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Scott Morrison’s poverty fix

Sep 17, 2019 • 17m35s

As Scott Morrison announces punitive welfare plans, Rick Morton asks what happens when you treat poverty as a moral problem.

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Scott Morrison’s poverty fix

81 • Sep 17, 2019

Scott Morrison’s poverty fix

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

As Scott Morrison announces plans to expand the cashless welfare program and drug test dole recipients, questions have been raised over the effectiveness of his approach. Rick Morton on what happens when the government treats poverty as a moral problem.

[Theme music end]

[Music starts]

Archival tape — Unidentified male newsreader:

“In the NT intervention now called ‘Stronger Futures’, welfare payments are partially quarantined for spending only on essentials like food and rent.

Archival tape — Unidentified male politician:

“The fact of the matter is if you love somebody and they are spending all their money on booze and drugs, what are you going to do? You’re going to try to get them to stop it and get them to try spend it on food, clothes and the necessities of life. So this is what the cashless card is all about - it’s an exercise in compassion and in love.”

Archival tape — Unidentified male newsreader :

“The federal government’s cashless debit card trial was supposed to be quote “an exercise in compassion” to revolutionise Australia’s welfare payment system, but many who are on the card as part of the trials in several regional communities say that it doesn’t work.”

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

So Rick the cashless welfare card has roots back in the Howard government’s intervention in the NT and it’s run continuously in different places since then.

RICK:

Yeah. So I mean it's kind of I mean it's the trial that never ends right. I guess what we've seen now from the very beginning with the Northern Territory intervention is that almost always Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were the guinea pigs for these things and it was the same with the cashless debit card because Ceduna the the little town in South Australia was one of the first trial sites chosen.

Archival tape — Unidentified male newsreader:

“A trial of cashless welfare in underway in Ceduna with the first cards switched on last week. But already, there have been problems.”

Archival tape — Unidentified female newsreader:

“When this woman, we’ll call her Susan, goes food shopping she won’t be using her bank card anymore. She’ll be using a new cashless welfare card, but she says she shouldn’t have to.

Archival tape — ‘Susan’:

“I don’t have a drug problem, I don’t have a drinking problem, I don’t have a gambling problem…”

RICK:

30 per cent of people in that trial are Aboriginal compared with just 3 per cent of that population. So they're completely overrepresented on this card.

ELIZABETH:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter at The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

And then the Coalition managed to expand it to the goldfields, also in WA, which had a slightly more mixed population and then not that long ago actually I remember reporting on this, they won the support in the Senate to expand, for the first time, the card to Bundaberg Harvey Bay region in Queensland.

Archival tape — Unidentified female newsreader:

“The government’s controversial cashless welfare card trial will be expanded to include Bundaberg and Hervey Bay region in Queensland next month. Nationals MP Keith Pitt welcomes the trial to his electorate, saying the cards could help solve some issues associated with long term welfare dependency.”

RICK:

Now the reason for that was because they had copped a lot of criticism that if they really wanted to take this thing national, all they had so far was evidence from Aboriginal communities and not anywhere else. So in Bundaberg/Harvey Bay it’s purely focused on people under the age of 35 and most people in that community are non-Indigenous and most of them are white.

ELIZABETH:

And what's the cashless debit card intended to do?

RICK:

So it's kind of like income management on steroids. So what they want to do now is bring these you know tens of thousands of people across onto the new version which is quarantining 80 per cent and that would almost double the size of the entire trial nationwide so far. A single person on the Newstart allowance for instance is on five hundred fifty five dollars a fortnight. You can't withdraw more than $111 a fortnight out in cash. The whole theory behind this is that it's meant to curb gambling, problematic drinking and other behaviours and make sure that people still have money that they can spend on groceries and food for their children. That's the idea behind it.

ELIZABETH:

And, I mean it's an obvious question, but does it work?

RICK:

Not really. It's a complicated one right. So, I think with welfare in particular we've got to understand there will always be people who respond well to this stuff. And you know Rachel Siewert the Greens senator who's been in Ceduna just the week before Parliament began said that she's met people who say the card works for them and I don't doubt that. But the problem is you cannot, and this was one of the main criticisms of the Northern Territory intervention, they introduced income management for everyone in these Aboriginal communities, every single person. Not people who are having genuine problems and not people who really would have responded who just could not manage their own resources. And when you do that, you then kind of hobble other people and I think if you make one person's life worse because you're trying to help some other people, but they get caught up in the net, then I think that policy has failed. And certainly the government has tried to twist itself in quite a spectacle of contortions to try and find ways to prove that their trials of cashless debit card have been successful.

Archival tape — Scott Morrison:

“G’day. Good news in Bundaberg and in Hervey Bay, where we’ve been trialling the cashless debit card - a new way of delivery welfare. It’s meant that people are coming off welfare at twice the national rate. This is great news. The debit card…”

RICK:

And they initially did that by getting a research firm called Orima to do two evaluations. And the Australian National Audit Office, and auditors don't get head up too much about, you know they don't use strong language, but they were absolutely scathing of the approach used by Orima which was signed off by the Department of Social Services. Because do you know what they did when they looked at the trials to do their evaluation? They did qualitative interviews, they asked feel-good questions, and they had no idea what the baseline data was, like they had no idea what things were like in those communities before the cashless debit card trialled.

ELIZABETH:

Hmmm.

RICK:

So it's been expanded three times since 2016, never based on an evaluation that has actually been sound.

ELIZABETH:

So there’s expansion without a huge amount of hard data behind it?

RICK:

Correct. And I think what happens when you've got these ideological conflagrations within government, they don't care about the data and it kind of shows with this. I mean they are desperate to show that they have been successful but they've got nothing to pin it on.

So you know there are problems with the application now. So originally they used to have to go into an A.T.M. to check their card balance to see how much money they had on the card. But now there's a phone application and they can use the phone app to check their balance. But there's something going wrong with it and the department doesn't know about it. But it's, you know, they check their app and it says oh yeah you've got one hundred and forty dollars. So they're like ‘Great I can go to the grocery shopping’ and it's not until they've gone through all the aisles, picked up all the stuff they need to get and they get to the counter and then it says card declined.

And, you know, that seems like a small thing but if you haven't lived through the grinding shame of poverty you don't know. I mean you're already feeling like people are judging you because everyone knows what this card looks like. They call it the grey card in Ceduna and the white card in Kununurra for obvious reasons. And they are looking at you. And then you're holding up the queue. And this is just one element of it.

I grew up poor, right. And I think it's very hard for people to understand what poverty is like if they haven't lived it. The design of this entire program is a huge clue that the people who were in charge have never come from these background. Poverty is a deeply shaming experience anyway because you never have the money, you're socially isolated and it's undignified and you don't help people by reinforcing indignity.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

And Rick, do we know what the government’s ultimate plans are for this program?

RICK:

I've no doubt that the government as it currently stands would love to see this as a national program because they've always had this instinctive dislike of welfare. They know that they can't get rid of it because Australians at the end of the day have a very innate sense of fairness and a safety net like Medicare is one of the institutions on which this country is founded, right. So they know they can't get rid of it but it's always really just plagued them and frustrated them that these people are just there, getting help for free. And so I think that their instinct is to make this a national rollout.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Rick, before Scott Morrison was Prime Minister and before he was Treasurer, he was Minister for Social Services between 2014 and 2015. What do you think the sector remembers of his time in the portfolio?

RICK:

I actually remember covering it, you know, when he became Social Services Minister and we all sighed a huge sigh of relief because Kevin Andrews was the first Social Services Minister under the Abbott government and, to be perfectly frank, he was kind of just really bizarre. The first six month really in Scott Morrison's job when he became social services minister was to get rid of all the detritus and to clear the decks of Kevin Andrews weird policy making.

And Scott was I think very pragmatic and you know I was speaking to a lot of social services groups about what their first meetings with him were like and they were actually quite impressed.

Archival tape — Scott Morrison:

“For the majority of Australians our goal must be for the welfare system to be a transit stop, not a destination. We must deal with the changing circumstances of life and the disruptions that can take place more effectively than we do today.”

RICK:

You know he didn't really seem to have a hard core ideology. He was more about: how do we fix this perceived problem? And how do we do it in a way that doesn't cost the government a fortune?

ELIZABETH:

And on that note, he gave an interview to the nine newspapers recently where he articulated his views on welfare reform or at least on this policy. What did he say?

RICK:

He was talking about how he kind of strives to perpetuate a form of compassionate conservatism. I'm not averse to something like that because, just for full disclosure my brother was an ice addict right, we really struggled as a family to get help for him. Like, we really struggled. And it was one of the hardest five years of our collective lives and there were things that troubled me and my initial instincts about how to help someone that were not borne out by reality. And I think we had to have a kind of tough love with my brother. And so I get the compassionate conservatism thing because sometimes to help someone, to truly help someone, you can't give them everything they want, I get that.

But you know Scott Morrison was talking about the fact that they have evidence now for these cashless debit card trials and that they commend themselves to a wider rollout. And so I think he was dropping hints in this interview with Nine's newspapers on Sunday with Rob Harris, that this was where they were heading.

ELIZABETH:

So Rick, in that same interview the Prime Minister said that he thinks drug testing was a way for people to get back on their feet again. How is the government saying that would work?

RICK:

Well I don't know that they know, (laughs) to be quite honest. I mean essentially what they want to do is over two years, they want to drug test 5000 welfare recipients in three locations - it's a trial.

And they think that about 500 of those 5000 welfare recipients will test positive at least once and in that case, anyone who tests positive ones will have their welfare quarantined. If a person tests positive to a drug twice, they then get referred to treatment for drug and alcohol issues. And the government has provided a 10 million dollar fund, which is a substantial amount of money, if they're only going to capture you know 100 something people who are testing positive twice.

Now that's all well and good right? Why are we bothering with the first part of it? What is a cashless debit card need to happen in order for the support to be there? And we struggled with my own brother when he was in the grips of an ice addiction to find anywhere in the country that would take him as a rehab patient that didn't cost $30,000 because, guess what, we didn't have $30,000 and most people who are struggling with these issues don't, even though it does happen across the spectrum of wealth. We're doing or you know stage one and stage two for no reason essentially when what we really need to do is find people where they are, if they're in the justice system, or if they've gone to hospital, and then get the treatment services to them there in a non-stigmatising way; in a way that deals with the underlying trauma because 80 percent of people with drug addictions have at least one episode of physical or emotional trauma in their life, we know that. And a lot of that trauma is informed by family breakdown and poverty so we've got a cycle happening here in terms of welfare.

ELIZABETH:

And how are professionals who work in the sector responding to this policy?

RICK:

Yeah. So I mean I spoke to Matt Noffs who is the CEO of the Noffs Foundation, which is the largest drug and alcohol treatment centre for people under the age of 25 in Australia. And Matt Noffs said to me, I won't take a cent of this $10 million treatment fund from the government under the drug testing policy because then we would be complicit in extending the whip of government punishment. And he's backed up by all the medical professionals, I mean if you look at the list of people who have signed statements against this drug testing policy it includes the who's who of medical experts in Australia. Matt Noffs says you know ‘I won't touch it’ because mandating treatment does not work.

ELIZABETH:

So Rick, why is the government pursuing this policy?

RICK:

I think really what we're looking at here is a solution from government that is the result of their own prejudice. And I think that is: they think that poverty is a moral problem. They think that people who are poor just haven't worked hard enough or done enough or made the right decisions. And so we're not looking at, necessarily, our response to poverty here, we're looking at a punishment of poverty. It's almost like everything about poverty reinforces your station in life. People wonder out loud, particularly conservatives, why didn't they just make the right choices? And it's like yelling at a drowning man that he should have had swimming lessons, it’s just like well what do you expect? And they don't understand and they're like well you know if I'm drowning I would just swim to shore. But you know, you might have flippers on and they've got concrete boots. Like you're not comparing like with like and it's the same kind of situation across this whole cashless debit card thing. I mean it's people who have come from privileged or well-off or comfortable backgrounds, designing a system that they think would work for them and then applying it to people who have no idea what that experience is like. And it's quite dangerous I think because it reinforces the status quo.

[Music starts]

I don't think they actually care, and Matt Noffs said this as well, I don't think they care if they get this through the Senate, it's red meat to their base. You know, nothing polls better for a Coalition government than drug testing welfare recipients. Any of the quiet Australians will almost instinctively say ‘yeah, of course they should because it’s taxpayer money, why would you spend that on drugs?’ And so, I think the government does it because it looks good for the people they want to impress and Matt Noffs said, you know, if they don't get it through they'll be able to say: well at least we tried.

ELIZABETH:

Rick thank you so much.

RICK:

Thanks Elizabeth.

[Music ends]

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[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Volkswagen and Audi have settled two class action lawsuits in Australia, adding another chapter to the global diesel emissions scandal. Around 100,000 Australian cars produced by Volkswagen, Audi and Skoda fall within the payout scheme. Exact details of the settlement are confidential, but could be as high as $127 million — or around $1,400 per vehicle, a figure much lower than the rate reached in a similar settlement in the US in 2016. As of late last year, it's estimated that related settlements and fines has cost Volkswagen $42 billion.

And in the US, early on Monday, President Trump tweeted his defence of Justice Brett Kavanaugh after the New York Times revealed new allegations of sexual harassment while he was student at Yale. A number of Democratic presidential hopefuls began calling for Kavanaugh's impeachment, including Kamala Harris who said Kavanaugh had quote, "lied to the US Senate and most importantly to the American people." Removing a supreme court justice from the bench requires the House to vote in the majority, followed by a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Wednesday.

[Theme music ends]

As Scott Morrison announces plans to expand the cashless welfare program and drug test dole recipients, questions are raised over the effectiveness of his approach. Rick Morton on what happens when you treat poverty as a moral problem.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

Newstart: the human cost of Morrison’s plan in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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81: Scott Morrison’s poverty fix