NTCOSS CEO Deborah Di Natale speaks to ABC Darwin about the expansion of the Cashless Debit Card and what it will mean for the NT

There is no conclusive proof that quarantining income works to achieve any of the stated social or behavioural objectives, but the Federal Government is pushing ahead with the expansion of the cashless debit card.


NTCOSS CEO Deborah Di Natale spoke to ABC Darwin’s Adam Steer about what it will mean for the Northern Territory, and why NTCOSS continues to oppose the card.




Adam Steer ABC Darwin : Last month, the Morrison government revealed plans to make the cashless welfare card permanent in its current Queensland, Western Australian and South Australian sites. But more importantly, the plan included moving Northern Territory welfare recipients onto the system. So what do you make of that? A cashless debit card for welfare recipients in the Northern Territory? I mean, they’ve been on the Basics card. What difference does it actually make?

So the cashless welfare card, if you don’t know the card, freezes 80 per cent of Centrelink payments, so money can only be spent on what the government has labelled essential items.

And as I said, it will replace the current Basics card in which 50 per cent of income support is quarantined and prohibits purchases on things like alcohol, drugs and gambling. In the last couple of weeks community groups have made submissions to the Senate’s Legislation Committee on Social Security regarding the cashless debit card.

One of those groups is the Northern Territory Council of Social Service. CEO is Deborah Di Natale. Deborah, welcome to the program. Good to see you.

Deborah Di Natale NTCOSS : Thanks, Adam. Good to see you.

Adam Steer : If the cashless debit card was introduced in the Northern Territory, would people get 50 per cent of their payments on their bank account and the other 50 per cent loaded into the card? That’s what the government says. That’s the same as the Basics card.

Deborah Di Natale : Well, at the moment, we actually don’t have a commitment about the amount of money that will be quarantined.

What we know on the Basics card is that 50 per cent is quarantined. What we also know in terms of the trial sites that the Federal government has implemented across Ceduna and the Kimberley is that 80 per cent were quarantined.

So if you speak to the Aboriginal community controlled organisations who have done a vast amount of work on this, there is no confidence that the minister will not move to quarantine those wages up to 80 per cent.

Adam Steer : What’s the problem with that? I very rarely have any cash in my wallet, particularly since covid. I am using my cashless debit card on an almost regular basis. What’s the problem with having 80 per cent of that money quarantined?

Deborah Di Natale : Look, that’s a really good question. I think the the whole principle that we have at the moment and just bringing up your speech that you brought of Rudd, and the fact that we’re in our first day of the NAIDOC week, I just want to also mention that we have the Federal government and the state and territories across the country who have all signed up to closing the gap agreement. That agreement at its heart talks about empowerment and it talks about people being able to make their own decisions. Now, if we’re moving towards a genuine reconciliation with First Nations people, what we do is we consult. There has been no consultation with 25,000 Territorians across the Territory who will be directly impacted. When there has been consultation it’s been fraught because it hasn’t been in language. And often we’ve heard feedback that the minister did come, but it was very quick and they could not get their points across. And what we do know is that the vast majority of communities do not want this card.

So my point is we are moving towards empowerment. We’re moving towards ensuring that we do true partnership with Aboriginal communities. And this flies in the face of that.

Adam Steer : You can’t spend money on grog. You can’t spend money on cigarettes. And you can’t spend money on alcohol. What’s wrong with quarantining the ability to spend welfare money on those three items?

Deborah Di Natale : Well, firstly, if there were an issue with that, you would say the government is trying to address it in a way that empowers communities.

But secondly, what we know from the evaluation that has been done across these the Kimberley and Ceduna is that 85 per cent of those people who went on to have 80 per cent of their wages quarantined had no issues with alcohol or gambling beforehand. So what problem are we trying to address here?

Adam Steer : But are you not answering the first question is that I’m not using cash anymore. What’s the problem with being able to use a cashless visa debit card, which means that they can use it in shops and places that haven’t been signed up to the Basics card. It provides more, doesn’t it provide more opportunity for them and more choices for people on welfare to spend money?

Deborah Di Natale : Sure if you’re living in an urban setting like Darwin or perhaps Alice Springs.

But what we’ve heard in remote communities is that, in fact, they’ve had many issues, both with the Basics card and also they’ll have those issues with the cashless debit card.

We don’t have any Social Security Centrelink offices on site there. They’re waiting three hours to get their calls answered. So do you really want to bring this kind of mechanism when there isn’t the infrastructure to support it to those who will be most impacted?

Adam Steer : What’s your understanding about the why the government thinks this is a good idea?

Deborah Di Natale : Well, that’s a good question, because that position has changed.

Initially, it was about the fact that we wanted to stop people from gambling, drinking and also using it to purchase drugs. When they actually spent a significant amount, approximately 2.5 million to do a serious in-depth evaluation, they actually discovered that that wasn’t the issue.

So now we have the Federal minister telling us that it’s actually about financial literacy. So their position has changed because the evidence did not bear out their original assumption about why the card was needed.

Adam Steer : But is it a better situation than the current Basics card? My understanding of the current Basics card is that if you’re a retailer, you have to sign up to be allowed to accept the Basics card. If we go to a cashless debit card, then you are using your EFTPOS machine like you would any other customer.

Deborah Di Natale : The point being that if you can access 20 per cent of your cash, wherever you want it, then you have to ask yourself, that appears to be a good thing. But what we know is that people who are relying on this card do not have those supports in place where they live to utilise that amount of cash. I also think quarantining 80 per cent of anybody’s wages is unacceptable.

Adam Steer : When I was on the dole in the 90s as a young actor, I’d probably spend 80 per cent of my wage on my rent by itself.

Deborah Di Natale : That’s right.

Adam Steer : So there wasn’t any kind of extra money. Oh, cool. I can go out and have a great time. Didn’t, you know that didn’t happen.

Deborah Di Natale : But we’ve heard grandmothers out in those communities saying that they’ve got their grandkids and they can say, oh, here’s a dollar or two dollars for an icypole and the amount of empowerment they feel by doing that and they’ve said all of that will be stripped from us.

Adam Steer : Is the Government rushing the cashless debit card through parliament?

Deborah Di Natale : There is no question that it’s rushed.

We’ve been asking for some hearings to be held in remote communities, and the Federal government has not given us any indication that there will be any further hearings. And the fact that we were had about two weeks to turn around a submission would answer that question categorically. Yes, it’s rushed.

Adam Steer : Text has come in. 0487991057. How do you pay rent when 80 per cent of your money is tied to a debit card and you pay rent to a private home owner? How does that work?

Deborah Di Natale : Very good question. These are matters that have not been resolved, which is why we would say the parliament, we would urge the parliament not to rush through legislation that is going to impact 25,000 Territorians.

And this is the issue we have, when we have policy makers sitting in Canberra that don’t understand the complexity of the Northern Territory and its environment.

Adam Steer : So there’s an evaluation of the debit cards by the University of Adelaide. Social Services Minister Anne Ruston has told Senate estimates she hasn’t read the report, but the department had received a draft without some key data on it.

Deborah Di Natale : That’s correct. So what we do know is that the minister herself, they spent 2.5 million on this evaluation report, and she publicly last week said she hadn’t even read the draft reports yet she’s still promoting the expansion. That in and of itself, I would say, is irresponsible.

Adam Steer : Is there conclusive evidence that the Basics card has provided some positive outcomes since it was introduced here in the Northern Territory? When and also remember that this welfare card is for everybody. We’re not just talking about people in remote communities.

Deborah Di Natale : Sure, except for the fact that 82 per cent of people who will be impacted are Aboriginal Torres Strait Islanders. So it disproportionately impacts a particular group.

What we do know is that Dr Rob Gray, who’s one of the authors of the income management in the NT, reviewed all the evidence and said any positive impacts that have been reported have all been opinion based and have not been supported by data.

Adam Steer : So what’s next? Cross your fingers?

Deborah Di Natale : Well, what’s next is myself, along with a number of ACCHOS, and I do want to shout out to all the Aboriginal community controlled organisations who have spent an enormous amount of time putting submissions in, that we will continue to lobby. And I’m an advocacy group I live in hope Adam, I somehow think that the Federal government will look at the data and realise this is a really bad idea.

Adam Steer : Well, watch this space. We’ve spoken about it before. No doubt we will speak about it again soon. Deborah Di Natale thank you so much for coming in today.

Deborah Di Natale : Thanks for the opportunity.

Adam Steer : Deborah Di Natale She’s the CEO of the Northern Territory Council of Social Services.