One of the four Aboriginal leaders who supported and influenced the decision to introduce the cashless debit card into Western Australia’s East Kimberley region has withdrawn his support three years after the rollout.
Miriuwung and Gajerrong Corporation executive chairman Lawford Benning is distancing himself from the cashless debit card after seeing what he has described as “injustices” forced upon his community.
“I was lead to believe at the time [of the negotiations], that some of the stuff that us leaders put in place were gonna be actioned or put in there for our people to get off it, and then us as a local panel to have the delegated authority to get people off it,” Mr Benning told NITV’s The Point.
“But I started to really see injustice occurring and occurring, that was there before my time, and it felt like we were punishing people rather than empowering people to really have a go at their lives," he said. "I just don’t want to be part of it anymore."
In April 2016, four Aboriginal leaders worked with former minister for Human Services Alan Tudge and former minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion to implement the cashless debit card into Kununurra, Wyndham and surrounding communities.
The reasoning behind the introduction of the card to the region was to decrease a combination of high level welfare dependency and high levels of community harm caused by alcohol, gambling and drug use.
The cashless debit card applies to all East Kimberley residents who receive a payment from Centrelink, with the exception of Aged and Veterans’ Pensions.
Eighty per cent of a participants’ payment goes onto the Indue card and the remaining 20 per cent goes into their personal account. The Indue card cannot be used to withdraw money, purchase alcohol or for gambling.
Many residents in the trial site were angered by the government’s decision.
Miriuwung Gajerrong woman Julie Diganr-Toby, an interpreter at the Kununurra hospital and at Centrelink, told The Point locals felt insufficiently informed about the implementation card before the roll out.
“There was no meeting, we didn’t get notified for any meeting with anybody or any government department,” she said.
“We got the cashless card in an envelope and we gotta read all that instructions on what we can and cant do with it, and then when it said it was gonna take most of our money, I wasn’t too happy about that.”
Ms Diganri-Toby said if there had been a town meeting, residents would have voted against the introduction of the cashless debit card.
“If they let us know before they bring it in, we would have had a big say in rejecting it,' she said. "You gotta talk to people. Sit down with us, not just listen to them mob in the office."
According to the government, the cashless card trial consists of three parts- the cashless welfare card; comprehensive support services to help people break their addictions; and a community leadership group to guide the implementation.
Lawford Benning said the selling point to sign on for the cashless card was the promise from the government to introduce wrap-around services such as counselling for drug and alcohol abuse, emotional and mental health, and also financial assistance. He alleges the government has failed to deliver on this promise.
“So you’re looking at your alcohol rehab, the counselling- social and emotional wellbeing, and financial counselling as well, but we didn’t really get that.”
A spokesperson for the federal department of social services told NITV News the government has invested into wrap-around services in the East Kimberley region.
The Government said they have provided $1.559 million to increase the capacity of existing support services to help people reduce use or dependence on alcohol and other drugs, and improve their financial management practices.
“The Government has matched this amount every year, with the proposed fourth-year package being valued at $1.625m," the statement said.
The government said the funding builds on new services and also existing programs in the trial site area. In the town of Kununurra, financial support services are being provided and the local AMS also provides alcohol and drug support.
But there’s hope in sight for cashless card participants. In April, the Commonwealth government announced a new opt-out option will be available soon. To exit the Cashless Debit Card program, participants need to demonstrate reasonable and responsible management of their financial affairs.
However, for the locals in the East Kimberley region the past three years have been a hard adjustment. Kununurra cashless card participant Maureen Winton said she would like to see the politicians and town leaders be put on the cashless card so they know how it feels.
“I don’t even know what this Indue card is for. I think it's just a thing they have to control the black people," she said.
– For more, watch NITV's #ThePoint (Ch34) 8.30pm, Wednesdays. Or catch up on this episode here.