House debates

Monday, 13 August 2018


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

5:35 pm

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | Hansard source

I'm sure to the great disappointment of the member for Grey, Labor will not be getting on board with the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2018 and we will oppose it—absolutely oppose it. We will do that not on the basis of ideology but on the basis of evidence that has been given to us and to the government from many experts who work in the area of addiction and treatment—welfare experts and also people who are affected by this terrible health issue. As the member for Dobell made very clear—and she is better placed than most people in this place to make it clear—this is a health issue. Dependency will not be managed or sorted out by this particular measure.

I will firstly say that it is the view of the Labor Party that the government is making a second attempt to pass this measure, and we hope it ends up as disastrous as the first attempt. Last time around the community, the medical experts and the addiction treatment experts said that this will not work. Nothing has changed from that position, and nothing has changed from the position Labor has taken. This piece of legislation and this trial will drive vulnerable people away from income support. It will drive people who are suffering from addiction away from rehabilitation. It will drive desperate people to do desperate things. The Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association said in its submission on the bill:

The bill is premised on a range of assumptions regarding substance use and implies a connection between substance use and unemployment. This connection is overly simplistic and tenuous at best and does not account for the range of elements contributing to entrenched unemployment, such as regional variance in opportunity, family violence and mental health issues. It implies that illicit substance use is a key driver to unemployment and it fails to acknowledge that substance use and dependence is ubiquitous across a range of demographics.

Anglicare Australia said:

There is no evidence that people using welfare benefits and looking for a job generally have a higher incidence of drug use than the general population.

As I said, the government is confusing a healthcare issue with welfare, and the government is fabricating a narrative that is grossly and maliciously misleading and harmful. I will have more to say on that in a moment.

On the question of this bill, this government is ignoring the experts and it is ignoring the evidence. This bill proposes a trial of random drug testing among some 5,000 income support recipients at selected locations around Australia—as has been articulated, Logan in Queensland, Mandurah in Western Australia and Canterbury-Bankstown in Sydney, an area that I am incredibly familiar with. In establishing this trial, the government, through the Department of Social Services, says it consulted with various government and non-government stakeholders. I question that. Of the 53 submissions received on this bill, opposing submissions were received from a number of community groups, including the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. the Australian Injecting Illicit Drug Users League, Anglicare Australia, the Community and Public Sector Union, the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, Logan City Council, UnitingCare Australia, the Australian Association of Social Workers and the St Vincent de Paul Society.

In 2013 the then peak Commonwealth advisory group, the Australian National Council on Drugs—the government's own body—reviewed evidence on the impact of drug testing welfare recipients and concluded:

There is no evidence that drug testing welfare beneficiaries will have any positive effects for those individuals or for society, and some evidence indicating such a practice could have high social and economic costs. In addition, there would be serious ethical and legal problems in implementing such a program in Australia. Drug testing of welfare beneficiaries ought not be considered.

That was in 2013. This is an extract that is almost universally cited among the opposing submissions received from the community on this bill.

In 2013 the New Zealand government instituted a drug-testing program among welfare recipients. The member for Dobell spoke about this, and I won't go over the statistics from New Zealand, except to say that, of the 8,001 participants tested in New Zealand, only 22 returned a positive result. We saw the same in Utah and also in Missouri, where the testing outcomes were about the same.

The submission from the Department of Social Services estimated that up to 10 per cent of those tested will test positive to an illegal substance. Yet the College of Psychiatrists says it believes this is a gross overestimate and that it is more likely to be less than one per cent. You've got to ask: is it best to put the money into this or to put the money into rehabilitation and programs that are going to help people with a drug addiction? St Vincent de Paul says that, given the disproportionately large number of people who will test negative, it will inconvenience an unreasonably large number of people applying for income support.

The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre has questioned the scientific basis and research standards and integrity of this so-called trial. The centre questioned the geographical focus of the trial, the lack of a trial protocol, ethics approval, the independence of the research team and the absence of auditing or trial monitoring. That says to me that, if a trial is going to be a genuine trial, you would think that those measures were in place. The centre also went on to question the arbitrary nature of drug testing of welfare recipients:

The "reasonable excuse provisions" is one example of how this Bill fails to understand the nature of drug dependence. "Reasonable excuse provisions" will apply but not where the reason is wholly or substantially attributable to drug or alcohol use. This is the same as suggesting that if a patient with cancer fails to attend for a chemotherapy session … they are penalised because it is the cancer that has prevented their attendance.

It is grossly misjudged and ill thought through.

Many groups have also expressed their concern about the disproportionately costly nature of this measure. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists estimates the cost of testing to be approximately $500 to $900 each. The college said that the time and money and resources projected to be sunk into this trial could be better spent on treatment services, and that is certainly the view of the Labor Party. Anglicare Australia says the costs could be up to $1,600 per positive result and cites the New Zealand trial, which spent $1 million testing 8,000 welfare recipients and, as I said, returned 22 positive results. That's over $45,000 per positive result.

At a time when the government has slashed 2,500 jobs from the Department of Human Services and is crying a budget emergency, the government is really cutting off its nose to spite the face of vulnerable income support recipients. Even the efficacy of this approach to rehabilitation has been brought into question by Anglicare, which says, 'Mandatory drug rehabilitation has been repeatedly found to be one of the least effective ways for people to overcome a drug addiction.' How can the government be so blind to not be listening to people that know what they are doing in this space?

They know better than the government. They know better than this side of the House, which is why we have taken so much time to listen to people who actually know what they're doing.

One of the submissions was received from a Sydney social worker named James Clarke, who observed:

I often see my clients drop out of their reporting obligations due to existing reporting requirements and red tape. By enforcing testing, these amendments will create further bureaucratic hurdles for people to clear before receiving the meagre rate of pay that Newstart affords. Not receiving a Centrelink payment prevents an unemployed person from secure tenancies or participating in community, and increases the risk of homelessness and long term unemployment.

The Public Service Research Group says:

Punitive responses to test refusal or positive test results risk driving drug users towards "even more dangerous ways of living."

The focus on illicit drug use is an obstacle to employment and also distracts from the multitude of factors impeding employment. The Centre for Social Research in Health states:

… other barriers to self-sufficiency are more prominent, such as poor physical health, poor academic skills, mental health issues, transportation barriers and language barriers.

The member for Jagajaga, in her contribution to this debate, talked about risk of false positives and the burden of costs which may be placed on the jobseeker, and they are patently obvious. More than 982 doctors, nurses, addiction specialists and allied health professionals signed an open letter calling on the government to end its mandatory drug testing for people receiving income support—982 people that know what they're talking about. Amongst the signatories were 109 addiction specialists, 330 doctors, 208 registered nurses and hundreds of other allied health professionals. How much louder does the call have to be for this government to grow some sort of sense and sensitivity about this and understand that this is a fraught proposition?

The government has confused addiction, a healthcare issue, with income support, and it is not fair. It is not appropriate, and I am sick of this government demonising people who from time to time throughout their lives have to rely on welfare. It is unbelievable when you look at the litany of the outcomes in Centrelink and the fact that there have been so many jobs cut. There have been people accused of owing money that they didn't owe. There has been mistake after mistake. There have been 55 million unanswered calls, and under this government we have seen Centrelink wait times increase. In that context, the government pushes ahead with this ill-informed trial in three sites. It's ill informed, and I would urge people to vote against this, particularly when it goes to the other place. Listen to the experts. Listen to people that find themselves in these very difficult situations, and make a distinction between what is a health and welfare issue and what is an employment issue.

It is just unbelievable to me that this government would not listen to the experts and would not understand that the government's commitment of $10 million is a drop in the ocean when it comes to treatment. Anyone that has tried to support someone to get into treatment will know how difficult it is. Whilst the government say, 'Oh, well, this will be seen as part of a person's mutual obligation,' I question whether the government thought those things through and whether they've actually tested them. I've questioned the government on whether or not there are going to be the available facilities out there to support people who need this support.

I want to understand how the government has thrown together unemployment, people needing to rely on welfare assistance and drug addiction. There is no connection. We know that drug addiction affects all demographics, we know that drug addiction does not discriminate, and we certainly understand that drug addiction is a healthcare issue. It will not be fixed up by further penalising people who are relying on Newstart and other payments. It is a ludicrous proposition that the government has put in front of itself. Time will show that this trial is a waste of taxpayers' money and that the money spent on this trial, if it ever gets up, would have been better spent on services that support people with addiction and that look at as a healthcare issue and not as something which can be controlled through people's access to Centrelink payments.


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