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Emotions rise as Senators debate the ‘un-Australian’ cashless welfare card scheme

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Tensions have flared in the Senate over new laws that would make the cashless welfare card permanent in its current trial sites. 

Labor and Greens senators have condemned the bill as a “racist” and “discriminatory” policy that will disproportionately impact Indigenous Australians.

The federal government argues the card has helped communities by preventing welfare recipients from spending money on alcohol and drugs.

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But Northern Territory Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy said the government had failed to show evidence justifying its decision. 

“This legislation is wrong. It is unjust and so un-Australian,” she told the Senate.

“Listen to the Australians out there who are crying out for your empathy and to recognise the hardship that they are experiencing. 

“All this legislation does is push people further and further underground.” 

The cashless trials sites are in Ceduna, the East Kimberley and Goldfields in Western Australia, and Bundaberg and Hervey Bay in Queensland. 

The cards freeze the majority of JobSeeker welfare support payments so cash can’t be withdrawn, and money can only be spent on items deemed essential.

Multiple inquiries into the scheme have heard issues with the system’s ability to process rent and other debit payments.

Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe compared the restrictions imposed by the card to “21st-century rations” saying the measure hindered the “self-determination” of Indigenous Australians.

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“That’s what this is – let’s tell the truth – it’s putting black people back on rations,” she told the Senate.  

“Management of income is racist and colonial nonsense all over again and it is demeaning to us.”

If the bill does not pass, the current trials in South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland will end on 31 December.

The draft legislation narrowly made its way through the lower house on Monday with 62 votes to 61.

This came after Liberal MP Bridget Archer, who has publicly rebuked the policy, chose not to vote.

Labor, the Greens, welfare groups and lawyers have urged the government to release a $2.5 million study of the scheme to show if it’s working to prevent crime and substance abuse.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said the lack of evidence supporting bill meant it was an “outrageous waste of funding.”

“This card is a racist, discriminatory, paternalistic approach that costs this country a fortune,” she said. 

“[It] takes away people’s dignity causes anxiety and stress – it is not a good measure.”

Senator Rex Patrick has the deciding vote over the legislation – but is yet to make his decision amid negotiations with the government. 

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