Senate debates

Thursday, 7 December 2017


Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017; Second Reading

11:09 am

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 has measures that will expose vulnerable people in our communities and increase hardship and suffering. It attacks the most disadvantaged people in our community. It tightens the screws on people who are already struggling to make ends meet. People require support, not penalties and punishment. The government proposes these changes without any evidence to justify them. The only evidence put forward in this debate presents compelling arguments against the proposals. The government is trying to rush these changes through without listening to the experts or the people that they will impact. It's a mean-spirited bill, another one in a long line which, if passed, will make life harder for people who already face disadvantage and hardship.

Labor opposes this bill. There are some measures, if separated from the rest, that Labor will support. Labor is proposing a series of amendments that reflect that position, including an amendment to schedule 15 to reinstate waivers and discretion from the secretary and employment service providers when assessing compliance measures for jobseekers. There are schedules in this bill that Labor rejects outright.

It's important to put this bill into its proper context. The bill follows on from a long line of measures designed to punish low-income people—measures that increase inequality and entrench disadvantage. The coalition is on a restless mission to destroy the social safety net while, at the same time, giving tax concessions to big business. The bill must be seen in the context of this government's 2013-14 National Commission of Audit and its 2014-15 horror budget. Remember the Commission of Audit? It was made up of former coalition parliamentarians, rolled-gold Liberals and the government's business mates proposing a slash-and-burn approach to Australia's welfare system.

That led to the 2014-15 budget, which ACOSS described as having permanent and crushing effects on low-income people. Funding was pulled from the higher education and schools system—except for the school chaplaincy program; don't touch that! And I'm joking. Cuts were also made to Medicare, and co-payments were introduced for visits to the doctor. Co-payments were introduced on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. These were blatant attempts to destroy the universal application of our healthcare system. A total of $534.4 million was pulled out of Indigenous funding over 4 years. Cuts were made to legal aid and legal services in an attempt to disenfranchise the poorest in our community from accessing equal treatment before the law. The regulators and corporate watchdog whose job it is to ensure business complies with legal obligations and pay their fair share of tax were subject to significant funding cuts. The corporate regulator, ASIC, had its funding cut. The ACCC had its funding cut. The Australian Taxation Office had its funding cut by $142.8 million.

Business gets off lightly, while working families, the poor and the disadvantaged in our society are attacked every time this government brings a budget to the parliament. The omnibus savings bill, put to the parliament in February this year, was just as cruel. It was designed to cut family tax benefits, cut paid parental leave, scrap the energy supplement, impose a five-week wait for Newstart recipients for the under-25s, push 22- to 24-year-olds onto a lower youth allowance payment and cut pension payments for people travelling overseas. This is the government that brought us the PaTH internship program, where the number of young people who had their payments suspended exceeds the number that have achieved employment. They have delivered the Community Development Program, where astronomical numbers of suspended payments endured by first nation people in remote communities is a national disgrace. There were nearly 300,000 penalties applied to around 20,000 participants over the first 21 months of CDP.

They want to increase the pension age to 70 for everyone born after 1 January 1966. This one is particularly egregious. Blue-collar workers, workers on building sites, workers who have had hard labour throughout their whole life, are now expected to work until they are 70 years old. Those across from us, who have done probably nothing but been looked after by their parents, gone off to university and maybe worked in a politician's office, end up sitting in this place in comfort and wealth. They don't know what it's like to have to do a hard day's work in their life, never mind when you are 70.

This terrible bill joins other disgraceful measures that the government are seeking to make into law, including proposals to cut back education payments that support single parents, people with disabilities and carers to undertake the study they need to get jobs. It makes over 2,000 older Australians wait longer to access the pension because they were born overseas and limits pensioners' freedom to travel. They cut back payments for middle-income households with children. They make unemployed people wait longer for income support and force them to spend down their savings even more before they can receive support.

Schedule 3 is the cessation of the wife pension. Labor opposes schedule 3, which would reduce payments to 2,900 women receiving the wife pension. Payments would stop completely for 200 women currently living overseas. Overnight they would lose all income support and be $670 worse off per fortnight. Schedule 4 is the cessation of the bereavement allowance. Labor opposes schedule 4. It seeks to reduce the short-term payments to people whose partner has died. This will mean that a bereaved person in need of income support will receive $1,300 less over the 14-week period than they do currently. The entitlement for a pregnant woman is even greater. This is a cruel cut to people during what can be the most traumatic time in their life.

Labor opposes schedule 9. It seeks to cut the time that 55- to 59-year-old income support recipients are able to volunteer in the community and still receive Newstart payments. These measures will rob community organisations of the valuable contributions being made by mature age jobseekers. It will force people to cease their volunteer work and to undertake activity testing, when it is well known that this older cohort face particular barriers to re-employment. Anglicare rightly points out that there are not enough jobs in the labour market for all jobseekers. Their jobs availability snapshot shows that there are six jobseekers for every entry level vacancy. This provision will prevent people from volunteering their time and skills while it fails to provide the additional support to assist them back into work.

Schedules 10 and 11 of the bill seek to leave unemployed people without income for longer, by pushing back the start date and backdating the receipt of income support. Labor opposes these schedules. These measures combined will remove $266 million of financial support from jobseekers who have no other income. There is no justification for these changes. These measures simply serve to reduce the level of support to unemployed people at a time when they most need it.

Schedule 17 of the bill seeks to increase the capacity for investigations and prosecutions against income support recipients, an already vulnerable group of people on low incomes with limited access to quality legal representation. Labor is concerned that this will expose people to self-incrimination and deny them a basic common law right, and we will oppose this schedule.

And there are schedules 12, drug trial; and 13 and 14, exemptions and reasonable excuses for drug and alcohol dependence. If this bill passes, people suffering from drug and alcohol dependence will face draconian compliance regimes. Schedules 13 and 14 seek to exclude drug- and alcohol-dependent people from relaxed activity testing and participation when they are unwell, and increase the likelihood that people will end up in crisis. Schedule 12 in the bill, currently before us, seeks to establish a drug trial that would compel income support recipients to undertake drug testing or have their income support withdrawn.

If the reports that we hear are correct, then Minister Porter has suffered yet another failure and the government has been forced to shelve its flawed drug-testing plan. The government proposed the drug trial that has no basis in evidence and has been completely condemned by experts and medical specialists. The government was advised in 2013 by the Australian National Council on Drugs in their position paper on drug testing not to proceed with random drug-testing policies. The paper states:

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.

The head of the Australian Medical Association, Michael Gannon, in his recent address to the National Press Club said of the trial:

It's simply unfair and it already picks on an impaired and marginalised group. It's not evidence-based. It's not fair. And we stand against it.

President of the Australasian Chapter of Addiction Medicine of the Australasian College of Physicians admitted to the Senate inquiry that the chapter was:

… quite honestly, at a loss to see why a drug-testing trial is considered a necessary or effective way to address these issues.


Our analysis and advice is that the measures will be costly and ineffective and that government should consult with the sector on the development of evidence-based solutions to prevent and better address substance use disorders and increase the availability of treatment services across the nation.

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

International experience shows when you push people to the brink, like removing their welfare payments, things just get worse. There will be more crime, more family violence, more distress within society.

Dr Alex Wodak, the President of the Australasian Drug Law Reform Foundation said:

Had the Turnbull government consulted experts before unveiling this plan, they would have been advised to drop these measures pronto. Drug testing trials for people on income support have been trialled and abandoned in a few countries. In addition to causing significant harm to affected people and the wider community, they came at an enormous cost to the taxpayer. Isn’t the government supposed to be reining in wasteful spending?

The drug trial was and still is a bad idea. Pushing unwell people into further crisis by stopping their only income is a terrible policy. The government might take the drug trial out of this bill, but it remains a disgraceful attack on vulnerable people.

Schedules 13 and 14 are draconian and flawed approaches to drug and alcohol dependence, and, according to the experts, are destined to fail. Labor oppose them, as they will do more harm than good. Schedule 15, the new compliance framework, seeks amendments to restore discretion to the secretary and employment service providers to waive penalties. Schedule 15 of the bill proposes changes to the compliance network and for income support recipients, subject to mutual obligations and participation payments.

According to the government's own modelling, these changes would double the number of financial penalties already being endured by people on income support—increasing the number of breaches from 72,000 a year to 147,000. The government is proposing this change without providing any evidence that cutting more people off welfare will improve their ability to get a job. On the contrary, evidence from the United Kingdom shows that tougher compliance sanctions have the opposite effect. They increase the risk of participants becoming homeless and have negative outcomes for mental health, physical health, self-esteem, relationships and engagement with the labour market. Instead, sanction regimes harm psychological wellbeing and disrupt people's efforts to secure work in unintended ways, such as fulfilling compliance requirements rather than searching efficiently for the best job available.

The government's modelling shows that Indigenous people will be disproportionately impacted by these changes, with 25 per cent of serious suspensions likely to impact first peoples, when they represent 10 per cent of the entire case load. The response from the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, to first peoples raising the issue of the shocking unfairness in the welfare system under the Community Development Program was to say:

It is important we stop characterising penalties as punishment.

What an outrageous statement of paternalism to justify discriminatory and damaging social policy. These are simply policies that punish people for being poor by making them even poorer. The government has not properly consulted with anyone in developing these policies. This is not a genuine attempt to help people overcome addiction or seek treatment. These changes will impact people with serious illness, pushing them into financial hardship.

Mr Turnbull claims his flawed and hateful drug policy is a policy based on love. How out of touch can this Prime Minister get? It's a blatant attack on the most vulnerable people in our community with no basis in evidence. In a country with an affordable-housing crisis, where underemployment is a persistent and growing feature of our labour market, this government is doing nothing to fix these issues. Instead, they serve up a never-ending supply of nasty cuts to our social safety net that drive further inequality. This government does not care about the poor and the disadvantaged in this country. This government is a disgrace.

11:28 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017, which is the latest government attack on some of the most vulnerable members of our community—their relentless campaign to attack those trying to survive on the low payments of our social security system. The measures in this bill will have significant impacts on vulnerable people, particularly those with drug and alcohol dependence, older people looking for work, people with disability, bereaved pregnant women and, as usual, a favourite target of the government, people accessing Newstart and youth allowance payments.

This bill is yet another mishmash of measures that will erode our social security and our social safety net, making it increasingly less accessible and more paternalistic while insidiously reducing some payments. The most well-known measure in this bill is the plan to drug test 5,000 people trying to access income support. Of course, while the government has circulated some amendments, the minister has made it very clear that this is not the end of the matter. They still want to do that.

Other measures in the bills create a single jobseeker payment, establish a harsh new two-phase jobseeker compliance framework, remove existing exemptions for jobseekers experiencing drug or alcohol dependence, increase activity requirements for people aged 55 to 59, increase the waiting time for the start of Newstart and youth allowance payments and establish a harsh new compliance regime. Representatives of the health, mental health and addiction sector have unanimously expressed significant and deep concern about the impacts these so-called trials, the drug trials, will have on income support recipients and have called on the parliament to reject this schedule.

The drug-testing trials, as well as the measures to remove temporary exemptions from mutual obligation requirements because of an income support recipient's drug or alcohol dependence or crisis relating to it, and the change to problems relating to addiction being considered a reasonable exemption from activity requirements or mutual obligations, are going to make circumstances far worse for people struggling with addiction, which is a health issue.

These three measures, schedules 12 to 14, fail to understand and indeed actively ignore the medical nature of addiction and the complex biological, psychological and social underpinnings of drug addiction. Placing people on income management or withholding payments for people who test positive to illicit drugs if they don't comply will not help them to recover from addiction or stop them using drugs but, rather, further isolate and stigmatise them. There is a distinct lack of evidence to support the efficacy of drug-testing income support recipients. Such measures have failed in the US, and proposals have been abandoned in the UK and Canada.

Witness after witness to the inquiry into this bill highlighted the problems with this approach and also the significant lack of appropriate drug and alcohol services across the country. This measure forces users into mandatory drug treatment despite the fact that many treatment options are simply not available. Alcohol and other drug treatment services in Australia are chronically underfunded and overstretched, despite the evidence of their cost-effectiveness.

It is deeply concerning that the government is not only spending taxpayer dollars on measures that the evidence shows will be ineffective at managing alcohol and drug dependence; it is ignoring the fact that fewer than half of the people seeking treatment in Australia can find it. If the government is serious about helping people with addiction, it must dramatically increase funding to high-quality treatment services and treat this issue as the health issue it is.

At the inquiry, the CEO of the Ted Noffs Foundation, Matthew Noffs, described these measures as penal populism and said:

The way that Australians frame a drug user is that they are a person who uses drugs because it was their bad choice. That's not what the evidence says. The evidence says it's poverty or trauma—or all of these other scientifically validated reasons why a person becomes addicted to drugs. We still have a large percentage of our population that believes that a person addicted to drugs is addicted because they're a bad person. We know that's not the case, but I can't convince everyone.

…   …   …

… there might be some people who think they can win some points by doing so and jumping onto the wagon of penal populism—that's what we call it in criminology.

Addiction is a complex health issue closely related to poverty and trauma, and we should treat those suffering with compassion, through the health system.

This bill also contains a couple of measures that will make people applying for Newstart and youth allowance wait longer to receive their payments. Here we have two measures: a change to the start date for participation payments and a removal of the intention to change provisions, which will ultimately make people wait longer to receive a payment when they have no other form of income. These measures will particularly disadvantage people with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, women and children escaping domestic violence, people in hospital and those in rural and remote areas. With the estimated savings from these two measures at $266 million, it is once again clear the government is seeking to make savings off the backs of those with the least—yet again. Look at it this way: these savings mean people aren't eating, paying rent or having the resources to find work.

With regard to the changes to the compliance system, it is good to see the government acknowledging that the current system is flawed. The Greens have long advocated for an overhaul to the compliance process. However, we have deep concerns about the proposed demerit-points system. I flag that I will be moving an amendment that says that there should be a proper review of the compliance system because that has not occurred. These changes have not resulted from a comprehensive review of the compliance system. The measure introduces a demerit-points system whereby jobseekers are given seven demerit points which can be lost for breaches such as not showing up at appointments or interviews. There are financial penalties for people who fail to meet their mutual obligation requirements for five or more times over six months. The first three demerit points, which can result in payment suspension, may be issued by the employment provider with little review by DHS. DHS does not get involved until the fourth point. We don't know how DHS will ensure that the first three demerit points have been reasonably and consistently applied or ensure that a reasonable excuse has been accepted in the appropriate circumstances. This is concerning given that a jobseeker can lose payment after four demerit points, once they enter the so-called 'three-strike phase'. This measure also removes the discretion of employment providers to take into account the real impacts of a suspended payment on a person's wellbeing and financial vulnerability before they issue a breach for non-compliance. It is expected that up to 80,000 people would lose at least one week's payment if this measure were to go ahead. Losing one week's payment when you are on a very low income has a substantial impact.

A key concern in this measure is that, while the maximum loss of payment at one time is reduced from the current eight weeks to four weeks, by the time you get to four weeks you have already lost three weeks. Also, this penalty cannot be waived as it can be currently; nor will payment continue if the person is challenging the correctness of the decision to impose it, unlike the current system. As Anglicare told the inquiry into the bill:

Australia already has one of the most targeted and compliance-heavy social security systems in the world.

Discretion is incredibly important in supporting vulnerable people to find employment, as we heard from ACOSS in their submission. They said:

The proposed system relies very heavily on drawing a clear distinction between people who are willing to comply but face difficulties, and people who wilfully and repeatedly avoid activity requirements. Our experience is in fact more blurred, people's circumstances do change, and many vulnerabilities go unreported. Discretions to tailor responses to noncompliance is essential to ensure that any compliance system remains humane.

Any changes to the compliance framework must be humane. The new approach proposed in this measure will exacerbate problems, not improve them. As advised by stakeholders in their submissions and at the inquiry, we need a thorough and independent review of the compliance framework and mutual obligation requirement system. We must have an independent, public review into the compliance system before any reforms of the existing framework happen.

It is also very concerning that the government is tightening up mutual obligations for older Australians aged between 55 and 59. Instead of having to complete 30 hours per fortnight of paid or voluntary work, older jobseekers will now be forced to find a minimum of 15 hours of paid work. Senators were told during the inquiry process that this change will not only have a negative impact on jobseekers in a vulnerable cohort but also be detrimental to the volunteer sector that provides an estimated economic and social contribution of $290 billion.

As Anglicare Australia's Jobs availability snapshot shows, the shortage in the number of positions available for low-skill jobseekers runs at six jobseekers for every position advertised. Older workers, in particular, face significant barriers to finding work. This measure goes nowhere in terms of helping to fix this problem, as Anglicare told us during the inquiry. They pointed out that forcing people aged 55 to 59 to complete Work for the Dole or search-for-work programs will not create any new positions or reduce discrimination against older workers. It also devalues and dismisses the value of the voluntary work completed by people in this age bracket in terms of its value to our community and as an appropriate means of lifting skills, providing meaningful community work and engagement and potentially finding employment derived from volunteering.

Volunteering gives people a sense of wellbeing and belonging in their communities as well as an opportunity to develop skills for future employment. Volunteering is also an important way for people from disadvantaged backgrounds and people with disability or mental illness to gain skills and confidence to enter and re-enter the workforce. Unemployment is often an isolating experience, and volunteering is an important way for people to stay connected to their communities. Cutting down volunteering hours to compel people to look for jobs that simply aren't available is nonsensical. Unemployment requires a multipronged and multifaceted approach rather than punitive measures that result in jobseekers being financially penalised for being unable to fulfil activity requirements due to the unavailability of jobs. These changes will disproportionately affect older women, a category of jobseeker particularly disadvantaged in the labour market and who also make up the majority of the volunteer workforce.

Under this bill, Newstart allowance, sickness allowance, wife pension, bereavement allowance and widow B pension will transition to the jobseeker payment. There are a whole host of problems with the transition arrangements in the streamlining of these payments; but the most heartbreaking cut is to the bereavement allowance, with the highest cut affecting grieving women who have lost their partner during pregnancy—I have to wonder whether it is really worth the menial savings that the government is trying to scrape back. For some context, reducing the bereavement allowance will save $1.04 million over four years, whilst the creation of the streamlined jobseeker payment will cost $11.6 million and leave some people worse off.

I'm also deeply concerned about how schedules 12 to 15 in this bill will impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities, particularly those participating in CDP, and share the concerns regarding the issues raised by the Human Rights Law Centre at the inquiry. Those on the Community Development Program, the CDP, are not specifically excluded from the measures proposed in schedule 12—drug testing and income management trials—and schedule 14—changes to the use of drugs or alcohol dependence as a reasonable excuse. This bill does, however, exclude people participating in CDP from schedules 13 and 15—the removal of temporary drug or alcohol dependence exemptions for activity requirements and targeted compliance framework.

This 'exclusion' is facilitated by giving the secretary an exceptionally broad power to determine by legislative instrument that remote Work for the Dole program participants are declared program participants, and also to modify how social security law will apply to them. This is an extraordinary power to give an unelected government official, as Ms Walters, Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, pointed out:

The power to be given to the secretary is far broader than what is necessary if the purpose is only to exclude remote participants from schedules 13 and 15 of the bill. The power allows the secretary to modify how social security laws will apply generally, including after a person has left the program. More fundamentally, it delegates far too much legislative power in an unelected government official with only limited parliamentary scrutiny, including a power to create different classes of social security recipients subject to different conditions. This extraordinarily broad power to be given to the secretary would create a dangerous precedent and render it easier for future governments to alter access to basic social security entitlements and protections for remote Aboriginal communities or to other classes of people determined to be declared program participants.

This bill also contains amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act to provide exemptions to social security law, which I have deep concerns about. According to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights:

It should be noted that section 45 of the Disability Discrimination Act already exempts special measures "designed to assist people who have a disability to obtain greater equality of opportunity or provide them with benefits to meet their special needs". An exemption therefore is not required in order to pay benefits to people with disabilities, but would be required for measures which negatively impact people with a disability, such as reducing or suspending payments to those who fail to meet mutual obligation requirements due to their disability where that disability is a drug or alcohol dependency.

The Greens are concerned that an exemption is required for measures which negatively impact people with a disability, such as reducing or suspending payments to those who fail to meet mutual obligation requirements due to their disability where that disability is a drug or alcohol dependency, or imposing mandatory drug testing on people with disability. What exactly does the government have in mind here?

The bill targets vulnerable people for minimal savings. Drug testing and changes to claim provisions could have significant flow-on impacts, resulting in homelessness and negative mental and physical health outcomes. Drug testing and changing the activity requirements for people struggling with substance abuse will demonise and isolate people struggling with addiction.

This bill targets people with serious health problems. While I'm deeply concerned about the human consequences of such an invasive and punitive approach to people with addiction, the overall financial cost of implementing the drug-testing trials and dealing with negative social outcomes will be large.

The government keeps talking about the need to make savings, but it wants to spend $47 million on making older people find jobs that aren't even there and $28 million on removing compliance exemptions for people with drug and alcohol dependency. As Professor Reynolds from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians told the inquiry, these drug testing measures are 'magical thinking':

Addiction is a disorder that's described by the WHO and in the DSM-5—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—as involving impairment or loss of control; the continuation of use, notwithstanding harm to the individual; and compulsions and cravings, alongside the physiological changes of tolerance and withdrawal. We know that there are structural and functional brain changes that are increasingly identified in the literature. There's work being done through the National Institutes of Health in America. This is not something that is amendable to simply saying, 'We're going to manage your income.' It is, really, magical thinking, or at least it's uninformed thinking. We're quite gobsmacked by this idea that we have a value system that says we want people to behave well and not spend their money on unhealthy commodities. As a doctor, I wish that the entire Australian community would spend less on unhealthy commodities.

The evidence to the Senate committee was very clear: these measures will not work and are likely to have a detrimental effect. We cannot afford to erode our social security system any further. We oppose this bill. We oppose the schedules in the bill, and we will be moving amendments if this goes through the second reading. (Time expired)

11:48 am

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

12:06 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source

The measures in the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 of greatest interest to Australian Conservatives are schedule 12, regarding drug testing trials, and schedule 15, regarding the targeted compliance framework—in effect, adjusting the consequences for failing the mutual obligation. Firstly, I would like to make a few comments about welfare reform generally and outline just how big the task ahead of us is. Reforming the cost of the welfare budget to the taxpayer is of critical importance. When I refer to the taxpayers, I refer to the heroes of the system who pay more in tax over their lifetime than they receive in benefits. They are a diminishing number in a growing welfare state. I and the Australian Conservatives consider them to be the heroes who are upholding our country. Indeed, they are the cash cows that parties like the Greens, the Labor Party, the Nick Xenophon Team and so forth milk time and time again to fund failed wealth redistribution schemes.

But it's not just the Greens and it is not just the Labor Party. You've got past and present crossbenchers, including the Nick Xenophon Team, whom I mentioned, who have shown zero interest in addressing the ballooning welfare budget. They are champions of the squeaky wheels. They rush out with their oil cans filled at taxpayers' expense to appease the so-called welfare groups who demand more and more and more. They are more and more and more dependent on government for their outcomes. In effect, they are the enemies of self-reliance. They trade away the dignity of having a job, owning your own home and taking some personal responsibility. That is why Australia is suffering and why Australia is struggling to manage a ballooning debt. A massive amount of money is injected into the welfare portfolio and we are seeing increasing demands on it. It's time for that to change.

I note that yesterday there was a motion moved through this place by the Australian Conservatives, supported by the Senate, including the Nick Xenophon Team, that observed the spending levels, which are currently at Whitlam-esque levels when compared with our gross domestic product. The Nick Xenophon Team support the view that we need to reduce government waste and spending and refrain from raising taxes. I would suggest that they should then vote accordingly and support particular bills to redress this and to get people off welfare, including some of the tougher measures in this bill.

But the budget papers show that $8 billion in interest alone is attributable to borrowings in the Social Services portfolio. That's $8,000 million. And a pie chart that occasionally appears on tax returns—and I think it should be explained in greater detail for taxpayers—shows that 35.3 per cent of government spending this financial year will be on social security and welfare. The trend over the forward estimates is that real growth in expenses, by portfolio, will be $15 billion in social services, just over the following four years of the forward estimates. That dwarfs the less than $2 billion in spending growth in health, education and defence spending. Let me put that into perspective: $15 billion growth in the social security portfolio; $2 billion growth in health, education and defence spending.

There are a couple of measures in this bill, as I outlined, that will make a dent in that, but we have to recognise that we have even more demands coming down the pipe in our social security and welfare portfolio. Perhaps the greatest of these is in the disability area going forward. The cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme is going to rise from $3.4 billion this financial year to an astonishing $20 billion-plus in 2020-21. That's an astonishing amount of money, and I suspect that won't even touch the sides of it, because we are continuing to see increasing demands for disabilities worthy of inclusion in the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Governments rarely like to say no to anybody. Are they going to be brought into the realm of saying, 'Your disability makes you more worthy to access the National Disability Insurance Scheme than someone else's disability does'?

Another large share of growth in the welfare budget relates to the age pension. I think the age pension is a good thing and age pensioners deserve a fair go, but unfortunately they have been displaced, if I can put it like that, by all the tinkering around superannuation, around housing and around the cost of living. We're finding people are trying to manipulate the system to enable them to get an age pension because of the benefits that go with it, even if they don't particularly need it. There is a lack of confidence now in the superannuation area, because of the constant changes by governments, including by the current government, when they promise they're not going to deal with it again. We've had, again and again, promises that there will be no changes to superannuation. Then they introduce a change. Then they say, 'That's it; there's no more.' Then just the other day this place passed another change to superannuation, allowing first home buyers to access some superannuation savings. You just can't rely on it. Little wonder people are now critically concerned about what's going on.

That brings us to the levels of debt in this country. We are borrowing money, and eventually we will have to pay the money back. Governments are enlisting all sorts of measures in order to recover money from people who get it in unlawful manners or who do not pay their bills, effectively, or pay what is due to the government. The government don't enlist debt collection firms, for example, but there are debt collection firms out there who will do astonishing things. I would like to quote from one, Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions. Marlinspike are a relatively new firm, but they've got their shingle out there:

From our early origins as a very small company Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions had turned itself into a very aggressive debt collection company which specializes in the recovery of the maximum amount of debts for small business who remain unpaid. We will chase people to the ends of the earth and will pursue all legal avenues to vindicate our client's commercial interests. At the end of the day we only get paid if you get paid. We look forward to collecting debts on your behalf no matter how small the debts and no matter how difficult pursuing it may seem.

You wonder why I read about Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions? It's interesting. We live in a society where people feel they don't have an obligation to others or they don't feel they have to pay their own debts. We've seen it, in fact, in this place.

We've seen Senator Dastyari, when he was on the hook for $1,000 or $1,500 from an excess travel bill, turn to a benefactor, a Chinese benefactor, to get that money paid. Lo and behold—who'd have thunk it?—as I was browsing through the levels of debt that we have in this country and I stumbled upon Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions, I also stumbled upon a court case that was lodged on 2 December 2017 in Sydney by Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions—case file No. is 2017/0032625. I mention that because it piqued my interest. I don't know how it came up. It may have been a Google alert. It has the defendant as a Mr Dastyari.

So you've got Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions chasing a Mr Dastyari through the Sydney civil court for non-payment of debt. The plaintiff is a debt acquisition firm. The defence has not been filed as yet, and yet, due to the sleuth-like detective work that has been a characterisation of this place, it would appear that the debt that is owed is circa the $100,000 region. Mr Dastyari is being pursued for $100,000, and I'm advised that the debt is being claimed on behalf of a Chinese company or individual. These sorts of things always pique my interest, if I can say that. It's a confluence of things. You've got a Chinese entity or individual, you've got $100,000 worth of debt that's owed, you've got a new debt collection firm called Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions, which is located in Chifley Tower in the Servcorp offices who are pursuing a Mr Dastyari for that debt. I don't know whether it is the same Mr Dastyari that we have in this place, Senator Dastyari, who has a habit of not paying his bills. I don't know whether it is Senator Dastyari or this Mr Dastyari that turns to Chinese benefactors to mop up his financial excesses. I don't know the answers to those questions, but I think they're important questions to have resolved on the final day of the sitting year. I note that this Mr Dastyari has a couple of weeks to file his defence, and then everything will be on the public record, I understand. It's curiouser and curiouser.

How can we be trying to address the burgeoning welfare debt in this place when I think there might be some people participating in the vote who have some unexplained debts of their own? These are genuine questions that I think we need to get to the bottom of. If we don't, we risk having our parliament fall into even greater disrepute. We risk having our government struggle under the yoke of debt that sees them perhaps pursue the same desperate mechanism that we've seen individuals pursue when it comes to debts—that is, compromise yourself to risk your reputation, to traduce your loyalties to your country in the name of a few measly dollars to ease you out of a burden.

We don't know the circumstances and exactly how deep it runs at the individual level in the case of this Mr Dastyari—and we'll have to get to the bottom of who he is—but the principle is the same. If you don't pay your debts, as this Mr Dastyari is alleged to have done because he's being pursued through the courts by Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions to the tune of $100,000, I'm advised, then you've got to pay another price. It is the same in this country. Unless we arrest the booming welfare debt that is consuming 35 per cent of our budget, then we have very little prospect of paying back the debts that we have accrued over the last 10 or 11 years—and those debts are massive. They're intergenerational, moral obligations. We all have moral obligations—and I think I've reminded a couple of people of theirs today—to the next generation, and we can't avoid them.

I was particularly proud of the Australian Conservatives' contribution to this bill when it was first announced, because we strongly advocated for drug testing for welfare benefits. We will be moving amendments to seek to remove the limits on the trial sites, but I'm advised also that a deal has been done with the Nick Xenophon Team, which is why I earlier referred to them so much, to get rid of the drug-testing regime. This is very disappointing because I think the Nick Xenophon Team, in doing this, are ignoring the devastating personal and social impacts of illicit substance abuse. They will say we need more treatment, but the greatest treatment is to say: 'Get off it. You're not entitled to welfare, if you're going down that path.'

The number of meth users in Australia has doubled in the last six years. We've got a mortality rate which is six times the general population. Surely, it's enough to say: you should pass a drug test before you're entitled to Australian welfare. I do note that the Nick Xenophon Team's Senator Patrick's—aka SA-BEST; whatever—staffer, Nick Xenophon himself, who was a former senator, said that a root-and-branch review of bail laws was needed nationwide and sought a reversal of the presumption of bail if a person was using ice. He said that people who commit crimes while they're using ice should be treated like terrorists. I want to put this in perspective: according to the Nick Xenophon Team, an ice user can be refused bail; you can keep them in prison; and you should treat them like terrorists, if they're committing a crime; but you're not allowed to stop giving them welfare. I find that extraordinary. Wouldn't it be better to take away the ability to buy the ice, drugs, marijuana and whatever else rather than put them in prison, which appears to be their way of looking at it? It's all over the place.

I'm here as a member of the Australian Conservatives. We support schedule 12. We will be doing everything we can to uphold it because we think it's important for people to be accountable for their choices—accountable not only for the use of public moneys but for their use of illicit substances, which I do not endorse or condone; and accountable to the taxpayer: if they want welfare, they shouldn't be using illicit substances. It's what I say to every individual senator in this place: 'You should be accountable for the debts you accrue. If you happen to owe some Chinese firm or benefactor $100,000 or thereabouts, you should pay that if you owe it to them.' You shouldn't allow Marlinspike Debt Acquisitions to pursue you to the ends of the earth to get maximum value for their clients. It's counterproductive; it doesn't work.

We need to make sure that people in this country are accountable for the decisions that they take, that they tell the truth and that they don't sell out, if I can say it like that, or compromise themselves or their values—just like this government shouldn't compromise itself or its values. Doing a deal with the Nick Xenophon Team where they think crystal meth users should be refused bail and treated like terrorists if they commit a crime but should also be entitled to access welfare every week is tantamount to selling out our responsibilities as a nation to the Australian taxpayer and to the onus of mutual obligation. I wait and see, however, how this bill fills out in the end. It will be fascinating to see the end result, and I reserve my right, as a member of the Australian Conservatives, to vote accordingly in the third reading.

12:24 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would just say to Senator Bernardi: don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, not that any piece of legislation that comes into this place is perfect. I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. I will start with the drug-testing aspects of the bill, because, as foreshadowed by a number of previous speakers, the government will be moving amendments to omit schedule 12 and references in other schedules from the bill.

Drug dependency and alcohol dependency is a scourge—everyone in this place would agree with that—but welfare dependency is also a scourge. Generational welfare dependency condemns people to an existence which is, I think, certainly significantly miserable and very difficult to remove yourself from once you are in that situation. Almost without exemptions, it has proven to be very difficult for governments of any persuasion to come up with successful answers to generational welfare dependency. So, I think that, in this space, we must always be willing to try new things. That is why, whilst the government will omit the drug-testing trial in schedule 12, it is certainly not something that we are giving up on. The government remains committed to the drug-testing trial and believe it can be, in the future, an effective way of identifying welfare recipients for whom mandated treatment could be successful.

As chair of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, I was involved in the inquiry into this bill, and there certainly were criticisms of the drug-testing trial. There were some criticisms, for example, of the lack of evidence to support drug testing, but that is why we're having a trial. We need to have some evidence base on which to make these decisions. The way we get that evidence base—particularly as every jurisdiction internationally is slightly different in the nature of welfare that's provided and how people interact with the welfare system—is with trials, which are a way of nations finding out what works within their particular jurisdictions.

I think it's also very important to note in that regard that overseas examples of drug testing, where they have occurred, most often relate to penalising people on welfare or preventing them from obtaining welfare, neither of which the government's drug-testing trial did. I want to make that very clear: this was not about penalising people; this was not about refusing them access to welfare. This was about identifying people who had a problem with addiction and then moving them through into treatment. The Department of Social Services stated the drug trial is to:

… assess the value of drug testing as a way of identifying those for whom drug misuse is a barrier to work, and as a means of supporting them to undertake treatment … This trial is not about penalising jobseekers with drug abuse issues. It is about finding new and better ways of identifying these jobseekers and ensuring they are referred to the support and treatment they need.

They went on to state that the objective of the drug-testing trial is:

… to provide the evidence as to whether an additional trigger for people who are receiving unemployment payments and have substance abuse problems will encourage them to self-disclose and/or be found to have that problem and to be quickly linked to treatment.

Removing barriers to work is important. Getting people back into work is the best thing we can do for people. This drug-testing trial was a valuable way of seeing if we could, through this trigger, move people into treatment and, thereby, help them to deal with their abuse problems and get back into work.

There were also some questions raised on the cost availability and reliability of testing. There were going to be specific types of drug testing and specific drugs to be tested for. That was going to be done in consultation with the Department of Human Services and the company that was to secure the drug-testing-service contract. So there was going to be capacity to undertake the tests—obviously, it's not something where you would necessarily test for every single drug out there. You would be looking for the harmful drugs; the ones that are having the most impact on people being able to get back into the workforce.

There was also a question mark raised on the availability of treatment services. It should be noted that the number of expected positive tests in the trial sites was going to be very low. It was expected that 120 people were likely to test positive a second time and that those would be the people who would be sent for medical assessment. So we are not talking about a large number of people being identified. So the treatment services required were going to vary from counselling sessions through to, in extreme cases, residential rehabilitation. To that end, the government had put extra funding of $10 million in place to be available to provide assistance to drug treatment services at the three trial sites.

Obviously the trial will not go ahead at this point. I think that is a shame, and the government certainly does remain committed to it. The trial was to have combined drug testing with other interventions underpinned by two fundamental principles: if you limit the amount of cash available to someone with a drug abuse problem, it will reduce their ability to underwrite their illicit drug use; and, if you mandate treatment tailored to individual people's needs, it will improve their life and—this is the key point—it will improve their employment outcomes. That, again, is what our welfare system is all about. It's about getting people out of welfare dependency and back into work. The data and the evidence show that not waiting until people get themselves motivated to seek treatment can work. Recent evaluations of drug court mandated treatments in Australia show a reduction in recidivism and better employment outcomes for participants.

My understanding is that the majority of the crossbench do support the drug-testing trial. However, there is some concern around the use of random testing as a method of selection. The government is therefore amending the bill to remove schedule 12. We will continue constructive discussions with the crossbench and seek to progress the drug-testing trials through separate legislation. However, it is very important to note that this bill is about a lot more than drug-testing trials. The trial is only one of 17 schedules in the bill. Again, welfare reforms in general are very important, and we need to continue to make sure that our welfare system is the correct one for our society and one that is affordable and provides the maximum amount of support to those in genuine need.

We're embarking on what is a very comprehensive reform of Australia's working-age welfare payments—probably the most comprehensive reform in decades. There's a consolidation of seven existing payments and we are introducing a new jobseeker payment. The jobseeker payment will be the main payment for people of working age, ensuring consistent treatment of recipients. Australians of working age who need the support of the Australian taxpayer will no longer be required to navigate a confusing and complex welfare system with multiple categories of payment that treat people who are in similar circumstances differently.

The jobseeker payment will have the same basic qualification, payability and rate settings as Newstart allowance; however, the payment will be broader in scope than the Newstart allowance. Provisions will be made within the jobseeker payment to allow access for people who are sick or injured or have a job or study to return to after recovery and would otherwise receive sickness allowance. The new payment will also provide assistance for people who have experienced the death of a partner. Around 811,000 existing payment recipients will transition to the jobseeker payments from 20 March 2020. This measure will simplify the welfare system and reduce the need for recipients to transfer between payments. Of the people impacted by this package, 99.93 per cent will have the same or a higher payment rate. I will state that again: 99.93 per cent of people impacted by this package will have the same or a higher payment rate.

There is relief from activity tests for persons aged 55 to 59. This measure will strengthen the employment focus of mutual obligations for mature-age jobseekers, with a view to better connecting them to the labour market. This involves changing the activity test arrangements to ensure Newstart allowance and special benefit recipients aged 55 to 59 experience greater workforce participation. The activity test is a requirement to actively look for work and accept any suitable work. Currently, Newstart allowance and special benefit recipients aged 55 or over can satisfy the activity test and meet their annual activity requirement through 30 hours per fortnight of approved voluntary work, paid work or a combination of both. A person's annual activity requirement is the number of hours jobseekers usually must complete in approved activities when they are in certain phases of servicing from their employment provider. Whilst volunteering is beneficial, participation in paid work and reduced reliance on income support should be the ultimate goal for jobseekers. Jobseekers aged 55 to 59 are of prime working age. They have many years of working ahead of them, and our welfare system should be encouraging them to get back to work sooner. From 20 September 2018, amended legislation will ensure Newstart allowance and special benefit recipients aged 55 to 59 are taken to satisfy the activity test if they are engaged in at least 30 hours per fortnight of paid work or a combination of paid and voluntary work, at least 15 hours of which must be in paid work.

Jobseekers aged between 60 and the age pension age would not be impacted by this legislation, but, under a complementary measure, this group of people will now have annual activity requirements of 10 hours per fortnight, which they can meet through voluntary work. This reflects a graduated approach to requirements, noting recipients aged 60 years and over currently do not have any participation requirements apart from job search activities. Commensurate changes would also be made to jobactive guidelines to prioritise paid work on the annual activity requirements for these recipients.

International evidence shows that the best way to reduce welfare dependency is to activate welfare recipients to search for work and undertake activities that increase their chances of finding work. The OECD has found there is an unmet activation potential in Australia's labour market and has recommended increasing participation requirements for several cohorts, including older Australians. The Treasury's 2015 Intergenerational report also raised the need to encourage older workers to stay in or re-enter the workforce. The proposed changes are expected to have a minimal impact on the number of volunteers or the hours contributed towards the volunteering sector. To complement this measure, the Australian government is also investing over $100 million to increase the skills and experience of mature-age jobseekers from 1 July 2018.

There is a change to the start date for some participation payments. From 1 January 2018, the income support payments for all new jobseekers who have claimed Newstart allowance or youth allowance and who are subject to RapidConnect will commence from the day they attend their initial jobactive Transition to Work appointment, instead of being back paid to the date they first contacted the Department of Human Services. These changes are designed to encourage jobseekers to connect more quickly with employment services to help them find and keep a job. Jobactive and Transition to Work providers are already required to make appointments available for jobseekers to attend within two business days. This will be maintained to ensure that jobseekers have every opportunity to connect with employment services as quickly as they can. If no provider appointments are available within two business days, then the jobseeker's income support will be backdated to the date their income support claim was finalised by the Department of Human Services. If a jobseeker has a reasonable excuse for missing their initial appointment and they attend a subsequent appointment, their income support will commence from the appointment they missed rather than the subsequent appointment.

The work first initiative is an important initiative that seeks to change jobseeker behaviour and ensure that they take personal responsibility to connect with the services that will help them find a job as quickly as possible. In all these cases, time is of the essence. The quicker you are interacting with services to help you get a job, the more likely you are to get a job. The initiative re-enforces the community expectation that, where an individual needs income support, they should be doing all they can to find work as quickly as possible.

The bill also has a removal of intent-to-claim provisions. From 1 January 2018, social security claimants will receive payments from the date they lodge a proper claim rather than from the date they first contact the Department of Human Services expressing an intention to claim. The claim process will be strengthened by DHS no longer accepting a claim until all information under the claimant's control has been provided. Claimants will continue to have additional time—up to 14 days—to supply some third-party documents, such as medical reports, which may take longer to obtain. These changes will encourage social security claimants to provide timely and complete information in support of their claims. DHS will provide clear information about what must be provided as part of the claim process. Together, these changes will simplify the claims process by removing provisions that allow a person to receive payments for periods prior to lodging a claim. These changes are part of a number of changes we are making from this budget to remove unnecessary administrative practices, which, ultimately, cost the taxpayer. Arrangements already exist as part of the application process for special benefit payments to be made to people in some disaster situations. Special benefit is only paid where people qualify, and part of this includes not being able to qualify for another payment.

The bill also contains the removal of exemptions for drug or alcohol dependence. The bill will remove the ability of jobseekers to be exempted from their mutual obligation or participation requirements where they have an illness or other circumstances affecting their ability to meet their mutual obligation requirements which is primarily attributable to drug or alcohol abuse. This measure reflects that people with substance abuse issues that prevent them looking for work or undertaking other activities should be taking active steps to address their issues, including through appropriate treatment, rather than being exempt from all requirements. Currently, jobseekers may be granted an exemption on the basis of temporary incapacity due to drug or alcohol dependency. Exemptions may also be granted in some other circumstances that may be directly attributable to drug or alcohol abuse—for example, a jobseeker may be granted a major personal crisis exemption because they have been evicted from their home due to their drug use.

From 1 January 2018, jobseekers will no longer be able to be exempted from their mutual obligation or participation requirements where the reason for the exemption is predominantly due to drug or alcohol misuse. This means that an exemption may no longer be granted where a jobseeker applies for a temporary incapacity exemption if the primary condition is drug or alcohol dependency. In addition, jobseekers will no longer qualify for a special circumstances exemption—for example, due to major personal crisis or major disruption at home—if it is determined that the main cause of those circumstances was the person's own drug or alcohol misuse. Jobseekers who are no longer eligible for an exemption will instead remain connected to their employment services provider. They will be required to participate in mutual obligation requirements tailored to take into account their particular barriers, including their drug and alcohol abuse issues. The government is investing $28.8 million in this measure to provide employment services to those no longer eligible for an exemption. This will support these jobseekers with drug and alcohol abuse issues to remain actively engaged in appropriate activities to address their barriers to work.

For the first time, all jobseekers with substance misuse would be able to undertake appropriate treatment as part of their job plan to meet their mutual obligation requirements. It is estimated that around 11,000 jobseekers annually would no longer be granted drug or alcohol exemptions. This measure will apply to recipients of Newstart, youth allowance, disability support pension recipients who are under 35 and have participation requirements, special benefit recipients with activity test requirements, and parenting payment single recipients with participation requirements. This measure will not apply to jobseekers in the Community Development Program, CDP. CDP has a separate mutual obligations approach, which is specifically designed to address the particular circumstances in remote Australia. CDP jobseekers are already able to participate in drug and alcohol treatment activities as part of their mutual obligation requirements.

The bill is a very large and complex bill, and there is certainly much more to go through. However, I will restate that this is a comprehensive reform package. The government has amended the bill to remove the drug-testing trial. However, the government remains committed to that trial. I commend the bill to the house.

12:44 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister to the Leader (Tasmania)) Share this | | Hansard source

The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 implements a range of complex measures across the portfolios of social services, employment and human services. Labor is committed to ensuring that the proposed measures are in the best interests of supporting and empowering Australians, not demonising and isolating them. Unfortunately, most of the measures proposed in this bill do not promote fairness or equality. Mr Harbourside Mansion has said that this legislation is an act of love. Well, what a twisted and bizarre perception of love he has. Australians expect the federal government to look after the most marginalised, disenfranchised and victimised people in our community. This piece of legislation does precisely the opposite. Prime Minister Turnbull really is the Christmas Grinch. There are measures that Labor would potentially support if they were separated from the other measures in this bill. We will move amendments in this place to do just that.

The Liberals, as per usual, tried to rush this bill through and tried to shield the proposed changes from scrutiny, but Labor referred this bill to a Senate inquiry to ensure that it was scrutinised and ensure that all relevant information on the proposed measures is available. Over the last few months, the Liberals have bumped this bill further and further down the list because they knew they didn't have support. Here we are, on the very last day of the parliamentary sitting year, and they are so desperate. They've been forced to shelve their controversial drug-test measure—another embarrassing defeat for a government balancing more Christmas turkey than they can handle.

I'm still going to speak about the flawed measure. Simply shelving it won't do. The government need to dump it altogether. There are still a lot of measures in the bill that the government need to provide more detail on. Policy on the run is what the government are renowned for. If they're not trying to ram through policy very quickly, we know that the Prime Minister will try to catch another thought bubble or the government will backflip, because they know that they don't have the numbers and they won't get it through this chamber. Policy on the run just doesn't cut it, particularly when it's affecting so many vulnerable Australians in our community.

This bill was considered by the Scrutiny of Bills Committee last month and its views were reported in Scrutiny digest 10of 2017. The committee made a number of points, which are all valid and provide even more evidence that the government hasn't thought through this bill properly. The Scrutiny digestsaid that there are significant issues relating to the drug testing of welfare recipients and the new compliance framework regarding participation payments. Further, the Scrutiny digestsaid there are issues surrounding the broad delegation of administrative powers regarding the appropriateness of allowing private contractors to make referrals on who will be subjected to income management under the drug-testing trials. So there are significant concerns from the Scrutiny of Bills Committee. No wonder the community are rejecting these measures.

While Labor are open to supporting some of the measures, if they were presented separately, as I've already said, there are several measures that Labor will not support. We will not support schedule 4—the cessation of the bereavement allowance. We already know that the Liberals do not care about women in this country, but what I can't understand is that the government are actually in favour of measures that specifically disadvantage women like this. The bereavement allowance is a short-term payment for people whose partner has died. It's paid for a maximum of 14 weeks at the rate of the aged pension and is subject to the same income and assets test. Schedule 4 of this bill will replace the bereavement allowance with short-term access to the jobseeker allowance, which is paid at a lower rate. Without the bereavement allowance, people who have just lost their partner will be $1,300 worse off. You can bet your bottom dollar that those opposite won't be putting this in their newsletters that go out to their communities. I guarantee that it is not something that they will be telling their constituents over a cup of tea, and they certainly won't be campaigning on it. It's a shameful act—14 weeks of payment at the age rate. The government have no heart. If the Turnbull government gets its way, a pregnant woman who has just lost her partner won't get any support whatsoever from the bereavement allowance for 14 weeks. I guarantee you that those opposite will not, as I said, be out there tooting their horns and celebrating this or even campaigning on it at the next election.

Labor will not be supporting schedule 3, the cessation of the wife pension. If this bill passes this place, I'd like to know what those opposite will have to say to the 3,100 women who will be worse off with the cessation of the wife's pension. I'd really like to know also what the Turnbull government's key message is going to be to the 2,900 women who will be transferred onto the jobseeker payments or the 200 wife pension recipients living overseas who will no longer be able to access any income support. Overnight, these women will become $330 worse off per week or $670 worse off per fortnight—that's $670 per fortnight, a significant amount of money when you're already living on a very limited budget.

The women impacted by these measures are some of the lowest income earners in this country, and they're going to suddenly be left with nothing to live on other than their partner's pension. Has the government actually read this legislation? Does it actually understand what it's supporting? This government is so out of touch with the community, but, if it's possible, it is even more out of touch with women in this country, because we see, time and time again, how heartless it really is.

I'd also like to turn to another schedule that Labor has rejected from day do—that is, schedule 12, the establishment of the drug trial testing. It's a measure that the government has now rolled over on, as I said, but I think it's important to touch on this because it really speaks volumes as to how the Liberals in this country really think. The government hasn't been able to provide any evidence of support of its measures and has been condemned by everyone. Those opposite should be commended, though, on the extent to which they've managed to unite the experts from the sector on this bill, because they're all against this bill. All the experts were pleading with the government not to proceed with this. It's not the first time they've managed to unite the sector against their own bill, but it's quite extraordinary.

I'd like to share with you a story from one of my constituents which illustrates why this measure won't work. The constituent I refer to is on the pension, and his 30-year-old daughter, who lives with him, has been addicted to drugs for most of her adult life. Occasionally, his daughter turns to stealing other people's belongings and resells them to buy her drugs. My constituent said to me, 'If you take away her welfare payment for failing a drug test, all she'll have to pay for food will all have to come from my pension. How is this going to make Australia better off?' I ask the Prime Minister: how will this make Australia better off?

This is a policy that could increase homelessness and could well increase crime in our community. It's a policy that will make Australia less safe. It's a policy that those opposite have shelved for another time. We know, when the going gets tough and they can't get the support that they need for certain pieces of their legislation, they just put it in the bottom drawer. When they are able to secure the numbers, they will try and ram it through again.

This is of real concern to my home state of Tasmania, because we are concerned about the lack of drug and alcohol services that people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol need. We have a state Liberal government that hasn't done enough in this area. The community are crying out for more rehabilitation centres. They are crying out for more money, but the Hodgman government has closed its mind to it—the Premier has a deaf ear when it comes to supporting people who have significant drug issues in my home state.

The measures in this bill will do nothing to assist Tasmanians who have drug or alcohol abuse issues. Having access to these vital services is terribly important—and not just for my home state of Tasmania but for every Australian. Every Australian who needs help to get off their drugs or to give up alcohol needs support, and that's not a short-term fix. You need to have long-term strategies to ensure that these people are giving the opportunity to be able to contribute again to society in a positive sense. The sorts of measures that the government were trying to get out into the community through this bill would do nothing to address those issues. Every expert has said that this is bad policy and it won't work. Why didn't the government listen? Why did they proceed so far in trying to get this bill through? They now know that the drug-testing provisions won't be accepted by, I believe, the majority in this chamber, but they are still trying to push this bill through. I ask my fellow senators to oppose this legislation.

An open letter from 109 specialists, 330 doctors and 208 registered nurses has called on the Prime Minister to stop the drug-testing trial. That's the sort of unification that's been achieved on this piece of legislation from the government. Medical professionals and the drug and alcohol treatment sector have raised significant concerns about the trial—not only about the impact it will have on jobseekers but also about how ineffective it will be in identifying those with a serious problem and providing them with treatment. Dr Adrian Reynolds, from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, said:

Existing evidence shows drug testing welfare recipients is not an effective way of identifying those who use drugs and it will not bring about behaviour change. It is an expensive, unreliable and potentially harmful testing regime to find this group of people.

Associate Professor Yvonne Bonomo, Director of Addiction Medicine at St Vincent's Hospital, Melbourne, said:

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

Dr Alex Wodak, President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, said:

Drug testing trials for people on income support have been trialled and abandoned in a few countries. In addition to causing significant harm to affect people and the wider community, they came at an enormous cost to the taxpayer.

These are the experts. So it's not just Labor saying this; these are experts in this field condemning this government for their attempt to introduce drug testing to jobseekers.

There's not a senator in this place who doesn't think that our communities would benefit greatly if substance abuse was reduced. It's common sense; of course we believe that it will be of benefit. But this bill isn't the way to do it. To reduce drug addiction, we need to support and enable access to services. The government's bill as it stands once again targets and demonises vulnerable welfare recipients. They have become easy targets for this government—something that has become commonplace for the Liberals, hasn't it, when you look at the legislation? It started with the Abbott-Hockey government, with their first cruel budget in 2014, and the same strategy has continued with 'Mr Harbourside Mansion'. They haven't learnt anything. This bill is just another one of their unfair and out-of-touch policies dressed up in a better suit. That's what it is. If this legislation gets passed, it won't just be the women who are affected; their families and communities will also be affected. This is, once again, a heartless attack by those opposite on the most vulnerable people in our community.

I conclude my remarks with some advice to those opposite: if you are truly committed to doing more than grabbing a headline, then you should go out and actually talk to the people who are trying to turn their lives around and listen to the experts. If you really want to help people who have drug addiction, you need to listen to them and you need to listen to the experts. Shelving your flawed policy for the time being, as Minister Porter said, doesn't cut the mustard. Australians know they can't trust this government. This is such an elitist government. Their target is always the most vulnerable in our communities. We're almost on the eve of Christmas and they're committed, as ever, to making things harder for vulnerable Australians—that's their trademark. Mr Turnbull's predecessor John Howard was renowned for being a Christmas Grinch and a Scrooge, but Malcolm Turnbull really takes the cake. He's the biggest turkey of them all, and that's how the Australian people see him.

1:00 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Government Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the debate be now adjourned.

Can I indicate, in so moving, that the motion has been circulated. It seeks to ensure that we can do all that colleagues in this place would want to achieve today. Given what has happened this morning, some hard markers have been hit. As a result, if we didn't seek to move a motion, we would not have the opportunity to do housekeeping, notices of motion, the tabling of the Selection of Bills Committee report, introductions of some legislation, formal motions, committee membership, tabling of delegate reports, tabling of committee reports and the like.

The motion that we're moving seeks to ensure that we can transact that routine business. It also seeks to list two items of legislation to be dealt with—that which we're currently on, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017, and also the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Amendment Bill 2017. That is the intent of the motion. It is to ensure that, for all colleagues, it's clear: what will be transacted today; the order that it will be transacted in; that the routine business will be addressed; that there are only two bills which the government is seeking to undertake and that we will then adjourn later in the day on a motion moved by the minister. Obviously, there will be an opportunity for the valedictories at the tail end of the day.

Debate adjourned.

Ordered that the resumption of the debate be made an order of the day for a later hour.