“The reason we haven’t done it in the major cities is because we need to deal with this technology issue, which we are now close to resolving,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“For this to be a mainstream financial literacy tool for Australia it does need to be rolled out away from just rural and regional communities, and that’s the conversation we need to have with the Australian public over the coming months.
“It does need to have a broader application than perhaps the social harm reduction that the original policy was designed on.”
The plan marks a significant shift in the scale of the program and a new argument for imposing the controversial controls, with the government claiming it can help welfare recipients manage their money.
The first trials were set up in regions with large Indigenous populations with the goal of curbing domestic violence and social harm by preventing social security payments being spent on alcohol, drugs and gambling.
Labor has slammed the scheme as a “discriminatory” policy that hurts First Nations people the most, declaring it would oppose any “broad-based compulsory income management” beyond the trials.
Opposition social services spokeswoman Linda Burney has said Labor would not stand in the way if a community wanted the card but did not support a national rollout.
“The government should make the cashless debit card voluntary or obtain informed community consent,” she said.
“There has been no independent and comprehensive evaluation, and the government has not been able to demonstrate that this card actually works.
“It is making it more difficult for participants to access cheaper products, for example purchasing items online or road-side stores or markets.”
A study for the government by Orima Research in 2017 found the first stage of the trials in Ceduna and the Kimberley showed a reduction in the three “target behaviours” of alcohol consumption, illegal drug use and gambling among cashless welfare card participants.
A Queensland University of Technology study of the similar Basics Card in Cape York told the government in November 2018 there were “mixed” results but that income management had contributed to a fall in harmful alcohol consumption, drugs, violence and crime.
But Greens Senator Rachel Siewert has rejected the “misleading data” about the trial sites and argued there was no case for a wider rollout.
“The cashless debit card is not only failing to achieve some of its so-called core objectives, it is making life a lot harder for people on income support and could be contributing to the growing number of people disengaging from the social security system,” Senator Siewert said last November.
The government is planning for the wider use of the card at the same time it struggles to get the numbers it needs in the Senate to extend the date for existing cashless debit card trials from June this year to June next year and remove caps on trial participants.
Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie visited trial sites in Western Australia on a “fact-finding mission” last month but has declined to say whether she would vote for or against the government bill.
Senator Ruston has spoken to Senator Lambie to urge her to back the bill, which was put to the Senate in the first week of December but is not scheduled for debate in the first fortnight after Parliament resumes on Tuesday.
The new case for the wider rollout could be crucial to the Senate negotiations, with Senator Ruston claiming her visit to some of the trial sites in recent weeks showed the biggest benefits could be in helping recipients budget for their rent and food while saving for the future.
“I think there are some practical examples where this card has really empowered people to take control of their own lives,” the minister said.
“They’re the good news stories that, perhaps, we aren’t hearing.
“The main ongoing benefit that I see from the cashless debit card becoming a more universal platform is that it is a financial literacy tool.
“It gives people the ability to be able to budget. You can use the card to make sure you prepay your rent, you prepay your car payment.
“In a community, you can send money to the local community store so that kids can go in and buy their lunch or their breakfast or fruit for morning tea, so there are some really practical, on the ground financial and budgeting benefits and we’re already seeing them happen.
“More broadly, there are some social harm reductions that we have seen in communities.”
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.