An internal stoush is brewing in the Morrison government over a controversial policy, with the fate of the bill hanging in the balance.
Scott Morrison claims his government is more united than ever, despite internal rumblings over a controversial welfare scheme.
The Coalition wants to make cashless welfare cards (CDCs) permanent in its trial sites, and extend them to another 26,000 welfare recipients in the Northern Territory.
But Liberal MP Bridget Archer spoke out against her government’s own bill on Wednesday night, labelling it a “punitive” move that stigmatised welfare recipients. She argued the cards encouraged welfare recipients to be viewed as “other” and “less than”.
“Whenever you approach a human problem by inciting shame and guilt, you have already lost those that you are seeking to help,” she warned.
The scheme puts 80 per cent of welfare payments onto a cashless card that can only be used to buy certain items, in a bid to prevent recipients spending the money on alcohol or drugs.
Ms Archer confirmed she would reject any attempt to expand the program, but would not vote against the government’s proposal as there was no alternative.
“After such a long trial phase, it would require some work to transition away from it again. I will continue to advocate for that to occur,” she said.
“It’s the only reason I’m not voting against this bill. (But) I want to make it unequivocally clear today that any proposed future expansion of this scheme will not have my support.”
Archer is joined by several Coalition MPs in opposing the cards, The Australian reports.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison thanked Ms Archer for her honesty on Thursday, saying disagreements were the sign of a “confident” party.
He confirmed he had discussed the issue with his backbencher directly, and that MPs “know they can walk into my office at any time and raise issues”.
“One of the reasons we have achieved the stability and unity in our parliamentary party is we have room to breathe,” he said.
“We are … confident about allowing our members to express their views. But equally that comes with the responsibility of being a member of the team, which ensures that the government is able to continue to progress is agenda, as we will in this area.
“I think giving each other the space in our party room, and the respect that comes with that, is the reason why the Australian public is seeing the government the most united we have seen of any government for a very long time.
“I am going to continue to follow that practice and trust and respect my members. That will be my approach.”
The government needs just one vote to pass the legislation in the Senate, after One Nation indicated it would support the bill.
But NCA NewsWire understands independent Senator Rex Patrick, who is likely to cast the deciding vote in the Senate, has yet to make up his mind and is not leaning one way or another.
He will travel to Ceduna in South Australia over the weekend to speak with stakeholders as he mulls the decision.
Senator Patrick told NITV on Tuesday he had “lost sleep” over concerns the policy had racist connotations, with the government estimating 80 per cent of CDC trial participants were Indigenous.
“It’s a tough decision … It’s the complexity that sits around the racist aspects of the card, whether it meets its objectives, whether it helps in other ways that aren’t necessarily defined by the government,” he said.
Labor frontbencher Julie Collins has slammed Ms Archer for speaking passionately against the proposal, but refusing to put her money where her mouth is.
“She needs to have the courage of her convictions to say that this legislation is bad, that what the government is doing is bad, and to inflict it on people around the country simply does not stack up,” she said.
“She needs to come into the parliament and she needs to vote against the legislation.
“The people of Bass are paying her to be here this week. She needs to actually vote on legislation. That is her job.”