How ACT's plan to restrict gang member benefit spending echoes Australia's 'Cashless Welfare Card'

ACT wants to restrict gang members from spending their benefit on alcohol, gambling and tobacco - a policy similar to one that's shown some success in Australia. 

Ministry of Social Development data from 2016 shows nine out of every 10 gang members in New Zealand have received a benefit. ACT wants to protect their children from violence by controlling what they can spend that money on. 

"Gang members would receive their benefit in the form of an electronic card that would track and restrict spending on alcohol, gambling, and tobacco," says ACT MP Karen Chhour. "The money provided by taxpayers will need to go towards food and other essentials."

The policy may sound familiar, because a similar scheme has been trialled in Australia since 2016 - a concept called the 'Cashless Welfare Card'. The difference is that it doesn't just target gang members the way ACT's policy would. 

Australia's Cashless Debit Cards or CDCs are attached to a separate account managed by a payments service, into which 80 percent of the income support payment is paid. The money can only be used to buy products at approved sellers and cannot be used to purchase alcohol or gambling products. 

The Australian Government last year intended to make the cards permanent in the four regions where it was trialled, but it was opposed by Labor and the Greens. The trials were instead extended for another two years. 

An independent evaluation of the policy in two of the regions - Ceduna in South Australia and East Kimberley in Western Australia - concluded in 2017 it had been "effective in reducing alcohol consumption and gambling in both trial sites and also suggestive of a reduction in the use of illegal drugs". 

It also found "there is some evidence that there has been a consequential reduction in violence and harm related to alcohol consumption, illegal drug use and gambling".

Of the participants who said they drank alcohol, 41 percent reported drinking alcohol less, while 37 percent reported binge drinking less. And of participants who reported they gamble, 48 percent reported gambling less.

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

To ACT's credit, the research found that 40 percent said they were better able to look after their children and 45 percent were better able to save money.

In New Zealand, Ministry of Social Development data shows 60 percent of the 5890 children of gang members known to Child, Youth and Family have been abused or neglected. 

But Australia's policy has been criticised as racist for how indigenous Australians appeared to be targeted. In Ceduna, 76 percent of CDC users were indigenous, and in East Kimberley, indigenous people made up 82 percent. 

"This legislation comes in the context of generations of paternalism toward First Nations people in this country," Senator Penny Wong of the Labor Party said in December at the time the policy was extended. 

She criticised Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's Liberal Party Government, suggesting a similar policy would never be applied to areas where the majority of the population is white.

"I especially have criticism of those who purport to be moderates in the Liberal Party, because they would never propose legislation like this for non-Indigenous Australians, but they are fine with it for Indigenous Australians."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo credit: Getty

Australian Social Services Minister Anne Ruston argued indigenous people were never intentionally targeted. 

She said it applied "equally to all eligible welfare recipients" in locations of Australia where "high levels of welfare dependency and social harm" had been identified.

In New Zealand, Maori make up three-quarters of gang members, so ACT's policy could end up disproportionately affecting them. Pakeha make up 14 percent of gang members, while Pacific people make up 8 percent. 

ACT leader David Seymour says increasing violent behaviour and rising gun incidents across New Zealand means the time has come to crack down on organised crime. 

"Gang numbers are up 50 percent after four years of Labour's 'kindness' approach. We've watched as patched gang members have taken over our streets like it's them and not law-abiding taxpayers who own the place."

Green MP Ricardo Menendez March believes the policy is racist. 

"ACT's logic of wanting people to make 'good decisions' with their money while at the same time taking away agency by expanding compulsory money management for low income people deemed gang affiliated is trash, disempowering, racist and will increase poverty," he wrote on Twitter.