His public stance after three years watching the trial up close, and without any federal government data to turn his long-term scepticism into support, also puts him in step with the Labor-aligned mayor of the neighbouring Fraser Coast council, George Seymour.
Critics say it stigmatises users and is no way to treat complex social issues such as addiction or mental health. Proponents counter that it’s keeping food on family dinner tables.
Local member Keith Pitt, a federal cabinet minister, maintained the trial had strong community support across the electorate.
Hinkler joined the cashless debit card trial in 2019 because it was considered to bear out-of-proportion youth unemployment and intergenerational welfare dependency.
The South Australian town of Ceduna became the first trial site in March 2016. Western Australia’s East Kimberley and Goldfields regions followed soon after. Close to 21,000 people nationally have been part of the trial, some of them voluntarily.
Cr Dempsey said the card made it impossible for some people, including women fleeing family violence, to convince prospective landlords – already spoiled for renters in a hot housing market – that there was money in the bank.
The struggles for hard-up families had become more pronounced during the uncertainty and industry shutdowns of the pandemic, he said.
“I was with a group of people the other day [and] there’s no wriggle room for them,” said Cr Dempsey, himself a product of social housing.
“And they’re not bloody drug addicts or alcoholics or anything like that. They’re just very good people trying their best, and they get treated like second-class citizens.
“If it’s so good and great, why isn’t it implemented in other places?”
Mr Pitt and colleagues extended the Hinkler trial for two more years in December 2020.
“As I have said many times, the cashless debit card is one tool in the toolbox to help unemployed people stabilise their lives and the feedback I continue to receive is that it is making a difference,” Mr Pitt said in response to Cr Dempsey’s comments.
“It helps people put food on the table and get the kids to school and get people job ready so they can get off welfare and into a job.”
The Coalition has flagged a national rollout. Labor’s national platform states it will not expand the CDC “without clear evidence of community benefit and informed community consent”.
Cr Dempsey said the scheme should be voluntary, unless there were compelling individual reasons otherwise.
“We really need to start looking after each other, not putting people in boxes,” Cr Dempsey said. “It’s not Australian to do that.”
Mr Pitt could not point to data from Hinkler proving the trial’s success. Likewise, the federal government has been short of statistical information across all sites.
A University of Adelaide report, released in January, was broadly inconclusive.
For example, it found evidence of alcohol reduction, but could attribute it to the card alone. There was no discernable change in employment outcomes across the sites and “little consensus” about whether children’s welfare had improved.
Short-term evidence suggested gambling was down, according to the report, while most people had “feelings of discrimination, embarrassment, shame and unfairness” across all sites.
In the October senate estimates, the Department of Social Services said it commissioned a cost-benefit analysis of the trial – as per a 2018 recommendation of the Australian National Audit Office – but it could not be completed because of the complex way data was collected about alcohol, drugs, hospitalisations and crime.