The Federal Government’s Department of Social Services is trialling the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) in communities on the West Coast of South Australia, around the Ceduna area; and the communities of Kununurra and Wyndham in Western Australia. Approximately two thirds of the people who are on the CDC are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Cashless Debit Card was introduced in order to ‘reduce the social harm caused by welfare-fuelled alcohol and drug abuse and gambling’ by reducing the amount of cash available to people. Under the CDC, 80% of people’s welfare payments are paid into a debit card account that cannot be used for alcohol or gambling. People on the Card can only access 20% of their income benefits in the form of cash.
The Cashless Debit Card is part of Government’s income management strategy and was introduced in the Ceduna area in March 2016 and in Western Australia in April 2016. The trial is scheduled to run for 12 months and recently reached its half-way mark.
According to the Federal Government’s interim Cashless Debit Card Trial Progress Report of October 2016, the trial will be ‘subject to a full, independent evaluation conducted by ORIMA Research. The evaluation will measure the impact of the trial on social harm directly associated with alcohol and drug use, and gambling. The evaluation will also measure factors (although not trial performance indicators) such as school attendance rates, child protection substantiations and incidents of disruptive behaviour. The evaluation is due to be completed in June 2017. The full evaluation will be supported by ongoing data collection from state and Commonwealth government agencies and community organisations throughout the trial period (p. 4)’.
Progress report on the trial of the Cashless Debit Card
The Federal Government’s Cashless Debit Card Trial Progress Report sets out key interim findings and anecdotal evidence about the trial in the Ceduna and East Kimberley sites. The report includes both quantitative and qualitative information.
In order to determine the value and contribution of the CDC in reducing harmful behaviours that impact on families and communities, it is essential that a rigorous and consistent approach to analysing the available data is undertaken. In the event that consideration is given to rolling-out the Cashless Card in other communities, it is important that the impact of the Card itself is assessed, separate from the impacts of other social support services or events/factors occurring at the same time as the trialling of the Card. The Progress Report claims a number of positive developments in relation to the introduction of the Card; these include reductions in: pokies revenue, monthly apprehensions under the Public Intoxication Act 1984, crime statistics, and the number of people supported by specialist homelessness services, amongst others.
Gambling and pokies revenue
The Progress Report states that ‘Poker machine revenue in the Ceduna region between April 2016 and August 2016 was 15.1 per cent lower than for the equivalent period in 2015. Revenue for August 2016 is six per cent lower compared to the August average from the previous two years, falling to $409,350 in 2016 from $434,302 in 2015 and $437,646 in 2014’.
The Progress Report and Government’s commentary associated with the interim findings of the Report, claim that this reduction in pokies revenue is as a result of the introduction of the Cashless Debit Card. The Minister for Human Services, the Hon Alan Tudge MP, stated in an interview with Paper Tracker radio that ‘In relation to gambling, for example, we’ve put no additional money, no additional services to help people manage their gambling habits, but the Card itself has seen a reduction in the gambling revenue at the local pokies venue decline by 30 per cent. So, that to me says, that’s the operation of the Card’.
However, it is important to recognise that there is a range of socio-economic and contextual factors that could impact on pokies revenue. Based on the statistics as provided in the Progress Report, there had been a decline in pokies revenue prior to the Cashless Card being introduced in March 2016 i.e. there was a decline of $3,344 in pokies revenue from 2014 to 2015.
In assessing the impact of the CDC, it is important to recognise that in 2016, across South Australia, poker machine spending has reached its lowest level since 2003 – this appears to be due to a range of factors, possibly including gamblers moving to online gaming, the introduction of smoking bans in public places, as well as other socio-economic factors. Given this general downturn in spending on pokies machines, it cannot be claimed that the reduction in pokies revenue in the Ceduna region is due to the introduction of the Cashless Debit Card; there are a number of other factors that also need to be considered.
While noting the generalised downward trend in pokies revenue across South Australia, the data available from the Government of South Australia’s Consumer and Business Services, for the Local Government Council Area of Ceduna, Streaky Bay, Le Hunte, Elliston, Lower Eyre Peninsula, indicates that the Aggregate Nett Gambling Revenue (NGR) for 2013/14 was $4,405,967.80, which is $38,476.20 lower than the Aggregate NGR of $4,444,444.05 for 2015/16. The Cashless Card had not yet been introduced in 2013/14 and yet the data for this year is lower than the data for both 2014/15 and 2015/16. This serves to illustrate that there could be a variety of factors that impact on data fluctuations and that the full range of impacts on pokies revenue needs to be carefully considered, prior to claiming that the Cashless Debit Card has resulted in the decrease in gambling.
|Year||Number of venues||Gaming Machines as at 30 June 2016||Aggregate NGR $ per LGA||Average NGR $ per venue|
Annual revenue data by ABS Local Government Council Area of Ceduna, Streaky Bay, Le Hunte, Elliston, Lower Eyre Peninsula (SA Government, Consumer and Business Services).
Crime statistics and apprehensions
Public Intoxication Act monthly apprehensions
The Progress report states that the period from March 2016 to June 2016 saw an average 54 per cent fewer apprehensions per month compared to the same period in 2015. In February 2016 (in the month prior to the introduction of the Card), 15 people were apprehended under the Public Intoxication Act and in June 2016, this had increased to 38 apprehensions. After a decline in May 2016, the number of apprehensions has been increasing. The Report states that ‘the number of apprehensions since the trial commenced is significantly lower compared to the same period in 2015’. However, it needs to be recognised that Liquor restrictions were also introduced in August 2015 and that these will also have impacted on the level of alcohol consumption. The graph included in the Progress Report shows that the number of Public Intoxication Act apprehensions for June 2016 is at the same level as it was in August 2015 (when the liquor restrictions were introduced) and as it was at certain points in December 2015 and January 2016.
The Progress report states that ‘sexual assault, robbery and other offences against the person have been generally decreasing since trial implementation in March 2016, although other offences against the person (harassment, threatening behaviour or dangerous/negligent acts) rose sharply in August 2016. Despite an initial sharp decrease in April 2016, sexual assault has returned to levels seen earlier in the year’.
However, the statistics provided by SAPOL as at the end of August this year, indicated that aggravated sexual assault has increased.
The report states that ‘there have been no reported robberies since April 2016’ and yet SAPOL’s data indicates that robbery and related offences have increased by 62%, with aggravated robbery up by 9%.
Clients supported by specialist homelessness services
The Progress report states that the number of clients supported by specialist homelessness services in Ceduna has dropped by 42%. It would appear that this reduction is being seen as a success, however, an alternative interpretation might be that the needs of homeless people have not been adequately met as a result of this reduction. Homelessness and the lack of adequate available housing is not a socio-economic factor that would simply be reduced by the introduction of a mechanism such as the Cashless Card – there are a number of factors that need to be considered. Anecdotal evidence from homelessness support services in Adelaide suggests that a number of people have left the Ceduna area and have been approaching homelessness services in the Adelaide area in order to access permanent housing. This movement of people could partly explain the drop in the number of homeless clients in Ceduna.
The data reflects that the number of people being admitted to the Sobering-Up Unit in Ceduna has been increasing since the Trial began. This could be viewed as a positive development in that people are accessing the service and seeking help. The Report cites data indicating that the rate at which they are being discharged while still at risk, has decreased – this could indicate a lower level of intoxication and is a positive indicator. However, there is a range of factors that could be influencing this data – such as policy changes about how the Sobering-Up Unit operates or an increase in the staffing and resourcing of the Unit. The Trial cannot claim all improvements as the result of the CDC – other variables and factors also need to be considered.
Mobile Assistance Patrol
The report states that the Mobile Assistance Patrol – which provides transport for individuals who are affected by alcohol or drugs and who are at risk – has increased the number of clients that it has picked up, by 35% when compared with the four months immediately prior to the introduction of the Trial. While it is a positive sign that more people have accessed safe transport when they’re at risk, it could potentially contradict the data about the reduction in the number of people being discharged from the Sobering-Up Unit while still at risk. This data suggests that the issue of chronic and persistent substance misuse is not being adequately addressed.
At the level of the more descriptive or anecdotal information, the Progress report states that ‘community leaders are strongly supportive of the trial’. However, it is apparent that there are a number of community leaders who do not support the trial and there is not unanimous support for the CDC. This was evident during the community protests that met the Prime Minister when he visited Ceduna recently. It seems that those community leaders who have not lent their support to the trial have not had their voices heard and have not had their views incorporated in the findings as set out in the report. The report can therefore be perceived as being selective in the data provided and the voices that are ‘heard’ in the report.
While it can be acknowledged that there may have been positive outcomes for some individuals or families, the trial of the Cashless Debit Card has significantly inconvenienced many people who already manage their money appropriately. The blanket approach that has been adopted means that those people who budget carefully and are responsible about money, are being negatively affected. Some people on the Card feel that they’re being punished rather than recognised for their efforts to manage their very limited money. Many people included in the trial who do not have alcohol or drug addictions have expressed that they feel unfairly treated.
In addition, this approach does not recognise that some people are living with significant addiction problems and that these need to be addressed through intensive and comprehensive case management, counselling, and access to a range of support services, rather than a punitive approach which does little to change the cycle of addiction and/or welfare dependence.
The Progress Report fails to adequately recognise that there is a multitude of factors that impact on people’s behaviour patterns and their wellbeing. It appears to claim that any positive outcomes or improvements in the socio-economic wellbeing of people living in the trial area, are linked to the impact of the Cashless Debit Card. In doing so, it fails to acknowledge the host of other variables at play, for example, changes in the level of available support services; other government regulations, policies and programs; and personal choices that people may make. In the absence of a more comprehensive analysis of the available data and the suite of contextual factors, the actual impact of the Card will be distorted – this would therefore serve to discredit the reliability of the evidence base or rationale for any future roll-out of the Cashless Debit Card.
 Government of Australia, Department of Social Services, Cashless Debit Card Trial Progress Report, October 2016, p. 1
 This data is for the grouped Local Government Areas of Ceduna, Streaky Bay, Le Hunte, Elliston and the Lower Eyre Peninsula. Trial participants make up approx. 30% of the population in this area and approx. 30% of the area’s poker machines are located in Ceduna.