Cashless welfare card trial splits Ceduna

The Australian

Wayne Miller and Tracey Cox. Picture: Russell Millard

Mick Haynes leans ­forward and stares into the eyes of his dead teammates. They gaze back at him, young, strong and proud, their smiles forever frozen in a team photo on the wall of the Koonibba footy club.

“There I am,” says Haynes, pointing to the young bloke sitting in the middle of the Aboriginal team from 1982. His finger then moves slowly over the 20 men in the photo. Dead … Dead … Dead … Haynes looks away and shakes his head. “There’s only about six of us still left,” he says. “In some way or other alcohol ­c­ontributed to cutting them down.”

Photos of other teams and former players line the walls of the country’s oldest Aboriginal footy club in Ceduna, South Australia. Their surnames — Betts, Davey and Wanganeen — are household names to AFL fans. But the photos inside this proud club also reveal the tragedy of this small town. “If I talk to these boys, they won’t talk back to me — I will be standing on their grave,” says Peter Miller, a tribal elder and former halfback for the Koonibba Roosters in the 1970s. “Lots of them drank pretty heavily — there are only five left from my team.”

Miller adjusts his bush hat and wonders whether much has changed in his hometown since he was a boy, when alcohol abuse was rife. “This morning I saw a girl about 19 years old crossing the road with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and I said to myself, ‘It’s only bloody 10 o’clock.’ I see it every single day. But you know what? She wouldn’t have been able to buy that bottle if her money was on that card.”

Peter Miller. Picture: Russell Millard

“That card” is now the talk of the town in Ceduna and may soon become the talk of the nation. The 4000 residents of the Ceduna region are the first in Australia to undergo a controversial 12-month trial that Canberra hopes will revolutionise the fight against alcohol abuse by those on welfare in rural and regional Australia, especially among Aboriginal people. If the trial goes well, the card will be rolled out to other regions across the nation.

On March 15, those on welfare in Ceduna — indigenous and non-indigenous — will no longer receive all their benefits in cash. Instead they will be issued a small silver card, similar to a credit card. Eighty per cent of their welfare payments will go onto the card, with only 20 per cent ­available as cash. The card can be used for anything anywhere in the country with two glaring exceptions — alcohol and gambling.

This will leave most welfare recipients (aged care pensioners are exempt) with only $60 to $150 in cash a week, depending on their circumstance. “It’s so important because in many areas of regional Australia, particularly indigenous areas but not exclusively so, there is very significant alcohol, gambling and drug harm that is paid for by the welfare dollar,” says Alan Tudge, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister, who has led the Government’s push for the so-called cashless welfare card. “When you’ve got communities that are awash with grog it’s so hard to make progress on any other front.”

In Ceduna the card will apply to around 950 welfare recipients, of whom two-thirds are indigenous, although the Government maintains that the card is not specifically directed at Aboriginal communities. In April it will be ­trialled for 12 months in the East Kimberley communities of Kununurra and Wyndham and options are being considered for a third site. Another Kimberley community, Halls Creek, rejected the trial, saying the card was indiscriminate in its targeting and would not work.

To its supporters, cashless welfare promises a new era in the fight against welfare abuse by making it much harder to blow welfare payments on grog or gambling. Its critics say it is an overly paternalistic intervention in people’s lives which undermines personal freedoms and is unlikely to achieve its aims. “[It] will disproportionately affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and claw back our hard-won rights and freedoms,” says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda. “Our mob are once again the guinea pigs in a trial ­program lacking any evidence base.”

Ceduna Mayor Allan Suter. Picture: Russell Millard

Ceduna mayor Allan Suter sits at his dining room table and shakes his head at such claims. He says his town has been in deep trouble for much of the past decade, blighted by alcohol abuse, domestic violence, gambling and more recently the drug ice. “This card,” he says, “is desperately needed by some people, including some who are against it. We have had huge issues in this town with lawlessness, unsociable behaviour, people drinking to excess and dying.” He says Ceduna, which is around 25 per cent indigenous, has 68 times the national average rate of hospitalisation from assaults. In 2014, the town’s sobering-up centre had 4667 admissions from a population of 4000.

In 2011, a coronial inquest into the deaths of six Aboriginal people in Ceduna found a “severe and intractable culture of excessive alcohol ­consumption” among transient Aborigines who visit from communities to the west of the town, such as Yalata and Oak Valley. Suter says Ceduna has tried everything possible to end the scourge of alcohol abuse, from bans on grog sales to dry areas to safety patrols, but the problem still exists.

Tracey Cox and Wayne Miller. Picture: Russell Millard

“I’ve seen things in Ceduna that I would never want to see,” says Tracey Cox, a 26-year-old indigenous mother of two, speaking at a ­barbecue at Suter’s home. “I used to work as a domestic violence support worker and I’ve seen first-hand the alcohol and drug use and how the children suffer from it.” Her voice trails off before her fiance Wayne Miller, 26, interjects: “We need to try something now. These same things have been happening for 40 or 50 years, we’ve heard it from our uncles, aunties and parents and we just need to change things. I don’t see why this card won’t work.”

Miller, an up-and-coming indigenous leader, and Suter, mayor for the past eight years, have been targeted because of their role in promoting their hometown for the trial. Suter has been parodied and abused on social media while some other indigenous leaders have accused Miller of seeking to disempower his own people.

Leeroy Bilney. Picture: Russell Millard

“Wayne Miller has great potential to be a good leader but he has been mentored and manipulated in the wrong way,” says Leeroy Bilney, an indigenous local. “We need to give some kind of ownership and responsibility back to our communities and this [card] is no different to listening to my pop talk about how they used to walk around with ration cards.”

The idea of the cashless welfare card was born out of the review of the welfare system in 2014 by mining billionaire Andrew Forrest. The card is far more ambitious and sweeping than previous attempts at income management of welfare recipients in Australia. Since the 2007 intervention in the Northern Territory, successive federal governments have experimented with income management, also known as welfare quarantining, with mixed results. Almost 26,000 people — 20,000 of whom are in the NT — are currently on the BasicsCard in which 50-70 per cent of spending is quarantined for essential items. Ninety per cent of those on the card are indigenous. But the BasicsCard card can only be used at selected retailers, is limited in scope and almost useless outside areas where it has been rolled out. The new cashless welfare card quarantines 80 per cent of payments and is connected to the national EFTPOS system so it will automatically reject attempts to buy alcohol or bets anywhere in the country. The trial does allow welfare recipients to apply to have the percentage of cash lifted from 20 per cent to as high as 50 per cent, but only with the approval of a community panel.

Mick Gooda claims that previous attempts at income management have achieved results that are only “modest compared to their stated objectives”. “For many, income management results in few or no benefits, and a sense of loss of control, shame and unfairness,” he says.

Alan Tudge disputes this. He argues the BasicsCard has had a “positive impact” in the NT but believes the more comprehensive cashless welfare card will achieve better results. “Two-thirds of people who come off the ­BasicsCard on a compulsory basis choose to stay on it on a voluntary basis,” he says. “That fact proves that many people find it useful for them.”

In late 2014 and early 2015, when Tudge was casting around for potential places to trial the Forrest welfare card idea, mayor Suter called his local federal MP, Rowan Ramsey, and said Ceduna might be interested. “I said our council would support a trial provided that our ­community supported the idea, so we began a consultation process,” says Suter.

Tudge knew that such a radical and controversial initiative could only be introduced with the full support of local leaders and indigenous elders. But more than this, he wanted the leaders in

Mick Haynes. Picture: Russell Millard

Ceduna to play a frontline role in shaping how such a card might work. “First of all, we were like ‘Whoa’,” says Mick Haynes, the former Koonibba Roosters player and now head of the Ceduna Aboriginal Corporation. “We were a ­little bit sceptical about how this card was going to work, so we said to Alan Tudge, ‘Leave it with us and we will talk about it’.” Haynes was part of a regional leadership group comprising both indigenous and non-indigenous leaders, which was set up to determine whether the card could work in a town like Ceduna.

The Ceduna group was forthright and clashed with the authorities several times in the first half of last year. They disagreed with Forrest’s call for a 100 per cent cashless card, saying it was impractical in a small town like Ceduna. “We thought that if a family goes to the footy or something and they want a pie or a pastie you’ve got to have some cash because some places won’t take cards,” says Haynes. The Government initially wanted the card to be a 90/10 per cent split while the Ceduna leaders wanted a 70/30 split; a compromise of 80/20 was finally reached.

“They [the Ceduna leaders] not only helped to shape the card, they co-designed the entire effort,” says Tudge. Haynes says there was a lively debate about the card inside the Aboriginal communities around Ceduna, but that the vast majority — some 95 per cent — eventually ­supported the idea.

Card critic Leeroy Bilney disputes this figure. “A lot of people in our [Aboriginal] communities won’t come forward and say what they really feel until the card comes in and starts to impact on them and their family,” he says.

Another indigenous local, Sue Haseltine, claims the issue has divided Ceduna and that at least 30 people, indigenous and non-indigenous, have left the town because of the upcoming trial. “I don’t believe they have the right to target everyone [on welfare],” she says. “They wanted to target a few people and so they killed our human rights and took our freedom away.”

The opponents of the card in Ceduna are a small but vocal group who accuse the Government of foisting the idea on the community without proper consultation. They argue that the card is an invasion of personal freedom; that it is demeaning to those on welfare; that it won’t stop the true addicts; and that it will lead to increased violence as people steal to get cash.

The card trial has bipartisan support from the Government and Labor but is opposed by the Greens. “It will make people feel worthless and it is damn insulting to me,” says Ceduna local David Pav, a disability support pensioner who will be given the new card. “I feel like I may as well dig a hole and die because there is no reward for good behaviour, no way to get off the card.”

On this day Pav has been joined at the local pub by six other opponents of the card. Each is non-indigenous and each has their own reason for opposing it. Grant Thiselton runs a waste management company, Ceduna Skip Bins, which he says is a 70 per cent cash business which will take a hit when the cashless card is introduced. Next to him is Jocelyn Wighton, who claims she is being unfairly targeted. “I am on a disability pension, I don’t gamble, I don’t drink much … I’ve done nothing wrong but I still have to be on the card,” she says.

When I ask an older lady who is sitting ­quietly on the other side of the table what she thinks, she pulls out some paper and reads ­nervously from a prepared script. “It was ­alcohol that blinded the mind of our son’s murderer [in Ceduna] three years ago,” reads Colleen ­Martin. “Yet it is not the alcohol that caused the loss of our son, it is the needs that caused the ongoing drinking in the first place. A cashless people in our community will not solve the problem, it will only make it worse … [and] create more ­violence to get the cash they ­currently need. It is too late for our family, but it’s not too late for many,” she says.

She folds up the paper as tears well in her eyes and in the eyes of her adult daughter Jodi, who is sitting next to her, ­squeezing her hand. Colleen’s son Tony, 33, was stabbed to death in an alcohol-fuelled attack in Ceduna in November 2013.

Opinions are divided about whether addicts — alcohol, drug or gambling — are more likely to rob, steal and fight in order to get cash that will be denied under the welfare card. Some argue that a true addict will simply find a way to get cash, illegal or otherwise. “We have discussed the fact that it may be an issue and the police are very much aware of it,” says Suter. “In Coober Pedy when they brought in strong restrictions on alcohol they did have a crime spurt but it wasn’t an ongoing thing.” Tudge is confident that crime will fall as a result of the card. “The expectation of senior police is that crime will decrease because so much of the crime in the community is related to alcohol consumption,” he says.

The biggest divide over the card is whether it tramples on personal rights in seeking to dictate the behaviour of those on welfare. The arguments are similar to those over the 2007 intervention. “Any possible benefit of the card must be weighed against the sense of disempowerment our people already face,” says Gooda. “It must be weighed against the stigma our people continue to face and the restrictions placed on our basic rights and freedoms we fought so hard for.”

It’s an argument that makes Mick Haynes furious. “I don’t think it is a breach of human rights,” he says. “What about the rights of kids when ­parents are spending their welfare money on alcohol or gambling?” he asks, thumping his hands on his desk. “Is it the right of a kid to have a safe home?” Thump. “Is it the right of a kid to have clean sheets and a bed?” Thump. “Is it the right of a kid to have food on the table and to go to school?” Thump.

“This card is very much thinking about the rights of children and the rights of women to live safely in their community,” says Tudge. “A ­person who is on this card can spend their welfare ­payments on absolutely anything they like but they can’t spend more than 20 per cent of it on gambling and drugs. Now, how that is a breach of their human rights I do not know.”

Ryan Edmonds. Picture: Russell Millard

“Look at this mess,” says Ryan Edmonds as he steers his paddy wagon along a rough bush track on the outskirts of Ceduna. He stops the car near an abandoned humpy, gets out and picks up an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Around him are more than a dozen other whisky bottles and empty silver wine cask bags. A broken tele­vision, a filthy mattress and a burnt-out car lie among shoes, rags and other debris, making this popular drinking spot look more like a rubbish tip than a slice of Australian bush. “Bottles, bottles and more bottles everywhere you look,” says Edmonds, who runs Ceduna’s council-funded Community Safety and Security Patrol.

We are at a place called 18 Tank, described as “a flat, desolate and pitiless area of land” by ­deputy state coroner Anthony Schapel in his 2011 report. “They bring with them their sicknesses and morbidities, all aggravated by continual self-neglect and the excessive consumption of locally accessed alcohol — some of them have perished as a result,” Schapel wrote.

Edmonds patrols Ceduna and its outskirts every few hours, moving people on from illegal drinking spots and reporting dangerous drunken behaviour to the police or to the local hospital. The patrols, which cost the council $250,000 a year, were introduced in 2008. Edmonds says as many as 60 indigenous people often gather at 18 Tank and a handful of other bush spots outside town where they can drink legally, unlike in Ceduna itself where public drinking is banned.

As we drive back to town, the 31-year-old ­former miner, fisherman and oil rig worker recounts tales of alcohol abuse here. “Someone was run over on this road a while back because they were drunk and fell asleep,” he says. “They’ve been passed out on the railway track also.” One local truck company has had so many near-misses with locals falling asleep on the road that it produced its own safety video to teach people not to lie on roads when drinking.

“When I first heard about this welfare card, I wasn’t sure to be honest,” Edmonds says as he drives down another bush track littered with ­bottles. “But I’ve seen so many people drink it all away that I now think it might actually help.”

“I’ve seen first-hand what alcohol does to this town,” says Mick Haynes. “Our community is disintegrating and our Aboriginal culture is slowly being eroded. Lots of things have been tried but they’ve failed and this [card] could be a circuit-breaker.”

About 10km out of Ceduna, in Denial Bay, Mick’s brother Joe Miller rises unsteadily from a chair on his veranda, using his left hand to raise his immobilised right hand so I can shake it. Joe, 62, was by his own admission a heavy drinker when two massive strokes hit him in 2012, robbing the once-robust mining worker of his career and a normal life. “I don’t know, it may have been the alcohol, but I also smoked a lot,” he says when asked what might have ­triggered such a life-changing event.

Joe doesn’t know what to think of the welfare card idea. It won’t affect him because his wife Lois works as a schoolteacher, giving them enough cash to buy what they want. Joe worked all his life until the stroke and says he can’t understand someone being on welfare and then complaining about it. “I’ve had to work all my life to get this house, to achieve my dreams,” he says. But Lois wonders whether the card will actually work. “I think it’s a good idea in theory but practically I don’t think it will address the root of the problem,” she says. “I think if people really want to get cash, they’ll get it somehow.”

Greg Limbert points to the bush opposite Ceduna’s Highway One roadhouse, which he ran for 20 years. “In the morning, you would often see people literally crawling across the road from the town camp to come [to the roadhouse] to see how much money they had in their account so they could buy alcohol,” he says. He believes the card will help some people but says it may also affect “some of the people who need it the least”.

An alcohol-fuelled fight in Ceduna. Picture: Russell Millard

The irony is that the card is being introduced into Ceduna at a time when local police and ambulance officers say there has been a slight fall in the incidence of alcohol abuse since December. That is when fresh restrictions were placed on buying takeaway alcohol, including a complete ban on sales of alcohol to Aborigines visiting Ceduna from outlying communities. Even so, as I am writing up notes in the local hotel, a fight erupts outside between two clearly intoxicated women with one throwing wild punches and kicks. I later see ambulance officers tending to the bruised face of the woman who was bashed.

The Government has flagged that if the ­trials in Ceduna and East Kimberley prove effective, the card is likely to be introduced into other rural and regional areas, including non-indigenous communities. “A logical step would be to continue to roll it out to the regions that have requested it,” says Tudge, although he baulks at suggestions it might eventually be used in capital cities. “To be honest we are not at that stage of our thinking.”

Rodger Kerr-Newell, chief executive of Halls Creek Shire, which rejected the trial, has accused Tudge of peddling a “zombie-apocalypse” picture of Aboriginal communities to win support for the trials.

But Tracey Cox, the former domestic violence worker and mother of two daughters, Halle, four, and Maddison, 18 months, says the problems in Ceduna are all too real. “I’ve seen enough of it,” she says, her eyes flashing with anger. “We see kids coming to school with no food each day because Mum or Dad has gone and spent the money. These kids have a right to learn and to eat — they are our future. Some people don’t have the strength in them to make the right decisions and this card could make it for them. For the better.”

She pauses and reflects on the tough choices facing her hometown and her people. “If it doesn’t work then we can try another way,” she says finally. “But at least we can say that we tried.”