This post was contributed by Dr Shelley Bielefeld, Senior Lecturer in the Griffith Law School and a member of the Law Futures Centre.

What began as a short term ‘trial’ for 12 months became an ongoing administrative burden for many social security recipients forced on to the Cashless Debit Card (CDC). Adapted from Twiggy Forrest’s Review into Indigenous Jobs and Training recommendation for a ‘Healthy Welfare Card’, the CDC embedded welfare conditionality for thousands of cardholders who had to activate their cards under the (mostly) compulsory system or go without the majority of their social security income.

Some people ‘volunteered’ for the CDC program in the Northern Territory as a transition from the (mostly) compulsory BasicsCard following the then Coalition Federal Government’s failed attempt to make that transition mandatory in December 2020. However, the overwhelming majority of CDC holders were offered social security payments via that card on a ‘take or leave it’ basis – an experience described as ‘duress’ by one distressed person impacted by the program and strongly criticised by many others.

Although the then Coalition Federal Government had claimed that the CDC was supported and co-designed with Indigenous communities where it was introduced, this view has been contested by numerous First Nations people in CDC locations. During field work many people from these locations indicated that they had not been involved in any community consultations about the CDC and/or did not agree to it coming in to their communities in the manner that it did with mandatory application to a broad range of people in need of social security in jurisdictions outside the Northern Territory.

In field work sites where the program has been introduced the vast majority of people interviewed as part of my research who were on the CDC stated that they think people should be given a choice about whether they are put on programs such as these. The importance of autonomy and personal control over budgetary decisions was regularly repeated – something that most people on the card felt had been undermined by the CDC. The overwhelming majority of interviewees expressed a clear preference for cash payments rather than having their income restricted to the CDC.

Some CDC holders gave feedback that Indue Ltd were difficult to deal with. Indue Ltd is the financial services provider administering the CDC in all jurisdictions where it operates except the Northern Territory where the CDC is provided through the Traditional Credit Union. One young Aboriginal woman explained that Indue Ltd deal with you ‘like you’re a terrorist’ and said she did not want to be answering questions all the time from Indue staff about why she wanted to make particular purchases. This was felt to be intrusive and a violation of her privacy.

The infantilising nature of the CDC was objected to by numerous interviewees who commented that ‘kids should be on Indue not adults’, the government ‘have invaded our privacy, our independence, they’ve taken it all’, and ‘you’ve got no freedom with your own money with choice of spending’ on the CDC. One older Aboriginal woman stated ‘the government is not our father to be telling us what to do.’ Several older Aboriginal interviewees explained that they had worked all their lives and to be placed on compulsory cashless social security payments was as insulting as it was unnecessary.

The poverty surveillance embedded in the CDC has been felt as a burden. For instance, one young Aboriginal woman said the CDC is about ‘being controlled’ with ‘how to spend our money’ and that this led to more stress for people. This is understandable given legacies of colonialism in Australia that have systematically and intensively regulated First Nations people.

In terms of life on the CDC, interviewees gave accounts of their struggles to purchase what they needed when they needed it for items such as school photos, school lunches, school excursions, cars, particular items of women’s clothing, online shopping, hotel accommodation when travelling, and local community events requiring cash such as local festivals. Cardholders interviewed repeatedly relayed how the CDC had made managing their money more difficult – contrary to the legislative objective added in 2020 that the CDC was to ‘support program participants and voluntary participants with their budgeting strategies’ (section 124PC of the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 (Cth)).

At the time of writing, the Department of Social Services CDC website still describes the CDC in the following terms:

‘The Cashless Debit Card looks and operates like any other bank card and can be used in most shops, which accept Visa or eftpos, including overseas. The card operates like a standard bank card and supports a range of flexible payment options including online transfers, BPAY, most online shopping, and recurring deductions. The only time the card cannot be used is for the purchase of alcohol, gambling products, cash-like gift cards or to withdraw cash.’

However, during field work problems have been raised in terms of the CDC not working in the ways that the Federal Government said it would – and many people stated that the then Coalition government had responded dismissively to concerns raised by Aboriginal elders and community members.

Although a small number of interviewees had positive things to say about the CDC, the vast majority of people were weary of the program and the impact it had on them and their families. For example, several people relayed that the CDC has ‘been horrible’, ‘been hard’, and ‘caused a lot of drama’. Interviewees explained ‘we want cash in the hand you know’ and it is ‘hard to work with a card that is weighing you down’.

Although legislative processes were put in place for CDC exit and exemption under sections 124PHA and 124PHB of the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 (Cth) these processes were described by interviewees as eliminating privacy, with intense scrutiny over the daily minutiae of their lives. Interviewees relayed that the level of documentation required was too much for most people to navigate, in effect producing a system that was inaccessible for the majority of cardholders. The exit and exemption system put in place was ‘dysfunctional by design’.

The overwhelming majority of interviewees stated that they wanted the CDC stopped, and they wanted the mandatory CDC to end as soon as possible. For example, several people interviewed stated: ‘stop the Indue card’, ‘we want to get off Indue’, ‘take the white card away’, ‘get us off it’, ‘we’re not on drugs or drinks’, and ‘we’ve all had enough’.

In response to feedback about the CDC the Labor Federal Government has recently enacted the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Repeal of Cashless Debit Card and Other Measures) Act 2022 (Cth) which ‘will see 17,300 participants start to transition off the cashless debit card program.’ Labor has promised ‘The cashless debit card program will be completely abolished in all sites – including the Northern Territory and the Cape York and Doomadgee regions – early next year.’

Amongst other things, the 2022 amendments insert a mirror provision facilitating swift exit from the CDC program under sections 124G(8) & (9) applying to CDC holders in Ceduna, 124PGA(8) & (9) applying to CDC holders in the East Kimberley, 124PGB(8) & (9) applying to CDC holders in the Goldfields area, and 124PGC(8) & (9) applying to CDC holders in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay area. These mirror provisions set out the following new conditions for ‘Ceasing to be a program participant’:

(8)       A person may make a request to the Secretary to cease to be a program participant under this section. The request cannot be withdrawn or revoked.

(9)       If the person does so, the Secretary must give the person a notice stating that the person ceases to be a program participant under this section. The notice comes into force on a day specified in the notice (which must be no later than 7 days after the day on which the request was made).

These amendments will be a welcome relief to many CDC holders who have endured time consuming, frustrating and frequently fruitless exit and exemption processes under sections 124PHA and 124PHB of the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 (Cth).

On 4 October the Minister for Social Services, Amanda Rishworth, advised people on the CDC that they can exit the program promptly, stating ‘if you’re on the Cashless Debit Card in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, Ceduna, or the Goldfields and East Kimberley regions, you can contact Services Australia to be transitioned off the card in one simple conversation.’ She stated that Services Australia will be contacting CDC holders in the Northern Territory and Cape York about ‘new arrangements’.

It has been reported that ‘a new compulsory income-management scheme’ will be introduced in 2023 and that ‘The new card will eventually replace both the cashless debit card and the similar BasicsCard, which has been used in the NT’. This is concerning given the lack of evidence that compulsory cashless social security payment cards are effective in achieving the legislative objectives and policy goals set out by various Federal Governments over a prolonged period of policy experimentation. It is also concerning given the issues with access to technology in many of Australia’s remote regions where internet connectivity, phone connectivity and weather events can interrupt policy plans premised upon the belief that technology always works reliably and is affordable for those required to use it to obtain access to essentials.

Minister Rishworth has stated that the Labor Federal Government ‘in the long term want to see income management voluntary’. However, those who have been waiting on the BasicsCard as a compulsory measure since it was first introduced as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (the Intervention) have already been waiting too long. People on compulsory income management want to be free from the racism and poverty exacerbated by the BasicsCard. They deserve to be free from the negative stereotypes perpetuated through the Intervention.

Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comprise only 3.8% of Australia’s overall population they have been routinely grossly overrepresented in CDC statistics. They are also overwhelmingly overrepresented under the BasicsCard program. First Nations people will therefore continue to be disproportionately represented under the new ‘enhanced income management regime’ set out in the 2022 CDC Repeal Act which is likely to raise compliance problems with Australia’s obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

While the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Repeal of Cashless Debit Card and Other Measures) Act 2022 (Cth) reflects a welcome end point for the CDC program, this legislation represents a missed opportunity to address all forms of compulsory cashless social security payment cards as outdated modes of hard paternalism that have not delivered what their policy proponents promised.

This research has been carried out as part of the project: Regulation and Governance for Indigenous Welfare: Poverty Surveillance and its Alternatives (DE180100599).