Published in The Australian, 9 September 2016

For the past two months, all working age welfare recipients in Kununurra have been given a Visa debit card rather than cash from Centrelink. That’s about 1200 mostly indigenous people in a remote town who have been buying their groceries and paying their rent on their debit card but who can’t use it to gamble and buy grog.

For the past five days, with my colleague Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, I’ve been in the East Kimberley talking to people about this important trial. It’s the 2016 version of the indigenous week I committed to do every year as prime minister; in this case, to study the cashless welfare scheme recommended by Andrew Forrest and put in train by my government.

Here in Kununurra, ambulance callouts are down between 30 and 40 per cent. In Ceduna, South Australia, where the trial has also been underway, poker machine turnover is down 30 per cent. There are still lots of people roaming the streets at night but there’s much less grog and fewer fights. As one of the local indigenous leaders put it, “families are going shopping rather than being stretched out in the park dead drunk”.

These two trials are a refinement on the basics card, first introduced during the 2007 intervention, and now applying to all long-term unemployed people in the Northern Territory. Unlike the basics card, the new card is a standard Visa debit card and can be used everywhere except liquor outlets. Twenty per cent of welfare income is still put into recipients’ private accounts and is available as cash. So there’s no stigma, there’s little inconvenience (except to drinkers), and there’s much less cost in administration.

The challenge, though, will be to keep this trial going for long enough for a proper evaluation as it needs to be renewed by the parliament before the end of the year. East Kimberley elder Ian Trust and the other indigenous leaders who called for the trial in the first place want it renewed so their people aren’t again drowning in rivers of grog.

Alcohol restrictions (of sorts) are in place in Kununurra. Adults are limited to two cases of full strength beer a day (or six bottles of wine or three bottles of spirits). After a death nearby, Coles management closed their bottle shop because they didn’t want to profit from people’s misery. Despite this, local hoteliers are wary of reducing it to one case per person per day. This provides some indication of the industrial scale binge drinking that the debit card is designed to tackle.

No one says that the debit card is a panacea. Until kids go to school, adults go to work and communities are safe, indigenous people will always struggle to get ahead. Still, it is a big step in the right direction. If people can’t booze and gamble there will be less violence and fewer late nights. More kids will be able to go to school after a good night’s sleep and more adults will be fit to work.

This week, I spent a day with the Yeehaa programme that’s training troubled teenagers to work with horses on cattle stations. I spent time with the Clontarf football programme that requires 90 per cent school attendance from participants. And I spent a day with the Kimberley Jobs Pathway team in a remote version of backyard blitz. These programmes are all working better since the introduction of the debit card.

By participating in the debit card trial, the indigenous people of the East Kimberley and Ceduna have volunteered to sacrifice a small freedom to regain a much greater dignity. They have been less interested in the difference-government-can-make than in the difference-they-can-make to their own lives. Even though the debit card is something that indigenous people have asked for, those who see racism behind every move could try to stop the trial’s extension.

On welfare policy, indigenous leaders such as Ian Trust, Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine have been our best thinkers and innovators. Perhaps only for people under 30, we could acknowledge the good example indigenous communities have set by extending the debit card to more Australians.

Another measure supported by my indigenous advisory council while I was prime minister and by some East Kimberley leaders is making a portion of family tax benefit dependent on school attendance which is still barely 60 per cent in most remote areas. You can’t raise kids well without educating them, so school attendance could be a condition for receiving full FTB. Trials in places where the community wants to tackle truancy should enable us to get on top of the logistics of conditional payments.

As opposition leader, I helped the former government to extend the basics card to the whole of the NT. So far, Labor has been prepared to work with the current government on the debit card trial. Reform with a moral purpose that’s not about cutting spending but about restoring welfare to its true purpose should be possible even in the current parliament.