Stirling Griff has defended his choice to abstain from a vote on the controversial cashless debit card, allowing it to pass the Senate, and denied claims he had cut a “deal” with the government for his support.
“We didn’t ask for, and were never offered, anything,” the South Australian senator told The New Daily.
“We didn’t sit down and try to cut a deal. Everyone else was trying to cut a deal from the beginning … there were no ‘dirty deals’, as the Greens claimed.”
Senator Griff, from the Centre Alliance, came under heavy fire from parliamentary colleagues and welfare advocates for his decision to abstain from the final vote on the card, which let the Coalition’s plan pass by just one vote.
The original proposal, to make the card permanent in four trial sites and extend it to the Northern Territory, failed.
But with 11th-hour amendments, the government proposed to instead extend trial sites for two more years.
After the government scrambled to alter the bill, it passed 34-33 after midnight on Thursday. Senator Griff had originally opposed the legislation, but did not oppose the final vote.
Greens senator Rachel Siewert alleged there had been a “dirty deal” to win Senator Griff’s acquiescence, calling his decision “unforgivable”. However, the SA senator denied any deal had taken place – simply that he opposed the original legislation, but backed the amended version.
“We went to government a few weeks ago and said, ‘We’re not going to support it, no matter what’,” Senator Griff said of the original legislation.
“We don’t support permanency, and were opposed to that bill, but if they continued the trial and do all the things they didn’t do, and didn’t lock in the NT, we’d be OK with it.”
The Morrison government said the card was aimed at stamping out alcohol and drug abuse among welfare recipients. But community groups criticised it as racist and paternalistic, as the majority of people on the cards are Indigenous.
Australia’s top Indigenous, human rights and welfare groups are dismayed the “discriminatory” cards will continue. Amnesty International called the program “dehumanising”.
Senator Griff said his problems with the original legislation included a lack of “wrap-around” drug and alcohol services, and job support, for people on the debit card. He supports the principle of the card, wanting trials to continue instead of seeing it scrapped entirely.
“We don’t want it to die, it is working really well in some communities,” he said.
“We said [our support] comes down to wrap-around services. [The government] couldn’t get anything sorted with anybody else, so they told us they’d cover these things they should have covered three years ago.”
Senator Griff was swayed by the trial continuing, instead of the card becoming a permanent fixture, saying he wants to see more studies on the card’s effectiveness before locking in longer-term commitments. For instance, he was annoyed the government hadn’t released a University of Adelaide study into the card’s operation.
“The longitudinal study wasn’t there, we couldn’t make it permanent. If we did, [the government] would take it to more sites,” the senator said.
“Let’s take it back to where it was at the beginning, and do the right stuff with it, and then make a decision on it.”
Senator Griff said he and Centre Alliance colleague Rebekha Sharkie had visited communities where the program was operating, and despite hearing negative feedback from those on the card, he believed it was having a positive overall impact.
“There are issues for some people, some participants weren’t happy, but it’s been going in these communities for some time now and there are some positive signs,” he said.
“You couldn’t just instantly kill the damn thing.”
Senator Griff also gently offered a clarification to TND‘s reporting that he had avoided scrutiny after his decision, saying he had been in the Senate chamber several times and walked around Parliament House on Thursday.
TND earlier reported his Parliament House office door was locked, the blinds closed, and phones diverted to voicemail.
In response to criticisms he abstained from the final vote, rather than voting for the amended legislation, Senator Griff said it “didn’t matter” if he voted because the legislation passed anyway.
“I abstained because the numbers meant it would get up anyway,” he said.
“It wasn’t necessary. The decision was made … There’s nothing sinister there.”
Kristin O’Connell, of the Australian Unemployed Workers Union – which led a vocal campaign for the cards to be scrapped – said Senator Griff’s wrap-around services were not enough.
“The government will not deliver on these promises. They made them before,” she told TND.
“They have continually failed to invest in communities and provide the wrap-around services they said they would.”
Ms O’Connell said the AUWU was happy the cards would not be made permanent, but was disappointed they would be extended in the trial sites.
“This so-called trial has been going on for five years, they’re planning for it to go for another two,” she said.
“These are not trials, they’re things proven not to work.”