House debates

Wednesday, 16 October 2019


Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019; Second Reading

6:14 pm

Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's my pleasure, in continuation, to conclude my comments on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019. I begin this evening by asking the government exactly what the costs of this bill are, because they're not contained inside the legislation. It is not outlined. Estimates are that, for gold-standard drug testing, you're looking at a cost of $550 to $950 per test. We're looking at a trial here, and there are significant costs, I would argue.

If you go to the leaked talking points that we all saw this week and you look under 'Welfare', you'll see a quote from the government that says, 'As such, the system must be targeted, sustainable and in line with the expectations of the taxpayers who fund it.' That's a direct quote, talking about welfare. Yet, if I go to the system that is the provision of Newstart, with mutual obligation and what that entails, we'd have to look at the costs and the efficacy of that system, because, of course, the minute you're in receipt of Newstart or youth allowance, you're expected to have a jobs plan and to attend jobactive.

So let's have a look at those costs. For jobactive, we are spending $1.5 billion a year. Let's look at the efficacy of that. Eighteen per cent of employers were using the predecessor to jobactive, Job Services Australia, but in 2018 that's dropped to four per cent. Four per cent of employers are using jobactive services to seek recruitment. On top of that, we've got reports of extraordinary churn happening inside this system, where jobactive services are receiving multiple payments for placing the same person into different jobs. Nearly 100,000 people had between three and six job placements each in three years. That churn means a payment to jobactive services every time someone's placed in employment, but clearly the employment's not permanent. That churn is continuing, raising the cost of these programs every year. Yet part of what we're talking about here is the efficacy of welfare and the idea that imposing drug testing is some kind of improvement in this system.

What other systems do we need to look at? We can look at Work for the Dole, which costs about $1.7 billion per annum, and the efficacy of that program. The highlight is a two per cent increased likelihood that people would move to employment, yet it's part of mutual obligation. I don't know that the Australian public quite understand that the days of people being in receipt of a Newstart allowance or one of its many predecessors, what we commonly call the dole—and obviously Work for the Dole is still a prevalent term, derogatory as it is—and sitting around the beach are over. They're not on holidays. They have mutual obligation requirements where they are required to be applying for jobs every week of every year. They are required to have a jobs plan. They are mandated at certain ages to attend Work for the Dole and do 25 hours a week, or we could go to CDP in rural communities, where they're required to do double the hours. These people are actively either getting themselves ready for work or working for that Newstart allowance.

Then we could go to one of the other parts of this program, PaTH, the internship program, at a cost of $840 million a year. In my electorate, that means kids are in receipt of Newstart and companies like Hungry Jack's are being paid money by the government to put people not in a real job but in a supposed internship at Hungry Jack's—in other words, very cheap labour for large companies and franchises all over this country. Those people are showing up and attending. That's mutual obligation.

For those who have this image of people on welfare doing nothing, I say: the exemptions around these programs are for single parents who are caring for a child under eight. They're exempt. Well, they're pretty busy during their days. People over 55 may be exempt if they apply to be exempt, but they're required to volunteer in the community. So can we just get this straight: there's no-one on Newstart sitting around and pulling on a bong in their garage. I'm going to say it out loud. So let's forget about the notion that this drug testing is being driven by anything other than putting one more layer on top of our social security system to punish the poor. I have to say this out loud.

Today, St Vincent de Paul have produced their second Households in the dark report. We heard the member for Corio earlier in the day during 90-second statements citing the figures for Corio. I was shocked and taken aback. We all knew that electricity prices were spiking, but the impact on our communities is extraordinary. We're talking about Logan City being one of these trial sites. Logan City is a lot like my community. It's an extraordinarily similar place in our country. I had a look at the figures today. Shocked as I was by the Corio figures, the raised disconnections across the last 10 years in the suburb of Werribee were the highest in Victoria, at 10,000 households. In Hoppers Crossing, it was 8,000 households. These are working families. These are people who are trying to live on the welfare support system. The completed disconnections for Werribee were 5,000 households. Five thousand households have had their electricity cut off in the last three years. In Hoppers Crossing it was 4,000 households. That's not even as bad as it gets. It can get even worse than that, because they also listed the repeated disconnections. This is households that have had their electricity cut off more than once. There were over 600 in Werribee and nearly 500 in Hoppers Crossing. These are real people with real lives, as are the people we're talking about that this government now wants to put through a drug-testing regime.

This government needs to get on with improving the economy. This is a distraction. This legislation is a dead cat that's come back for the third time because this government doesn't want to face up to the fact that it's got no answers and it's got no plan. I do not support this piece of legislation, because it flies in the face of the evidence. It goes against the advice of a long list of experts in the field. It is demeaning and humiliating. It is absolutely uncosted. It will not create one single job for the 1.9 million Australians who are looking for work or for more work. This government needs to get a plan and get this economy moving so our people can find a job and not have to rely on our welfare system.

6:22 pm

Photo of Andrew HastieAndrew Hastie (Canning, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today in support of the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019 for a number of reasons but, principally, because it's good legislation and, secondly, because my home town, the city of Mandurah, is one of three trial locations that will receive the benefit of this legislation. The three are Canterbury Bankstown in New South Wales—an area where I grew up, in fact—Logan in Queensland and Mandurah in Western Australia, which sits right at the heart of my electorate of Canning. This is a trial. It's really important to note that. We do have a drug problem in Mandurah and, from speaking with many locals, I know they are very keen for innovative solutions, and this is just one measure of many which I think will make for a better community in Canning.

But let's get back to first principles. This is not about punitive measures. This is not about denying people welfare or hurting disadvantaged people. This is actually about helping people get off welfare and into a job. That's really important because employment gives people meaning, gives people purpose and gives people dignity. At the heart of this legislation is a desire to see more Australians, especially those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, get into work. That wouldn't just help them; it would help the communities in which they reside.

This government is about creating jobs. We've already created a record number of jobs—1.4 million—but the sad reality is that there are people who will always have a barrier before them so long as they're addicted to drugs and alcohol, and that's what this legislation seeks to help them with.

Evidence from the 2016 National Drugs Strategy Household Survey shows that the unemployed were 3.1 times more likely to use methamphetamines and 1.5 times more likely to use cannabis than the employed—and these are just straight-up facts. Further evidence released by the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University shows that Newstart recipients have four times the relative risk of reporting alcohol and drug problems than people who are working. I cited locals in my community. We've done a number of surveys ourselves. There's also been national polling, and we have overwhelming support for this. People want to see Mandurah cleaned up. We're in the process of doing that.

The federal government's already been leading this. I'm very proud of the Peel Health Hub, which was opened late last year. We provided several million dollars towards that, and what it does is seek to prevent at-risk Australians aged 12 to 24 from getting on drugs and alcohol. We're already preventing that. This is designed to target another group of people who need help and help them get into the workforce. I shouldn't use the word 'target', but it is designed to apply to a certain group of people, and I think it's good in that sense.

Drug testing is not something that is unusual in Australia. My office was drug tested last year. We all took a drug test. We were all clean, obviously, but we wanted to show our local community that, like the City of Mandurah employees, like the many FIFO workers in our community, we also were prepared to take a drug test. A few businesses around Australia already do random drug testing with their employees. Fire and Rescue NSW, Department of Home Affairs, Sydney Airport, Qantas, BHP Billiton and, as I mentioned, the City of Mandurah already do random drug testing. I know the ADF does random drug testing—I did that overseas. This is not something that's unusual. It's actually designed to help people who really do need help.

What about the effectiveness of the trial? As I said, the government is looking for new ways to address the devastating impact of drugs, and that's why I think it's worth having a try. This is an Australian first. It might not work, but we've got to have a go. When it comes to helping people addicted to drugs, we need to be open minded and we need to try new things.

Another objection is whether there is any evidence to support drug testing of welfare recipients. Drug testing of certain welfare recipients has been legislated in around 15 states in the United States of America on either a fully rolled-out or trial basis. At this time, evaluation of the effectiveness of the drug testing of welfare recipients in other countries has generally not been conducted or is not available. That's why this measure is a trial—it is just a trial. I tell you, there are a lot of desperate people in Mandurah. I've spoken to family members who've lost children, who have children who are addicted. People are pretty open minded, and I think this is a good way to go.

People have said this is punitive and that somehow it would take people's welfare from them. It actually wouldn't at all. In fact, it would quarantine their income, which is a really important aspect. It does not change the amount of money they receive, only the way in which they receive their payments. The majority of a jobseeker's normal payment is quarantined to pay bills and purchase goods—about 80 per cent—and the remaining amount is paid into their regular bank account and can be accessed as cash. That's if they test positive the first time. Jobseekers who test positive to a second test will be supported by a local case manager to access treatment and support services. This is a really important part and something that I'm very glad to read in the legislation. A $10 million treatment fund will boost drug treatment capacity at trial sites, ensuring jobseekers can access the treatment they need.

As I said, this measure is not about punishing people; it is about assisting people to pursue treatment to address their substance abuse issues. Again, at the heart of this is the principle of mutual obligation. Taxpayers fund welfare, and we want to make sure money is being spent responsibly. We want to make sure that children whose parents are struggling with drug addiction are being fed and having their basic needs taken care of, and that's why quarantining 80 per cent of their income, so it can only be spent on the essentials, is a good thing.

To get back to what I was discussing before, in Mandurah we do have a crime and drug problem. Our community is changing, but I'm pretty confident that we have local support and that's why I have been very supportive of this legislation. I look forward to this bill passing into law and to this trial being rolled out. We will see what the results say at the end of it, but I look forward to this happening in Mandurah.

6:30 pm

Photo of Alicia PayneAlicia Payne (Canberra, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019. This week is Anti-Poverty Week and I am disgusted that, instead of discussing what we could be doing to address poverty in this country and to create jobs, we are discussing yet another attempt by this government to demonise and penalise social security recipients. This is not the first time that Labor have fought against the drug testing of Newstart recipients under this government; actually, it is the third time. We're proud to again stand with the vulnerable in our community, and with the experts and the doctors in opposition to this disgraceful excuse for a policy. Perhaps the worst part is that those opposite pretend it is about helping people—as the member for Canning has just done—but it is not.

This is a proposal in search of a problem. There is no evidence to suggest that people receiving social security are using drugs. In fact, a trial in New Zealand found that rates of drug use among social security recipients were less than one per cent, much lower than in the average population. I'm not sure how the government thinks Newstart recipients can even afford drugs. Newstart forces you to live $1,000 below the poverty line. It hardly pays for food or housing, let alone illicit drugs. Does it help people get off drugs? No, because that is not even the genuine aim of this policy. It isn't about genuinely supporting people to overcome drug addiction. This will just put pressure on already stretched services, pushing people with genuine problems who genuinely want help further down huge waiting lists for rehab and other support.

I want to talk about the mechanics of this bill because, as they say, the devil is in the detail—or lack thereof. And if you need any more proof that this proposal is all about ideology and has no substance, it is this: the government only started to put together any detail about this proposal when Labor started asking questions about it in the previous parliament. This is not about removing barriers to finding work, as the leaked talking points might tell you; it is a thought bubble from the darkest part of this conservative and cruel government. If passed, this bill will require 5,000 Newstart and youth allowance recipients in Canterbury-Bankstown, Mandurah and Logan to submit to random drug tests, and the trial will run for two years.

For two years, people in the outer suburbs of Sydney, Perth and Queensland will be the Morrison government's guinea pigs. If recipients refuse to participate in the trial, their application for social security will be denied and they will not be allowed to reapply for four weeks. So, potentially, they will have nothing to live on for four weeks. Recipients placed on the trial will have to submit to saliva, urine and hair follicle tests in a Centrelink office or at a nearby location on a random basis. The tests will be designed to detect cannabis, heroin, cocaine and amphetamines. If a person tests positive, they will be placed on income management through the BasicsCard. That means 80 per cent of their payment will be quarantined to pay bills and purchase goods, and only 20 per cent will be put into their bank account—because the government don't think that people on social security can manage their own money. Well, they can. They're very good at it, because the payments are so low that they have to be extremely clever to even get by. The government move to impose restrictive income management techniques such as these at every opportunity, but never in their blue-ribbon inner city electorates. They only demonise the poor.

If a person fails a drug test, a follow-up test will be conducted within 25 days. If the person fails a second test during the trial, they will be referred to a medical service for recommendations about treatment. If treatment is recommended, attendance will become mandatory as part of a person's job plan and as a condition of receiving social security. If the person doesn't attend treatment activities, they will be sanctioned, and that includes having their payment entirely suspended for up to four weeks. This step is the most shocking to me—that the government think that the best way to deal with people dealing with substance issues is to make them poorer, to make their life harder, to isolate them through poverty and to push them into crisis. The government think that it is acceptable to take away someone's only source of income, potentially forcing that person into homelessness or crime—because people will completely disengage with the social security system.

Perhaps that's what the government wants, but this is not an outcome that the government should pursue. This undermines all the objectives of our social security system, which began at Federation to provide a safety net for those unable to work. The social security system is designed to alleviate poverty and inequality and to enable people to keep a roof over their head while they are looking for work. Driving people into poverty does not create jobs and it undermines our egalitarian values. This process has been developed in the back rooms of Liberal ministers' offices without the advice or guidance of medical professionals or researchers.

But it gets worse. If a person disputes the results of their test, they can request a retest, and if that's positive the person must pay the cost of the retest. The cost will be deducted from their payment at a rate of up to 10 per cent of the payment. It is a social security measure that further impoverishes a social security recipient—classic conservative tactics. People in the trial will be subjected to random tests throughout a two-year period.

As I said, the detail is not really there either. The government have said that most of the operational arrangements for the trial will be contained in rules that will be made by the minister. Critical details of the trial have either not been decided or not made public. Who will be contracted to deliver the drug-testing services? We don't know, because the government has not made it public. If we are going to implement this system, how will Centrelink make sure the samples are genuine and how will this be observed? Is the government just going to add this responsibility to the already onerous responsibilities of our Centrelink staff? Will they be trained to administer these tests?

How much will testing cost? This is a significant point. In New Zealand the cost of the trial to implement a similar yet abandoned policy of drug testing was millions of dollars. I will repeat the stats I began with. This multimillion dollar trial found that less than one per cent of those tested were positive to using drugs. One per cent is far below the average population's drug use. Newstart recipients are not generally drug users. They are paying for rent and food and bills, not drugs, with their payment. How will people be selected to be part of the trial? What will happen if a person cannot participate in the drug trial due to, for example, legitimate health reasons, legitimate religious reasons or legitimate human rights reasons?

There is one thing I believe to be true, and that is that the social security system is fundamental to Australian society. It fosters cohesion and should ensure that people do not get left behind. It should not mean that people's rights are diminished.

One of the biggest concerns when it comes to this bill is with regard to treatment. If people do fail two tests and are referred to drug treatment or a rehabilitation service, what treatment services will people be connected to? Will extra funding be provided to these already stretched services? Fundamentally, we do not know, because the government refuse to tell us. They refuse to tell us because they know that drug and alcohol treatment services and rehabilitation clinics in the public system are already woefully underfunded and overstretched in Australia. The system has been neglected by this government.

Furthermore, just because someone uses drugs does not mean they need to be forced into rehabilitation. Ask the medical professionals who treat addiction and ask the people who deal with these issues. They will tell you that it is useless to pursue addiction treatment for someone who isn't ready to do something about their addiction. Also, it is even more useless to pursue addiction treatment for someone who is not addicted to drugs. Just because you fail a drugs test does not necessarily mean you are an addict; it could be that you a recreational drug user, like many thousands of Australians who choose to do this recreationally, despite drugs clearly being a risk to health and illegal to sell, buy and use in Australia.

If the government does plan to force these people into treatment for addiction, it will increase the burden on this sector and rob treatment places from those who really do want to address their drug issues. As it is, waiting lists are so long that many miss their moment when they want to access treatment and can't. Forcing people who are not addicted to drugs or who are not ready to address their addiction will only exacerbate this issue—and you can ask the experts if you don't believe me.

Concerns about this measure have been raised by health and welfare groups, including St Vincent's Health, the Royal Australian College of Physicians, ACOSS and Uniting Care. Not one single health or community group has supported this proposal. Key concerns about this proposal, previously expressed through the Senate inquiry process, include—I come back to the New Zealand trial—that it has been tried in several countries and there is no evidence to show it is effective. The member for Canning acknowledged this in his speech just now. As mentioned earlier, in a two-year trial in New Zealand, only 22 of 8,000 participants returned a positive test for illicit drug use, or refused to be tested—22 out of 8,000. Enough said. This detection rate of less than one per cent was much lower than the proportion of the general population estimated to be using illicit drugs.

The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales has found that between 200,000 and 500,000 Australians a year can't access the addiction services because they are underfunded and unavailable. The alcohol and other drugs services sector estimates $1.2 billion a year in additional investment is needed to meet demand for services. Furthermore, there are many issues with drug-testing technology. How does this trial deal with this? Again, we just don't know, because the government doesn't care to figure it out. That's not the point; it's not about genuinely helping anyone. The government has not released the cost of the trial, as it involves tendering to a private provider to conduct the drug tests. Overseas experience suggests that this will be a significant cost to the budget, with no evidence to support its efficacy.

Addiction medicine specialists have raised serious concerns about the technical aspects of the trial. With lower-cost tests, there is a higher 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 example, according to the Royal College of Physicians, a gold-standard urine test costs between $550 and $950 to administer. So how expensive is this going to be if we do it properly? This an incredibly expensive thing to undertake, and it pales in comparison to the actual rate of Newstart that people are actually receiving. The amount of literature, and the number of organisations, that show this approach will not work is overwhelming. The CEO of the Penington Institute, John Ryan, says the government would be better off making stronger investments there, rather than attacking the vulnerable. As someone who has dedicated most of my career to considering the Australian social security system, I emphatically agree with him.

The social security system is an investment in creating equal opportunity. Along with the right to decent wages, it has been fundamental to alleviating poverty and inequality in this country. Despite what the government would have you believe, we have the most tightly targeted social security system in the OECD, and each payment is designed to serve a particular objective. Like universal health care and public education, Australians should be proud of our social security system as a great enabler of equality and inclusion. But this government wants only to attack those who receive social security, and this bill is a great example of that. It will not create one job. It will not do anything to address our floundering economy.

In Anti-Poverty Week, we should be looking at increasing the woefully inadequate Newstart allowance. That actually would help people into work because, as many have noted, including the Business Council of Australia, Newstart is so low that it is actually preventing people from finding work, because they can't afford petrol for their car or bus fares, haircuts or new shoes, let alone the cost of retraining to get jobs. An increase in Newstart would help stimulate our economy, as confirmed by the RBA governor when I asked him about this on the economics committee. The RBA are calling for the government to take action to boost the economy, and this government is instead focusing on punitive measures to hurt jobseekers and single parents receiving Newstart.

Never before has Australia seen such a coalition of groups in support of raising Newstart. Obviously, there are organisations like ACOSS and other community peaks, who have been advocating for this for years, but also the Business Council, big banks and consulting firms, medical organisations—the list goes on. They all support an increase because they know it will stimulate the economy and they know it is fair. Instead we have a social services minister who says that an increase to Newstart will simply give more money to drug dealers. What an absolute disgrace! How out of touch and how irresponsible, frankly, as a minister to say something so misleading without any basis in fact, while people are suffering in dire poverty because of the government's refusal to accept that Newstart is too low.

Labor opposes this bill, and I encourage the government to utilise the potential of the social security system and to stop misleading people about it and about people receiving social security, both for the people who access it and for the economy. Raise the rate of Newstart and stop distracting from the issue with destructive and wasteful things like this ridiculous drug-testing trial. It is demeaning, it is wrong and we oppose this bill.

6:45 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

If there's one thing this government's good at, it's punching down. When the economy is tanking, when nearly one in three young people either doesn't have a job or doesn't have enough hours of work, when pollution's rising and we're in a climate crisis, and when we're suffering through record drought, what does the government do? It turns around and attacks some of the most vulnerable in our society. It's exactly what you do when you've got no agenda to deal with some of the big problems that Australia is facing: the inequality crisis and the climate crisis. It's straight out of the old Margaret Thatcher Conservative playbook, of saying, 'If in doubt, punch down and hurt people who are least able to defend themselves.'

I subscribe to a very simple proposition: you don't lift people out of poverty by taking away their rights. At the moment, if you're on Newstart—if you haven't been kicked off it by this government—while you're looking for a job, you are living below the poverty line. In fact, you are living so far below the poverty line that it is a barrier to you finding work. You don't have the extra money to go and get a haircut for a job interview. You don't have the money to go and pay for things if your dentist or your doctor happens to charge you a gap and doesn't bulk-bill. You don't have the money to buy a new set of clothes or go and do that training course. In fact, you don't even have the money for the bare essentials.

We hear from Australian after Australian who is having trouble finding work under this government—because this government just isn't creating the jobs, and I'll come to that in a moment—that it is a struggle to stay alive and they have to miss bare essentials like food. If, at the moment, you are unlucky enough to be made redundant by your employer and find yourself without a job, in many instances you have to go without the bare essentials, like food, because this government is forcing you to live in poverty. And what do they do? Do they turn around and say, 'Well, maybe we can lift Newstart to lift people out of poverty,' as the Greens have been campaigning for for a very long time? No. They say, 'Let's turn around and blame the people who don't have jobs.'

I don't subscribe to the government's arguments. I don't subscribe to this idea that we have to be an uncaring society where people who are doing it tough have to be kicked and kicked and kicked again. But let's just take the government's logic for a moment. The government's logic is that people who are on welfare at the moment are some kind of work-shy people who should be looking for work and therefore should be subject to punitive treatment. That only holds if the jobs are there, and the jobs just aren't there.

One of the things that this government has failed to address—and it is going and kicking the victims, instead of looking in its own backyard at the problems that it has caused—is that, since the GFC, young people in Australia are in dire straits. As I said before, nearly one in three young people either doesn't have a job or doesn't have enough hours of work. Why is that? Well, underemployment amongst young people—people who've got an hour or two of work here or there, who might have a casual job or might be getting a bit of money doing Uber deliveries or might have a casual shift but who want more hours of work—is at high levels. Underemployment levels got higher after the GFC, and they have not come down under this government. So, when you add the youth unemployment rate to the youth underemployment rate, we have a pool of people in this country who don't have stable entry-level jobs to go into.

It is even tougher for you if you happen not to have gone on and got a tertiary degree or a TAFE or university qualification. If you happen to have left school and are looking for a job in this country, the entry-level jobs just aren't there for you. They got wiped out after the GFC, and this government has done nothing to bring them back.

Young people in Australia are at the moment facing an underemployment crisis. We are at the point in Australia where it is no longer enough to go to school, study and do all the right things, because the secure jobs aren't there. Under the employment stats that this government hide behind every time they boast about employment rising, if you work for an hour a week you're counted as employed. That's why looking at underemployment is so crucial; they are the people who have got an hour or two here and there but are crying out for more. It is going up, and it has stayed at persistently high levels under this government.

The government could, if it wanted to, say: 'Well, we have clearly got a problem with so many young people being unable to find the hours of work that they want in meaningful, secure employment. We've clearly got a problem with casualisation and insecure work getting out of control. Let's start some employment creation programs and start simulating the economy. Let's use the record-low interest rates that we've got at the moment to borrow to build housing for people who can't afford it or to build renewable energy to make sure that we avert the climate crisis. Let's give unemployed people a chance to get work on some of those projects.' The government boast about Snowy Hydro, which of course they opposed when it first came around. Well, where is the Snowy Hydro for the 21st century to deal with the climate crisis? Let's get ourselves towards 100 per cent renewables, let's use record-low interest rates to borrow to build affordable housing for everyone so that no one has to go homeless and let's create jobs for all these people. That's what the government could do if they wanted to. But, no, the government say, 'We're going to turn around and kick them.'

Coming back to what I said before, it is no wonder that young people at the moment are looking at the society that this government is creating for them and seeing that even if they do the right thing, even if they finish school and go on and get qualifications, it is no longer enough, because they won't get a good stable job in the way that people used to be able to before. If you want to try and get into the housing market, you will find that housing is at record highs and that you are most likely to be priced out. Then you will look at the future that the government wants you to have, where the record drought is going to become the new normal and where we may hit global warming tipping points as soon as 2030 unless we get at least two-thirds out of coal by then. If you're a young person at the moment, you read that in the newspapers and you think: 'Might this government turn around and do something to help me, like a job creation program, lifting me out of poverty, giving me a bit of hope that we're going to have a liveable future, because they're not going to let global warming get out of control?' No. What do the government do? They say: 'We are going to presume that you are a drug cheat. Just because you don't have a job—despite the fact that we haven't created any for you—we are going to treat you as a suspected criminal, and we are going to take away your rights.' Taking away people's rights has never lifted them out of poverty. Taking away people's rights is not the way to give them dignity. Taking away people's rights is not the way to give them hope.

I shouldn't have to need to go to this, but it is worth recalling that, even on the merit of it, no-one thinks this proposal is a good idea. No-one who works in this field thinks it's a good idea. They all say that once you start treating people like second-class citizens, quarantining their money and saying: 'You don't have the right to spend it yourself. We're going to treat you like a suspect every day, where you have your liberty infringed on, and we're going to subject you to random drug tests. And, if you do drugs, we are going to quarantine you and control your life'—no-one thinks that is a way of dealing with addiction or dealing with people's problems. In fact, you might as well rename this bill the 'Increase in Crime Rate Bill', because what you're going to do is stigmatise people and kick them while they're down, so much so that they're going to decide to disengage from the social security system altogether. And where are they going to get their money?

They're going to get it by breaking into people's houses and taking their TVs, computers and DVD players. That's how they're going to get it, because that is what you have to do if you're struggling with addiction and this government turns around and says, 'We are going to punish you even further.'

As I have said, none of this is about dealing with the issue of drugs. It is about a government deciding to punch down as a way of avoiding the challenges that are facing us as a country, and hoping that the public will fall for it. If you did want to deal with the issue of drugs, if that is what concerns you, then for goodness sake listen to the experts, who say that, when someone has an addiction problem, you treat it like a health issue.

I used to smoke cigarettes, and it took me about five goes to quit—not because I didn't want to; it's just that that's what addiction does. Even though you know it's wrong, you still go back and you want to have another cigarette and another cigarette. It often takes several goes and a fair bit of help to get off it. Other drugs of addiction are even worse, more powerful and more pernicious in their effects. Addiction takes away your ability to make a lot of rational decisions. It takes away your ability, in many instances—especially addiction to many of the harder drugs—to maintain your social relationships. In fact, you often end up hurting them, because they are the ones who are closest to you; they might be the ones you hit out at or that you go and steal money from.

That is what addiction does to you. Addiction eats away at your social connections and your ability to interact with the world. It makes it harder in many instances to get a job and to do all of those things. So, if that's what you are concerned about, the first thing you would say is, 'Well, what do the experts say is the best way to deal with addiction?' And they will say: it's to provide people with the support they need to get healthy again. They say: doing this stuff is the worst thing you can do, because you push people further and further away into isolation.

The government boast that they now have the lowest number of people on welfare. Well, I tell you what: people who get kicked off because they decide to disengage with the social security system because they don't want to be treated like second-class citizens and then turn to crime to make ends meet are the kind of people that the government is boasting about. 'Hey, isn't it great! We pushed up crime levels because we forced people out of the social security system and they don't appear on the stats anymore.' These are people. These are people who might have lost a job through no fault of their own and who might be looking for the next one and might be finding it hard.

If you happen to be in one of the areas of this trial, there are not always a lot of jobs, or good jobs, available for you, especially if you're coming in at entry level, especially if you're coming straight out of high school without any other qualifications. When we have unemployment and underemployment at record highs, when we have people disengaging more and more from the workforce at that level, these are the people who deserve our help and support. If we don't help them, we will be creating a lost generation of young people who have finished their schooling but who don't have entry level jobs to go into anymore because the GFC smashed them and the government hasn't done anything to rebuild them, and who then find themselves being pushed away from the social security system. If the government comes in and kicks them even further, at a time when they might need a bit of help to deal with an addiction issue, we are going to be creating a class of people who are excluded, and potentially permanently excluded, in this country.

So, if the government cared, it would be doing a whole bunch of things that are different to this. The department boasted during the Senate inquiry—I don't know if members know this—that it conducted no consultation before it announced where the trials were going to roll out. It will create problems there. They are going to be problems that the government won't care about but that people, especially young people, are going to have to live with. This bill is all about distracting from the government's problems by kicking people who are least able to support themselves.

We are a wealthy country. It should be within our wit to create meaningful, decent, secure jobs for everyone who wants them, to tackle the underemployment crisis and to say to people, 'If you have fallen between the cracks and you are finding it difficult either to get a job or to deal with an addiction issue, we are here to help you.' I prefer the open hand to someone who is in trouble; this government is giving them the closed fist. They are punching down because it is all that they know. I hope that this bill is defeated in the Senate.

7:00 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is one of those bills that does get you a little bit worked up, and for a number of reasons. It's groundhog day for many of us in this place: we're standing up again to argue against a really bad bill, a bill that, if passed, will try to roll out drug testing for all people receiving Newstart and youth allowance. Whilst they say it's a trial, the government's real wish is to roll this out across Australia. Here is the reason why people, particularly on this side of the House, get pretty cranky that we're here again debating this: the government members, who aren't raising this with their ministers, are not listening to the evidence, they are not listening to the community, they are not listening to the experts, they are not listening to their health professionals and they are not listening to people who are active in this sector about how this policy will not work. It is costly, it is expensive and it will not solve the problem that they are trying to suggest it will.

It's become a real habit with this government that they like to create an alternative universe. They like to rewrite facts. We hear a lot in broader political commentary about living in a post-truth world. Well, that is this government and that is this bill, which is suggesting that drug testing people receiving Newstart and youth allowance will deter them from taking drugs. The government's rhetoric is cheap. First of all, one in four people currently receiving Newstart is over the age of 55. They are not drug addicts, they are not drug cheats and they are not the people that this government is trying to demonise. They, in many cases, are hardworking Australians who have found themselves unemployed at the age of 55 or older. It could be that they were made redundant in their workplace because of cutbacks and slowdowns as a result of our slowing economy. It could be because they retired from their current role through illness or through injury, or they may have retrained and are struggling to get work in a new area.

One person in my electorate I met with is a former nurse who lived in Woodend. She is on youth allowance. She's 61. She still has several years to work before she sees herself as graduating to the pension. She did retrain. She got her security licence. She said, 'I will work where I can get work'. So she's a first aider and a security officer at Melbourne Park. But, of course, it is casual work, like so many jobs today, so some weeks she'll get full-time work and other weeks she might be lucky to get five to 10 hours. That's not enough for this government or for Centrelink. She's still required to actively look for more hours of work, and is constantly being chased and asked: has she looked for work this week, and where has she looked for work? This is somebody who is doing her very best to keep active. She is working. She's not just part of the statistic of one in four people who is currently unemployed and on Newstart. She's also part of the statistic of one in five who are currently working but can't get enough hours. To say to this active person in my community—who's working every shift she can get, as she takes it regardless, and who's also volunteering for an animal welfare agency caring for animals that are brought in, many of which are struck on our roads in regional Victoria—that she is now someone who the government could consider to be on drugs and should be drug tested is just so insulting. This is what this privileged government is aiming to do—to divide and wedge our society and to suggest that people who are on Newstart or youth allowance are subhuman, are not like the rest of us, are leaners and are a burden on our society and our economy.

That could not be further from the truth. The fact that one in five people on Newstart are working but can't get enough hours is another area that this government is just purely choosing to ignore. Again, these are workers. They're not drug takers. They're not people who've dropped out of our society. These are workers, but they can't get enough hours. Rather than working on fixing our economy or on fixing our employment system, which is seeing more people forced into insecure work, this government again seeks to distract by putting forward this bill.

I've made my comments on this quite open and clear in my electorate. I am opposed to this bill. I'm opposed to mandatory drug testing for people receiving payments. Whether it be a trial, whether it be mandatory, whether it be selective or random drug testing, it should not exist. The only comments that I've got opposed to my position on Facebook have been from a couple of local small-business owners who I know to be members of the Liberal Party. Their comments have been, 'I don't want my workers turning up to work on drugs; why should someone receiving a government payment be on drugs?' It's very similar to the rhetoric that we hear from government members and ministers. I say to those people in my community that that is a really gross misunderstanding of the drug addiction and drug abuse that we have.

In Bendigo, we do not have the drug rehabilitation services required for the people who are seeking help. That's for people who are already putting their hands up to seek help with drug and alcohol addiction. In the entire Loddon Mallee region, which is not just the Bendigo electorate but the electorates to the north, there are only four rehab beds. If any of these areas were in this drug-testing trial, they would not have the services and the support for anyone who did test positive, not to mention that our region can't help the people already seeking help. They're put on a long waiting list. It's again another area where this government is just lacking in any decent policy. The funding cuts to health and frontline services are really hurting the regions.

The knock-on effect of a policy like this when we don't have the resources is that it forces more people into poverty. This government demonstrates again in this bill that it has absolutely no respect for people who are actively seeking work. The whole experience for people on Newstart has become one where they feel like they're a criminal when all that has happened is they can't find work. I do know a lot of people who've dropped out of the welfare system, which the government boasts about having at its lowest numbers. The reason why they have is the punitive nature of it. This is why so many of our farmers have chosen not to take up the farm household assistance allowance, which is linked to the Newstart rate. It's the way in which this government has demonised anybody receiving some kind of payment or allowance. It's wrong. We should be helping all Australians who receive a payment. It's because it gives them the basic means to live and engage.

We should be lifting the rate of Newstart. It is below the poverty level. We should be lifting the rate of youth allowance; it is also below the poverty level. It locks people into survival mode. People who are on Newstart can't afford basic rent. They can't afford to get the bond together. They can't afford that first month of rent. They may get some rent assistance once they're renting, but in regional areas, where rents are supposed to be lower, real estate agents tell me that they are less likely to rent—in fact, in some cases they don't at all—to people on Newstart because they know that the rent will be at least 60 per cent to 70 per cent of their allowance and they know that they will fall behind in their rent payments. Many people on Newstart are couch surfing.

A woman who came to see me and speak to me openly about her experience is in her 60s and is couch surfing, because she's now been unemployed since her husband passed away over two years ago. She was on a carers payment. That ended once he passed away. They also lost his disability pension, of course, because he had passed away. She was struggling to get back into her career and struggling to find work, and it became a vicious cycle. She had to sell her home. She struggled to find a place to rent and she struggled to survive, because Newstart was so low. She was now living at her daughter's friend's house and trying to get hours together to work. This is someone who is skilled and someone who is a professional, but is facing age barriers—that discrimination that starts to creep in, once you hit your 50s and 60s, around work and employment and starting that work again. She said to me straight out: 'I feel like the government sees me as a criminal, when what I did was to take time out of work to care for my dying husband. I'm now trying to get back into work and I find myself locked in poverty.'

I also think about the comments from Bendigo Foodshare in relation to this bill. A few weeks ago I went out to thank the amazing volunteers at Bendigo Foodshare. Some of them are there as part of their obligations towards Newstart. Some of them are there as volunteers—older people who enjoy volunteering for Foodshare. Foodshare provide emergency relief to people throughout our community, and they see the face of the people struggling on Newstart and youth allowance. One of them said: 'Look, we turn up every day. I'm on Newstart. I turn up every day. I am at an age where I can declare my volunteer work as part of my obligations, and I'm really proud of what I do. We come together. We make sure that nobody in our region goes hungry.' When the Prime Minister announced he was going to roll out this drug-testing trial, he said: 'What have I done to ever upset the Prime Minister? Why is the Prime Minister targeting me? I'm contributing. I'm a big part of making sure that people in Bendigo don't go hungry.' And he's not alone. Here is this team of people volunteering and helping out those in need in our community. Yet the government's rhetoric does not recognise the amazing contribution these people are making. It instead seeks to demonise them.

I urge the government to drop this bill. It didn't work in New Zealand. It didn't work in Canada. It has not worked anywhere. All the experts are saying, 'This will not work,' whether they're in the social welfare space, whether they're in the job agency space or whether they're in the health space. Please listen to the broader community and to the experts on this and do not proceed with this legislation.

There's a time in this place when politics can get in the way of policy, and it does happen a lot at the moment. But this is probably one of the grossest examples of that, where the government's meanness and trickiness really shines through. We have a Prime Minister who loved this idea when he was the Minister for Social Services, loved this idea when he was the Treasurer and now loves this idea as the Prime Minister. He is somebody who has no compassion, respect, understanding or empathy for people who are unemployed and who are looking for work. He has no respect at all. If he did, he would not be introducing this bill. If the Prime Minister and this government were serious about supporting people with drug addiction, they would invest in frontline services, they would ensure that regions like my region, the Loddon Mallee, had more than four rehab beds, they would ensure that people got help the day they sought help and did not go on a six- to 12-month waiting list, and they would ensure that programs for people who come out of rehab were continued and not scrapped because of funding cuts by this government.

This is a bad bill, and it should be voted down in the Senate. I support the amendment that was moved by our side. I hope that the government considers that, but it should wake up and show some respect and compassion for some of the most vulnerable people in our community. (Time expired)

7:15 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I see that there are very few speakers from the government side standing up to defend the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019. It's easy to come to the conclusion that this is yet another example of the government trying to find someone to beat up and trying to divide the community by having a common enemy that people can unite against. In this case the government are picking on people who are unemployed.

I'm going to do something else in this speech. Prime Minister Turnbull said when he first announced this that it was about love. I'm going to take the government at their word for a minute—that this really is for them an attempt to get people off drugs and into work—and then I'm going to try to persuade them that this is a really stupid way to do that. It's a really stupid way to do that. I'm going to be really nice about it as I call you a little bit stupid. Sorry about that. It is very difficult, because this really is a stupid idea.

This is the third attempt to introduce a trial to drug test welfare recipients—not pensioners, which is the other group of welfare recipients that the government talks about, but just Newstart and youth allowance recipients. This is the third attempt to introduce it. It was absolutely rejected twice. It has been reviewed, probed, analysed and overwhelmingly rejected by anybody who has any expertise in working with drug addicts, the unemployed or young people. It has been overwhelmingly rejected. Every single submission to the Senate committee was against this, except for two submissions from the department. It's like the entire world, those who know very much about this field, says that this is a bad idea, and the department, which admits it did not consult, says it's a good idea.

It's very rare that a government goes completely off on its own. It's very rare that a government totally ignores the overwhelming consensus of experts and makes the decision to follow a path that nobody except itself thinks is a good one. Yet that is what this government has done.

The government says that it's about getting people back into work and off drugs. I want to start there. If the government were serious about tackling drug addiction, it might want to keep in mind that currently the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales has found that between 200,000 and 500,000 Australians a year want to access addiction services but can't because the services are underfunded. If the government were serious about getting people off drugs, perhaps the place to start would be with those 200,000 to 500,000 people who are trying to access services but can't because the services don't exist.

In Western Sydney I have people tell me about the desperate need for drug and alcohol services for young people, which are quite different to services for adults. They're not there in a sufficient quantity to serve the needs of Western Sydney now. There are young people who want those services but can't get them. If you want to get people off drugs, surely the place to start is by properly funding the services that help people who step up to do that. You don't go around testing to see if there are a few more who aren't ready to seek help and then try to punish them into it. Surely that's a wee bit nonsensical.

The second thing is getting people into jobs. There are over 700,000 people unemployed and many more underemployed. Every day I have people desperate for work come into my office. They have a great range of skills but have a little bit missing—they might come from another country and their qualifications are not recognised here or are not quite right or they can't get experience.

A young woman who came to see me recently has been on Newstart for 14 years. She has a degree and is desperate to work but has never been able to get that first job. I get people coming into my office all the time who are desperate to work. Desperate is the only way to describe it. What about those people? What about the young people who want apprenticeships and can't get one because the government has decimated TAFE and the number of apprenticeships has dramatically dropped? I lost 1,500 apprentices in Parramatta alone in the first six years of this government. What about starting with people who are almost ready to work—whose attitude is right, whose skills are really good and who want to work? What about starting with them?

Why, when the unemployment rate is so high, would any sensible government who is thinking about the need to get people into work say, 'Let's see if we can find people who really don't want to work, who are sitting in their garage smoking pot. Let's start there'? That's absurd. As a previous employer, I can tell you that that's not the person I want you to send to me. I want you to send me someone who wants to work, who has worked, who's fallen out of the workforce—maybe because they're 50 or 55 and became retrenched—a person with experience or a young person who has been working for the community establishing community organisations.

There are many, many people out there who are doing great stuff, but they just can't get their foot in the door. Start with them. Why not start with drug addicts that want to get clean but can't because the services don't exist? Why not start with people who really want to work and have done everything they can to get themselves ready—they've done degrees; they've studied at TAFE; they've volunteered; and they've done everything they possibly can to get a job and can't get one. Start there.

But what do we get from this government? A really, really weird solution—and that's putting it mildly—to a problem that's made up, a problem that the government's going to look for to see if it can solve it. And, in order to find that problem—this small number of people who may be ripping off the taxpayer by sitting in their garage and smoking pot—the government are going to drug-test 5,000 people, supposedly randomly selected, though I don't believe that because I've read about the algorithms. They're going to drug-test 5,000 people in three locations to see whether or not these people—many of whom are desperate for work, and 25 per cent of whom will already be working—have in the last week or the last two weeks had a bit of pot on the side. If they did, I assure you, they didn't buy it with Newstart. I assure you that they did not spend taxpayers' money buying drugs—unless it was alcohol, which is a far bigger problem but isn't included in this. So, again, the biggest drug issue, which is alcohol, isn't covered.

Drug addicts who actually want to get clean, and come forward looking for treatment, can't get it. But the government's not interested in fixing that. There are people who desperately want to work in areas where there are skills shortages, such as aged care and child care, and in areas where we need more workers, and they almost have the qualifications, but is the government interested? No, they aren't interested. Alcohol is a major problem, but is the government interested? No, they aren't interested. Instead, they'll spend enormous amounts of money—look at what these drug tests actually cost; if you really want them done properly, without the false negatives and all the rest of it, it is actually really expensive—and randomly test 5,000 people and find a few that, presumably, they can then talk about in the media to turn people against them. It's really hard to believe it's about anything other than that, because it doesn't make any sense.

I'm going to share this speech quite widely in my community, because I think people need to know exactly what's happening here. I am going to explain some of the detail of this because, when you listen to what's actually going to happen to these people on Newstart, it's quite interesting, particularly when you realise that one-quarter of Newstart recipients are over the age of 55. The number of people over the age of 55 has surged by 45 per cent in the last six years. The fastest-growing group is people over 55. I'm sure a lot of them are sitting at home smoking pot in their garage and need to be found out! I will try to pull myself together, but it is quite absurd.

We also know from the government's own figures that there are 19 job applicants for every job. So there are 19 people on Newstart or youth allowance for every single job. Yet this government is saying that the reason that these people aren't working is that they're on drugs. Well, I don't think there are 700,000 drug addicts out there. No doubt there are a small number. No doubt in any area you will find a small number of people who really don't want to work, who do other things and take their Newstart. By all means, they shouldn't do that, but that's not where you start when you have a problem of the size that we have in this country. It really is not where you start.

We also have a situation where, in the last few days, we've seen the IMF downgrade the growth forecast. We have had the Reserve Bank downgrade the growth forecast. We have an economy in trouble. We need to grow jobs. Is the government doing anything about that? If you want to get people off Newstart, perhaps the place to start is stimulating the economy and making sure that the number of jobs that we have grows. There are a range of areas to do that in. You could take the caps off for the NDIS, for example, because we know we're going to need a couple of hundred thousand workers in that field in the next decade, if we get that right. We know with the ageing population we are going to need thousands more aged-care workers. Try and get that right. Get people into jobs, because there are jobs that need doing that are currently sitting vacant. We have skills shortages in a whole range of areas. In virtually every technical trade, we have skills shortages. In regional areas, you can wait months to get a basic bit of painting done. You can wait months to see a doctor in regional areas. Do something about that. Do something that addresses the jobs that we need to be done. Make sure that people are trained to do them. Take some of those 700,000 people and the extra 300,000-odd that are underemployed and create the jobs for them. Do it in a real way, not by supposedly punishing this mythical person that you've made up and you're going to randomly drug test 5,000 people to find. This is absurd.

Let's look at what it actually will do. It will require 5,000 Newstart and youth allowance recipients in Canterbury-Bankstown—down the road from me—Mandurah and Logan to submit to random drug tests. The trial will run for two years. If a person does not agree to participate in the trial, their application for social security will be denied and they will not be able to reapply for four weeks. That will help! If they actually are a drug addict, that will really help! People will be required to submit to saliva, urine and hair follicle tests in a Centrelink office or nearby location. The tests will be designed to detect cannabis, heroin, cocaine and amphetamines. If a person fails a drug test they will be placed on income management through the basics card—80 per cent of their payment will be quarantined to pay bills and purchase goods, and 20 per cent will be paid to their bank account. A follow-up test will be conducted within 25 days. If the person fails a second test during the trial they will be referred to a contracted medical service for recommendations about treatment.

Now, for a start, if a person fails a drug test, it doesn't mean they're a drug addict. Many of us in this area know people who take drugs recreationally. I don't, by the way. I don't take Panadol; I don't take anything at all. But I know people who do and I have worked in industries where some of these drugs were actually quite common. A person who fails a drug test is not necessarily a drug addict. Even if they are a drug addict, pushing them into drug treatment, if they're not ready, will not work. Everybody who works with drug addicts says this will not work for that reason. It's the wrong approach. It makes no sense whatsoever.

If treatment is recommended, attendance will become part of the person's job plan and a condition of receiving social security. That means, unless the government increases the funding substantially to current drug treatment centres, including in Western Sydney, those people are going to push out other people who are trying to get in. So instead of 200,000 people trying to get drug treatment and being unable to do so, there will be 200,001 people, because it will push someone out. Someone who wants treatment will be pushed out, and someone who isn't ready will be pushed in. It will not work. Every expert says so, but, again, the government knows better.

If a person fails to attend mandated treatment, they will be sanctioned. This will include having their payment entirely suspended for up to four weeks. This is really quite amazing. If a person disputes the results of a test, they can request a retest. But if the retest is positive, the person must pay for the cost of the retest. From what I know about the cost of these treatments, that's probably about four to five weeks of Newstart, which they won't be on because they will have been suspended! This is absurd. Please think this through in a real way. Please think this through.

Every single expert in the field of drug addiction and drug treatment or in a field working with young people says this won't work. The only people who say this will work are the government. I strongly suggest that the government reconsider this. Have a look at what the experts have said. It's been reviewed more times than you can count. It's been tried three times and failed. There are reports, submissions and material everywhere on this that tell you why this won't work. Just listen. Just listen for a minute, and you will change your mind.

Debate interrupted.