Elderly man
Labor MPs have repeatedly claimed the government will force age pensioners onto cashless debit cards Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS

No evidence to cashless debit cards for aged pensioners

AAP Factcheck November 23, 2021

The Morrison government plans to force all age pensioners onto cashless welfare cards.


False. There is no evidence the government intends to put all age pensioners on cashless welfare cards, a measure not permitted under existing legislation.

Multiple Labor politicians have claimed the Morrison government wants to put all age pensioners onto cashless welfare cards that would allow the government to control the way they spend their money.

There is no evidence to support the claims. The minister responsible for the card scheme has stated multiple times that the coalition government has no intention of expanding the program to include all aged pensioners. Current legislation prevents any age pensioners being forcibly moved onto cashless debit cards, with the exception of age pensioners in Cape York who have been referred to the program by a state agency.

In a media release dated October 27, Labor MP Emma McBride, who represents the electorate of Dobell on NSW’s Central Coast, said: “Thousands of Coasties who rely on the age pension are at risk of being forced onto the Cashless Debit Card Scheme by the Morrison Government. They have a plan to force 80 per cent of people’s pensions onto a cashless debit card, so they can control and limit how pensioners spend their money.”

Labor deputy leader Richard Marles made a similar claim in a Facebook post from October 21 that said Prime Minister Scott Morrison wanted to “keep the card, and extend it to all pensioners”. Claims the government wants to force “all pensioners” onto cashless debit cards have also been made by other Labor politicians including Justine Elliot, Brian Mitchell, Kate Thwaites, Tim Watts and Julian Hill.

The government’s cashless debit card (CDC) program quarantines up to 80 per cent of welfare payments into a restricted bank account, accessed using a card that prevents cash withdrawals or spending on certain items such as alcohol and gambling.

The CDC scheme is currently being trialled for welfare recipients in six areas, which include Cape York in far north Queensland. In December 2020, the government extended the trial for another two years after failing to win parliamentary support to make the program permanent.

The government has not ruled out expanding the CDC scheme to other welfare recipients. In March 2020, Social Services Minister Anne Ruston told a parliamentary committee she was “open to a conversation with the nation about further use of the cashless debit card as a welfare measure”.

Labor MPs have cited a possible expansion of the scheme as evidence that all pensioners – including those on the age pension – will be put onto CDCs (such as here and here). However, Senator Ruston has repeatedly ruled out forcing all age pensioners onto CDCs.

In a media release dated October 25, 2021, Ms Ruston said: “Let me make it crystal clear – the Morrison government will not force age pensioners onto the Cashless Debit Card. We were never going to, and never will.

“Three days later, on October 28, Ms Ruston told a Senate Estimates committee that she “categorically” rules out expanding the scheme to all pensioners, saying “there never has, there isn’t and there never will be under this government any intention to require age pensioners to go on to the cashless debit card”.

Ms Ruston told the committee the only circumstances in which an age pensioner can go onto the card is either voluntarily or under state and territory vulnerability provisions. The federal government has “no power whatsoever to force any age pensioner on to the cashless debit card,” she said.

In July this year, Ms Ruston wrote to COTA, a lobby group formerly known as Council on the Ageing, to say the CDC scheme is “not aimed at retirees” and “never would be”.

“…I would like to reassure you formally that the coalition government does not, never has and never will have a policy to require age pensioners to have their payment placed on to a Cashless Debit Card,” Ms Ruston wrote.

In June, Ms Ruston told The New Daily that the government “has no plan and will never have a plan to force age pensioners on to the cashless debit card”.

Senator Ruston has also rejected the claim multiple times on social media, including here, here and here.

CDC eligibility rules are defined in law, meaning any move to put all age pensioners onto the cards would require existing legislation to be amended with the backing of a majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Under rules outlined in the Social Security (Administration) Act (sections 124PG to 124PGE), age pensioners are excluded from mandatory participation in the CDC scheme in five of the six trial areas. The exception is Cape York.

The government says the decision to put age pensioners onto the card in Cape York was requested by the Family Responsibilities Commission (FRC), a Queensland state agency that supports welfare reform communities in and around Cape York. Additionally, age pensioners living in any of the trial areas can volunteer to participate in the CDC program.

As of October 28, 25 people were receiving their age pension onto a CDC, according to information provided to a Senate Estimates committee. Most of those participants were based in Cape York. Ms Ruston told the committee that all but one of the 25 people volunteered to be placed on the scheme.

In December 2020, the government voted in favour of a parliamentary motion that provided a “commitment” that no recipient of the age pension will be placed on CDCs with the exception of those who volunteer or were referred by specific state and territory welfare agencies.

When asked for the basis of the claim that age pensioners were at risk of being forced onto the CDC, a spokeswoman for Ms McBride pointed to statements from government members indicating support for a wider rollout of the card (including here and here).

In an email to AAP FactCheck, she also pointed to the 25 people who already received their age pension on CDCs, the inclusion of disability pensions and carer payments in the CDC program in trial areas and the fact that aged pensioners can volunteer to join the CDC program. No evidence was provided to directly address the claim that all aged pensioners will be forced onto CDCs.

Mr Marles’ office did not respond to a request for the basis of his claim.

The VerdictThere is no evidence the coalition government wants to put all age pensioners on cashless welfare cards. By law, no age pensioners can be forced onto the cards outside of Cape York, and extending the scheme to this group would require changed legislation and majority support in parliament.

Families and social services minister Anne Ruston has said on multiple occasions that the government will not require all age pensioners to use the cards.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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