27 March 2023
Mr COULTON (Parkes—Chief Nationals Whip) (17:51): I too rise tonight to speak on the Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management Reform) Bill 2023. While he is still in the chamber, I’d like to acknowledge the contribution of the member for Grey and his commitment to his vast electorate, but particularly to Ceduna. I can’t remember the exact time, but I was in Ceduna with the member for Grey at the start of the process for this card. I met Allan Suter, the mayor at the time, and a couple of the Aboriginal leaders in the community. I can’t remember their names, but they were an impressive young group of people. They went through enormous personal challenges and attack from within the community to bring this into place. They had a belief that this card—and, at the time, that having Ceduna as part of the original trial—was going to benefit their community. Through that enormous show of strength of leadership, they did prove to be correct; it did make a big difference. Ceduna is a beautiful place—when I was there I thought what a wonderful place it was—so I can understand the member for Grey’s frustration.
One of the trial sites at that time was to be Moree, in my electorate of Parkes. The reason I thought Moree would be a good one and put it up for consideration was that the recipients of welfare in Moree are about fifty-fifty Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. I think one of the big mistakes in this whole argument is that the race card has been played—that this was actually a racist thing to do. The member for Hinkler is here. I’m sure his contribution will talk about the positive outcomes in his area, so I won’t go there, but the member for Hinkler’s constituency and mine were somewhat similar in that they weren’t entirely Aboriginal communities.
Minister Tudge at the time agreed that Moree could be a trial site, but one of the criteria for having the card was that it had to be accepted by the community. We sent officials from the department to Moree but, once word got around that Moree might be a trial site for the welfare card, the activists in the community whipped up a lot of fear that it would be a racist thing. There was quite a lot of intimidation in the community, particularly towards the council, who had to tick it off. At the time, the publicans also led a major attack against it. Indeed, one of the publicans came into my office and wanted to know how much compensation there would be for his business if this card came into play. That means that the business plan for his hotel involved people spending money that came from the government that was designed to feed, clothe and educate their children and give their families a quality of life that was somewhat acceptable. The fact that the money going to these families was going through the bottle shop and through the poker machines indicated to me there was a reason why we should have the card there.
As it turned out, the council changed its mind and we didn’t get the card to Moree. Interestingly, one of the loudest voices against the card said to me a couple of years later, ‘Maybe we were a bit hasty.’ Maybe we should have looked at this a bit closer now that Moree and other communities in my electorate are dealing in particular with lawlessness. One of the reasons that young kids are roaming the streets at night-time and getting into trouble is that it’s not safe at home. Home is where people are drunk, they are stoned and there’s no food. The police, for instance, tell me that quite often when young kids get caught stealing, the first thing that they are stealing is food, because they’re hungry, and one thing leads to another.
I’ve listened to Minister Rishworth’s contributions to this place in question time, and it’s absolutely amazing how out of touch the ministers, the people in charge of these departments, are with reality. Sadly, we’re starting to see a fair bit of that in this parliament. I’m getting lectured by members on the other side, who have got 0.05 of a per cent of the population as Aboriginal, about what we should be doing. After the Northern Territory, the Parkes electorate has the next highest percentage of Aboriginal people. It’s a great privilege to represent Aboriginal communities. They support me, and we have built up a relationship over the last 15 or 16 years. It gives me and other members of this side the ability to stand here and not speak on some philosophical, ideological rant like we were still at some university debating club. We’re actually talking about people’s lives here.
I think it goes right back to what you think welfare is. Is welfare pay for not working or is welfare assistance from the taxpayers to their fellow Australians who are doing it tough, making sure that we don’t have people living on the streets, that they can feed their children, that there is money to educate people? That’s certainly my idea of what welfare is. It’s not pay that the adults in the family can decide to drink, gamble or whatever. So I think there’s a big philosophical difference here.
I personally am very supportive of helping people who are doing it tough. I think we’re a very generous and caring country. But part of that is changing the circumstances of those people so they’re not there for their entire lives. Right across my electorate at the moment, we have people doing incredible work with young Aboriginal people to help them have a better life and we have seen great results. Last year over 70 Aboriginal kids did the HSC in Dubbo; that’s an enormous increase. These young people are going off and joining the police force and the military. They’re working in local trades. Some are going to university. Some are working in the meat processing sector or whatever.
One of the great frustrations—and I don’t want to go too much into the issue around the Voice, but that’s had a lot of discussion in this place. The Aboriginal people in the Parkes electorate are people in the community who are not leading separate lives; they are just getting on with it. And it’s not just an Aboriginal problem. That’s why I think the welfare card should not be considered an Aboriginal card; it should be considered a card for people on welfare. We’ve got young people from all backgrounds falling on hard times because they’re getting caught up in meth and alcohol, and the lawless activity that comes from that.
In some ways I’m actually pleased the government has seen the error of its ways but it’s a shame we had to go through this level of hardship where the genie is out of the bottle and it’s going to be very hard to put it back in, as the member for Grey indicated. Hopefully the government has learnt a lesson from this—that it should be listening to the people in the communities. That’s what the members on this side do. I spent the week before last out in my river towns speaking to members of the tribal council, the cultural centres and the Aboriginal medical services, just chewing the fat and getting a feel for what the big issues were.
I will finish on another matter. The member for Bruce spoke earlier. The document that he was quoting from was Niki Savva’s novel. Seriously, that’s his reference point! The scare campaign that the member for Bruce ran before the last election to scare the most vulnerable members of our community—that their pensions were going to be taken away from them and cards would be given—was completely baseless. One of the reasons when opposition becomes government—they’ve actually laid groundwork where they have to save face, on the ridiculous statements they made in opposition, by changing these things. The Minister for Social Services’s contributions to this place have been absolutely ridiculous in their nature, in their lack of understanding of what the changes in policy have meant for people. I have a lot to do in my communities. Quite often it’s the elderly, the grandmas and the aunties that are keeping the families together. They are not opposed to having their welfare on a card to protect them from humbugging from people, because if you’ve got cash you are vulnerable to being humbugged for that money.
I will support this legislation. I hope the government has learnt a lesson on this—that we don’t live in an ideologically driven landscape that’s completely removed from reality, that we do things in this place that sometimes are not easy—and you have to fight for them—but make a difference in people’s lives. These cards made a difference in people’s lives. The government have created chaos with their changes. I will support them to try and get this back on track.