House debates

Thursday, 17 October 2019


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

10:20 am

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I remind the House that the original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Barton has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now before the chair is that the amendment be agreed to.

10:21 am

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This government is led by a slick salesman. This government wants us to believe that the only thing needed to treat homelessness is to put a positive spin on it and the only way to deal with the drought is to pray for rain, and it wants us to believe that drug testing social security recipients is about getting people out of drug addiction. Well, the social services minister put an end to that and revealed their real motivations when she said that increasing the rate of Newstart would mean that money goes to drug dealers. That's their real motivation around this. It's not about getting people out of addiction. It's not about helping people into work. It is about demonising those who fall on hard times and end up relying on our social security safety net.

I'm probably very unusual in this House for a number of reasons, I would say. One of those reasons is that I'm probably one of the very few members who have actually had to live on Newstart and rely on the social security safety net. Having fled a violent marriage at a very young age with a three-year-old and a one-year-old, I found myself at the Centrelink offices asking for some help because I had no other means of feeding my children and keeping a roof over their heads. I know what it's like. I've felt the sting of humiliation. When people who have been through the same thing come into my office—people who are over the age of 55 and have been retrenched and cannot find another job; women who have fled violent relationships and have nothing; older women; older men; young women; young men; people of all ages who come into my office because they have found themselves on hard times; hardworking, decent, honest Australians who find themselves on hard times and who rely on a social security safety net that this country has prided itself on for so many years—I see in their eyes what I felt all those years ago when I had to walk into that Centrelink office and ask for help myself.

This legislation, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019, does not discriminate. It does not discriminate between those who are on drugs, who have a drug addiction or habit, and that single mother who has made the difficult decision to leave a violent husband or partner and walk into that Centrelink office. It doesn't discriminate for that older woman at the age of 60 who's worked for a company for 30 years and then is retrenched who has no other means of living, no other means of putting food on the table for herself or of keeping a roof over her head. It does not discriminate. Everyone will be caught by this. It doesn't matter if that person is meeting all the requirements, it doesn't matter if they don't have any addiction issues and it doesn't matter if they have never used drugs in their life.

The medical experts have pointed out that this simply won't work, because here's the thing: drug addiction is a health issue and it should be treated as a health issue. That's how you get people out of drug addiction, not by randomly testing people and then punishing them if they do have that medical issue. If the government were serious about drug addiction, as they have tried to sell this as, then they'd be investing more money in rehabilitation, not demonising people on social security. Between 200,000 and 500,000 Australians a year can't access the addiction services they need because those services are underfunded and unavailable.

Last term, I was on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement and, this term, I'm the deputy chair of that committee. In the last parliament, we undertook an inquiry into the use of methamphetamine or 'ice'. That inquiry used new data released through new means and new surveys—the new household survey—as well as through waste water testing to show that Western Australia has double the national average use of ice. But here's the thing: that use of ice and methamphetamines in Western Australia was not in Mandurah where this proposal is supposed to start this drug-testing trial. It was not in Mandurah, so it can't be about capturing people or finding people who are drug addicted, as the government is trying to sell this.

Recommendation 11 of that report, that is yet to be actioned by this government, also stated and made special mention of the lack of funding for rehabilitation services, particularly in Western Australia, and that recommendation said that the money that comes out of the federal funding to the National Ice Taskforce and the national ice strategy needs to be redistributed in such a way as to take account of new information and new data about the distribution and use of methamphetamine, particularly paying attention to the fact that Western Australia gets a lower amount of that federal funding because it is based on old data. So WA needs more funding for rehabilitation services, but the government is yet to action recommendation 11 of that report.

Instead of following through on the reports that are done by a parliamentary committee on the use of methamphetamines, the government comes up with an unproven strategy to target welfare recipients under the guise of doing something about drug addiction. We know it's not about drug addiction. We know that this is just part of the government's continued protracted campaign to demonise people who find themselves in hard times and relying on our social security safety net. As I've said before, that includes everyone. That includes people like me who, those many, many years ago now—I admit, it was many years ago—find themselves in a position where they have to walk into that Centrelink office and ask for help.

We know that this doesn't work. It's been tried overseas, it's been tried in New Zealand, it's been tried in the United States and it has proven to be a failure. The important point to be made here is that it's particularly proven to be a failure in the area of treating drug addiction. Once again, the slick salesman who leads this government wants us to believe that this is about helping people who are addicted to drugs. Well, that's rubbish. It is not about helping people who are addicted to drugs. You want to help people who are addicted to drugs? Listen to the medical experts. Listen to the health experts. Look at the evidence from other countries where this has been tried and has failed, particularly in that regard. But do not try to dupe the Australian people and pretend that this is about compassion for people who are addicted to drugs. Do not try and do that, because the Australian people see through it.

Labor are opposing this. We cannot let this pass. We cannot let pass the indiscriminate drug-testing of people, many of whom, as I said before, find themselves fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. We cannot let this government continue to demonise people who are on social security while refusing to raise Newstart, arguing that any raising of Newstart is going to result in more money for drug dealers. I stand here before the House as somebody who has been through this, as somebody who has felt that sting of humiliation. I stand here to speak up for every man, for every woman and for every person out there who right now finds themselves in that position and to say to them: I understand; I know how you feel; and I will, for as long as I'm in this place, speak up for you and continue to oppose the demonisation of you and of anyone else who finds themselves in your position.

10:31 am

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also wish to make a contribution to this debate and, at the outset, I indicate that Labor is opposed to the proposition contained in this Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019. When we talk about public policy, there are two aspects that affect it. Either a government comes with a mandate or, alternatively, it is evidence based. In considering this particular bill, neither is applicable—and I'll come back to that point.

I think we need to be clear that this bill, as the previous speaker, the member for Cowan, just indicated, seeks to indiscriminately and ineffectively apply drug testing to people unfortunate enough to be on social welfare. We've had a significant debate running, maybe not across the chamber but certainly out there in our respective electorates, about the inadequacies of Newstart currently. My electorate, probably more than most, has been affected by a decline of light manufacturing, and, regrettably, the people who are becoming more reliant on Newstart in my electorate are people aged 55-plus, who are not likely to get another job. They are now relying on Newstart. Under this bill, they are the sorts of people who, it could be contemplated, would be regularly and indiscriminately subject to drug testing. It just beggars belief that this is what the government thinks is progress in our community.

This is the third time that a bill of this nature has been introduced into the parliament. Labor opposed it on the last two occasions, and we won't miss this opportunity to oppose it. The bill is not well founded and it certainly doesn't take on board the evidence out there. It certainly doesn't have any support from the various stakeholders, whether it be from the mental health or social welfare quarters. It's fair to note that the likes of Dr Katie Seear, Professor Suzanne Fraser, Professor David Moore and Associate Professor kylie valentine, senior researchers with longstanding expertise in social policy issues relating to alcohol and other drug use, found the bill 'poorly conceived and counterproductive'.They go on to find:

… a recent analysis of submissions to the Committees exploring the 2017 and 2018 bills … observed that 98% of submissions by organisations and individuals opposed the bills. The remaining submissions—

those in support of the bill—

were from the Department itself.

So it gets back to what I said: when considering social policy, neither a mandate nor, alternatively, being able to develop from a social need was the case in this instance.

What this bill does, in effect, is that it will require about 5,000 people on Newstart and youth allowance in the Canterbury Bankstown, Mildura and Logan areas to submit to random drug testing over a two-year period. If a person does not agree to participate in the trial, their application for social security will be deferred, and they will not be able to apply for another period of four weeks. So to people who are doing it relatively tough now, living on effectively $40 a day, we're going to say, 'For the next four weeks, if you don't agree to undertake drug testing, you don't get anything, and you can't apply for another four weeks.' As part of the proposal, people will be required to submit to a saliva, urine or hair follicle test at a Centrelink office or at some other nearby location, and these tests will be designed to detect cannabis, heroin, cocaine and amphetamines. If a person fails a drug test, they'll be placed on an income management plan through a BasicsCard. The person who has tested positive will also undergo further random drug tests, the first of which will occur—hardly very random—25 days later. If a person tests positive to a drug test more than once within a 24-month period, they will be referred to Services Australia's contracted medical professionals. If a person fails to attend a mandated treatment or support activities, they will be sanctioned, and this would include having their payment entirely suspended for up to a four-week period.

This is not about doing something about drug and alcohol abuse. This is not doing anything other than trying to placate some of those who might spend their time in this place, when they're not listening to debate, tuned into redneck radio and thinking about what it is that we need to do to people who we consider dole bludgers. I think we have to be a little bit more mature than that when we have the honour of representing our respective communities. I can speak for a community that has a disproportionate number of people on Newstart or other forms of welfare, through no fault of their own. They didn't vote to contract manufacturing. They didn't vote to do all these other things. The fact is that there's little likelihood that they're going to be able to sufficiently retrain to get employment in the modern digital economy. They're going to be welfare dependent. This treats them, like anyone else who falls into that category, as being clearly second class.

As I said at the start, it's got to be either by mandate or evidence based. Neither is applicable here. As a matter of fact, the evidence that came from those with credibility in this field is all against the government. The Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists came out with couple of clear views that they submitted to the committee considering this bill. They said:

Firstly, there is no conclusive evidence that mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients delivers any benefits such as deterring recipients from drug use, increasing levels of employment or reducing welfare spending.

They went on to say:

Secondly, the notion that illicit drug use is higher amongst the unemployed population and that this results in lowered employment capacities is unfounded.

They are the two critical areas that this government has pinned this legislation on—trying to do something about drug use.

The government ought to look at other countries where this has been instituted, particularly New Zealand and the United States. Mandated drug testing of welfare recipients was proven to be a failure. For example, the Network of Alcohol and Other Drugs Agencies noted that, in 2013, the New Zealand government did institute drug testing of welfare recipients. They went on to find that, in 2015, only 22 of the 8,000 people who participated in the testing returned a positive result. That indicated that there was no correlation between those on welfare payments and those involved in drug and alcohol abuse.

This bill is counterproductive, as the two former iterations of this bill also were. The Australian Council of Social Service notes that the evidence indicates that such a practice could have a high social and economic cost, with the proposal actually making a person's social circumstances even more precarious. Associate Professor Yvonne Bonomo, Director of the Department of Addiction Medicine at St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne, extrapolated on that and said:

The international experience shows that 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.

Clearly—and I make no bones about it—this is going to push people to the brink. This is saying that, unless you cooperate, your welfare payments are going to be postponed for up to four weeks. If you're living on $40 a day, that's going to be pretty significant. Do you know what's going to happen? I do because people tell me all the time. St Vincent de Paul, Mission Australia and other church based organisations tell me that they, because of their moral and religious obligations, will be expected to pick up the slack and look after people. They will not be getting funding for that, but they will still have to do that because of their moral obligation to people in need.

This chamber is going to vote on this bill as if it were just any other piece of legislation. It is people's lives that are being played with here. We should look at what makes a difference. I don't disagree that drugs are a huge issue in our society. Those in the police force who I have dealt with over many years tell me that, particularly with respect to the new synthetic drugs. There is a major societal cost. Not only is there an impact on the person but also people under the influence of drugs commit family violence and community violence.

We looked at ice in our community. Recommendations were made for the courts to refer people to diversion opportunities. It is one thing for police to arrest and prosecute people, but what do we do for those people after that? Do you put them in jail? If you really wanted to address this issue of drug abuse, you would look at diversion. Lo and behold, whilst everyone thinks it's good to put more effort into arrests and taking people off the streets, we want people to be rehabilitated. They don't put money into diversion opportunities. The courts don't have any opportunity to refer people to counselling or drug services. No extra money goes into that. Simply putting a $10 million price tag on this to assist with the application through this bill doesn't put money into our drug support agencies. It doesn't actually do anything at all there. We are simply going to marginalise people without giving them any real referral prospects to drug and alcohol services. How better off is society after that? We want people off drugs. We want people to be treated. That's all fine. The money's not here to do that; it's just not.

Professor Alison Ritter, head of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the Social Policy Research Centre, found that there are currently between 400,000 and 750,000 people in the country who are in need of drug and alcohol treatment. Those people can't access addiction services at present because they're currently, as I say, underfunded or not available.

So I would encourage those opposite to think differently about this and not vote as a bloc simply because it's another right-wing ideal to gang up on people they regard as dole bludgers. They should try and use this opportunity and their time on the treasury bench to make a difference for the better in people's lives. What is being proposed here will not make anything better for those people who are currently welfare recipients. (Time expired)

10:47 am

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I think this Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019 is a particularly good example of where politicians think they know more than they do, that they don't need to rely on the advice of experts and that they can go to their own ideology or perhaps their close circle of political advisers. The problem with that is you get bad public policy. When you go to experts and ask them what they think about this proposal that Centrelink recipients be pill tested, there is an overwhelming weight of opinion that it's a bad idea and that, instead, it looks like an ideological response from a conservative government who would sooner demonise and marginalise Centrelink recipients than genuinely look at the best way to support them and help them deal with their disability, their age, their unemployment or whatever it is.

I think particularly good experts to go to are the college of physicians. I'm going to take the time to read out a media statement made a week ago by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians on 10 October. This was their response to the Senate report endorsing the idea in this bill, or largely supporting it. I think it's a lovely summary of why this bill should not be supported. It's a lovely summary of why I will not support this bill. It reads:

Australia's largest specialist medical college is disappointed in a Senate Inquiry report released today, which neglects to consider wide ranging evidence that drug testing welfare recipients leads to more harm than good.

The Senate Inquiry report into the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019 has today recommended that the Government pursue their plan to trial drug testing of 5,000 welfare participants across three trial sites.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) remains strongly opposed to this Bill, on the basis that it is not evidence-based, goes against all the expert advice provided to the Government on the matter, and is likely to be clinically harmful to people suffering with drug and/or alcohol addiction.

The Bill's stated aim is to improve a recipient's capacity to find employment or participate in education or training by identifying people with drug use issues and assisting them to undertake treatment. It is our careful assessment—

that is, the college's—

that drug testing will have an adverse rather than positive impact on achieving that outcome. The RACP supports the need for Government action to help overcome drug and alcohol addiction in the community and improve employment outcomes, but drug testing welfare recipients is in no way a solution – in fact, it creates further health problems in the community.

The recommendations of this report contradict the expert advice and evidence from all the addiction, health and social care experts, who are united in their opposition to drug testing welfare recipients

If the Federal Government is serious about addressing addiction and assisting people to gain employment, it needs to invest in quality, evidence-based alcohol and drug treatment services and a suitably trained workforce.

It finishes by saying:

Drug testing welfare participants is in no way an effective strategy to improving employment or health outcomes in the community and the RACP urges all Parliamentarians to oppose this Bill which flies in the face of evidence.

So why we in this place would ignore the unambiguous, the very strong and clear advice of the RACP beggars belief. I think it could only be explained by ideology run amok.

There has been a lot said about exactly why drug testing won't work. If I could branch out and take this opportunity to give some advice to the government on perhaps what they should be doing to assist Centrelink customers, there are so many other things the government could be focusing on. For example and probably most obviously, why don't we actually support Centrelink recipients, all of them, by raising government pensions and payments to levels people can actually live a dignified life on? We talk a lot about Newstart but I think this point really goes to all government pensions and payments. How does, for example, a single age pensioner paying market rent get by? I can't see how they do. They must—I hear this—go without the essentials of life. They go without meals, they go without medicines, and they go without travelling to interact with old friends to foster their health in all those sorts of ways. I've said this before and I'll say it again: I have met age pensioners who will live on a 99c can of baked beans or an 80c can of dog food, and that is in one of the richest countries in the world.

Of course, Newstart is perhaps the most striking example of where Centrelink and the government are letting people down. Newstart for a single person with no dependent children is $279 per week. Yes, there are modest other payments that might bolster that, but Newstart for a single person with no dependent children is $279 per week. I recall listening to ABC Radio in Hobart a couple of months ago now. They went out and took the trouble of finding out what the cheapest rental in Hobart was at that point in time. The cheapest rental they could find in Hobart was $280 a week. That was for a little cement block flat which, if you were to see it, you might think was an old toilet block next to an old playing field. So how on earth can anyone live on that level of money?

Let's think about jobs. If people are going to get a job, they need to be in good health, they need a roof over their head, they need to be well groomed, they need to have a smart set of clothes, they need to be healthy and in good order, and they need to pay for the transport to get to the job interview. Even things like getting a haircut—20 bucks—you can't do that on that sort of Centrelink payment, so how can you be expected to very promptly get off and get a good job? You can't.

When I stand up here as an independent and make these points about the problems with the way we support people through Newstart, some of my colleagues will say, 'Independents, all care, no responsibility, who is going to pay for this?' Let's not forget we are one of the richest countries in the world. Our GDP is the 13th largest in the world. Our GDP per capita is the 10th largest in the world. We are mind-bogglingly lucky and wealthy. This federal government will spend, this financial year, about half a trillion dollars. I propose that the issue is not about whether or not we can support Centrelink customers better; it's: how do we reprioritise the budget to make sure we do look after those people better? While I'm offering advice to the government about how it might better help Centrelink customers, how about the government finally focuses on improving Centrelink service generally?

I've jotted some examples down here. People have been waiting months for their application to be assessed and can't get an answer from Centrelink about when their application will be processed. Often any communication these people receive from Centrelink is so brief or poorly drafted that they can't understand what it means. People are spending hours on the phone trying to get through to Centrelink—at a high personal cost—and still not being able to get through; they're hanging up in exasperation or being hung up on. People have called Centrelink multiple times, or been into the office to inquire, only to be told something different every time. People are trying to do the right thing and declare their income correctly, but they can't, because myGov is broken. They go into the actual Centrelink office, and they're referred back to the phone lines or to the broken myGov website. People have been told to email information to Centrelink or to upload it online but have had no confirmation that the information has been received or processed. Often people think that the information has been submitted correctly, but it hasn't and it won't get acted on.

People come to me all the time talking about issues with frontline Centrelink staff and lack of communication and the fact that the rush to online Centrelink services has occurred too fast. It has been poorly designed and it's simply unavailable to a lot of Centrelink customers. It's self-evident that Centrelink customers include elderly people, who may not be technologically literate—they may not even have access to the internet—or very disadvantaged people, who can't afford it. There are any number of other reasons why this rush by government agencies to move to online services is happening way too fast for many consumers.

I'm not going to miss this opportunity to mention robo-debt again. My colleagues on the crossbench, like the member for Mayo here, and, to their credit, the federal opposition have been very outspoken about all of the problems with robo-debt. For years now Centrelink has been sending out inaccurate debt notices, and it continues to do so. These notices are either entirely unwarranted or the amount is wrong, and there's no explanation of how the amount has been calculated. We've lost track, in our office, of the number of genuinely distressed people who are at wit's end, getting these very official letters. At one stage they even had the AFP logo on some of the Centrelink letters. It was sending people into panic. It was not unusual to have people in tears and even, occasionally, people threatening self-harm.

The role of Centrelink is to help the community. It's not to frighten them. It's not to make them feel demonised. Despite the fact that very few Centrelink recipients will have a drug or alcohol addiction, they all live with the threat of drug testing hanging over them. If the government is interested in the perils of illicit drug use, why doesn't it get behind pushing the COAG process in the direction of national pill testing? If we really care about people, let's bolster drug and alcohol services in the community and let's have a national approach to pill testing.

Senator Richard Di Natale and I co-hosted a demonstration of pill testing in the parliament several weeks ago. Everyone who was there was mightily impressed by the effectiveness of pill testing. No-one was there saying that we were encouraging our children to take illicit drugs to a party or to a festival. We're not encouraging that. What we're saying is that if someone does have a pill in their pocket then the penalty for using it should not be death. It's that simple. We should have a harm minimisation approach and do everything we can to help our kids. I've got two young children myself, and I'm soon to have three young stepsons. I'm not going to kid myself and think they're not going to experiment. I just want to ensure they're in as safe an environment as possible if they unwisely elect to do that.

That's been a bit of a Cook's tour about Centrelink, but it was a good opportunity to talk about the things the government should be focusing on. Let's stop demonising Centrelink recipients. Let's stop scaring Centrelink recipients. Let's stop sending this message to the community that they're either bludgers or drug addicts. They're not. Most people who are on Centrelink pensions and payments—most people who are on Newstart in particular—are just regular people who are having a difficult patch and need a bit of help, and that's what we should be doing: providing help to those people.

It is absolutely unambiguous that drug testing is expensive, it's ineffective, it doesn't address the root causes of drug and alcohol addiction and it doesn't provide effective help in itself for people who have an addiction to an illicit drug or to alcohol. So I'll oppose this bill, and I encourage the government to think again about what measures would be more effective and to, for once, make this the area of public policy where they don't just default to their ideological position but instead approach this area of public policy with a genuinely open mind and talk to the experts. When you've got experts like the RACP, the largest medical college in Australia, saying things like, 'Drug-testing welfare participants is in no way an effective strategy to improve employment or health outcomes in the community and it flies in the face of evidence,' and you just treat that with contempt, you're not doing your job as an effective government. You're not governing in the public interest. You're just implementing an ideological agenda, and you should be condemned for it.

11:01 am

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

Centre Alliance will oppose, for the third time in this place, legislation that is seeking to drug-test welfare recipients. I've spoken previously at length on Centre Alliance's views on this proposed legislation, which does not have published costings. We will not, except in the most exceptional of circumstances, support legislation where the government does not share with us and the taxpayer what the cost is. It is reckless for us to make important decisions about taxpayers' funds without knowing how much of Australia's people's money we're spending, and we've been very clear on this point.

During the consideration of the welfare reform bill in the last parliament, I examined the evidence for and against drug testing of welfare recipients in great detail, and I can only assume that this legislation, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019, is likely to have a significant financial cost given the cost of similar programs in the United States. Drug-testing programs have often been abandoned in the United States as they've proven to be highly ineffective in discovering drug addicts, completely failing any reasonable cost-benefit analysis benchmark. For example, in 2015 research undertaken by the ThinkProgress project of the Center for American Progress discovered that collectively 10 US states spent more than US$850,000 on their testing regimes but uncovered only 321 positive tests. In more than one of those American states, not a single positive test was found. Based on America's experience, it costs approximately US$2,650 for each positive test secured. How much will it cost us? Experts suggest it will cost in the order of $1,600 per test for each recipient.

As Centre Alliance's spokesperson for the Social Services portfolio, I know that Centre Alliance negotiated a balanced and centrist view on the welfare reform bill and that we ended up with a reasoned position based principally upon the advice of our top Australian medical experts in addiction and the expectation of taxpayers that people who are on jobseeking payments are actively looking for work and are required to address their barriers to doing so. In the minister's second reading speech, the minister advised there were 8,638 jobseekers who participated in drug or alcohol treatment as part of their mutual obligations. This shows that the policy levers from that legislation are working, because the previous reforms that we put in place in this place mean that alcohol and drug addiction can no longer be used as an excuse for not engaging. So one has to really question why we are now going down the path of populist drug testing—and that's what it is.

We know that people on Newstart who have a substance addiction problem now have the choice of fulfilling their Centrelink job search activity requirements like any other Newstart recipient or putting their hand up and going down a treatment pathway so that they can get their life back on track and become job ready.

Because we have already made effective changes to the drug-testing bill, I believe this is an exercise in ideological wedge tactics. It is not an exercise in evidence based policymaking. I'll be quite clear here: Centre Alliance are not a welfare rights party. We are a centrist party that makes decisions based on evidence and sound policymaking. There is no evidence for this, and this is not sound policymaking.

The reason the government is doing this is to distract from the fact that Newstart is so woefully pitiful as a payment that people can't survive on it. There are now calls from right across the community and from the business sector—I think even former Prime Minister John Howard has come out and said this—that we need to raise Newstart. The reason the government is bringing this legislation into this place is purely as a distraction. It is nothing more.

The member for Clark talked about robo-debts. Robo-debts are causing enormous harm in the community. We know people are taking their lives. They open the letter. It is the last thing they can possibly bear with, and they choose to talk their lives. That is shameful. It is shameful that we are doing this. My office and the member for Clark's office—and I'm sure the offices of many others in this place—are spending a good amount of our time supporting our constituents to have these false debts reduced or waived. This should not be happening. So I urge the government: halt your robo-debts program. You are causing enormous damage to the most vulnerable people in Australia.

I want to talk about Newstart recipients. Newstart recipients are generally older Australians, particularly women who have raised children and older women who are struggling to enter the workforce. They are existing on Newstart. It's really hard to even say whether you should call that an 'existence'. The amount on Newstart is so low that you can't afford to rent even the most basic, modest accommodation anywhere in Australia and also eat. So when you're talking about people being 'dole bludgers'—as many people do in this chamber—remember that you are talking about, essentially, older women in your community who are experiencing great difficulty getting into the workplace because they don't have the skills. They've been looking after family and they don't have the work experience and they often don't have a wide range of qualifications. It is exceptionally difficult.

I would just like to draw the attention of the chamber to the Jobs Availability Snapshot 2019. It was released this week by Anglicare Australia. If we have a look at the snapshot's findings of people seeking work—people who are unemployed in Australia—there were 704,700 people in May this year. There were 1,160,700 people who were underemployed. The number of job vacancies right across the board was 174,000. Of the level 5 jobs—these are the jobs that we consider entry level, where you do not need to have a huge range of qualifications—there were just 18,000. Just 10 per cent of jobs nationally were available to people who do not have qualifications.

We are really setting people up to fail when we don't support them properly with a payment that allows them to get qualifications, and to be able to live properly and to be able to afford to buy clothes to go to that job interview. How humiliating must it be to go to your jobactive person and, on bended knee, ask for a $30 Kmart voucher so you can go and buy a $10 skirt and a $10 shirt—and hope that there are some shoes on clearance—because you just got that magic job interview? And when you go to the job interview—you're a 55-year-old woman, and you have nothing much you can put on your resume. Sure, you did an enormous amount of volunteering, you've been at the school canteen for 10 years and you've raised three fantastic children on your own, but you know you're not going to get the call back. How humiliating must it be? We can do better in this place. As the member for Clark said, we're a wealthy nation. We can do so much better than this.

I seek leave of the House to table the Anglicare Australia Jobs Availability Snapshot 2019.

Leave granted.

Thank you. Centre Alliance stands ready to support legislation that meaningfully seeks to address drug addiction. We recognise the importance of incentives but we will not support policy that is grounded in short-term political gains rather than in evidence, regardless of how many times the government seek to pass it through this House. To those on the government side that wring their hands and say, 'Yes, I know, we need to raise Newstart': push for it in your party room. We need to address this in this place this year. We are failing Australians by not doing so.

11:11 am

Photo of Karen AndrewsKaren Andrews (McPherson, Liberal Party, Minister for Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019 introduces a two-year trial of drug testing for illicit drug use of 5,000 new recipients of Newstart allowance and youth allowance in three trial sites. This trial is designed to test the effectiveness of drug testing and treatment, including income management, as a way to support jobseekers who have drug abuse issues to overcome their barriers to employment so that they can find and keep a job. This bill demonstrates the government's commitment to tackling substance dependence and supporting people into work.

During the first year of the trial, 5,000 new jobseekers in three locations across Australia will be selected randomly and tested for the presence of illicit drugs. The trial will operate in Canterbury Bankstown, New South Wales; Logan, Queensland; and Mandurah, Western Australia. People who test positive for illicit drugs will be placed on income management. Income management is a personalised intervention and does not reduce the amount of a person's income support payment. Instead, it changes the way a person's payment is delivered. Under income management, the majority of their income support will go directly to paying essential bills or onto a BasicsCard, which can be used to buy things like groceries and transport.

Jobseekers who return a second positive drug test during the trial period will be assessed by a contracted medical professional who has expertise in drug addiction. Any treatment that is recommended by the medical profession will become a compulsory activity in the person's job plan. This will ensure that they engage with treatment that is appropriate as part of their mutual obligation requirements.

To support jobseekers in the drug-testing trial, the government has also announced an additional $10 million treatment fund. The treatment fund will boost existing capacity in trial sites and assist people to undertake treatment that is recommended for them by a medical professional, should existing Commonwealth- or state-funded services not be able to meet any additional demand as a result of the trial. It will also provide funding for case management services.

This bill demonstrates the government's commitment to the drug-testing trial, which is a unique and innovative approach to helping people with drug abuse issues. The government believes that randomised drug testing can be an effective way of identifying welfare recipients for whom mandated treatment may be successful.

A comprehensive evaluation will be conducted in parallel with the trial. This approach will ensure that any unintended consequences can be captured in real time. The evaluation will build a body of evidence on the efficacy of this unique trial where jobseekers with drug abuse issues will be placed on income management and supported to access treatment. While drug testing is currently used in Australia by some employers and has also been used overseas in relation to welfare recipients, there is little comparable evidence available to tell us whether this sort of intervention would be effective in the Australian welfare context.

This government's measure is designed to help identify jobseekers for whom drug use is an issue. The purpose of testing welfare recipients in the drug-testing trial is to find people who may need help to address a barrier to employment that they may not have acknowledged or disclosed previously. The trial will ensure the welfare system does not support illicit drug use and continues to provide a safety net for those who need it most. This trial is complemented by a suite of other measures to address drug and alcohol abuse issues in welfare recipients and support these jobseekers to overcome barriers to getting into work.

Since 1 January 2018, for the first time all jobseekers have been able to include drug and alcohol treatment in their job plan and have this contribute to meeting their annual activity requirement. This measure supports jobseekers with drug and alcohol abuse issues and allows them to have a job plan that is properly tailored to their needs. Since this measure started on 1 January 2018, more than 5,047 stream A and B jobseekers who could not have previously done this have participated in a drug or alcohol treatment activity as part of their job plan.

The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Act 2018 passed two other measures to ensure that jobseekers with substance abuse issues remain actively engaged in appropriate activities, including treatment, to address their barriers to work. Under one measure, jobseekers are no longer granted an exemption from their mutual obligation requirements, including activities such as JobSearch and preparing for work, due to drug or alcohol abuse issues. Instead, they will remain connected with their employment services provider. Seeking an exemption on these grounds will trigger a conversation with their provider about their drug or alcohol issues and enable their activities to be tailored to address their needs.

The welfare reform act also passed a measure to tighten the reasonable-excuse rules and prevent jobseekers from repeatedly using drug and alcohol dependency as an excuse for not meeting their requirements without being prepared to do anything about it. Instead, they will be encouraged to undertake treatment as part of their mutual obligation requirements.

We know that drug use can be a major barrier to finding and keeping a job. The drug-testing trial will test an innovative method of assisting people with drug abuse issues. The government consider it critical to do all we can to help vulnerable jobseekers address their barriers to employment so that they can get and keep a job. I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that the bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Barton has moved an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question before the House is that the amendment be agreed to.

A division having been called and the bells being rung—

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The Manager of Opposition Business, this is why I have not locked the doors—so you can talk. The Manager of Opposition Business on a point of order.

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Speaker, I have spoken with the Leader of the House to raise that, when the division was first called, the monitors all indicated that it was a quorum rather than a division. Who knows what will happen, but it may assist the House if we just do it again because, if we have to unravel it, it will take a good deal longer.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

My understanding is it did say quorum and then went to a division, but if someone has looked at it and then gone away then I think what we will do is—I haven't locked the doors—just ring the bells again for four minutes.

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this, the honourable member for Barton has moved as an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. So the question before the House is that the amendment moved by the member for Barton be agreed to.

11:32 am

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that this bill be now read a second time.