Originally published in The Australian, 28 August 2017

It’s hard to credit but there are still policy makers who think that a welfare dependent male’s right to spend his money on booze trumps his partner’s right to be protected from a drunken rage. The immediate victims of binge drinking are the family members and neighbours of the people who are ruining their lives and making it so much harder for everyone near them. So making it harder for people to binge drink is not neo-colonial oppression. It’s simple common sense. That’s why the reticence to accept change is so hard to fathom.

I’m just finishing my annual stint in remote Australia and there is a real fear among responsible Aboriginal leaders that a kind of reverse racism will end the current trial of the cashless debit card in the East Kimberley which has helped to curtail a substance abuse epidemic that until last year was quite literally killing people.

In 2014, the Abbott government appointed Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest to report on ending indigenous disadvantage. At the heart of his recommendations was a “healthy welfare card” that stopped working age people from blowing their taxpayer-provided benefits on boozing and gambling. A meeting in Kununurra in August 2015 with senior local leader Ian Trust convinced me that at least some Aboriginal people wanted to take back control of their lives, hence the cashless debit card that started trialling here and in Ceduna in South Australia early last year. For all working age people in these communities, 80 per cent of their welfare income goes onto a debit card that can’t be used to buy alcohol or withdraw cash.

So far, the results are impressive. According to police, emergency department doctors and ambos talking to me this week in Kununurra, alcohol-fuelled violence has almost disappeared. Of course, there’s still crime and people still get sick but there’s much less trauma and what there is almost always involves out-of-towners who still have uncontrolled access to their welfare dollars.

The amount of money normally available to people on welfare should not be underestimated. A single person on Newstart only gets $650 a fortnight but a single parent with four children in private rental gets almost $2150 a fortnight to be spent at will. It’s not much if you’re properly housing, feeding and clothing a family but it’s a lot to blow if these duties are being neglected. But under the debit card, about $500 and $1700 respectively can’t be cashed or spent at liquor stores. It’s hardly draconian; indeed, for many families it’s a life saver. Yet there is still a strong chorus of activists chanting “how dare you try to save people from themselves”.

As dramatized by graphic evidence to a recent coronial enquiry into youth suicide in the Kimberley, without the debit card, many remote settlements witness family violence on an epic scale. One 12 year old recently killed herself after being repeatedly sexually abused by family members. The suicide rate in the Kimberley is almost double the WA indigenous average; and in some parts of the Kimberley, domestic assaults rates are 20 times the WA state average. Around the country, indigenous women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised for assault than non-indigenous women and almost 90 per cent of partner violence among indigenous people is alcohol related. In the Kimberley, even though many indigenous people don’t drink at all because they’ve seen first-hand the damage alcohol abuse can do, per capita alcohol consumption is almost double the national average.

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge has just introduced legislation to continue the operation of the cashless debit card in Kununurra and other parts of the East Kimberley and in Ceduna. As well, he’s seeking to extend the debit card to at least two new areas. In one of the areas the government has in mind, unemployment is not primarily an Aboriginal phenomenon. This is important because some Aborigines feel that the card targets them even though alcohol abuse is a problem in all welfare dependent communities, regardless of colour.

Another issue with the card is its imposition on top of all the other restrictions that Aboriginal people feel they are subjected to. In Hall’s Creek, for instance, 350 kilometres down the road from Kununurra but with lots of personal connections to it, a ban on most takeaway alcohol means that cashed up locals do their shopping elsewhere but still bring booze in. Some Halls Creek leaders say that they’d be happy to have the cashless debit card in their town but only if Hall’s Creek alcohol sale limits were eased to those applying in Kununurra. Others say that the card would be easier to accept if it was more widespread so that more welfare dependent people regardless of location or race were subject to it. If there was a “reward” for accepting the card, such as a major boost to economic infrastructure like sealing the Tanami road to bring more jobs and more prosperity, that, too, would make the card easier to accept in other parts of the Kimberley.

To me, it makes sense for all working age people on welfare – not just Aborigines in remote places – to have 80 per cent of taxpayer-provided benefits quarantined to the necessities of life as no one who genuinely needs welfare has much discretionary income. But even continuing the debit card where it currently exists requires legislation and that means getting the Labor Party or a fractious crossbench on side. Tweaking existing alcohol restrictions and offering other local incentives to win people over to the card might be the kind of pragmatic policy making needed to keep people safe.

Even with the card, some people find ways to access booze. By itself, it doesn’t guarantee that kids go to school, adults go to work and communities stay safe. It’s not a panacea but it is a big step in the right direction and should be extended, not extinguished.