Communal despair begins with alcohol abuse
Having agreed with East Kimberley leaders to implement the cashless welfare debit card, the government is now receiving requests across Western Australia for its introduction. In most cases the requests are from council or community leaders who are desperate about the situation of their community and hope the card will provide a breakthrough. In Leonora in the Goldfields, for example, a further tragic suicide, this time of a 15-year-old girl, was the catalyst for the call out.
Alcohol is always the target. It is the poison that destroys lives and makes many of our remote communities unsafe. In the Northern Territory, for example, two-thirds of the catastrophic rates of violence are related to alcohol, according to the territory’s children’s commissioner. Parties at night keep children awake and make homes unsafe. Extraordinary rates of child neglect occur.
When a community is drowning in grog, other initiatives become so much harder to implement. Restricting the supply of alcohol has been the most effective measure to date. In places like Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island, alcohol management plans have led to a 67 per cent reduction in aggravated assaults. But restricting supply is difficult in larger mainstream towns. Further, residents can travel outside the restricted area and grog-runners have been innovative in finding ways to bring in the prohibited products.
The welfare debit card has the same objective as a supply restriction but tackles the problem from the demand side: the welfare cash that pays for the grog and funds the destruction. Without the cash, systemic abuse becomes more difficult.
The card itself has been designed to look and operate like an ordinary debit card, but it has been programmed to restrict cash withdrawals and be inoperable at every bottle shop and gambling house in the country.
Ceduna in South Australia and the East Kimberley will be the first two trial locations for the card. Every working age income support recipient will have 80 per cent of their payments placed onto it while the remaining 20 per cent will continue to go into their savings account.
Whenever the card is used for purchases above $10, a text message will be sent to the recipient’s phone informing them of their new account balance. If a person leaves the community, the card will travel with them.
Of course, you cannot simply stop a person’s addiction overnight. In each location, extra drug and alcohol services are being added to help people reduce their dependencies. Other complementary reform initiatives have also been negotiated. In the East Kimberley, for example, there is a strong employment focus to leverage the existing economic base. This includes training into guaranteed jobs, fulltime work for the dole and employment brokers. These initiatives are nothing short of a full-scale assault on alcohol abuse.
While the design of the card and the content of the reform plan is critical, equally important is the manner in which they have been developed in partnership with local community leaders at the trial locations.
The initiatives have not been foisted upon the communities but have been co-designed with the most important indigenous and non-indigenous leaders in the region, along with the respective state governments.
They have set the priorities, determined the settings of the card and consulted with the broader community. The implementation of the card and its complementary reforms will continue in a similar manner.
This approach to reform will not guarantee the success of the trials but will significantly boost its chances. It is also aligned with the core philosophy advocated by Noel Pearson, Sean Gordon and other senior indigenous leaders in their Empowered Communities report.
However, working in this way is not straightforward. Many elements have to come together: devolved authority within the public service; a single senior public servant on the ground who can earn the trust of local residents and be a problem solver; a reform-minded local leadership group; and political backing, knowing the approach carries risk. These require cultural as much as structural change.
So where to from here? The trials in Ceduna and East Kimberley will begin in the next few months. We have legislative authority for a third trial site and consultations have commenced in a couple of locations.
Naturally we are starting to contemplate how to proceed should the trials prove successful. Offering the card to other regions would be a logical next step, beginning with those West Australian locations that have already shown initial support. Others have suggested that the card could have wider application.
It is early days, but one thing is clear: collectively we have to get control of the alcohol abuse that destroys communities and threatens the next generation with up to a quarter of babies being born brain damaged from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder in some places.
The cashless welfare debit card may be the solution.
Alan Tudge is the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Assistant Minister for Social Services.