Scrapped cashless debit card failed to live up to its potential in Ceduna, social worker says

The abolition of the cashless debit card (CDC) for welfare recipients after a critical report was welcomed by some in the communities where it was tested.

The Australian National Audit Office report found that the Department of Social Services had been unable to show that the program was achieving its objectives.

Citing the report, new federal Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth said briefings had been held to discuss the termination of the CDC.

“The former coalition government spent over $170 million on the privatized cashless debit card, money that could have been spent on services that locals need,” she said.

Since 2016, the CDC, which could not be used directly to buy alcohol or to gamble, has been tested across the country, including Ceduna in South Australia, Goldfields in Western Australia and the Territory North.

New social services minister Amanda Rishworth said talks were underway to drop the trial of the card.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

In Ceduna, his legacy has been polarizing, with politics popular with incumbent politicians while being criticized by frontline service providers.

“Remarkable” potential overshadowed by problems

Michele Jacobsen, who worked in social services in Ceduna for more than a decade and supported clients placed on the card, said that while there were high hopes for the card when it was introduced, cracks quickly appeared.

“Once we got over the start-up issues, there was a remarkable benefit for people who were suffering from the issues the card was introduced for,” Ms Jacobsen said.

A sign pointing to Ceduna, with a road visible in the background
Ceduna is a town on the west coast of South Australia with a large Aboriginal population.(ABC: Emma Pedler)

“However, there was a demographic that didn’t suffer from these issues and was disadvantaged by the card.”

Ms Jacobsen said things had not improved for most people on the card.

“Unfortunately, if you don’t address why people need to be on such a controlled map, then the map itself won’t work – there are workarounds for everything,” she said.

“The desperation to have that money outweighed their need for the money.”

“No training” for social workers

Ms Jacobsen said social workers were to act as “middlemen” between clients and Indue, the bank that stores restricted income, although they have no direct access to the system.

A shot on a street in Kalgoorlie at dusk.
The Goldfields region of WA, including Kalgoorlie, is another region where the map has been tested.(ABC News: Jarrod Lucas)

“We had no access to anything, there was no training, we weren’t actually employed by the bank.

“The customer needed to have an email address, they needed to have access to a phone. A lot of our customers, for various reasons, wouldn’t have regular access to these things.

“Having all this infrastructure set up for the card and then scrapping it is disappointing. It’s a big waste of money.”

MP calls for expansion of CDC

Ceduna’s federal representative, Liberal MP Rowan Ramsey, said he was alarmed by the government’s moves to ax the CDC.

“My general conversation on the ground in Ceduna is that it makes a difference,” Mr Ramsey said.

“It’s all very well to say it’s not working and it’s not working, but I think you should have a very good idea of ​​what you’re going to do next if you remove the supports that are in place at the moment, and I’m not sure anyone knows what to do next.”

Rowan Ramsey stands outside, with a flagpole in the background, talking.
Rowan Ramsey has just been re-elected MP for Grey.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Mr Ramsey said he considers the CDC a success and would like to see it implemented more.

“I’m personally disappointed it hasn’t spread across Australia at this stage,” he said.

“It’s not a panacea, but if it makes a difference, we should keep it.”