Moree Plains Shire Council unanimously votes no against motion to request a trial of cashless welfare card

The community have spoken and council has listened.

Moree Plains Shire councillors voted unanimously against a motion to request a trial of the cashless welfare card in Moree, following an impassioned plea from the community.

Hundreds of people packed into the ballroom of Moree Plains Shire Council on Thursday afternoon to have their voices heard regarding a notice of motion put to council by councillor John Tramby.

Those voices were a resounding no to the motion that Moree Plains Shire Council request the Federal Member for Parkes Mark Coulton to nominate Moree Plains Shire as a NSW trial site for the introduction of the cashless welfare card for two years.

A total of 26 passionate people spoke against the motion during the public forum at the ordinary council meeting.

The majority of speakers believe that the introduction of the card would have significant social repercussions on the whole community.

Some of the issues:

Human rights

Among the biggest concerns is that the card is a “violation of basic human rights”.

“It violates individuals’ basic human rights by telling them how and when they can spend their money,” community member Jess Duncan said.

“The cashless welfare card is nothing but a restrictive, paternalistic sledgehammer that doesn’t solve the problem,” Shaquille Pitt said.

“It’s a bandaid system; it does nothing to address the lack of hope, lack of opportunity, lack of self and community. It does nothing but impair our most vulnerable people.

“The majority of people on welfare are not drug users, alcholics or gambling addicts but many people on welfare are facing vulnerabilities.

“This is a further attempt to demonise recipients and emphasise the rich verses poor, bludgers verses workers mentality.”

Respected elder Lyall Munro said the cashless welfare card “contravenes all international concepts and conventions on rights to life and basic humans rights”.

“All people on the lower runs of the socio-economic ladder will fall,” he said.

“If this knee-jerk reaction goes ahead, you will enhance overnight these statistics you’re concerned about.”

“I’ve had the luxury of being on welfare and that was a very oppressive, demoralising experience,” Liz Taylor added.

Crime

Most people who spoke out against the motion are concerned that the crime in Moree will skyrocket if the cashless welfare card is introduced in Moree, with the argument that if people don’t have cash to buy alcohol or drugs, they’ll find other ways to get it.

“People that are desperate will do desperate things,” Scott McLeod said.

“I hope we don’t see an increase in crime. It’s already bad enough.”

Joan Wetherby is from the United States of America and grew up on welfare.

She said she saw so many issues when America brought in the EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card back in 2004.

“If people want alcohol, they’re going to get alcohol. If they want drugs, they’re going to get drugs,” she said.

Debbie Evans said just because you take something away from someone, doesn’t mean they won’t get it in other ways.

“Those small minority groups committing crime aren’t suddenly going to disappear,” she said.

“If you want to bring in this card, it will increase the suicide rate, there’ll be more crime,” Denise Swan said.

Liz Taylor raised the point that it costs approximately $170,000 a year to lock someone up and believes that money could be better spent in creating opportunities for those at risk of imprisonment.

“That money can create a lot of jobs. It can give a person a job and a car,” she said.

“If this card is introduced, Moree will become a ghost town, more people will be locked up in jail.

“If this card comes, I’m out of here and I really don’t want to leave the town I was born and bred in and love.”

Suicide rates

Another worrying factor for those in attendance at Thursday’s meeting was that the introduction of the card could have detrimental impacts on the mental health of welfare recipients.

Many people claimed the stigma associated with being on the card would seriously affect the mental health of recipients.

“I’ve seen people so depressed because they don’t have two bucks to play the pokies at the RSL club or can’t go play darts,” Val Dahlstrom said.

“We need to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

A number of people quoted statistics from one of the first cashless welfare card trial towns, Ceduna in South Australia, which they claim has experienced a rise in suicide rates since the card was introduced.

“[The card] brings disempowerment and a lack of dignity,” Shaquille Pitt said.

“We lose control, you guys [councillors] have control.

“The suicide rate has jumped in Ceduna, that’s something I don’t want to see here.”

Affect to local businesses

Another significant argument in the debate against getting the cashless welfare is the impact it would have on local businesses throughout the Moree Plains Shire.

In particular, many people claimed local pubs and clubs would suffer the most if the card was introduced.

Moree Golf Club manager Scott McLeod said the cashless welfare card “will have an affect on us”.

“The individual effects would flow on to the club; it means less disposable income they could spend in our club,” he said.

“We emplopy eight people full-time and eight to 10 casual staff.

“A reduction in profit means cutting costs and the biggest cost is staff.”

Not only would the golf club potentially have to cut staff, Mr McLeod said the club also sponsors a cricket team, hosts the Moree Bulls golf day and jersey aucion, as well as six to eight charity-based golf events throughout the year, all of which would be affected if the club begins to lose profits, which in turn would have repercussions to the whole town.

Tim Evans said alcohol consumption has dropped by 80 per cent in Moree over the past 25 years.

“Seven licensed premises have closed down in that period,” he said.

“Bring that card to town and more will close down.”

Another community member, Darrel Smith said in the two trial sites in Ceduna and the East Kimberley in Western Australia, only a small percentage of businesses even accepted the card.

“If any businesses in town sell alcohol, you’ve got to have an exception to accept the welfare card,” he said.

“Where’s the money going to go? It won’t be in town.”

Social impacts on children

A number of people who addressed council at Thursday’s meeting spoke of the negative impacts the card will have on children.

Betty French is the primary caregiver of her three grandchildren, and as a welfare recipient, she worries how she will be able to pay for things like school excursions if the card is introduced.

“That’s going to stop them going to places,” she said.

“I’ve got three grandkids - they go to school unless they are sick, they’re good kids. The eldest goes to Moree Secondary College and they reward these kids by taking them on excursions.

“Are you going to pay for them to go on their excursion? Because I won’t be able to.

“Or are they going to be like all the little black kids who won’t get to do these things?

“We’ve got good kids in schools that are doing really well. But people like councillor Tramby are stopping them because you’re not giving them a go.

“You’re going backwards people.”

Darrel Smith added that there’ll be children that will miss out on life experiences that others get to take.

“Kids won’t be able to go to the show, they won’t be able to go to the circus because they won’t have cash,” he said.

“The social affect from kids mising out; why would you take your kids if they have to sit there and watch other kids get an icecream and they can’t?

“If they want to go away to uni, that welfare card goes with them. 

“You’ll have all these people isolated, staying here in town all because of this card.

“We’re attacking people who are most vulnerable.”

Mr Smith said people won’t be able to go to local markets or support community events such as the Carols by Candlelight.

He also said most sporting groups in town will also be affected.

“All those sports rely on people spending money at the canteen,” he said.

“Places that sell alcohol such as at the rugby won’t be able to have eftpos.”

Glenda Nicholls also worries that her grandchildren and nieces and nephews will grow up not knowing the value of money.

“I’ve enjoyed the privilege of being able to pay for a blouse, pay for groceries, pay for petrol in cash,” she said.

“How do our childen relate to knowing the value of money with a card? They don’t.

“I say no to the card. The card doesn’t rbing results, it brings confusion, it brings stealing.

“We don’t need the card, we don’t deserve the card. 

“I want my grandchildren, nieces and nephews to grow up to have a feel of money.”

Stereotypes

Another argument is that bringing in the cashless welfare card will reinforce stereotypes associated with being “on the dole”, making it more obvious who is on welfare and who isn’t.

Many people claim that while some people are doing the wrong thing with their welfare paychecks, a majority of people receiving Centrelink aren’t drug addicts, alcoholics or gamblers, yet this card reinforces that stereotype.

“It humiliates people. In the states, you’re stereotyped,” Joan Wetherby said.

“If you’re black they you ARE a drug addict, you are buying drugs, you’re not feeding your kids.

“Now you’re going to stereotype them more.

“These people are going to live with it everyday if you bring this card in.

“It’s no-one’s business who is on welfare.”

Why can’t people just get a job?

One of the biggest arguments on social media for getting the cashless welfare card is that if people want to buy alcohol or drugs or afford luxuries beyond living expenses then they should just get a job.

However, many people who spoke at Thursday’s council meeting claim it’s not that simple.

“Many have suggested that the solution to the complicated and often inter-generational issues is to simply get up and get a job,” Jess Duncan said.

“As someone who works in an employment agency, it’s not that easy.

“The Moree community simply does not have the labour market for everyone to get up and get a job.”

“Unemployment is not a choice but a reality,” Shaquille Pitt added.

“Employment opportunities in this town are not up to par. I’ve been on welfare and tried to get jobs. It’s hard.”

Dividing the Moree community

The cashless welfare card will affect all people receiving income support payments, however with a significant percentage of Moree’s Aboriginal population on Centrelink, many people have turned it into a racial issue, saying the card would further divide the “white and black” people of Moree.

Denise Swan said the issue reminds her of the 1960s child protection policy.

“We know it’s targeting Aboriginal people,” she said.

“We’re not closing the gap, we’re widening the gap.”

“I grew up in the era of the Aboriginal protection board days and I’ve seen the black cars come on the reserve and take away my cousins and other kids,” Leanne Ballengarry added.

“This card reminds me of Aboriginal protection board days.

“They [councillors] hold our destiny in their hands.

“They don’t consider us because we’re still flora and fauna.”

“They’re saying blacks can’t look after money, can’t look after their kids,” Jenny Swan said.

“This card will put division in this town between the poor, the rich,” Glenda Nicholls said.

Perceived lack of consultation

One of the biggest causes for contention at Thursday night’s council meeting was that the community felt that council didn’t consult them before bringing the cashless welfare card issue to the table.

Many of the speakers claimed it was a “disgrace”, “disrespectful”, “deceitful” and that councillors “should be ashamed” of themselves for submitting the notice of motion when it wasn’t on any of their agendas when running for council last year.

“Council is about talking and listening to the people, it’s a sneaky approach them bringing the notion to the table today. Why didn’t you make it clear the welfare card will be on the agenda?” Glen Crump said.

In response, Cr Tramby, who put forward the notice of motion, made it clear that nothing would happen before a thorough community consultation process and that even then, if the community didn’t want the card, it wouldn’t come.

Cr Tramby amended his notice of motion with a clause, making the request to nominate Moree Plains Shire Council as a trial site, “subject to a full public consultation”.

Other solutions to the issues in Moree?

Although there was plenty of criticism of the cashless welfare card during Thursday’s council meeting, very few people brought up alternate solutions to addressing the crime and social issues in Moree.

One of the few was Glen Crump, who said rather than spend money bringing the cashless welfare card to Moree, why not use it to provide additional funding to help the number of programs and services already doing great things in the communit.

“Firstly we’ve got the Positive Lifestyle Academy coming which will employ a lot of local people to come with their families to achieve holistic approach to address some of these issues,” he said.

“Miyay Birray’s night program is keeping kids off the street, allowing young people the chance to learn more about their culture and be proud of it.

“Neighbourhood Watch, people volunteer their time and patrol at all hours to protect each and every one of you.

“The First on the Ladder program allows young people to use their artistic skills to produce a local radio program and newsletter.

“There’s also the Toomelah Army Project and Mungindi Interagency.

“I believe the money can be better spent in the community to continue to fund these projects and many more.

“The welfare card will not assist the problem.”

Council debate

The motion to request the Federal Member for the Electorate of Parkes, Mark Coulton to nominate the Moree Plains Shire Council, subject to a full public consultation, as a NSW trial site for a period of two years, for the introduction of the cashless welfare card was submitted by Cr John Tramby.

Cr Tramby said he put this motion to council as an attempt to address the social problems in Moree, with the idea that if Moree shire becomes a trial site, it will receive additional government funding and services to help combat some of these issues.

“This town’s got some problems and I acknolwedge that,” he said.

“We can’t get funding for a 24/hour seven day a week shelter for children to go. We need that. We need a lot of things. We need support for drug and alcohol.

“I’m looking at this welfare card as a negotiation - [the government] wants something from us, we can use this because we want something from them.

“We need help in this town.

“We’ve got some very big problems, we need to address it.”

Cr Tramby said if Moree puts its hand up to become a trial site now, it has room for negotiation, otherwise it might be forced upon the town eventually if the federal government brings the card in Australia-wide. 

“If we go out as a trial we can negotiate,” he said.

“If we don’t, it’ll be thrust upon us.

“I want people to stay in town and this is a way to do it.”

Cr Kerry Cassells seconded the motion, reinforcing the idea that Moree needs to be on the front foot before the government standardises the initiative.

“This is going to be pushed Australia-wide by the Nationals, pushed by Mark Coulton,” she said.

“Moree will be one of the first places it’s going to happen to because we’re very vulnerable here and we’re unique.

“They’ll say if it works in Moree it’ll work anywhere.

“We have to be on the front foot.”

Mayor Katrina Humphries is against the cashless welfare card, as she was two years ago when the initiative was put on the table.

“The issues I have is security - personal security issues, business security issues, walking down the street, going to the ATM, elder abuse issues,” she said.

“Our elders - not just Aboriginal elders, all our elders - were very frightened. They knew if they were in exclusion, they would be singled out and it would be dangerous for them.

“It’s a bad scenario for our beautiful town.”

Cr Humphries said the introduction of the card would have detrimental impacts to local businesses throughout the Moree shire, particularly pubs and clubs which employ a lot of people and are heavily invested in the community.

“We have a lot of licensed clubs and hotels, not just dens that pump out grog and poker machines but they’re part of the fabric of our community,” she said.

“They have social clubs, sporting clubs, they give away to charity. Our pubs and clubs invest a lot into their buildings and facilities.

“They have an invested interest in our community.

“We also have a lot of licensed premises in our smaller towns and villages that will be hugely affected.”

Cr Mike Montgomery also spoke against the card, saying he doesn’t want Moree to be a trial.

“It’s not right that we allow our community to be part of some social experiment,” he said.

“If we introduce this in Australia, it should be on everyone.

“I think we can put this stuff [services] in town without bringing the card to town.

“We can do much more as individuals to make this community better.”

Councillors Sue Price and Jim Crawford also spoke out against the trial, while Cr Greg Smith said he was undecided prior to the meeting, however after hearing what the community had to say, he couldn’t support it.

“I just wanted to give the community a chance to have their say,” he said.

“It’s been very clear tonight that the local Aboriginal community don’t want it. If you don’t have the support of community, it won’t work.

“If elders don’t support this, I don’t think I can inflict something this divisive unless it has the full support of the community.”

Ultimately, no councillors voted for the motion, so it was unanimously decided that Moree shire won’t be requesting to be part of the trial.

​Let’s work together to make a difference

Although the cashless welfare card debate has divided the Moree community, there has been a positive to come from the debate – everyone wants the best for Moree.

Cr Price summed it up perfectly when she encouraged those in attendance at Thursday’s meeting to channel their energy into working together to make Moree a better place.

“We shouldn’t be a community divided. We are stronger united,” she said.

“[The problems in Moree] won’t go away we have to do something about it.

“How about we pool all this energy and put it in one direction for the benefit of the community?

“We need people to turn up at P and C meetings, be involved in community preschools.

“The world is ruled by those who turn up. You have to turn up; if you don’t turn up, you don’t have a say.

“Let’s make this the best place in Australia.”

Cr  Tramby concluded the debate by challenging the community to step up and “fix these problems”.

“I put up a concept out of desperation because I know what is tearing this community apart,” he said.

“All you people tonight need to get up and do something.

“We can take this as a positive tonight that this town is going to pull together and work together to make this the best place to live.”

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