Australian cashless welfare card severely opposed by Human Rights groups

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

October 2, 2015

A cashless welfare card that is scheduled to go on trial in Australia next February is coming under severe attack from human rights activists, who believe it is in breach of people’s right to privacy. According to newly ousted prime minister Tony Abbott, the proposed card would be a vast help to indigenous communities, who he believes unnecessarily waste their benefits on vices, and are in need of being pulled up ‘by their bootstraps’.

The rhetoric for the card is severely opposed by the Australian Council of Social Service, which feels that the card should be put on hold until there is proof that cash restriction helps with alcohol or gambling addictions. The organisation has petitioned the Senate to withdraw its backing for the card – which will be trialed in the south-western Australian town of Ceduna – where community leaders have agreed to be guinea pigs.

A parliamentary joint committee on human rights (which consists of three Labor party members, three Liberal party members, two Nationals, one Greens member and one independent) has also asked the Minister of Social Services, Christian Porter, to clarify how the card is congruous with existing human rights,

‘Restricting how a person can access, and where they can spend, their social security benefits, interferes with the person’s right to personal autonomy and, therefore, their right to a private life.’

Rightly, the joint human rights committee and ACOSS feels that not having access to cash could affect people’s freedom. What if you want to buy second-hand goods, purchase at a market, or perhaps ride on public transport?

‘This restriction undoubtedly impacts on how a person is able to conduct their private life and represents the extension of government regulation into the private and family lives of the persons affected by these trials,’ the joint committee’s report says.

Contrary to evidence that supports the idea that welfare management aids communities with addiction problems, a report published by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) in September of 2014 actually concludes the opposite. In the paper, the government commissioned report reveals that a welfare management program trialed in the Northern Territories caused no beneficial changes in what indigenous communities purchased. The report further suggests that the trial resulted in no change in the purchase of alcohol and led to no alteration in the problem of food shortages.

A report from 2013 (pdf-download), also reveals that imposed welfare management (which allows the government to monitor shopping habits) results in exactly the kind of loss of personal autonomy that the committee is worried about. If this is already known? How does Abbott’s (newly succeeded by Malcolm Turnbullgovernment justify this draconian imposition on Australia’s indigenous people?

Brett Scott (Lecturer at University of the Arts, London) this week commented that a cashless society is the dream of governments and banks worldwide. In his article entitled ‘£1984: does a cashless economy make for a surveillance state?’, the financial expert points out that the ultimate goal is to have full control over everyone’s purchasing power. ‘With this comes the spectre of bank surveillance, where every transaction you ever partake in is authorised and recorded by a privately run commercial bank, giving it a transaction-by-transaction history of your entire commercial life,’ he says.

In a world where governments, and banks, salivate at the idea of a cashless economy – where big data can be used to better control our every movement – it is no wonder that trials are being scheduled to test the water. It also comes as no surprise, that it is the poorest and most disenfranchised communities that are getting a taste of this dystopic cashless future.

Writing about the failed 2007 trial in the Northern Territories of Australia, Chris Berg rightly points out that ‘the original idea was to use income management as an emergency measure in a moment of deep social crisis. But policies that are introduced in a crisis tend to stick around. They entrench themselves in the policy landscape.’  

Just as we are now seeing the inevitable continuity of failed policy in Australia, don’t be surprised when in a few short years there is talk of a cashless society coming to a town near you.

In London, it is already impossible to use cash to get on a bus.  Patrons must instead use Oyster cards, prepaid tickets, contactless payment cards or concessionary tickets. A sign of the inevitable cashless future. Just last week, I was in a taxi with a woman from Madrid who told me that she found it annoying that Taxi’s in the UK do not accept card payments. More subtle evidence of this coming new world? 

For the indigenous communities in Southern Australia, this may well become a reality next February. At that point – if the joint commission fails to change the Abbott government’s policy – the welfare card will begin its trial, and for those people on benefits that will mean a specially selected list of retailers where they can make purchases. One alarmingly wonders if chosen precisely because of big business involvement in politics.

Don’t forget after all, that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was commonly known as crony – and preferred choice – of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Who it is believed used his vast power over the Australian media to sway public opinion and get his friend the top job. If you think that a wild allegation, consider for a moment the fact that Abbott fired in January his senior communications adviser (Jane McMillan) after being asked directly to do so by Murdoch over dinner.  

ACOSS chief executive, Cassandra Goldie, says that the human rights commission is ‘concerned about schemes that are imposed broadly on groups of people according to type of payment or category of circumstance, rather than by reference to a specific individual’s circumstances. Income management schemes of this type misunderstand the relationship between income support and drug and alcohol and other problems and attempt to apply a technological fix to a complex social issue.’

Come next February; however, one will be surprised if human rights were enough to change the government’s mind. Though it is true, that for now we do not know where newly incumbent Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stands on the issue. 

However, in a country where the richest woman (Gina Rinehart) has previously gone on record with her opinion that the ‘jealous’ poorer classes should ‘spend less time drinking, smoking and socialising, and more time working.’ One does not hold a huge hope for a change in this seemingly racist policy; that will more than likely negatively affect the lifestyles of the physically challenged, as well as single mothers.

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