House debates

Monday, 13 August 2018


Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2018; Second Reading

4:41 pm

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Governments should not be wilful. They shouldn't be arbitrary, they shouldn't be cruel and they shouldn't be petty. Rarely should a government mandate procedures that are physically invasive or otherwise intrude disproportionately on the person or the rights of the individual. Nevertheless, we have before us today, not for the first time, a proposal that in ways large and small offends those principles. I do not want a drug-testing trial in my electorate to demonise those already most disadvantaged. Despite our many differences, I'd hope that the Turnbull government might be better than this legislation, but it's not.

The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2018 establishes a two-year drug-testing trial for 5,000 new recipients of Newstart and youth allowance. 'Participants' in the trial will be selected at random and those refusing to be tested will have their welfare payments cancelled immediately. This is the sort of measure that often has government members opposite salivating or expressing lots of righteous indignation which even they know isn't going to make much practical difference. The leisurely pace for passage through the parliament would seem proof of that. It's also an issue that, in my world, defies simplistic explanations. The scourge of drug addiction is not just a simple problem; it's a complex issue with many causes. It is primarily a medical problem. Newstart and youth allowance recipients who test positive to a first drug test will be placed on so-called income support measures for two years and will also be subjected to another test within 25 days. Being placed on income support, in effect, means that only 20 per cent of a recipient's welfare payments are paid in cash and the rest is only available via the government's BasicsCard. Those who fail the second test or test positive again during the two-year income management period will be referred for possible medical treatment, and that treatment, if recommended, will form part of the recipient's job plan. In my electorate, those resources certainly are not available. There's sometimes a wait for rehabilitation that measures years rather than months.

The government says that the trial will address what it says is the link between drug abuse and unemployment, so that taxpayer-funded welfare payments are not being used to fund drug addiction and so that jobseekers do all they can to find a job. This is another demonstration that the government does not understand drug addiction as a medical problem. For good measure the government has lobbed in some decidedly very iffy claims that the bill is in line with community expectations. Just ask people who are involved in drug rehabilitation what they think about the bill, and they will tell you that this is not the right way to go.

The minister concluded his second reading speech by challenging the opposition and the crossbenchers to be brave enough to change their minds and support the trial—another demonstration of the lack of understanding of drug addiction itself. With the greatest respect, Minister, you should stop being tendentious and stick to the facts. No-one in this place wants to stand in the way of effective and affordable measures that will tackle drug abuse—least of all those of us who have spent a lifetime dealing with real-life medical issues and emergencies sometimes exacerbated by the abuse of illegal and legal drugs. No-one wants to see welfare payments used to fund drug addiction or fatten the pockets of drug dealers, but this is a very simplistic treatment for a very complex issue. It should go without saying that no-one has a closed mind to new or imaginative solutions that have a decent prospect of making a difference, yet none of the experts tell us that this will make a difference.

What Labor and the many critics of this bill, both in the medical profession and in the community, want is for drug-related problems to be treated as a health issue and not as yet another way of disciplining the undeserving poor, which those on the government benches seem to think is the way to go, nor as a political bromide to placate its own populist rump. The proposed mandatory drug trial was first hinted at in the Treasurer's 2018 budget speech. It had been bobbling around on the edges of loony-right politics for many years before that. I can remember proposals from the hard Right some years ago about what we should be doing to people with drug addiction. It has fallen in and out of view on the right wing as similar trials were pushed overseas only to be found both costly and of very little value except when narrowly applied within the criminal justice system. Even in such controlled environments the outcomes were often limited or ambiguous. Such has been this government's faltering commitment to its own proposal that the Treasurer has now presented in the 2018 budget, and the drug-testing trial is little further advanced than it was 12 months ago.

Drug-testing formed part of the government's Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 but was dropped from that bill in December 2017 on the government's own motion. This bill was presented to the House in February this year by the Minister for Social Services, and its contents were immediately referred to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, which reported back on 7 May. Unlike the mandatory drug-testing trial proposed in the earlier welfare reform bill, this measure at least manages to identify the three local government areas where the trial will be conducted. It also stipulates that a person who fails a drug test would not be subject to the income management strictures of the bill if, in the opinion of the Secretary of the Department of Social Services, that would pose a serious risk to the person's mental, physical or emotional wellbeing. Who makes that judgement? Suffice it to say that all three local governments who were selected to host the trials have been critical of the Commonwealth's proposal in many varying degrees, and all have pointed to a total lack of prior consultation by the minister. While the newly minted legislative requirement that the Secretary of the Department of Social Services not place those at special risk on income management may open up some decisions to judicial review, that provision nonetheless leaves those who lose their allowance with the burden of demonstrating they are a special case, further demonising, stressing and punishing them for a medical problem.

The government has failed to address the two substantive concerns raised by the Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee regarding the proposed measures—that matters which ought to have been dealt with by the bill would be left to delegated legislation, and that contractors and not accountable government officials would determine who could be placed on income management arrangements under the scheme. Sadly it is not just the criticisms of the Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee that the government has largely chosen to ignore. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights has voiced criticisms too, though largely to no avail. Government senators on the Community Affairs Committee note that the present bill interferes with and limits the rights to privacy, bodily integrity, social security, equality and nondiscrimination. I think the government members should really think about this. The government's own senators even go on to note:

… the Australian Human Rights Commission endorsed the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights' analysis.

To their credit, the government senators on the Senate committee recommended that the government 'establish and publish the evaluation strategy of the drug testing trial prior to the commencement of the trial' and that the government also 'publish the outcomes of the drug testing trial after it has been completed'.

In August this year, the former minister, the current Attorney-General, claimed that there was lots of evidence that suggests that behavioural change can grow around drug-testing regimes. When challenged to provide that evidence, his office referred to six reports and studies. Four of those related to mandatory drug treatment of offenders inside criminal justice systems. Those results are not directly relevant to the proposed trial. The other two reports actually counselled against the drug testing of welfare recipients. So even the previous minister has got it all wrong when it comes to this bill.

Drug testing trials in Canada, the United States and New Zealand have all come up empty. This is not backed by evidence, yet again the government wants to punish the most vulnerable. Expert submissions to the Senate inquiry into welfare reform were scathing of drug testing, pointing out that there was no local or overseas evidence to suggest that mandatory testing will induce unemployed drug users to find treatment or to find work. We know that the only systems that work are those that are voluntary and that enable people to submit themselves to drug rehabilitation of their own volition. Once again, the government have not only failed to listen to the experts but failed to understand the science. They have failed to see drug addiction as a medical problem. They continue to use really discriminatory ways of dealing with what are societal and health problems.

One might be tempted to ask whether the proposed Australian trial is simply unique, because no other country has been silly enough to contemplate such an approach. Helpful community organisations have not come out in favour of the government's proposal, and organisations such as my own Royal Australasian College of Physicians have come out against the trial. Other organisations like ACOSS, the Uniting Church, St Vincent's Health, Anglicare and the National Drug Research Institute oppose it, yet again this government has failed to listen to the experts and to understand the science. Professor Adrian Reynolds, the President of the Australasian Chapter of Addiction Medicine from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, summed up the position rather nicely, noting:

… the Chapter of Addiction Medicine are quite honestly at a loss to see why a drug testing trial is considered a necessary or effective way to address these issues.

Concerns extend to whether the trial process will add to existing queues for remedial drug treatment and therapy across the country, meaning that those who are voluntarily seeking help will be turned away or have to wait longer for help. The situation is already critical. There are long waits for rehabilitation, even for those who want to voluntarily undergo rehabilitation. Professor Alison Ritter, the Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, told the first Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry that Australia currently treats about 200,000 people for substance abuse each year but an additional 200,000 to 500,000 people each year would like to receive treatment which is unavailable to them.

Despite repeated questioning at estimates hearings in 2017 and March 2018, the government remained unable or unwilling to identify even a ballpark figure for the cost of the trial; say which illicit drugs will be covered by the trial and why alcohol and legally prescribed opiates will not be part of the trial; specify benchmarks for determining what would make the trial enough of a success to warrant an extension; and provide a rational explanation as to why particular trial sites were preferred to others. Given this sorry history, it is entirely unremarkable that the evidence to the recently completed Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry only reinforced the criticisms detailed previously. For me, one witness observation from the latest Community Affairs Legislation Committee report sums up the Orwellian world being proposed by this government rather neatly:

… the treatment sector has been chronically underfunded for a number of years now … I would be very surprised if you didn't find that a number of the folks who test positive and who are indicated for treatment hadn't, in fact, tried to access the treatment system voluntarily in the past and were turned away, or discouraged by long wait lists or a lack of access.

What is remarkable is that the government senators could somehow have managed to support the passage of this bill notwithstanding the criticisms contained or alluded to in their own report. The government senators confirmed that the only evidence that such trials may work comes from inside the highly controlled environment of the criminal justice system, noted the singular lack of success of overseas trials, confirmed that an evaluation strategy has not been developed and acknowledged but failed to address fully the human rights and procedural concerns raised by the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. They even recorded the grave concerns over the lack of human and other resources to conduct the trial.

Not only would a full rollout of this scheme be prohibitively expensive; there just aren't enough qualified people to administer the test or provide the necessary treatment services for anything more than a trial. At the start I mentioned five principles that you don't expect a government in a free society to do. A government must not be arbitrary, wilful, cruel or petty, and it should rarely sanction government action that interferes with the physical and bodily integrity of the individual, yet this is exactly what this government is proposing. It is shameful, as are some of the other measures this government is proposing for our most disadvantaged citizens. I really feel government members should rethink this bill, rethink what they're doing and, for once, listen to the experts and the science.


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