ABC RN Life Matters interview with Natasha Mitchell

Release Date: 
3 June 2015
Transcript
E&OE

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Good morning to you Alan.

ALAN TUDGE:
Good morning Natasha. Thanks for having me on the programme.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
And thank you for joining us in the Canberra studios.  Matthew Campbell is joining us too.  He's Research Co- ordinator at Tangentyere Council based in Alice Springs.  He's going to give us a sense of how the card has worked in communities he's studied. Welcome to you.

MATTHEW CAMPBELL:
Morning Natasha.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
We're also going to hear in a moment, a first-hand account of what life on the existing Basics Card has been like for one South Australian women.  Alan I'll start with you, was this the Government's idea or mining magnate Andrew Forrest's idea? Because of course in his recent indigenous jobs and training review he advocated strongly for a cashless welfare system and a Healthy Welfare Card as he described it.

ALAN TUDGE:
That's right, so we are responding to his proposal from his report. It advocated a Visa or EFTPOS debit card to be applicable to certain communities that have very high welfare dependence and welfare fuelled alcohol and drug abuse.

The concept is that instead of placing cash into individual people's accounts, you'd get a Visa debit card and you could use it anywhere, you could spend your money on anything, but it would have a restriction on the purchase of alcohol and a restriction on the purchase of gambling products. And because cash was limited, you wouldn't be able to purchase drugs.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
The concern here is that not everyone on welfare abuses alcohol or drugs or gambles.  Isn't it presumptuous or even prejudiced for a government to assume that?

ALAN TUDGE:
What we have decided to do with Andrew Forrest's recommendation is trial this in two or three discrete communities where there is high welfare dependence and high welfare fuelled alcohol and drug abuse.  The objective if you like is to try to eliminate some of the social problems that are caused by that.

As you probably know, Natasha, in some places in Australia, in both indigenous and non-indigenous communities, welfare fuelled alcohol abuse can have catastrophic consequences, particularly in terms of violence against women and children.

If this card can have an impact on that, then I think it is worth trialling and at least assessing.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
The Social Services Minister, Scott Morrison, has said that there is no decision yet to make this debit card to apply to all welfare recipients but would that be the Government's ideal plan.

ALAN TUDGE:
No, in fact he's gone further than that and said that we have no plans for it to apply to all welfare recipients across the country.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Did he not use the expression 'at this stage'?

ALAN TUDGE:
Our intent is to trial it in two or three communities only.  High welfare dependent communities where there are significant social problems. We think it could have a demonstrable impact on those communities in terms of reducing the welfare fuelled alcohol and drug abuse particularly, and consequently reducing violence and assaults in some of these communities.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Well this is one approach to doing that and perhaps we can come back to the issue of whether there are better ways to do that. Let me bring in Matthew Campbell, Research Coordinator, at Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs. You engage in a range of research projects, mainly in and around the Alice Springs town camps. The Basics Card is used predominantly in indigenous communities- so 50 per cent of welfare payments put on the card, 50 per cent given in cash- and you were part of last year's evaluation
process. What did that process reveal to you Matthew?

MATTHEW CAMPBELL:
Just to explain to people it was a long-term evaluation which was commissioned by the federal government. It was done by the University of New South Wales and the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Tangentyere was one of the sub-contractors for that research. We're a little research hub within Tangentyere Council which as you said services the town camps around Alice Springs.

Our team of aboriginal researchers talked to a little bit over 150 people over the two years that study ran.  We were administering a survey that was administered in all the other research sites but at the same time we were talking to people about their experiences in a more anecdotal sense as well.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
And what range of feedback did you receive? What were you probing?

MATTHEW CAMPBELL:
Because it was part of the overall programme we were asking people about their experiences with the Basics Card. Have they had problems in shops?  How were their dealings at Centrelink?  Things like that. Also to try and probe things about were they getting hassled for money more or less by other family members?  What were their experiences in terms of money in their kitty's and things like that.

In addition there was a whole range of administrative data that was collected and analysed.  We weren't part of the process.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Is there evidence to suggest that the Basics Card has achieved its aims?

MATTHEW CAMPBELL:
I think one of the very interesting things about it, is that in policy terms what the government set out for the Basics Card basically hasn't been achieved.  There's no evidence that people have less problems in terms of things such as running out of food.  They don't get better at managing their money.  So people who used to spend their money very quickly, continue to spend their money very quickly.  There's no evidence of less drinking, no evidence of more children going to school and no evidence of a change in the food that people eat.  So people didn't eat more fruit and vegetables as a result of having the Basics Card.

Interestingly quite a few people in the Alice Springs cohort quite liked income management and the Basics Card.  So it's sort of very interesting.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
And what did they communicate about that about why they liked the Basics Card?

MATTHEW CAMPBELL:
I think that over the time- over the space of the two interviews, conducted in 2011 and 2013, much more outlets in Alice Springs got to be able to take the Basics Card.  I think that was a big difference.  Initially only few outlets would take a Basics Card.

There was a lot of problems in the early days of people being able to access their balances on their Basics Card, so they couldn't know how much money they had which would often lead to attempts of purchases being rejected. People found that the fee-free banking aspect of the Basics Card was really good. If you go to the ATM and take money out you're charged $2.50, people in remote communities who are checking their balances are getting charged just to see how much money they've got.  So the fact that the Basics Card doesn't have that, people really liked.  And people just got used to it so it was an easy way of managing their money. But as I said, earlier, it didn't achieve anything that the government wanted it to achieve.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
So did it work better for some people?  For example, some people on the Basics Card have chosen to be on the Basics Card. Others have been required to go on it.

MATTHEW CAMPBELL:
That's right. The greatest benefits have accrued to those who went on it voluntarily.  So the people who are forced on it, which is most people in the communities that I'm working in are under the forced and compulsory, and the benefits for them are much more limited.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Alan Tudge, Parliamentary Secretary to the PM, this clearly is a fairly clear picture that the Basics Card is not delivering on the aims it has.

ALAN TUDGE:
Let me say two things. Let me clarify the difference between the Basics Card which the former government introduced, which we have supported versus what we are proposing with this Healthy Welfare Card.

The Basics Card has been in place for several years now and it provides an income management regime for, typically 50 per cent of people's welfare payments.  The card itself is a customised card where individual retailers have to sign onto the applicability of the card.

Now the welfare card that we are proposing and want to trial would be an ordinary, probably a Visa debit card or EFTPOS debit card.  It works everywhere, straight away, but just simply won't work at the alcohol stores or at the gambling stores. So it's an important distinction in the first place there.

Now just in relation to the evaluations and whether or not the Basics Card has fulfilled its mandate if you like…

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Yes because on what basis are you extending this card.  Because policy has to be evidence based one would argue…

ALAN TUDGE:
There are different objectives…

NATASHA MITCHELL:
...that you need to channel your funds and effort into other ways to help people prevent alcohol problems.

ALAN TUDGE:
Sure, so there's different objectives to each.

The Basics Card, the key objective here was to provide some financial stability and to ensure that at least half of people's welfare payments were spent on the basics and not spent on alcohol or spent on gambling or spent on other things. And the evaluation showed that in fact that was exactly the case, that 99 per cent of the money which was placed on the Basics Card was spent on non-prescribed items.

The evaluation also found that more people wanted to stay on the card than wanted to come off it, and it was particularly high amongst aboriginal women, who are often the beneficiaries of this.

I would also add that given the opportunity -- this is the statistical evidence -- to come off the Basics Card, fully 60 per cent choose to stay on it, because they realised it's beneficial for them.  The anecdotal evidence is that it does in fact assist with reducing humbugging, it does in fact assist in reducing…

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Humbugging being other family members or community members leaning on you more money.

ALAN TUDGE:
Leaning on you for cash. It does restrict the cashflow for grog and drugs and the like.  That's the anecdotal evidence.

Now the proposed Healthy Welfare Card, it is a simpler product.  It will be connected to the mainstream financial services systems and it has a very narrow objective. That is to reduce some of the social harm caused by welfare fuelled alcohol and drug abuse.

And that social harm is very significant in some places.  For example in the Northern Territory, the assault rate today against indigenous women in the Northern Territory is 11 assaults per 100 women.  It's an extraordinary figure. It is an off the scale figure Natasha, and two-thirds of that is related to alcohol, and nearly all of that alcohol is purchased with the welfare dollar.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
I'll come back to Matthew Campbell on that.  I want to bring into the conversation now, 23 year old Kirstyn. She lives in Playford in South Australia, one of a handful of areas where income management has been put in place for those receiving welfare payments. Playford is in Adelaide's northern suburbs and if you're listening from there good morning to you, one of a range of areas across Australia that have been
subjected to income management of welfare payments. Kirstyn was on compulsory income management for nine months in 2013 before leaving the programme a year ago.  Good morning to you KIRSTYN.

KIRSTYN:
Good morning.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Thank you so much for joining us.  I gather when you moved into Playford, you weren't aware that this was going to happen to you.

KIRSTYN:
I had no idea.  It was very much a surprise going in and all of a sudden going do you know what Basics Card is, do you know income management is? And instantaneously being slapped on it. And I was like what in the world, I've never heard of this before and now you've taken away half my payments.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
So what were your circumstances? What sort of welfare payment were you receiving as a young woman?

KIRSTYN:
I was on youth allowance and unable to live at home.  I was living separately in my own residence and I'd just moved into my first rental property.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
So how did the income management work in your case?  How were the benefits paid to you?

KIRSTYN:
I decided to allocate half my payment, the payment that was on the Basics Card straight onto my rent and then pretty much Centrepay automatically, the rest of my rent, obviously not all of it was covered, the rest of it to my real estate agent.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
And did that work for you?

KIRSTYN:
No it didn't.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Why not?

KIRSTYN:
Turns out that the Basics Card Funds, they did get paid, they also neglect to mention at Centrelink, and every other piece of paperwork I've ever read that you have to check even though they say they will pay it, you also have to check that is being paid, but also that Centrepay fund didn't actually get paid (inaudible) all the time as well.  I didn't find out about this not getting paid for about three months and it accumulated actually quite a large debt of about $500.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Was there a need in your case for income management?

KIRSTYN:
Absolutely not. I lived out of home since I was, give or take, 17 years old and pretty much by that point I'd lived out of home for about four years. By that point, you would have expected I know how to raise myself. I can't afford to drink, I don't do drugs and I pretty much never had any debt. I don't have credit cards, I still don't.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
How was living on the Basics Card different to not having your welfare payments income managed?

KIRSTYN:
It was pretty much like a giant thing from the government saying 'I don't trust you with your money anymore' but also there was a giant stigma to go with it. There's already enough stigma when you're on Centrelink, you know? But also when you're on a Basics Card people look at you and go 'oh but you, only people who gamble or [inaudible] to be on this'.

It just pretty much put you in a lot of different, I don't know, you had a lot of judgement from a lot of people about why you were on the Basics Card. There wasn't actually 'oh yeah, you know, you're on this for this reason' it was 'oh you must be a drug dealer or a gambler or something'. It was a big stigma and a very, very big thing to deal with.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Alan Tudge has just described the legitimate concern that many people do struggle on welfare and they prioritise alcohol over food perhaps and that's what this Basics Card is trying to address, to support people in that situation.

Are there circumstances where you think income management of welfare payments is a benefit? Do you know other people who could benefit from that sort of approach?

KIRSTYN:
Every person I've met that hasn't… I've never met a person that actually been voluntarily on income management but anyone who I've met who hasn't been voluntarily on it, they have done drugs. They have done, you know, smokers, drinking and they all find a way around being on the Basics Card.

They use it to their advantage and it really didn't make a difference in their lives whatsoever so I find the Basics Card really did nothing. It hasn't helped anyone I've ever known and so far I'm yet to meet someone who's actually benefited.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
When you hit 22 you came off the unreasonable to live youth allowance. You're on Newstart and another program, Work for the Dole. What's your situation now?

KIRSTYN:
Right now I'm on Work for the Dole, yes. I moved out of Playford. I took up a part-time job and I'm also right now studying full-time so I'm taking up my requirements for my Work for the Dole hours.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Look thank you very much for joining us Kirstyn to share some of your experience with the Basics Card. Really appreciate you taking the time this morning for us.

KIRSTYN FROM PLAYFORD:
It's not a problem. Thank you so much for having me.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Thank you very much. Alan Tudge, back to you. Kirstyn talked about the stigma. Is the government concerned about the stigma of this sort of policy?

ALAN TUDGE:
Let me just address a couple of points if I may in relation to Kirstyn's situation.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Just briefly so I can come back to Matthew too.

ALAN TUDGE:
So she was triggered on for one of the very narrow triggers which applies to about two per cent of people and she says that she doesn't understand why many people want to go on it. The stats show that 60 per cent of people who have come off it on a compulsory basis choose to stay on it. So we could potentially get such a person onto the program as well to get their experience.

Does this provide a stigma? Well, to those 60 per cent of people who have chosen to stay on it voluntarily having come off the compulsory, I presume that they don't see that. I understand that some people have expressed that view in part because of the design of the Basics Card where it is…

NATASHA MITCHELL:
…so restricted in a sense?

ALAN TUDGE:
More restricted, more difficult to get your account balances with that card.

Now, again I want to distinguish from that card which was introduced under the former government (although we do support it) to what we are proposing with this cashless debit card which would be an ordinary Visa/EFTPOS type card.  It works everywhere. It could look like the card that is in all of your listeners' pockets right now. You will use that anywhere, purchase absolutely anything but it just would not work at the bottle shop and it would not work at the gambling stores.

So that's the concept and we hope that with that concept, it will address the welfare fuelled alcohol and drug abuse but still give complete freedom otherwise for people to spend their money as they please.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
So important to make the distinction between the existing Basics Card.

ALAN TUDGE:
Exactly.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Let me come to Matthew Campbell, Research Coordinator at the Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs. How do you see what should happen for the communities that you work with to help them best utilise their welfare payments and best be supported to address issues like alcohol dependency?

MATTHEW CAMPBELL:
That's a good question, but just to go back a step. I think that in terms of distinguishing between the cards, and what Alan says is true, it seems to me what they're planning to do with the new one is slightly different to the Basics Card. But I think the underlying principles are still the same. And so I think if we look back at the evidence from the first round with the Basics Card, is that the people who went on it voluntarily were the  ones that got the most benefits. The people who went on it compulsorily got very little benefit.

What is happening here, and Alan refers to people being concerned about alcohol-fuelled violence, there is nobody more concerned about alcohol-fuelled violence than the people we're working with here in the town camps. These people are absolutely desperate to make changes and to be supported in making the changes that they see are necessary for them to live good lives, for their communities to be harmonious, for their children to have safe places to sleep so they can go to school, so people can hold down jobs. That is what people want.

But one of the things that came through very strongly in the research is that the people who need help are not getting the targeted help they need. Instead, they are all being put on the same regime that is very bureaucratic, people have a huge difficulty getting off so that Alan's point about all of these people choosing to stay on, the talk that we've had is that people if they try to go through Centrelink to get off find that very, very difficult.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
But for those that choose to stay on then it might have a benefit?

MATTHEW CAMPBELL:
Absolutely. If people choose to stay on they should stay on. But the point is that as that happens and Alan I'm sure will talk in a minute about…

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Well unfortunately we're running out of time.

MATTHEW CAMPBELL:
…the cost of it goes down. The thing is, if resources could be freed up to help the people who need help, the people here in Alice Springs would be very, very happy.

NATASHA MITCHELL:
Let's follow up with that in another programme but really good to get a sense about what the proposal is here, what the issues are that are raised by it and can I thank Alan Tudge, Federal Member for Aston and Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, thank you Alan.

ALAN TUDGE:
Thank you so much Natasha.

[ENDS]