House debates

Thursday, 10 May 2018


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

5:25 pm

Photo of Jenny MacklinJenny Macklin (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Disability and Carers (House)) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm speaking tonight on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2018. This bill reintroduces a controversial 2017-18 budget measure to establish a two-year trial of drug testing for 5,000 recipients of Newstart allowance and youth allowance (other) in three locations: Canterbury Bankstown in New South Wales, Logan in Queensland, and Mandurah in Western Australia. Here we are, a year later, debating this proposal from this government yet again.

This bill was scrutinised in a Senate inquiry that reported earlier this week. Of course, we all recall that the Turnbull government previously introduced this measure in a different bill in September last year. Labor opposed the drug-testing trials the first time they were introduced into the parliament, and we will oppose them again. The drug-testing trial measure was subsequently withdrawn from the welfare reform bill due to a lack of support in the Senate. The government continues to pursue this policy, which is completely devoid of support in the medical, health and community sectors. There is no evidence, none at all, that this approach will help anyone with a drug addiction.

Labor spent a considerable period of time listening to expert advice from health professionals before we ultimately came to our position to oppose this trial. It is very rare that the medical and community sectors speak in unison on an issue, but they have spoken out strongly against this drug-testing trial. There is a clear consensus that this trial will not work. It is not based on evidence and, in fact, this trial could make the situation worse for some very vulnerable people. We have listened to the experts; plainly, the government has not. We know the government didn't even consult its own drug and alcohol advisory group, because, of course, they didn't want to be told that it wouldn't work and that it was a waste of money. In fact, when asked, the government can't name one expert who thinks that this trial will work. It can't name a single person, a single expert, who supports it, despite the fact that this measure has been proposed now for 12 months.

We, of course, do acknowledge that drug addiction is a very significant problem in many, many parts of Australia and that more needs to be done. But our response in this parliament has to be based on the evidence; it needs to be based on what works. Let's just be very clear about the complete lack of support that this policy proposal has from the experts, and I've got a very long list. The trial is opposed by the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Australasian Chapter of Addiction Medicine, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, St Vincent's Health Australia, the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, Harm Reduction Australia, the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, the Penington Institute, the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, the Australian Council of Social Service, UnitingCare Australia, Homelessness Australia, St Vincent de Paul Society, the Wayside Chapel, Anglicare, Catholic Social Services Australia, the National Social Security Rights Network, Odyssey House, Jobs Australia, Community Mental Health Australia, the Public Health Association of Australia, and the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services. What an extraordinary list of experts, all of whom oppose this legislation.

There was an open letter to the Prime Minister from 109 addiction specialists, 330 doctors and 208 registered nurses, calling on him to stop this drug-testing trial. The Australian Medical Association described this measure as 'mean and stigmatising'. It went on:

The AMA considers substance dependence to be a serious health problem, one that is associated with high rates of disability and mortality. The AMA firmly believes that those affected should be treated in the same way as other patients with serious health conditions, including access to treatment and supports to recovery.

Associate Professor Yvonne Bonomo, the director of the Department of Addiction Medicine at St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne, said:

International experience shows when you push people to the brink, like removing their welfare payments, things just get worse …

There will be more crime, more family violence, more distress within society … Had [the government] spoken to the various bodies who work in this area and know about this work, we would have been able to advise them this is not the right way.

One article reported:

Pennington Institute chief executive John Ryan has called for the bill to be scrapped.

'These are people who rely on these social security payments for the bare necessities and this plan risks pushing them into crime or homelessness,' he said.

The recent Senate committee inquiry heard from a number of witnesses that there is no evidence to suggest that testing jobseekers for drugs will assist them to find work or encourage those who do live with drug dependence to access treatment. Professor Adrian Reynolds, an expert in addiction medicine, said that the drug-testing trial is 'unlikely to bring about any sustained changes in patients' drug use behaviours and may even be counterproductive'. Additionally, Professor Reynolds said:

… this drug testing trial is clinically inappropriate and not designed in a way that will address the issues of substance dependence.

A leading researcher in the area, Professor Lisa Maher, explained further:

… the proposed measures are inconsistent with evidence based approaches to public policy … the Australian National Council on Drugs, concluded that there is no evidence that drug testing welfare beneficiaries will have any positive effects for those individuals or society and some evidence indicating that such a practice could have high social and economic costs.

So there has been a resounding rejection of this trial by the medical and drug treatment experts. The government, of course, is totally ignoring each and every one of them.

I also want to talk briefly about the current problem with current waiting times to access rehabilitation services. Right across Australia, it's estimated that there are approximately 1,500 publicly funded drug and alcohol rehabilitation beds, dealing with more than 32,000 requests. Often waiting lists become so long that applicants are no longer accepted onto the waiting lists. If this government were serious about addressing drug addiction in the community, it would do so much more to address this problem.

So how does the bill say that this trial would work? Newstart and youth allowance recipients in the three trial locations will be randomly selected and notified of a requirement to attend an appointment with the department. At this appointment, they'll be notified of a requirement to provide a sample of saliva, urine or hair for the purposes of a drug test. Addiction medicine specialists have raised serious concerns about the technical aspects of this part of the trial. With lower cost tests, there is a risk of false positives—for example, if a person is taking antidepressants, they could test positive for amphetamines. Reliable tests can be extremely costly and are likely to be unaffordable. For instance, according to the RACP, a best-practice urine test costs between $550 and $950 to administer.

Recipients who test positive to the initial drug test will be put on income management for a period of 24 months. Jobseekers will have the option to dispute the result of a positive test and to request a retest. If the retest is also positive, the jobseeker will have to repay the cost of the test. Jobseekers who return a positive test result will be subject to a second drug test within 25 working days. If the jobseeker tests positive to the second test, they will need to repay the cost of the test and will then get access to treatment services.

Professor Alison Ritter of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre gave a damning view of this policy. She said:

… the bill is not written like a research trial; it's written as policy by stealth … and if this is about introducing new policy, then … it misunderstands the nature of drug problems and drug dependence …

A number of people have also raised the concern that this testing process will likely encourage people to use less traceable drugs, such as synthetic cannabis, or move to using alcohol or cocaine, which are not being tested as part of the trial.

Drug testing of income support recipients has been tried in several countries and there is no evidence from those trials to suggest that it's effective. In New Zealand the government tried a drug-testing program among welfare recipients in 2015. The results? Out of the 8,001 participants tested, only 22 returned a positive result for illicit drug use. In Utah in the United States, 838 of the state's 9,552 social security applicants were screened, with just 29 returning a positive result. These were very costly experiments that showed that this approach is not worth pursuing.

We know from the Department of Social Services that the estimated number of people that they expect to test positive on the second test is just 120. So the department estimates that just 120 of the 5,000 people tested will actually end up in treatment. But based on the experience in New Zealand, where only 22 people tested positive out of 8,001, you'd have to think that 120 second positive tests out of 5,000 people is a very optimistic estimate.

It's not just health and medical experts who oppose this controversial measure. One very prominent critic is former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police Mick Palmer. Mick Palmer was the man who headed John Howard's so-called war on drugs in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so he's not someone who can easily be dismissed as some sort of softy—far from it. Mick Palmer has raised very serious concerns that this trial could see an increase in crime in the trial communities. Mr Palmer said:

It certainly hasn't got much chance of reducing crime. It does have the potential in some cases to aggravate it—

and he means crime. He said:

All of my experience tells me that this won't work. Really what it will do is create more damage, and most damage and most harm to those people who are most vulnerable and most in need of support and protection …

He went on to say:

It's pretty stark that this can only aggravate an already pretty serious problem and make more vulnerable people who already need more help than they're now getting.

So this trial could actually see an increase in crime.

These concerns are being raised by a former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. They should be taken seriously. I urge the Senate crossbench to listen to all of the experts and to listen to Mr Palmer's criticisms and oppose this bill. Labor shares the concerns expressed by Mr Palmer. We are very concerned that this policy will result in increased crime, increased poverty and increased homelessness. We are very concerned that people suffering from addiction will turn away from the social security system entirely, opting for crime as a way to get money to abuse drugs.

It's also apparent from the Senate inquiry that local community support for the trials is not evident. The Mayor of Canterbury Bankstown, one of the trial sites, said:

... by using our city as the trial site, the government is further stigmatising and discriminating against our local community …

The cities of Logan and Mandurah also told the Senate inquiry that they believe they were being unfairly targeted by being named as a trial area. The Deputy Mayor of Logan said:

Unfortunately for Logan we tend to get targeted for all these sorts of things, and this was just another arrow in the bullseye ... and we seriously get a bit tired of being targeted.

The City of Mandurah explained to the committee:

...we have some concerns that the rationale or justification behind Mandurah being chosen as a site doesn't clearly indicate that Mandurah exclusively has a greater problem than perhaps some of our other regional counterparts.

On the issue of cost, this government still refuses to reveal the total cost of this trial. They do refer to a $1 million evaluation and to $10 million in treatment services, but they refuse to say how much the trial will actually cost taxpayers. So a year after this was first proposed, they still cannot, or perhaps do not, want to tell us, don't want people to know, how much this will actually cost taxpayers.

The Senate inquiry heard from Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, who said:

… cost of drug testing, doing it properly, would be anywhere between $500 and $900 per test.

Professor Adrian Reynolds told the Senate hearing:

… it is roughly $100 per drug class tested for a urine test. For hair testing, it is around $180 per class tested... if you want month by month it can be triple that.

Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones from St Vincent's Health explained further that, in order to ensure the validity of positive tests, it would be necessary to undertake a confirmatory test, which was likely to greatly add to the cost. He said:

It's important to distinguish the difference between the screening test and the confirmatory test. The screening test, which might be of a salivary sample or for a urine-screening drug test, may be reasonably cheap...but, if you then return a positive test, that is required to be confirmed with a confirmatory test which might be a very expensive process.

The Prime Minister has said that this policy is based on love, but not one of the doctors who treat people with addiction every single day agree with him—not one of these doctors. This policy is not based on love. It is based on the continued demonisation of Australians who rely on our social security system. It is based on a very crude political calculation that there are votes in yet another crackdown on welfare recipients. It is not based on love at all. The experts say that the changes fail to recognise the complex nature of substance abuse as a health condition. It fails to recognise that this issue should be treated as a health issue, not a welfare issue.

Unlike those opposite, I've actually gone out and spoken with people in the drug rehabilitation centre, Odyssey House, in my electorate. They made it patently clear to me that taking away control over people's money won't trigger them to stop using drugs. I sat down and talked to people who are undergoing rehab at Odyssey House, and many of them told me that they abused drugs to mask terrible pain or trauma that happened in their lives, often abuse that they experienced as a child. The motivation to mask that pain and suffering means that they'll find a way to get drugs. In fact, the other thing they said to me was that the trigger that made them seek treatment for addiction was that they were worried about the effect their behaviour was having on their family and the people they love. We've listened to all of these people—the experts who know about how to treat people with addictions, the police, the people themselves affected by drug addiction.

In conclusion, I want to particularly acknowledge the contributions that have been made in this debate over recent months by the member for Barton and the member for Bruce. Addiction has touched the lives of the people they love very deeply, and I know this debate has not been easy for them. But, equally, they understand that this is bad policy and something that must be opposed.

I want to finish by saying that Labor, of course, is always open to considering genuine attempts to help people into treatment—attempts that are designed by people who understand addiction and have their best interests at heart. But these proposed changes will hurt people with serious illness, pushing them further into serious financial hardship and crime, and we will not support it. We want to see a genuine attempt to address the very serious problem of drug addiction in our community. It must be based on the evidence and it must be done with the support of the medical, health and community sectors.

5:47 pm

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the government's reforms to social welfare. I listened carefully to the speech from the member for Jagajaga before me. It was quite interesting. She pinpointed some statistics, particularly around international trials of this nature, where many, many thousands of people on welfare have been drug tested. I think the numbers she came back with were that 29 in one country and 22 in another country were detected. All I can say is: what an amazing preventative measure this is. If it is stopping people from taking drugs—because they know there is a drug-testing regime—to the point where we are getting such low numbers returned, I see that as a great success and another reason why we should support the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2018 and make sure that it happens.

Another point the member for Jagajaga made was that, unlike her, people on the other side—I think those were her words—hadn't been to Odyssey House and spoken to those who are addicted. I must say that I haven't been to Odyssey House, but I did spend 17 years as a police officer dealing with drug-addicted people. I saw people in terrible situations addicted to drugs, and they were on welfare. They were some of the most horrible circumstances you can imagine. There were mothers prostituting themselves. I saw kids abused in the most disgraceful way. I saw the absolute lowest standards of living because of drug addiction, and these people were on welfare. And do you know what? They had slipped through the cracks. This bill is about finding those people and helping them. This is not about punishing them. To say that it's too expensive or too hard, as I heard before, is just a disgrace. We have to do everything to help these people. That's what this bill is about. This bill, through the drug-testing trial, will help people take control of their lives. It's aimed at identifying people who need help to break the cycle of addiction and welfare dependency so we can help them into work. This is targeted at Newstart and other welfare designed around employment.

We all know that the best form of welfare is a job. The best way to ensure that people receiving welfare make it into the workforce is, first, to ensure the economy has jobs for them to take and, second, to ensure that they're able to perform those jobs. This means helping those people to have the capacity and the desire to get into work. Australia's annual welfare budget is around $160 billion, accounting for about 35 per cent of the budget. There is no doubt that society needs a social security safety net, and we should be proud of the one that we have in Australia. It needs to be able to help and sustain people who, for whatever reason, need support to get a job, but there also needs to be a degree of mutual obligation.

Like any other major cohort in Australian society, people receiving welfare are, in the main, very decent, contributing citizens, genuinely trying to live a productive life. But, like in other areas of society, there are some who are caught in a vicious cycle of substance abuse—who spend their money on illicit substances which, in turn, prevent them from getting ahead. The cycle of abuse can destroy lives. We need to take action to stop the cycle and put services in place to help people get their lives back on track. It's a sad reality that drugs are a scourge within many of our communities. Illicit amphetamine use is reaching frightening levels in some places. Over the last decade, drug convictions have increased by some 330 per cent. Tragically, the number of Australians killed by methamphetamine use has doubled in the past six years, with nearly half of those deaths in regional Australia. Illegal drugs are tearing apart families and destroying our communities. What's more, in most cases, behind these victims of drug addiction are those seeking to profit through the production, supply and trafficking of drugs to these vulnerable people. The scum of society are predominantly members of organised crime or outlaw motorcycle gangs, which are really one and the same.

Substance abuse has many contributing factors. Welfare dependency is just one factor, but it is one that government is able to influence but has neglected for some time. In society, drug addiction can contribute to a cultural dependence which, when passed on from generation to generation, becomes a difficult cycle to break. There are around 100,000 people receiving welfare support who have breached their mutual obligation tasks. If drug dependency is the cause of this, we need to identify it and we need to help these people. There is considerable research which shows that substance abuse does prevent some people from working and contributing to society. The data shows that in 2017 there were over 4,850 occasions when jobseekers cited substance dependency as an excuse for not meeting their mutual obligation requirements. In September of last year, around 5,200 people were temporarily exempt from their mutual obligation because of drug and alcohol dependence and abuse, an 86 per cent increase since 2011. Is what has been identified the tip of the iceberg? That's what we need to know. How many more of these 100,000 people need our help desperately?

I'm very pleased that the government has responded to these challenges by establishing the drug-testing trial for 5,000 new Newstart and other youth allowance recipients. They will be in three discrete locations: Canterbury Bankstown, Logan and Mandurah. These locations were selected on the basis of thorough research which examined crime and drug-use statistics. As part of the new package worth $10 million, jobseekers who test positive will be helped by being placed on income management and given essential support to deal with their substance abuse. For the first time, substance abuse treatment will be an approved activity within welfare recipients' job plans, giving them an incentive to get treatment, rehabilitate and find a job.

If someone refuses to take the test, the government's response is very clear: they will not get the benefit. This is not about cutting the social security safety net. Jobseekers who return an initial positive test will continue to receive the same amount in welfare payments. It's about giving those who do test positive the tools to take control of their lives and once again be productive members of society.

Tests will be carried out by contracted drug tester providers, and jobseekers will have the right to dispute a positive return and request a retest. After the two-year trial, a thorough evaluation will be conducted with stakeholders and experts, and this will inform the government on the possibility of rolling out the testing more broadly in high-risk areas. I believe in evidence based policy. While I do not want to second-guess the outcome of this two-year trial, there's no reason not to give it a go. It's incumbent upon us to try and save vulnerable people, for their own sake and for their family's sake. As a policeman, I know too well the scourge of drugs in regional communities. If the trial gets even one young person off these destroying poisons then it's worth doing.

The trial comes in addition to a suite of reforms to social services payment agreements, including the introduction of a demerit point style system to target people that game the system. These measures will return welfare to the support system it was designed to be—for people looking for a hand up rather than a handout. This is all part of the coalition's comprehensive plan to reduce drug and alcohol abuse, providing $689 million since 2016, including almost $300 million over four years as part of the National Ice Action Strategy.

It's disappointing that our political opponents are more supportive of raiding superannuation accounts of pensioners and senior Australians than supporting a program that will help to prevent taxpayer funds being stripped from the addicted and going to criminal motorcycle gangs. The Labor and Greens approach encourages those addicted to drugs to avoid identification, keeping them in the cycle of unemployment, poverty and abuse.

As far as I'm concerned, if you're being paid by the taxpayer to look for work or do a job, they have every right to know what's going on and whether you're fit to do that task. When I was a policeman there was, rightly, a drug and alcohol testing regime, and I didn't hear any civil libertarians jumping up and down about how unfair that was. As a member of parliament, I'd have no problems with or reservation about submitting myself to a drug and alcohol test at any time, and I wouldn't have any problem with seeing these tests extended to the judiciary as well.

I thank Minister Tehan and the Attorney-General for spearheading these innovative reforms to the welfare system. I look forward to working with them in the future to reduce the impact of drugs in regional communities. The government knows that there is much more needed to reduce drug use and get unemployed Australians back to work. But the first step has to be an acknowledgement that people have to take responsibility for their own actions. This trial will help them do that and, together with adequate support, it will help them end their dependency and become productive members of society.

Debate adjourned.