“Fails The Human Rights Test”: Australia’s Cashless Welfare Card

Since its 2016 trial beginnings in rural Australian towns, the Coalition’s enforcement of the Cashless Welfare Card has been a contested issue. Now, with the Morrison government’s new plans to expand the scope of its power, further restrictions will limit the spending habits of welfare recipients from selected towns.

While it is unsure how much of the payment will be quarantined – with estimations ranging from 50-100 percent of benefits being limited – lawyers claim that over 80 percent of people affected by the new changes will be Indigenous Australians. The scheme has ignited new criticisms from welfare and human rights advocates.

Describing it as a “micro-managing” policy that denies people the “freedom to make the decisions about where to buy things like food”, Adrianne Walters – a senior lawyer for The Human Rights Law Centre – argued that the “core” of the policy was innately “discriminative and coercive”. At a recent Senate inquiry into the bill, Walters explained that “imposing a blanket law [which] forcibly restricts how and where a person can spend their money, fails the human rights test”.

It is a view that is shared by Marcia Langton, who emphasized that “bureaucrat after bureaucrat has wielded a big stick to punish the poor”. The Indigenous academic initially supported the trials but has since changed her position: a critical feature of the policy design, was never implemented. Indigenous leaders within remote towns had recommended that locals committees should oversee the election of participants who would not be included in the trials and should receive the full amount of entitlements. Professor Langton asserted that the scheme “viciously” and “savagely punished” recipients, instead of gradually weaning them off social security.

In an interview with the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison was questioned about how the policy reflected a “nanny state” and further impinged upon the personal liberties which the Liberal government strongly endorses. The PM defended the decision to extend and expand the trials for the cashless debit card. He went on to maintain that the cards provide an additional incentive for recipients to gain employment and lowered substance abuse. Morrison argued that “one of the key reasons that it has been working is because it has been embraced by the communities where it’s been put in place.”

A government-commissioned report reiterated Morrison’s praise. It had found that the cashless debit card had been effective in “reducing alcohol consumption and gambling” in some trial communities. However, what is imperative to understand is that the auditor-general report – which examines the effectiveness, efficiency, and economy of government programs and services – assessed that the trial findings were inadequate. The auditor-general report concluded that the government’s approach had effectively cherry-picked its reported data, and “as a consequence, it is difficult to conclude whether there had been a reduction in social harm and whether the card was lower-cost welfare quarantining approach”.

In quarantining 80 percent of a recipient’s social welfare payments, benefits – at this present time –can only be spent on government-approved essentials (paying bills and reoccurring payments, shopping at approved stores), and cash is unable to be withdrawn. Under the new legislation exists a proposal to restrict 100 percent of recipient’s payments, in some scenarios. Envisioning it as the plastic remedy which eradicates the devastating effects of welfare fuelled alcohol, gambling, and substance abuse, the card is seemingly inconspicuous.

What cannot be concealed, is the scheme’s discriminative and patronizing focus on Indigenous communities and peoples. If there is indeed to be a permanent solution in eliminating substance abuse and gambling addiction, there should be more funding in Indigenous outreach centres and healthcare services provided for those who are marginalized and most vulnerable. Aside from reinforcing the shame that is associated with receiving welfare payments, the cashless welfare card is a mandatory initiative for those receiving benefits within-trial communities, and to opt-out of the program, one must prove their self-sufficiency.