House debates

Monday, 13 August 2018


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

6:17 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | Hansard source

Centre Alliance has not changed its position in relation to the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2018. Despite it being a scare tactic used by members of the Liberal Party in my community during the recent by-election, we will not back down from our position. The bill before us is a rebadged extract of schedule 12 of the Social Services Legislation (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017, which has already been extensively debated and discussed in both houses of the parliament. The drug-testing component of the welfare reform bill was rejected by both Centre Alliance and the parliament. Yet here we are again, with the government attempting to pass the same piece of legislation using the same completely unsatisfactory policy arguments. We have so much to debate in this place, so I cannot understand why we are expending more time on this when this particular schedule has already been resoundingly rejected by the parliament.

In my previous speech on the welfare reform bill, I comprehensively detailed my concerns with the drug-testing element of that bill, and just briefly I wish to outline some of the salient arguments once more. The government refuses to publish the cost of the trial to the taxpayer. The government argues there are commercial implications for this nondisclosure. I do not believe this. Government knows exactly how much it intends to spend on this particular pilot study, and it should know how much it intends to spend on this program or pilot study. Every single program should have a dollar figure attached. Publish the costings. Every other program has this. Why not this? In the absence of exceptional circumstances, I and my Centre Alliance colleagues will never support legislation without knowing how much it's going to cost the Australian taxpayer. We believe it is irresponsible, and we believe we would be doing a great disservice to the Australian taxpayer if we did that.

I also think that not detailing those costs is actually quite arrogant, to the parliament and to the Australian taxpayer, who is expected to foot the bill for this policy. I can only assume that this legislation is likely to have a hefty financial cost, given the enormous cost of similar programs in the United States of America. In other jurisdictions, drug testing programs have been proven to be highly ineffective in discovering drug addicts, completely failing any reasonable cost-benefit analysis benchmark. For example, in 2015 research undertaken by the ThinkProgress project of the Center of American Progress discovered that, collectively, 10 US states spent more than US$850,000 on their testing regimes but uncovered only 321 positive tests. In more than one of those American states not a single positive test was found. Based on America's experience, it costs approximately US$2,650 for each positive test secured. How much will it cost us? Experts suggest it will cost us approximately $1,600 per test, per recipient. I'm sure that when we collectively look at how many recipients may test positive the cost will be higher than the US cost.

Again, we have no information about who will perform these tests and how they will be performed. Will Centrelink recipients be expected to go to the Centrelink office with a specimen cup? Will they be mouth swabbed? Will this be outsourced to a private company? How can we ensure the integrity and the veracity of such testing? We just don't know. Is this the best use of taxpayer funds? Centrelink is already aware of who has a serious drug addiction and who is on welfare with a serious drug addiction, because, until recently, addicts were able to rely on drug addiction as a reasonable excuse when failing to attend job provider appointments. We supported changes to legislation that no longer allowed addiction to be used as an excuse for missed appointments. We supported changes to legislation that meant that Centrelink recipients receiving a working-age payment have one of two pathways to go down. Either they can actively engage and look for work and connect with their jobactive provider, or they must seek rehabilitation to address their addiction if that addiction is stopping them from meaningfully looking for work. These are very important levers that we were keen to support. With this legislation now in place, why would we waste what I can only assume will be millions of taxpayer dollars—and when we've already tightened the activity requirements?

I'd like to raise a serious but often missed point in relation to drug addiction. Existing drug addiction services are utterly swamped. One of the most concerning findings raised during the Senate inquiry into the welfare reform bill was that unmet demand for treatment of addiction in Australia was estimated at between 200,000 and 500,000 Australians—half a million Australians. That is why, in our negotiations with government over the welfare reform bill, we ensured that $40 million of funding was put to one side and provided for specialist drug rehabilitation, including $20 million over three years for specialist methamphetamine rehabilitation facilities in South Australia and $20 million over three years for drug addiction support and training for GPs and other allied health professionals in regional Australia. Good, sound policy analysis showed that there was a significant gap in support at the primary healthcare level for medical professionals, who are often the first and only people that a person with an addiction will go to to seek assistance.

If we have millions to spare on this random drug testing—and we still don't know how much it is—then more money should be put into addiction services. Let me be clear: Centre Alliance believes that people who are on jobseeker payments should not be allowed to sit and do nothing. This is why we supported an amended welfare reform bill. Centre Alliance believes that jobseekers should be either actively engaged in jobseeking or actively engaged in becoming job-ready, and that would mean addressing their addictions. In the case of a person with a drug addiction, this means engaging in drug rehabilitation, getting counselling and in some cases going into a rehab bed. We believed it was right and we believed it was responsible. However, what we have before us today is really poor policy formation. There is no clarity of cost or of expected outcomes, and we have already changed the legislation to deal with people with addiction. Let's face it: if the US have abandoned their drug testing, we need to learn from them. Why would we go down the same path? The US has far more populist politics than we do. Surely we can learn from them. I believe this is a crude attempt to demonise people receiving Centrelink payments. We do have long-term unemployed in Australia, but for the most part they are older Australians completing job application after job application. We also know that there is a one-to-16 ratio of jobs to jobseekers. That is what we should be addressing. In conclusion, the drug-testing trial bill is but a populist piece of legislation. I call upon the parliament to once again oppose this flawed piece of legislation. We cannot afford to waste more taxpayer money on this.


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