A cashless welfare card aimed at stemming alcohol abuse would be rolled out across the country under a welfare reform the Turnbull government is considering taking to the election.
As regional trouble spots line up to be chosen for trials of the government’s new Healthy Welfare Card to begin next month, The Australian understands the Coalition may seek an election mandate to extend the card to welfare recipients across regional Australia if they achieve positive results.
Under the new system — proposed by mining magnate Andrew Forrest in his review of the welfare system in 2014 — 80 per cent of a person’s government payment would be quarantined to a bank card that could not be used to buy alcohol and gambling products, nor converted to cash.
The remaining 20 per cent could be accessible as cash.
Last year, the government successfully passed legislation to allow the card to be trialled in three test sites, affecting up to 10,000 welfare recipients, beginning in the far-west South Australian town of Ceduna next month, and the East Kimberley in northern Western Australia in March.
The Australian can reveal that since the East Kimberley trial site was announced in November, up to seven West Australian shires have contacted Liberal MPs seeking to take part in the trial of the card, predominantly from the Mid-West and Gascoyne regions.
Melissa Price, MP for the vast regional seat of Durack, said the councils had contacted her because they were struggling with social dysfunction arising from alcohol abuse that was not being curbed by existing programs.
“There is a sense of urgency, certainly in my patch of regional Western Australia, where in some cases we have got alcohol management plans that have worked to a certain extent, but people want to see the Healthy Welfare Card implemented alongside the alcohol management plans,” Ms Price said.
“Without a doubt, if you don’t have a community that is abusing alcohol, it is better not just for the individual but for the community itself.”
Ms Price is pushing for the regional centre of Geraldton to become the third trial site.
This would allow the government to test the card in a city where the majority of welfare recipients are non-indigenous and provide a blueprint for how the card could work in metropolitan areas.
“Obviously it is subject to the results of the trial, but it is very interesting to see how this could get rolled out in a major city as this is not just a problem in the bush,” she said.
If the card were rolled out across all regional communities in Australia, up to 100,000 people on government income support could be captured.
It could include more people if the Basics Card in the Northern Territory were replaced, or if metropolitan trouble-spots currently subject to income quarantining were also included.
Assistant Minister for Social Services Alan Tudge, who is overseeing the rollout of the card, is hopeful trials will prove the measure can be the “solution” to alcohol-induced social harm.
He says that if the trials are successful, the government will want the card to have a broader application.
“Offering the card to other regions would a logical next step, beginning with those Western Australian locations that have already shown initial support,” Mr Tudge writes in The Australian today.
“Others have suggested that the card could have wider application.
“It is early days, but one thing is clear: collectively we have to get control of the alcohol abuse that destroys communities and now threatens the next generation.
“The cashless welfare debit card may be the solution.”