Transcript: Sky News - PM Agenda, Interview with Ashleigh Gillon

12 April 2017

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
Cashless Debit Card, jobseeker mutual obligations compliance

Well, back home it is budget speculation season and there is a bit of chatter that we could see some pretty major changes to welfare programs in next month's budget, particularly when it comes to a possible expansion of the cashless welfare debit card and perhaps a crackdown on welfare payments for parents who don't send their kids to school.

The Minister responsible is the Human Services Minister Alan Tudge. I canvassed some of those ideas with him when I spoke to him a bit earlier today and also started by asking him about reports today that Centrelink isn't actually fining people who are on welfare who refuse to turn up to job interviews or even turn up to work.

Have a listen.

Minister, thank you for your time. Why isn't Centrelink carrying through on threats of withholding payments to people on welfare who miss job interviews or fail to turn up to work?

Ashleigh, we have got a very robust system of mutual obligations, but unfortunately the Labor Party introduced a loophole which effectively allowed people to not have to face a financial penalty for not doing the right thing.

Now, we have tried to fix this in the Parliament in the past, but Labor and the Greens have blocked it.

But we are having another look at the entire compliance system to make sure that the system is robust, is there to support people who need it, but also to ensure that there are serious penalties for those who are taking the taxpayer for a ride.

So, could we see further measures in this space to crack down on this sort of behaviour in the budget?

Well, I don't want to pre-empt anything that is going to be in the budget. I can say, and we have been saying this for some time, that Michaelia Cash, Christian Porter, and myself have been looking at this space for several months now with the overall ambition of, if you like, supporting two categories of people.

There is one category of people who are missing appointments and failing to turn up to various things in part because they have probably got a whole series of issues in their life and we want to be able to identify those people early and support them.

Then there is another category, though, who frankly are ripping the taxpayer off, taking the taxpayer for a ride, and they are not facing the consequences which they should be facing.

So, we would like to design a system which can fairly accommodate both groups. We are also acknowledging, by the way, that the vast majority of jobseekers actually do the right thing, they are hungry for work, and need a very light touch compliance regime.

On another matter, the Cashless Debit Card. It puts the majority of a person's welfare payments onto a card which can't then pay for alcohol or gambling or be withdrawn as cash. Do you view the trials of that card in a couple of remote communities as successful and how widely are you considering rolling that out?

I do consider that those trials have been successful. I say that they are not a panacea for all the serious issues which are in those communities.

But the evaluations which we have had show that the number of people drinking has dropped by a quarter, that there has been a quarter less drug taking, that gambling is down as well and all the other evidence both anecdotally, as well as the data that we are collecting, supports those.

We have had a number of requests from other regions who would like to see this card rolled out to their region, but we simply have not made any decisions yet. We are obviously considering their requests but no decisions have been made at this stage, Ash.

If the program is so successful, are you seriously considering making it an across the board system for Indigenous and non-Indigenous welfare recipients?

It has always applied to all welfare recipients, regardless of whether you are Indigenous or non-Indigenous. In the two particular regions, one region in South Australia and the other in the East Kimberley in Western Australia, it applies to all people on welfare payments.

In Ceduna, that is about 70% Indigenous, 30% non-Indigenous. In the East Kimberley, a little bit higher. It has never been an Indigenous-specific issue.

Your question is this going to be applying across the board, the plan is never to roll it out to everyone across Australia - that has never been our intent. We simply have not made decisions yet in relation to what we might do next. We are considering some of the applications which have been put to us.

But I will say this Ash, unless we get control of the alcohol in some of these discrete communities, I don't think we will ever properly get on top of some of the other problems which exist in those places.

The alcohol is just the poison that runs through them and it underpins so much of the child neglect, so much of the domestic violence, so much of the other dysfunction that unfortunately and sadly characterises many of these remote and regional communities.

So, we have to be fair dinkum about this. The card is one tool to help address it, it has been a very good tool in my mind, but that cannot be the only thing that we do. We also have to be looking more broadly as well.

Just to pick up on something you said there, that you are not looking at rolling this out across the country, across the board, why not, again, if it is so successful in these particular communities?

As you know, the Cashless Welfare Card was this idea championed by the billionaire businessman Andrew Forrest, he is also arguing it should be rolled out to all welfare recipients under the age of 18. He points out they shouldn't be able to buy alcohol anyway. Is that a good idea?

That is the system that is used in New Zealand. If you are under 18 in New Zealand, you basically get given a card, you get your rent paid automatically, and you are given only $50 of discretionary cash.

It seems to work in New Zealand, I have taken a look at that. At this stage, though Ash, we have got our two trials going on with our card, they have been extended, those trials, for the foreseeable future, and we just simply have not made any decisions.

I think that we are obviously considering those regions and there have been many, some of whom have publicly called for the card to be applied to their regions, but I just want to re-emphasise we have just finished the trials, no decisions have been made yet, but obviously we are looking into it.

Yeah, so what is the timeframe, though, for a decision on all this?

Ash, we are considering this and we have been monitoring the data very carefully over the last six months in particular, to determine how successful this card is going, what the reaction has been on the ground, and we have been buoyed by the success of it.

As I said, it is not a panacea to all the problems and we continue to refine the card and continue to improve it. I just don't want to speculate in terms of what announcements, or if any announcement, that we have in the near future.

I understand that about half of those involved in the trials have said that their lives were worse because of the card, they denied that it actually improved their lives being on that Cashless Debit Card.

You have said that this support, you know, this card, does have support within the communities but I understand the Government hasn't really been able to nominate many community leaders who have actually backed this idea publicly.

Why is that? Why are people afraid to be associated with this concept, do you think?

When we kicked off these trials, as you might recall, Ash, there was actually groups of Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders who publicly signed a memorandum of understanding with me to introduce the card and the associated services, which went with that.

When it came to the end of the trial, we made the decision to extend it off the back of consultation with the leaders but also off the back of the evaluation which was showing positive results.

So we have extended that card for the foreseeable future, noting that there will still be checks and balances along the way. Every six months we will have to go back to Parliament to get authorisation for it to continue.

The leadership support in those communities for these trials has been absolutely essential to its success in my view because they have worked hand in glove with us in co-designing it, in working through the implementation steps.

When issues have arisen, they are the ones that first identified them because they are on the ground. And in fact they have been doing most of the leadership role in the communities and the consultations themselves. So to suggest that there isn't a leadership support for this card in those communities is wrong.

When I interviewed Andrew Forrest last week, he said that he does believe his push for a no school, no pay plan is also being embraced by your Government. Do you think people who are on welfare, who don't send their kids to school deserve to have their welfare payments?

I suppose when you think about what family tax benefits are there for, they are for looking after, to help yourself - to help parents look after children.

And one of the most important things that is an absolute fundamental responsibility of parents is to send their kids to school and there are people like Marcia Langton who will say that if you don't do that it should be considered child neglect.

There has actually been a program in place in the Northern Territory, which has tried to link school attendance with welfare payments. That one wasn't particularly effective. I think more because of the design of the particular program, rather than the concept itself.

Andrew Forrest has recommended that we again look at this. We are considering all of Andrew Forrest's recommendations, many of which we have already implemented. I have got nothing to announce at this stage, Ash, but I will just say that all of those recommendations were considered and formally responded to.

Sure. But do you agree with that idea that parents not sending their kids is a form of child neglect? I think Andrew Forrest describes it as child abuse and that this is a concept that you are sort of seriously looking at in terms of wanting to make that link because the Government does see that as a key responsibility of these welfare recipients?

It is a key responsibility of every parent to send their kids to school. And yes I do think it is akin to child neglect if a parent fails in their responsibility to do that.

We have put a lot of resources into the remote communities particularly to assist parents in living up to their responsibilities. In particular, Nigel Scullion has put in a very effective system of school attendance officers.

Effectively local respected people, who go around and assist with parents to get their kids dressed, fed and off to school on time. That has been by and large effective.

There are issues of course that become complicated in some of the more remote communities where people are more transient than they might be in the city environment. So that they are not always in the one location, that they may be travelling to another location and therefore it is more difficult to get those kids to school.

I know that Nigel Scullion has been very carefully considering things like this in trying to adopt for it. But going back to the initial premise, you have got to get your kids to school.

Because if they are not at school, they are not going to be learning and if they are not learning then the chance of you being on welfare for the rest of your life become very, very high.

So again a timeframe on this process that you are undertaking at the moment, of seriously considering this, is this something that we can expect to hear more about next month in the budget?

I am not pre-empting anything, Ash, that may or may not be in the budget. I am simply pointing out the essential importance of school attendance and this was something actually which Tony Abbott put on the agenda when he first became Prime Minister.

He said there were three very clear priorities for him in terms of Indigenous affairs and those priorities continue. And that is getting kids to school, getting adults in to work and keeping communities safe. Getting kids to school is that number one priority.

We have done a lot, still more needs to be done and as I have said it is absolutely critical for the future of these kids because you know, the road to welfare is very clear if you don't get a good education.

On the other side of the ledger, we already know that with Indigenous kids, if they get a decent education, indeed if they get a tertiary degree, then in essence the gap is closed because then their chances of getting a job subsequently are very high.

In fact, the same as the non-Indigenous population. So education becomes critical, which means getting your kids to school, having good schools in place and having good pathways for those kids to be able to thrive.

So watch that space on budget night; I'd be very surprised if we don't see some changes announced on 9 May.