Labor’s new welfare plan gives communities a voice – but there is concern the quietest won’t be heard

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The cashless debit card began as a great new hope to help stem some of Australia’s most intractable problems, from welfare dependency to alcohol abuse and coercive control.

It was touted by prime ministers, community leaders and academics as a new way forward.

But six years since its introduction by the Coalition, the Albanese government has followed through on an election pitch to see it dead in the water.

Amended laws passed through Parliament this week to scrap the card: and in doing so, the goalposts have once again been shifted for thousands of remote and regional Australians.

The card had compulsorily quarantined 80 per cent of more than 17,000 welfare recipients’ payments, preventing them from spending it on alcohol or gambling, or withdrawing that money as cash.

It was rolled out in six sites in South and Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory – with more than half of the participants identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Citing various studies, Labor ran hard on the platform that the card hadn’t worked: alcohol abuse remained high in the card’s locations and welfare dependency continued to grow.

They labelled it as “racist and unjust”.

Now, with the party’s legislation to abolish the scheme successfully passed, a new future looms for those on the card.

Opposition critical of changes

Many of those people will from next week have the chance to choose whether or not they want to remain on income management, and if they do, it’ll be on a new card system that locks up less of their pay.

Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, touted the shift towards a voluntary system as “the result of listening to the voices of communities”.

“This card diminished lives enormously, and that is what we heard,” Ms Burney said this week.

The government has also poured around $65 million into additional drug and alcohol support services and “community-led” programs to assist people off welfare across the card locations of Ceduna in SA, the East Kimberley and Goldfields in WA, as well as Hervey Bay and Bundaberg in Queensland.

But as the transition takes place, new risks will undoubtedly appear – some of which may take more to mitigate than the millions of dollars Labor is spending to lessen the impact.

Critics have suggested a voluntary system could see more women being humbugged for money by a relative – or a threatening spouse – to sign a form and get more cash released.

“What they don’t realise is that saying, ‘look, we’ll make it optional,’ makes it worse,” Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds said in the Senate this week.

“If you’re an abused woman who is on the card, what do you think your partner is going to do?

“Do you think he’s going to say: ‘Yes, no problem. You just keep that card. Don’t worry about giving me the cash.’ It makes women in particular more vulnerable than less vulnerable.”

Senator Reynolds is among opponents who suggest a voluntary system will only harden a culture of silence that protects those who seek to do wrong with other people’s money.

Delicate tightrope after card

There’s no evidence yet to prove that theory, and Aboriginal organisations supportive of the card being ditched believe such risks can be carefully managed.

“If somebody does have the evidence or is aware of that sort of behaviour going on, then there needs to be a safe process for those complaints to be made to the relevant authorities,” said John Paterson, of the Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT.

“Not a punitive, top down [approach] – but a way to build individual, community capacity, to enable them to better manage their financial affairs.”

A delicate tightrope now lies ahead for the communities set to lose the cashless debit card; a fine line between freedom of financial choice and protecting people at-risk.

A balance between giving people a voice and simultaneously ensuring the quietest of those are not silenced or overshadowed in the process.

(Original ABC Article)