The prime minister’s proposed expansion of the cashless welfare card has been heavily criticised by Aboriginal organisations, welfare experts and opposition MPs.
But the fate of the coalition government’s welfare reforms will ultimately be decided by cross-bench senators.
The legislation would extend cashless cards trials in existing sites and introduce the system in Cape York in Queensland.
Perhaps most significantly it would replace the Basics Card in the Northern Territory which would affect more than 23,000 people – the vast majority of whom are Indigenous.
The scheme has been criticised for stigmatising welfare recipients and disproportionately targeting Indigenous communities.
Under the program, 80 per cent of a welfare recipient's income is loaded onto a non-cash debit card which cannot be used to gamble or buy alcohol.
The cards have been trialled in Ceduna in SA, the East Kimberley in WA and Goldfields in WA, and Hervey Bay in Queensland.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the results from trials are “commending itself for wider application”.
Aboriginal organisations, however, have expressed alarm that the cashless welfare card could be expanded.
John Paterson, chief executive of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT (AMSANT), said he is having déjà vu.
“This feels like the Howard era Intervention all over again,” he told NITV News.
“The last time the government intervened in the NT, and did things to us instead of with us, it failed at great cost to families and communities.”
“Aboriginal people in the NT will be most affected by this new form of top-down control and deserve the chance to give evidence. Without due consideration, this proposal makes a mockery of government rhetoric around Aboriginal-controlled decision making.”
Keith Lapulung, the director of the Arnhem Land Progress Association (ALPA), said the card would have a negative effect on Indigenous communities.
"It will take away peoples’ choice and control, their rights and self-determination," he said.
"It will add to the negative effects of the Intervention in our communities, not only taking away peoples control over their lives but by making it harder for small Indigenous businesses who may not be able to accept the card to survive.”
Stuart Robert, the government services minister, told parliament this week that the government believes the card is having a positive effect.
“The extension of the card across the four communities will allow time for further evaluation activities of the card to be completed,” he said.
“The cashless debit card is a community-driven, bottom-up approach to tackling long-term welfare dependency, social harm and welfare funded drug and alcohol abuse.”
Linda Burney, the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, said the Labor Party did not support a national roll-out of the card, but has not yet decided if it will support the program extension in Ceduna and the East Kimberly.
“It goes to whether or not it’s effective … and the evaluations so far have been quite inadequate and there needs to be proper evaluation,” she told the ABC.
“If a community has proper consultation and proper consent, and the community wants the card then Labor would not stand in the way.
“But we do not support a national roll-out of this card.”
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said that the expansion of the card was “discriminatory” and “punitive.”
“First Nations peoples are sick of things being down to them, not with them,” she said.
“There is no evidence to support the expansion of the cashless debit card so the government relies on spin and fudged figures to tell us about how great the card is.”
“I urge that people not be hoodwinked, yet again by the government in going down this punitive path, like they were over a decade ago when the Intervention was rolled out with bi-partisan support.”