Thursday, 7 December 2017
Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I rise to contribute to this debate following on from Senator Cameron's contribution, where he clearly outlined why Labor opposes the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. He clearly outlined—and I agree with him—that this bill has measures that will expose vulnerable people in our communities to increased hardship and suffering. That is not what our safety net is for. It is not to be taken away and used as some kind of punishment by the government when it suits it, in the various ways that this bill does through its various schedules.
I understand that Senator Cameron went through the various schedules of the bill, outlining why Labor opposes those various schedules. But, as a member of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, which had an inquiry into this particular piece of legislation, I want to particularly focus on schedule 12, in relation to the drug-testing trial. It was over a two-day period that I participated with my Senate colleagues on that committee inquiry with public hearings looking into the issues in schedule 12.
At the outset, I want to thank the witnesses that appeared over those two days for the inquiry. I also want to thank all of the submitters who provided very detailed submissions that enabled the committee to deliberate in detail and to inform ourselves from experts, particularly in the medical field, about why schedule 12 was so detrimental. They enabled Labor to come, very strongly, to the view that it needs to not pass this place.
There is a perplexing situation that I think the government found itself in after it embarked on this ambitious attack on some of the most vulnerable people in our community. There was no evidence to back up why the government chose this line of attack in relation to wanting to drug test welfare recipients. To make it very clear, schedule 12 was about the government establishing a two-year trial of mandatory drug testing, from 1 January next year, to anyone enrolling for Newstart allowance and to jobseekers enrolling for youth allowance. They'd have to undergo drug testing as a condition of their payment, and Centrelink would reject the person's application for welfare if they refused to agree to the drug testing. Over the time of the inquiry we had a number of submissions outlining why this measure was so draconian.
I want to highlight some of the work that is in the Community Affairs Legislation Committee's report into the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. Some of the evidence was provided by Professor Adrian Reynolds. He is the president of the Australasian Chapter of Addiction Medicine and he is also from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. He is someone who cares very deeply about this subject, but also, I would highlight, is an expert in the field of addiction medicine. The chapter was, he said:
… quite honestly at a loss to see why a drug testing trial is considered a necessary or effective way to address these issues.
He is not the only one, but his evidence was very clear. There were many others that formed part of that same view, including Father Frank Brennan, who said:
… to have a trial where you do not seek the consent or guidance of the health professionals, nor of the local communities, it is no trial, it is simply a political showpiece.
I think that really sums up why this is just so out of touch. It's the fact that it is not based on any kind of addiction medicine evidence. It is not based on anything but a political showpiece.
Before I go into some of the other evidence that backs up Professor Reynolds' position, when we're talking about drug addiction in Australia one of the major issues is the lack of treatment provided in our communities. We have this in my home state of Tasmania—people on waiting lists—but also around the country. The committee heard very clearly that there is already insufficient treatment available to Australians who are seeking treatment for substance abuse issues. The committee also heard that the government's attempt, through this mandatory drug trial process, would exacerbate those issues. Indeed, Professor Ritter told the committee that Australia currently treats 200,000 people for substance abuse each year, but that an additional 200,000 to 500,000 people each year would like to receive treatment, which is unavailable to them.
That, in itself, shows that the government is letting down people who are seeking help. I think that is shameful because, if there is any commitment that we, as a society, need to give—and, indeed, that a government should give—it is to look after those most vulnerable. I think it is absolutely shameful that those who have found themselves in a position where they have a drug addiction and are seeking help and treatment can't access that because of blown out waiting lists and the like.
Professor Reynolds emphasised very much the lack of availability of treatment options. He said that patients needing treatment are regularly waiting six to 12 weeks for that treatment and may need to travel large distances. Of course, when we talk about drug addiction, it's not just in our capital cities; it's also in regional parts of the country where treatment may not be available. So not only is there the distance travelled; there are then the ongoing waiting lists of six to 12 weeks, and I think, in some instances, they could be even longer than that.
The Labor senators that were a part of this inquiry, including myself, were deeply troubled by these revelations, particularly the revelation that the Department of Social Services did not know the length of the existing waiting lists for drug and alcohol treatment in the three sites that the government was choosing to have its drug testing trials in. Here is a government that wants to set up drug testing trials and make them mandatory—if you don't turn up, you don't get your Centrelink payment—yet it didn't even know the current extent of the waiting lists for people trying to access drug and alcohol treatment in those particular areas it was wanting to set up the trials in. That is just bizarre and again shows the position that Father Frank Brennan highlighted, which is that this was, indeed, a political showpiece.
Throughout the time of this inquiry, a campaign got underway. Certainly, the medical experts weren't going to just put in a submission; they were going to make sure their voices were heard by government. I thank them for that. In doing that, they wrote an open letter signed by 109 addiction specialists, 330 doctors, 208 registered nurses and hundreds of allied health professionals. Together, they have over 27,501 years of collective medical experience. They called it #HELP NOT HARM: An Open Letter from the Front Lines of Addiction. What came out of that #HELP NOT HARM campaign was a petition that ended up being signed by 36,835 Australians who want their voices heard. They all wrote to the Prime Minister and the government members in the House and in the Senate, stating:
We call on Parliament to abandon attempts to strip people with alcohol and drug problems of income support payments. Pushing people into poverty only serves to undermine their chance of recovery—and puts lives at risk.
The amount of support was overwhelming, and I thank all of those who signed that petition and made their voices heard. The doctors, the nurses, the addiction specialists and the health advocates all stood shoulder to shoulder, united against this government's plans to punish Australians struggling with severe alcohol and drug problems.
I understand that, in the last day or so, there have been media reports that the government now has listened to those medical experts, to Labor and to those who are opposed to this practice and is now being forced to shelve this flawed drug testing plan. If this is actually the case, then I welcome it. But I say: why did the government have to embark on this in the first place when it had no evidence to substantiate what it was doing? If it is the case that it is now going to shelve this policy of mandatory drug testing, then where is the amendment? It is not something that those of us on this side have seen thus far. All we have are media reports that that is the intention of the government.
I have to say though that, if the government is doing this, it is an incredible win for the hundreds of people who work in addiction medicine, in our health system and in our community, to support people who have drug and alcohol addictions. It is a big win for you. Your voices have been heard. You have been listened to. Finally, the government is going to do something about it. But, to be honest, it shouldn't have had to come to this. It shouldn't have had to come to thousands of people signing petitions and hundreds of people in the medical field having to ensure that their voices were heard, because the evidence simply wasn't there in the first place.
Some others not in the medical field who wanted to contribute to this included former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer. Mick Palmer said:
It certainly hasn't got much chance of reducing crime. It does have the potential in some cases to aggravate it.
He said that all his experience told him that this policy wouldn't work.
Really what it will do is create more damage, and most damage and most harm to those people who are most vulnerable and most in need of support and protection …
Indeed, Patrick McGorry, a very well-renowned and respected mental health expert, said:
It's an absolute disgrace. It fails to recognise that mental illness and drug and alcohol problems nearly always coexist, they're a health problem and not a lifestyle choice.
One of the most compelling submissions for me, having read a number of them—and there certainly were many—came from ACOSS. ACOSS work on the front line of all community organisations that look after and address the policy issues for the most vulnerable in our community. In their submission they covered a number of the schedules and why they opposed them. In relation to schedule 12, they highlighted that this represents an extraordinary and alarming departure from the key aim of our social security system, which is to provide a safety net for people in need. I think that is so right. It is an incredibly alarming departure that the government would attack the safety net that ensures that Australia is regarded as a country of the fair go. The safety net is there in those times of need. Instead, it was going to use a punitive measure and attack that safety net.
The bizarre thing about all of this and why the government never had to embark on this approach and why I still believe that it was completely for political purposes is that the Australian government's own Australian National Council on Drugs looked into the evidence around drug testing and recommended that income support recipients not be drug tested. Its own National Council on Drugs, all the way back in 2013, made it very clear that this should not be the approach the government takes, and it ignored its own council. The council said in 2013:
There is no evidence that drug testing welfare beneficiaries will have any positive effects for those individuals or for society, and some evidence indicating such a practice would have high social and economic costs.
In addition, there would be serious ethical and legal problems in implementing such a program in Australia. Drug testing of welfare beneficiaries ought not to be considered.
Yet, where did that go? That council was completely ignored by its own government.
The people of Australia have the right to an answer from this government as to why it has embarked on such a flawed, heartless, ridiculous policy when there is so much evidence to say it will not work and it may even cause more harm. The Australian public have the right to an answer from this government. I hope that's going to come from Minister Porter. All we have, as I said, are some media reports to say that he's finally backed down, but we haven't had any explanation or, indeed, a look at the amendment that I presume is going to be before this place to change the government's approach. We know the government has not cared or had any idea of how to address the issues in our welfare system since it has been in government. Labor will always stand with the most vulnerable in our community. We know very well that we have a government in this country that is completely out of touch with everyday Australians, and that means it is completely out of touch with some of our most vulnerable people.
Finally, I want to thank the medical experts and those who work in the community sector. Every day they are on the frontline, ensuring that they are providing the care, services and support needed by some of our most vulnerable people. We stand with you, we support you and we support the people who rely on the safety net that makes Australia such a great country to live in. We will always ensure that the government keeps its hands off it by debating and fighting for you in this place and within our communities.