A parliamentary committee has heard evidence from opponents of the government’s plan to expand the cashless welfare card program to Queensland.
The card – designed to prevent welfare recipients spending money on alcohol, illegal drugs or gambling – has been trialled in the Kimberly region in Western Australia and Ceduna in South Australia.
The scheme has not been explicitly targeted at Indigenous Australians, but they are disproportionately affected.
If legislation introduced by Social Services Minister Dan Tehan passes, the trial will be expanded to Queensland’s Bundaberg and Hervey Bay region.
It has the backing of the local MP, the LNP’s Keith Pitt, and the government is expected to try to pass the legislation through parliament again soon.
The program would apply to welfare recipients aged 35 and under. The card cannot be used to gamble or buy alcohol and only 20 per cent of welfare payments can be withdrawn in cash.
The Bundaberg and Hervey Bay trials would take the total number of participants in trial to 15,000.
Hervey Bay resident Kathryn Wilkes fears her disability support pension may be affected the card in the future. She also has concerns the card will stigmatise the next generation.
“Our kids are Aussie kids not welfare kids and I grew up in an inclusive Australia that didn’t brand people as such,” Ms Wilkes said.
“We’ve known from Ceduna and Kununurra that it’s absolutely degrading and it shouldn’t go ahead.”
Crystal Silk, a 31-year-old single mother, has been unable to find a job since she moved to Bundaberg in 2016. She worries that she will be unable to pay her car loan or manage her weekly household budget if card is rolled out.
“As a person who budgets every dollar I spend, I as many others in the community, need cash to make ends meet, so we can shop online on Gumtree or Facebook …. at garage sales on the weekend, at markets, at cash fairs and family events,” she said.
“Let’s not forget those roadside huts that farmers put their fresh fruit and vege in for a fraction of the supermarket prices.”
According to the Department of Social Services, the card can be used from approved online retailers or shops that accept EFTPOS.
However, Coles and Woolworths are not currently approved online merchants because they sell alcohol.
Peter Feerick, a law student from Central Queensland University, said he could be placed on the card despite not being linked to issues that the card is designed to address.
“I don’t smoke, I don’t gamble, I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t take illicit drugs – I don’t take any drugs at all,” he said.
He also claimed that the only chances for community members to voice concerns were three "information sessions" – including one with a $20 admission fee.
“Why has there not been a single public consultation held via a local representative?”
Annette Mason, who runs a meals program at the Bundaberg and District Neighbourhood Centre, also had concerns.
“We rely on people’s bank statements to verify their spending habits,” she said, and asked if that information would be accessible to similar organisations.
Speaking about the cashless card, she added: “I can see it being highly discriminatory, identifying the person as a welfare receiver.”
Last month, the Australian government defended the $18 million cashless welfare card trial despite an audit released finding there was “inadequate” evidence to show it reduced social harm.
“It is difficult to conclude whether there had been a reduction in social harm and whether the card was a lower cost welfare quarantining approach,” the Australian National Audit Office said in the report.
Bundaberg Mayor Jack Dempsey – a former LNP member and state minister – also revealed he had turned against the scheme.
He said the cost of the trial - $10,000 per person – would be better spent on job creation.
“It suddenly stacks up that you could nearly pay for them to have a job in the first place, he told the Guardian.
Despite the findings, the social services minister stands by the scheme.
"The cashless debit card is making a real difference in the communities where it operates," Mr Tehan said in a statement.
"[It] is an important element of the Government's work to reduce welfare-funded social harm, and to help Australians escape welfare dependency."