Welfare card is a silver bullet that doesn’t fire

By Michelle Nelson-Cox*

A card to tackle every imaginable social problem in vulnerable communities is a poorly regarded and ideologically-driven program destined to fail.

Claims by outgoing WA Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan that the cashless welfare program should be expanded to somehow protect children from sexual abuse, particularly in Roebourne, are ill-informed and impractical.

The Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia (AHCWA) is the peak body for Aboriginal health in WA, with 22 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHSs) currently engaged as members.

AHCWA does not support simplistic solutions imposed from outside Aboriginal communities. Rather, it advocates for greater investment in community designed and driven programs to build strong families and communities.

Our sector has been delivering positive outcomes in Aboriginal health for more than 40 years, but in that time we have often dealt with the unintended negative consequences of whatever ‘silver bullet’ solution is politically fashionable at the time. These days, the cashless welfare card is seen as the quick fix.

Despite never wavering from expressing (what appears to be) genuine concern for the social and emotional wellbeing of children in WA remote communities, the suggested action by Mr O’Callaghan is merely an attempt to mitigate the symptoms of a problem rather than address the underlying causes. And perhaps deflecting responsibility from his own duty to protect as the state’s top cop?’

The cashless welfare card has been delivered as part of a Cashless Debit Card Trial (CDCT), a program developed to reduce the harm associated with alcohol consumption, illicit drug use and gambling in Ceduna in South Australia and the East Kimberley in WA (Kununurra and Wyndham).

The trial began in early 2016, when participants were issued a debit card which could not be used to buy alcohol, gambling products or to withdraw cash.

The system quarantines 80 per cent of income support payments into a restricted account linked to the card, with the remainder of these payments accessible through a normal, unrestricted bank account.

Calls for an expansion of the cashless welfare card to prevent child sexual abuse are based on nothing more than a distorted perception that quarantining income will address all social problems in remote Aboriginal communities.

To date, there has been no conclusive evidence that cashless welfare cards play any role in reducing the impact of issues such as illicit drug use or sexual abuse.

In fact, the most comprehensive review of income management in the Northern Territory has proven that this strategy will not work and will likely only create further dependence.

Remarkably, and perhaps unsurprisingly, an evaluation of the current trial showed that the majority of people using the card, and their families, did not report gambling, using illicit drugs, or consuming alcohol in excess.

To put it simply, this trial has been socially disempowering for a huge number of community members. Strong resistance and opposition has been made clear at public meetings, strikes and petitions.

Admissions by Karl O’Callaghan in The West Australian on Tuesday (August 1, 2017) that ‘’police were not capable of protecting children in those communities” and “neither the police nor government can guarantee protection of these children” shows a lack of commitment to work with communities to effectively address these issues.

It reeks of a “head-in-sand” approach, something for the “too hard basket”.

Similarly, statements like “many who are subject to the card’s restrictions do not like it and some claim it is not supportive of human rights” do not evoke confidence that Mr O’Callaghan has the community’s best interests in mind.

If anything, his comments reflect a failure of policing in the Roebourne area to address these crimes and protect the town’s most vulnerable people.

The answer is not an expansion of the cashless welfare card.

The solution does not lie in the disempowerment of Aboriginal people, which has been an ongoing tactic by governments.

Instead it lies in additional police resources and a genuine commitment to work with communities to stamp out shocking and abhorrent crimes.

* Michelle Nelson-Cox is Chairperson of the Aboriginal Health Council of WA.


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