Debate rages over cashless card

Sebastian NeuweilerGeraldton Guardian
Geraldton mayor Shane Van Styn and Greens senator Rachel Siewert.
Camera IconGeraldton mayor Shane Van Styn and Greens senator Rachel Siewert. Credit: Sebastian Neuweiler Geraldton Guardian

City of Greater Geraldton Mayor Shane Van Styn sits in front of an angered crowd at the Catholic Centre. The almost 90 people have gathered at the invitation of Greens Senator Rachel Siewert to express their concerns about a proposed cashless welfare initiative – the Healthy Welfare Card. His tall frame has been squashed between Ms Siewert and local Aboriginal leader Gordon Gray. A personal supporter of the card, Mr Van Styn’s booming voice is a minority in the room.

“The deal before us is to trial the card and receive additional funding for wraparound services,” he says.

“The alternative is to not get any additional funding for wraparound services and not have the card.”

The additional funding Mr Van Styn is referring to is an expected injection into the community to coincide with the card’s introduction, should it proceed, specific to the needs within Geraldton. This was the case in the first two trial sites of Ceduna and the East Kimberley, where the communities received $1 million and $1.3 million respectively. It is not yet known how much funding Geraldton would receive for services and where this funding would be directed.

“Day in day out, week by week, as a member of local government I’m continually asked what are you going to do about the riots in the suburbs?” Mr Van Styn says.

“What are you going to do about domestic violence? What are you going to do about the rise in the crime rate?

“Look, I certainly don’t see this as a panacea for all ills; don’t get me wrong, this is not going to be perfect, this is not going to fix everything, but we’ve got to give it a try.”

As the meeting concludes, those in attendance chat among themselves before slowly vacating the area. Ms Siewert is the last to leave. She stands under the awning of the Catholic Centre, observing the weather. The rain that had tormented the town just days before has slowed to a trickle, but the skies remain a single dull hue of grey.

“It’s blackmail and it’s appalling,” she says – lamenting about Mr Van Styn’s comments of a so-called “deal”.

It is not the first time the accusation of political blackmail has been used when discussing the card. Halls Creek Shire President Malcolm Edwards says following his councils opposition to the card, State Regional Development Minister Terry Redman “flew in out of the blue”.

“He made it clear that opposition to a trial would strongly influence the level of investment made into Halls Creek,” he says.

“My understanding was unless the Shire accepted and supported a trial of the card, there would be a negative impact on service provision within our community, specifically under the regional reform program.”

The Regional Reforms Project was announced last year as WA’s largest ever redistribution of State and Federal funding –a funding pool worth $4.5 billion annually to be distributed into remote communities in the Kimberley and Pilbara.

Mr Redman scoffs at Mr Edwards accusations of threats and blackmail.

“We want to deal with those groups and communities that are proactive in wanting to support positive change,” he says.

“I was disappointed that Halls Creek didn’t embrace the opportunity of having a cashless card trial.

“The point I was making to them was their pushback to the cashless card was a signal to me of their lack of interest in changing the way we do business and moving into a positive future.”

“I think there’s more than enough communities that want to embrace a shift and a change and they’re the communities that I want to back and support, rather than those that don’t.”

More than three weeks after Ms Siewert’s meeting, Mr Van Styn takes a seat on the small black couch in his office. The suit that is synonymous with his public appearance has been replaced by a blue polo shirt.

He says he has had no conversations in which a member of State or Federal Government has remarked or insinuated that opposition to the card would result in a loss of investment in Geraldton.

“No there hasn’t been (anything like that),” he says.

“The only offer is we are looking to plug gaps in exchange for being a trial site. There’s been no threats of funding being withdrawn – none whatsoever.”

“I think blackmail is a harsh, emotive word. I think it is fair to say (the Government) want to see success in the card, and the way you ensure that your trial is successful is to support it in whatever way you can. Increasing the support services is how they see the outcomes of the card being more able to be achieved.”

On Monday, April 25, a representative of mining magnate Andrew Forrest, Janette Cotterell – who had been in Geraldton to attend a family event – held consultations with Mr Van Styn as well as other community groups, organisations, and leaders.

Mr Van Styn says the pairs conversation lasted all of about 15 minutes and was a “meet and greet of sorts” to gauge an understanding of how he believed the community felt about the trial proposal.

Earlier that morning Ms Cotterell met with Aboriginal leaders and community members at Bundiyarra Aboriginal Community Corporation. It is understood this was to the dismay of some, as a forum had initially been called to discuss a spate of break-ins that had happened at the site over the weekend.

Ms Cotterell is believed to have told the crowd Mr Forrest was willing to commit funding and resources to Geraldton, specifically within the Aboriginal sector, should it accept the card. It is understood the crowd was also told Geraldton would receive $10 million for wrap around services – but whether this would come from the Federal Government or Mr Forrest is unclear. Ms Cotterell says Mr Forrest would only support the card’s trial in Geraldton if the necessary services were first in place.

The concept of the cashless welfare card was born out of a review of the welfare system in 2014 by Mr Forrest. He had called for a 100 per cent cashless card to be applied to all “vulnerable” Australians, recommending it be mandatory for all unemployed persons, carers, single parents and people with disabilities. While the Government has altered Mr Forrest’s vision of the card, they have maintained that the card is not an Aboriginal-targeted initiative.

But a meeting such as Ms Cotterell’s has led some in Geraldton, such as local leaders Sandy Davies and Gordon Gray, to doubt these claims.

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