House debates

Monday, 13 August 2018


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

6:05 pm

Photo of Cathy O'TooleCathy O'Toole (Herbert, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I'm not speechless because I'm speaking but, let me tell you, I've never heard such complete and utter ignorance than what I have just heard from the member opposite. Peoples' lives are complex. The reality is that drugs and alcohol misuse occurs across our community in every sector at every age. I will share some facts that will prove that. It is completely unacceptable that we can stand in this place and trivialise the lives of people whose existence is so complex that it is beyond the ability of most of us to understand. It is simply unfair.

I want to stand in this place today to make my view on this bill very, very clear. I will always welcome genuine and effective efforts to assist and support people who are struggling with drug and alcohol dependency to access appropriate treatment. I don't believe that income support is best utilised to support a drug habit; however, as I have said, peoples' lives are complex. What is very clear to me is that this bill is not a genuine attempt to assist people struggling with drug dependency. It will do nothing to stop the use of illegal drugs, it will do nothing to prevent ongoing drug misuse and it will not deliver appropriate treatment. For people who seek treatment for dependency on drugs, they have to be in a position where they are ready to make change in their lives.

The changes in this bill will have a severe impact on people who have extremely complex lives and needs. The impact of this bill will push them further into serious financial hardship and potentially crime. This bill is based on a misunderstanding of the data which is so full of holes that you could drive a truck through it. I cannot and will not stand in this place and support legislation that will do absolutely nothing to address a serious and complex social problem, a health problem in fact. I cannot believe that in 2018 this government still considers drug testing people on Newstart and youth allowance as a real solution.

We have all seen the national footage where former Prime Minister Tony Abbott admits to Annabel Crabb that he passed out drunk whilst on the job and by his own admission missed a very important division. Yet, the same person who passed out drunk whilst on the job wants to enforce drug testing on people struggling with drug addictions. This is nothing short of double standards and entitlement. Does the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott not realise the hypocrisy? Does the Turnbull government not see the hypocrisy in this situation? Not to mention the blanket prejudice of assuming that people on youth allowance and Newstart must be the people who are misusing drugs.

A study by the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction found that drug use is significantly more prevalent among those in the paid workforce in comparison to those not in paid work. Furthermore, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the median age of illicit drug users has risen from 32.8 years in 2001, to 36.5 years in 2013, for any illicit drug. Research has also shown that the numbers of people over 50 years of age are responsible for the largest rise in illicit drug misuse and were the only age group to show a statistically significant increase in misuse. The most common age for illicit drug misuse is 36.5 years of age, but the Turnbull government is choosing to test those on youth allowance, where you have to be under 24 to be eligible. This just does not make sense.

This bill is clear evidence that the Turnbull government doesn't give a damn about vulnerable jobseekers or young people; nor are they interested in assisting people struggling with drug addiction to access treatment. If the Turnbull government was in any way genuine or cared one iota about helping people struggling with drug addiction, they would increase funding into prevention and early intervention programs. Medical professionals, along with the drug and alcohol treatment sector, have raised significant concerns about these measures and the negative impacts that they will have on jobseekers. More importantly, these measures won't be effective in identifying those with a serious problem; nor will they provide them with appropriate treatment options. This is yet another attempt by the Turnbull government to demonise vulnerable job seekers, without any evidence that these measures will work, and it's likely to be a significant cost to the budget.

Experts warn that these changes will not help people to overcome drug misuse; this is not how programs to assist people to address their addiction challenges work. Instead, people will be pushed into crisis, poverty, homelessness and, potentially, crime. And yet the Turnbull government is pushing ahead with its plans to trial the drug testing of around 5,000 welfare recipients at three sites across the country: Logan in Queensland, Canterbury Bankstown in New South Wales and Mandurah in Western Australia. Those who fail a test will be forced onto income management for 24 months. This means that 80 per cent of their welfare payment will be quarantined and can only be spent on specific items. A second failed test will prompt a referral to treatment. Failure to comply with the drug-testing regime could see the welfare recipient lose his or her welfare payment. The proposal has been met with strong opposition from doctors, psychiatrists, welfare advocates, community groups, local mayors, charities and the United Nations. Of course, this approach also assumes that there are drug and alcohol programs available for young people in their communities. Many fear that taking a punitive approach to drug addiction and misuse will simply drive people away from the welfare system and further into poverty. The question must be put to the Turnbull government: where is the evidence—where is the detail? Surely the government should be looking at evidence-based practice.

Overseas examples of drug-testing income support recipients have clearly demonstrated that there is no evidence to support these measures as being effective. In 2013, the New Zealand government instituted a drug-testing program for welfare recipients. In 2015, only 22 of 8,001 participants tested returned a positive result for illicit drug use—that detection rate was much lower than the proportion of the general New Zealand population estimated to be using illicit drugs. Similar results were found in the United States: in Missouri's 2014 testing program, of the state's 38,970 welfare applicants, 446 were tested with 48 testing positive; and in Utah, of the state's 9,552 welfare participants, 838 were screened with 29 returning a positive result. These were extremely costly initiatives. They are costly initiatives that will drive people further into poverty, homelessness and crime—yet the Turnbull government is determined to implement this regime with no detail on real costs.

Concerns have been raised about these measures by health and welfare groups, including St Vincent's Health, the Royal Australian College of Physicians, ACOSS and UnitingCare. No health or community organisations have come out publicly in support of this trial. Addiction medicine specialists are concerned about the technical aspects of the trial. While people taking prescription medicine could be exempted, this would not guarantee that they are not also misusing illicit drugs, thus undermining the purpose of the trial. The testing could potentially encourage people to use less-traceable but more-harmful drugs, such as synthetic cannabis, or to use alcohol, which is not being tested as part of this trial. A long-term cannabis user who is attempting to address their drug misuse will still test positive for up to six weeks. How will Centrelink know if they have actually stopped using cannabis?

The Turnbull government claims that the availability of treatment will be the criteria for selecting trial sites. But Senate estimates revealed that the Commonwealth does not have access to data on the availability of treatment, and will need to rely on the states to provide this information. How is this going to work? For example, if you are a young person tested in Townsville and return a positive test, where would you go? The Salvation Army built a youth detox centre, but they are now struggling to secure funds to operate it. Our youth have to travel to Brisbane or Melbourne, because North Queensland just does not have these facilities. The Turnbull government would not match Labor's initial commitment to fund the Townsville Salvation Army detox centre for young people, and they have not come to the table to fund the operation of the new centre, so there are no services to offer our young people in the north, if the government chooses to run a trial in my community. There are very lengthy waiting lists for treatment around the country. These trials will put increased pressure on the health system and, where treatment is unavailable, jobseekers that are identified as having a drug-misuse problem will have difficulty accessing the necessary treatment. The flaws, gaps and traps in this bill are enormous.

But one thing is evident: the Turnbull government don't have a plan to address any real drug misuse issues, but they do have a plan to attack vulnerable jobseekers and to make the poor poorer whilst appearing on the surface to be doing something—something that delivers nothing more than distress, anxiety and disadvantage. This is a government that don't want to help the sick, as is obvious in the cuts to Medicare. This is a government that don't want equal access to quality education, as is obvious from the savage cuts to education. This is a government that don't want the poor to become middle class, as seen through the cuts to universities.

When you are sick, you should always have access to health care. Where you live shouldn't matter regarding your child's access to a quality needs based education. The size of your wallet or trust fund should not determine whether you can or cannot attend university. When you lose a loved one, someone close to you, you should be allowed time to grieve without fear of not being able to pay for the simple costs of living. But the Turnbull government are completely out of touch with vulnerable citizens, especially in their big talk about supporting the aspirations of Australians. They are not a government of aspiration but rather a government that is hell-bent on making life harder. They are a government that puts aspiration out of reach for some of our most vulnerable citizens. The Turnbull government are a government for the wealthy, not the battler.

To all of those people that the Turnbull government is neglecting I say: you need to know that you matter to the Labor Party and that you matter to me personally. I will fight every minute of every day in this place for you. I will continue to fight against the Turnbull government's savage cuts. I will continue to fight for real action to help people overcome their drug misuse challenges, not rubbish bills like this one. I will continue to fight against the Turnbull government's top hats approach, and I will take up the fight for hard hats. I will continue to fight for jobs in Townsville. I will continue to fight for a fair go for our veterans and ex-service personnel and their families. I will continue to fight for aged care, child care and Medicare, because Labor does care. Labor is the only party that gives people something to aspire to, and that is the opportunity to create a better life for themselves and their children. This bill certainly does not do that. Punishing the most vulnerable at the most difficult time in their life is anything but a solution to get people moving on with their lives.


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