Monday, 13 August 2018
Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2018; Second Reading
It is an exciting evening in the federal parliament, where I'm quietly optimistic that the trial being proposed in the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2018 will go ahead. This trial was originally conceived back in 2013. I remember the member for Gilmore was right there in the coalition welfare reform group, which was formed in that year. The member for Braddon, a young whipper-snapper, the member for Pearce, who had just joined the parliament, and I were also in that group. Together, we started to conceive what we thought was the next step in the Work for the Dole mutual obligation. We slowly worked our way through to make sure that there was hope for every Australian, where they could one day hold down a job and have a chance in the brilliant economy that this current government runs. Of course, that is not the case at the moment.
There are large proportions of the population, particularly in poor electorates, which are completely distanced from the opportunities that Australia offers. That's just not bad for them; we know through epigenetics and intensive social policy research that that is bad for their kids as well. This is an intergenerational challenge that needs to be broken. In the 1990s, just as we were starting to make progress as a coalition government in the area of Work for the Dole, the possibility that a person would be made to be active in return for their payment was considered anathema. It was people like John Howard and Tony Abbott, the then employment minister—and even my father, Bruce Laming, who brought down the new employment policies from Queensland—who were urging businesses to take on an extra worker and find a way to connect people to work, because, fundamentally in the Liberal Party, we never give up on anyone. We will never give up on an individual and say: 'You're on drugs. There's nothing we can do.'
What we've seen over decades from those on the other side of the chamber, the Labor Party, and from peak welfare groups is a persistent behaviour whereby they throw up their hands and say: 'There is just nothing we can do. If they don't feel like doing it, we're not going to make them do it.' This was the attitude of a large number of the employment service providers in the 1990s. Anyone who has been around long enough will remember how it was utterly unfeasible to contemplate that an individual would be made to actually get out of bed and turn up somewhere for work. All the same excuses were trotted out. By golly, on the coalition side, we have seen, thank goodness, from government most of the time, some of these ridiculous excuses—and haven't we heard them all?—being trotted out almost hysterically by peak welfare groups. I'm most disappointed to see a select group, even within learned medical colleges, dancing to this same tune. There are probably highly selective experts within a greater profession who strongly support these initiatives, because they understand: 'What is the alternative? What is the alternative to raising a white flag as ice is being trucked around in vehicles on a passenger seat and sold to young kids, who then fall out of school, or to young girls, who then fall to prostitution or who turn to crime?' They are using those same excuses to say, 'Let's not do anything about it, because it might make that happen.' For goodness sake, that is already happening! That is the status quo.
Australia has the second-highest use of methamphetamine in the OECD, where we have suitable comparative data. Australia is literally awash with it. I don't mean to be hysterical about this, but we've heard read speeches from the Labor Party and we've heard non-noted speeches from the coalition, because we speak from the heart about this. We know that 83 per cent of coalition voters are behind us on this issue. We know that 65 per cent of Labor voters distance themselves from Labor representatives on this issue. We know that nearly three-quarters of Australians fundamentally look at this problem and say: 'Ice is a bloody tragic thing. I've seen mums and dads who, the minute they leave home, watch their son pull out the stereo and try to hock it to drug dealers.' This is a really hard issue.
To be told by those on the other side that there is no evidence for an initiative that is fundamentally a trial speaks to their inability to simply understand what this is. It is world-leading. It is groundbreaking. And it has the word 'trial' in it for a good reason. There is nothing similar between the Australian proposals and the US states that made quite energetic but ultimately futile attempts, with quite perverse and damaging outcomes for those who were found to be positive. It is also quite different from the New Zealand actuarial models, where they introduced drug testing if one were applying for a job where drug testing was already happening. These are completely different concepts. What we have here is effectively a non-punitive measure that forms, in the brief of intervention science, that opportunity to say to someone, 'You know you have a problem here, because we have the drug test.' Up until now, what the welfare system relies on is someone walking forward and saying, 'You do know that I'm on drugs, and I'd really like to get off them.' There are people like that, but there are not very many.
Ice is characteristic of this feature: people don't genuinely believe that they can just simply go and get help and everything will be okay. For many people it is futile, hopeless and desperate. For many people, they are looking after minors, dragging them into child care at noon, engaging in prostitution from home, ducking back to pick up the kid again and then having the door kicked in as drug dealers are seeking payment. What three-year-old deserves to have that treatment? There is someone pushing past a three-year-old, watching a drug deal trying to settle debts, because they know there is money in the house somewhere. This is the status quo that we are trying to break.
By breaking the status quo, there were three or four key considerations. That first consideration is that we must respect the privacy of the individual and adhere to the legal obligations of this nation. We're not profiling people. We're not saying, 'We don't like the cut of your jib. We want you to step into the side room.' This is about a prospective, grandfathered, signing up of new Newstart recipients to the possibility of that test. Because that particular cohort is up to three times more likely to be on recreational drugs, they have got to be prepared to face a simple test. It's a non-invasive test. It doesn't go on your criminal record. Someone doesn't pick up the telephone and tell the police. No, people can't rummage through your files and find out the result.
In a career of drug taking, where one is building a criminal or a dislocation resume faster than they are building an occupational or educational one, we are trying to find that opportunity to break into the cycle somewhere. The whole point is that at the moment there is nowhere to break into the cycle. If the state has a chance to say, 'This could be the moment. You are losing your house. You are losing your kids. Your job is long gone. At what point do we keep paying for your drug habit using taxpayers' money?' That is possibly one last chance before a drug addiction continues unabated and out of control for years.
That's why instinctively Australians like the idea. They appreciate that there is not the evidence, because it has not been tried before. They want to see something done. As soon as we know that someone has a positive test, nothing is taken away and the payment goes on. It's a BasicsCard; about 80 per cent of it is onto a BasicsCard. There is still the liquidity to do pretty much everything one needs to do. You have intensive case and financial management available. Finally, and let's remember this, it becomes awfully hard to pay the drug dealer. It's not impossible. You can go out and flog stuff, but you will be picked up by the police and you will have another problem on your hands. You will be going cold turkey in jail. There are no easy ways out of this.
What I'm saying here is not to simply throw your hands up and say, 'I wouldn't want to step between a drug taker and their drugs. I wouldn't want to get between them and their habit. Let's keep paying them taxpayers' money so we don't have any trouble from them.' That's the counternarrative coming from the other side. That's not the narrative of Australia, of hope, of justice and of giving it a red-hot crack. We will do everything in our power, as the state, to help people off ice. It is not a public good. It is not something to be protected nor something to be feared. When we initially designed this policy in 2013, we could not have dreamed that the great party of the Labor Party would actually oppose it. We never thought one could be that politically lucky, but in fact we saw Labor literally and figuratively wet their pants over this issue. It was really, really unbelievable that they did everything they could to stop the smallest and most modest of trials.
This is a trial. If it's not financially or clinically effective, it will not continue. But what was the first objection put up by the Labor Party? There may not be enough treatment facilities out there. The treatment facilities will be overrun with queues going around the corner like in Cuba. At the same time, you have another individual up here saying, 'The pick-up rate will be so low. It will be down to 0.0001 per cent. It will be catastrophic. What a waste of money with no positives.' Of course, you can't have it both ways, can you? What you can have is every single excuse you can dream up distilled into a Labor Party policy. That is what has been presented. 'It is an invasion of privacy. It erodes all morals that we have in this nation up to this point. It's a complete intrusion. It'll lead to an outbreak of crime around the nation where the idea is trialled.' To ask for evidence out of this policy but then to purport that their counternarrative is in any way evidence is just really, really ridiculous. They have dreamt up, as a Labor Party, every possible objection, but it doesn't stand scrutiny.
We as a coalition have designed a forward, prospective, grandfathered approach systematically and without any selection bias, doing a simple trial. We know that rates of drug use are high in this cohort, and Australians would expect us to do everything within our power. Once the first positive is received, then, of course, we have the financial intervention. There isn't the ability to use the cashless debit card in some of these trial areas. Then there is obviously the possibility of a second positive test. What's forgotten by the other side is not so much the impact on the individual being tested or testing positive but the signal that sends through the entire half a million people on Newstart who are signing up prospectively that it could happen to them. It makes the likelihood of them being work ready every Monday morning that slight bit higher.
The testing could well be in a longer form, using hair bulb testing rather than saliva or a buccal swab. If that's the case, they're going to be looking at a far longer period of recreational drug use, which is almost impossible to hide. We've moved now into an era of extremely high-level and effective technology. It is incredibly cheap and extremely accurate, and, in a single test, it is able to pick up up to eight different recreational drugs. That was never used in any of the previous tests. That wasn't used in New Zealand. It wasn't used in the US, and that is a nation that still gets people to walk in a straight line to see if they're over the blood alcohol level.
This is brand-new, cutting-edge technology. I have to acknowledge that the nation's drug testers, who are doing amazing work in the major occupations of mining and industry, have said this is a simple process to step it into those who are looking for work. Isn't it the coalition policy that, if you can't get a job but you are receiving a government payment in lieu of one, you should be ready to turn up on Monday morning and do a job? This feeds into that very simple mentality that, 'No, not everyone has a job, but everyone should be ready to go to work if they're physically and mentally fit and able to do so and in the appropriate age range.'
I will finish where I started. This is a party of hope and belief. What you've heard from the Labor Party is a disappointing rendition of resignation, which is the futility that ultimately there will never possibly be enough service providers out there and there'll be queues. It just denies the fact that, with the national ice initiative's $685 million and with $10 million directly invested into these trial areas, there will be people screaming for patients. There will be people scrounging around and looking for ice addicts who could possibly receive counselling and treatment. If an MP in this chamber doesn't understand that, they're clearly not connected to their PHN locals—formerly Medicare, a conception of the previous government—and the good contracting work they do in my area with after-care in particular, not necessarily primarily focused on drugs but where it is secondary to a mental health issue. They are desperately looking for people to avail themselves of their services. If there is one area for which the coalition could pat themselves on the back, it's these services available through our PHNs all over the country. This complete fiction that there are just no services out there hearkens back to an era when many of us thought the only way to recover from drugs was to go into a Hollywood-style residential facility for 30 days. It's true that that used to be the way it was done; it no longer is. There are very few residential facilities, rightly or wrongly, but it is increasingly hard to prove their cost-effectiveness because they're super expensive and ice is super addictive. They get short-term results, and then people are addicted again, which means their numbers don't look so good.
We have an incredibly hard battle here. If there's one thought that I leave this chamber with, it is that we need to try everything. What you have is a Labor Party desperate to stop us trying everything in our power to take an ice addict and try and break that cycle. They will present, as the member for Oxley did, a young woman, tragically, raped at an early age, who says, 'I live for ice and nothing will ever stop me taking it.' That's the hardest of the hard. I'm not saying it's going to fix every case. We're talking about those right down at the margins, intermittent recreational users, who last year used that excuse nearly 2½ thousand times to not show up for work, but they still got paid with taxpayers' money. For those on the margins that are just opting in and out, using ice as a convenient excuse not to work—we know there are around 85,000 persistent evaders and many of them use drugs and alcohol as an excuse—your time is up. The holiday is over. We will, through a series of reforms, eventually prevent you leading that life. Maybe not you—maybe under that roof you've never understood the importance of holding down a job and supporting a family. But all of us will realise that one day, and we don't want to see children damaged while we wait those years for people to come off addiction.