, 'I'll tell you who doesn't like this program. It's the drug dealers.' What a worry! The drug dealers don't like the cashless debit card, because, I can tell you, they don't carry around the little card reader. They're not interested in plastic sales. They're only interested in cash. So it is of great benefit. I've had approaches from a few people in the area who feel as though it's an infringement on their civil rights. One gentleman said that he can no longer buy meat from local farmers that has been killed on-farm. That's actually an illegal activity anyway, just quietly. People shouldn't be supplying meat to anyone from local farms, and certainly not for cash. If you're doing the right thing, it will not infringe.
As I have said before, I'm so proud of this community. They've really stuck their necks out. I said to them along the way: 'I believe you're forging a path for Australia. You are showing what may well become the way that welfare will be delivered right across the country because if it works in Ceduna, why on earth wouldn't it work in Port Augusta? And if it works in Port Augusta, why wouldn't it work in Adelaide? And if it works in Adelaide, why wouldn't it work in Sydney?' But it isn't as if the government has made a decision to do that. What it's doing is trialling this process around Australia. We've already got two communities participating that have a high Indigenous mix in their social profile, although Kununurra's Indigenous mix in their social profile is a little higher than Ceduna's. We also have Kalgoorlie, which is a bit of a step up, although its profile is a little less Indigenous, and Bundaberg is less so again. That's why it's so important to get this program into these areas and start knocking the barnacles off it. That's why it's been so good in Ceduna. When issues have come up in Ceduna, we've been able to address them quite quickly and then alter the template for what we might do in another place. I remember being contacted by an op shop. They said, 'We don't have a proper connection to be able to get the plastic card to work.' We managed to fix that quite quickly. These are the little teething issues.
I think there are some myths out there. I've been told anecdotally that a number of families and individuals have shifted from Ceduna to Port Augusta, around 500 kilometres away, to get away from the cashless welfare card. That's an absolute furphy, because you can't get away from it. If you are listed in a community at the time the cashless welfare card is implemented, you cannot just change your address and leave those requirements behind. And that cashless welfare card will work the same all over Australia. Sure, there are more things to be done with it. We will have to use more finesse in working on this card, which is why it's so important it now goes into larger communities with different social make-ups.
I fully support the card. I'm the member who has had to stick his neck out over this card. Let me tell you how popular it is: people from all over my electorate come up to me and say, 'You're on the right track.' We believe that people need to manage the income allocated to them from the taxpayer in a correct and proper manner; that they use it for their good health, their benefit and especially for the benefit of their families; that they manage those families correctly; that they get their kids to school, they get shoes on those kids' feet and they feed them correctly. It's hard to do that if you're feeding a drug habit, it's hard to do that if you're feeding money into poker machines and it's hard to do that if you're drunk all the time. This measure directly addresses those issues. Sure it comes with some challenges for some people, but they are the exact people who need our help. To shy away and turn our backs on them is a retrograde step. We need to step up to the plate.
I make the point that the progression to the cashless debit card in Ceduna came about as a result of the coroner's findings that six deaths in and around Indigenous communities in Ceduna happened basically because of overindulgence in alcohol. People were killed on the road; people died in unsheltered places. The report is a harrowing read, quite frankly. The community decided collectively that they had to do something about it. They had to stand up and be counted, which is why, as I said, I'm so proud of them. I strongly commend this bill, and I hope that those on the other side of this parliament will consider their stance and reconsider supporting the bill. Thank you.