Senate debates

Thursday, 7 December 2017


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

1:03 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Siewert has outlined the Greens' overall opposition to this bill, and obviously we'll be moving a number of amendments. Let me firstly wholeheartedly endorse her contribution to this debate. We welcome the move by the government today to finally accept that we are not going to allow people to be subject to drug testing as part of our system of income support. It's a long overdue announcement, and we certainly welcome it. We think this is a very significant development.

As someone who has worked as a former GP and drug and alcohol clinician, that's the area I would like to limit my speech to today: those schedules of the bill that relate to drug and alcohol testing. Drug dependence is a health issue. It requires investment and support. It doesn't require punishment through testing and the threat of the removal of payments. What this bill proposed to do was to set up a punitive system, a dangerous system, a system that would actually cause more harm than good, where recipients of Newstart and youth allowance would be randomly selected for a compulsory drug test. When this was first proposed, the Greens came out immediately to signal our opposition to this. We certainly welcome the support of the opposition and some members of the crossbench who have also signalled that they see this as counterproductive.

What the government saw fit to do was to subject people to drug testing and subject those who tested positive to income management for a period of 24 months. It sought to establish a system where if you tested positive more than once, you would be forced to enter treatment. I understand that some people might instinctively think that's a reasonable proposition—that if somebody is struggling with drug dependence we should force them into treatment. Sadly, we know from all of the evidence all around the world that that's actually counterproductive, that forcing people into treatment simply doesn't work and, in some cases, can be counterproductive. It certainly doesn't work when you haven't got enough treatment support facilities and you haven't got rehabilitation, in-patient support, detox services and so on available to people who need them.

The government also proposed that if you failed a drug test you would be charged for the cost of that drug test. We don't know what figure the government put on it because there was such scant information about the sort of tests that would be used and how it would be managed. So the drug-testing proposal in the bill was punitive, it was damaging and it was completely evidence-free. We know that it had the potential to make drug testing worse. It was designed to remove people from income support—people who are vulnerable, people who need help rather than punishment. We know that it was a dog of an idea because it was roundly condemned by every single expert who presented to the committee inquiry. I attended several of those hearings, and it was very clear, whether they were addiction specialists, whether they were drug and alcohol researchers, whether they were people on the front line delivering services—drug and alcohol workers—that drug testing income support recipients would worsen their health issues; it wouldn't have any positive impact at all on drug addiction.

The reality of addiction is that by the time somebody is dependent on a particular substance, they've already lost so much. I saw people in my practice who had lost everything that was dear and precious to them—their family, their partner and their children had often been taken away, their job, their home, their dignity. So the government's threat to these individuals, people in the grip of an addiction to a particular substance, saying, 'We're going to now take more off you in an effort'—notionally, at least—'to try and ensure that you get the treatment you need' was completely meaningless. All it did was to kick someone while they were down. It wouldn't have had any impact whatsoever on the ability of people to get treatment, but it certainly would have made life harder for people already at rock bottom.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians gave the committee the definition of 'addiction'—it's a chronic, relapsing disorder. I can tell you, again, from the perspective of someone who has worked in this area, that what that means in practice is that people will often get clean and then they'll come back in because they have relapsed. It's a chronic, ongoing, relapsing condition. By the time somebody is able to come through the other side of that, they will often have had a number of attempts at getting into treatment—that's the nature of the condition. Anything that you do to make life harder for an individual in those circumstances just serves to make the transition from being drug dependent to actually living a life where you are no longer dependent on that substance much, much harder. So I am pleased that the government has finally seen sense on this. In fact, the government's own advisory council was set up—not the current one but the one that preceded it—and it was quite embarrassing at the time. I was with Senator Siewert when advice came forward from the government's own committee to suggest that we shouldn't go down this road; we shouldn't ever put in place punitive measures that link drug dependence to income support.

We heard from all of the experts and all of the providers that there has to be a level of ownership in the decision; there has to be a willingness for treatment to work. There are different models of addiction. There is the stages-of-change model where, unless somebody is at the stage where they are contemplating change on their own, no intervention outside of that point is likely to be successful. There are different models and different frameworks that people look at when it comes to the management and treatment of substance dependence, but one thing that most people acknowledge is that, if somebody is continuing to use an illicit substance and they are dependent on that substance and they do not have a desire or willingness to change those circumstances at that point in time, then there's not much you can do about that except support them and help them get to a point where they reach a stage where they are willing to move into treatment and try to get some support. It's often a lifelong challenge for people, and you don't make that challenge easier when you stigmatise and punish people. That's part of the problem we have when it comes to the treatment of substance dependence.

This is a policy that would do more harm than good. In my own medical practice, I've treated hundreds of people with substance dependence. I've got a strong recollection of a young family. It was a young woman and she had two young kids. She was one of those people who lost almost everything. She still had her kids with her when she came in to see me. The kids would often come in—they'd turn the place upside down—and we'd have long conversations. She went through her ups and downs for a long period of time, but she got through it. It was a long and difficult recovery, and she had lots of stumbles and lots of falls along the way. But, ultimately, she got through it. I remembered her when this came up and I thought, 'What would've happened to her during the period where she was really struggling if this had been put in place, if we'd had the government come in and test her for substance dependence?' Obviously, she was in a treatment program, but what if they'd gotten to her before that? She had her two kids. What if they'd gotten to her when she wasn't ready to come in, if they'd gotten to her in the preceding months when she was really at rock bottom? There's a chance she might have lost her kids. I suspect that there's a chance she might not be here if this policy was in place. Ultimately, she came to that decision herself, we went through the journey together and she's now living a very productive life.

We have to start getting away from this mindset that this is something that needs to be punished, where people need to be stigmatised. We need to recognise that, for people who become dependent on a particular drug, there are often serious underlying issues—trauma, abuse. Let's deal with those. Let's help people through that journey. Let's make sure that we provide people with support and assistance.

I know that there are many people who instinctively would look at this and think to themselves, 'Well, we have to intervene in some way. If it requires a heavy hand of government to step into this environment and force people into treatment, well, that's just the price we need to pay.' As I said, the evidence is very clear that that doesn't work. Where it has been tried internationally, it has never worked, and, indeed, in many cases, it has made a bad problem worse.

Of course, it's not just about people who are drug dependent. This doesn't apply to drug dependence; it applies to drug use. So you have to ask yourself the question: why is it that we would intervene in an area where we are linking government support to the use of a particular illicit substance? Where does this go next? Does it mean that, if a young person on a weekend decides to take a pill and they then test positive, we're going to link it to other forms of government support? Does it mean that we're going to reduce support for HECS? Is it going to be linked to access to Medicare? We don't know where this proposal will end. If we start down this road, where does it stop?

The bottom line is: until we start recognising that drug dependence has to be seen as a health issue rather than a law-and-order issue, we're just not going to make the progress we need to make.

One of the things that we learnt through the inquiry process was that there was simply no detail around how this would work. The government had no idea about the sorts of tests that were going to be used, who was going to administer them, how frequently they would be administered and what the overall cost would be, not just to the individual but for the scheme. I was staggered that the government would come up with this—and it sounds like it was a thought bubble; we're pleased it was scotched—and introduce something as significant as this without having done any homework, without knowing exactly how it was going to work. We belled the cat when we learnt that it was rejected by the government's own advisory committee only a short time beforehand.

Even if the government decided to proceed with this, one of the problems is that there is a shocking lack of treatment for people who run into trouble. Drug and alcohol treatment services are chronically underfunded. They have been for many, many years, under successive governments. We know that about half of the people who need help can't find it. I can tell you, again, from personal experience, that it was often difficult to get people in if you were going to begin a drug substitution program. If you were going to try to get people into emergency detox or in-patient rehab—all of those things were chronically underfunded, and the result was that people who needed help were turned away. How can you put in place a system that forces people into treatment when those treatment services simply aren't available? NDRI, a pre-eminent drug and alcohol research body, said they'd done a study to look at the full scope of drug- and alcohol-treatment services across Australia. But we don't know what the outcome of that study was, because state and federal ministers covered it up; they didn't want the community to know how chronically underfunded our drug and alcohol sector is.

The reality is, if we're going to make progress in this area, we have to move away from what we're doing and we have to try a new approach. The threshold question is: are we prepared to accept that this is a health issue, not a law-and-order issue, and are we going to take steps to start allocating the precious resources we have in a much more rational and compassionate way?

I was fortunate enough to go to Portugal in 2015 to look at what they did. The Portugal experience is really interesting. In Portugal, back in the late nineties, there was a huge problem with heroin addiction. As many as one in a hundred people in Portugal were dependent on heroin. People were dropping dead on street corners from overdoses. They had a problem with the spread of bloodborne viruses like HIV and hepatitis C. Governments were throwing their hands up in the air and saying, 'We just don't know what to do with this.' They got together experts from health and medical backgrounds, law and order experts, police, judges and so on. They basically had bipartisanship on the issue. They established a committee, and the committee said something that people who've worked in this sector have known for a long time: 'You're doing this all wrong. Stop punishing people and start providing support for people.' So, Portugal took what was at the time a very radical step—they removed all criminal penalties for individuals who used drugs. The effectively said, 'If you're going to use a drug, we're not going to waste police resources and we're not going to clog up the courts; we're not going to spend time prosecuting you simply for using a substance.'

Instead, they moved to a process whereby, if somebody had problematic drug use, they went before a panel, and the panel made sure that they provided as much support as was possible. They had, for example, employment programs. They subsidised employers and said, 'If we've got somebody who's been through a drug-treatment program, we're going to pay half of the wage of that person if you take them on.' Interestingly, after two years of people having been through the program, 90 per cent of them were still in the same employment because all of the issues that were contributing to their underlying drug use—the social isolation, the lack of support, the inability to put a roof over their heads, the trauma that people had experienced, the psychological help that they needed—were being addressed.

The experience in Portugal has been a very positive one. At the time people said, 'Don't do it. You're going to see a spike in drug use. People will come from all over from Europe'—the so-called honey-pot effect—'to use illicit substances.' Instead, they've seen a decrease in problematic drug use. They've seen a significant decrease in crime. They've seen a significant decrease in the harms associated with HIV, hepatitis C and so on. It has been an overwhelming success, and it's because they decided to follow the evidence, not blind ideology, and not to continue to stigmatise a group in our community who need support—and of course that's something that the Greens have fought for for many, many years.

We recognise that the war on drugs isn't a war on drugs; it's a war on people. We have to change what we're doing. We have to have a much more holistic approach. We know that there are people who work in law enforcement—the former AFP Commissioner Mick Palmer is now a strong advocate for removing criminal penalties for personal drug use and using those resources for health and social supports. Almost overwhelmingly there is support amongst the health community.

I'm pleased that the government has decided to change what they're doing. I am pleased that we're not going to use people who get into trouble with drug use as an opportunity to parade this government's law and order credentials, and I'm pleased that they've seen sense. It is in large part due to the huge backlash that we saw in response to this policy and to a tremendous campaign from community advocates, the drug and alcohol sector and many elements of the law and order sector. I want to congratulate all of them.

I want to congratulate my Greens colleagues—in particular Senator Siewert, who has been a leading voice on this. Let me conclude by saying that Senator Siewert has addressed many other elements of this bill. In particular, Senator Siewert flagged that she would move a second reading amendment during her speech, which she didn't get to. On behalf of Senator Siewert, I move:

At the end of the motion, add "but the Senate is of the opinion that an independent, comprehensive public review of the current jobseeker compliance system should be carried out, including what is needed to reform the system".

1:22 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This government has an appalling record on dealing with welfare recipients and jobseekers: no understanding of the differences between a welfare program and an employment program, and always trying to conflate the two and creating chaos and deep unfairness. We have to ask ourselves: how does cutting off welfare from people and families lead to better job outcomes?

Questions that continually come to mind when looking at this government's disastrous Community Development Program, CDP, are: is it a jobs or labour market program; is it an alternative to welfare; or is it meant to create jobs? A lot of questions; not too many answers. What is clear, however, is the abject failure of this government's approach to CDP, and it's failure in the approach to this legislation—a punitive approach designed to punish welfare recipients for the crime, as they see it, of being on welfare.

While the Minister for Indigenous Affairs has said many of the measures in the bill will not apply to participants in the CDP, there are still concerns about the potential impact on remote area participants, and the measures from which it's proposed CDP participants be excluded include the compliance framework. These punitive measures should not be imposed on any jobseeker.

While CDP participants are excluded from this provision—not that it will give remote area jobseekers any relief—there are real concerns about the mechanisms in this bill that bring about certain points of exclusion. This was an issue raised by ANU research scholar Lisa Fowkes in her submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill:

The mechanism in the Bill to give effect to the exclusion of CDP participants from the changes is one whereby the Secretary may identify people in a particular employment program as 'declared program participants' and then determine (by legislative instrument) the way that social security laws apply to them (Schedule 13 Items 1 and 2).

As Ms Fowkes noted:

A similar proposal was put forward in the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Community Development Program) Bill 2015. That Bill would have allowed the Minister for Indigenous Affairs to declare an area to be a 'remote income support region' and to vary the application of certain parts of the social security law to income support recipients in those regions.

At that time, Labor noted that the wide scope of those powers were inappropriate and unnecessary and that they gave the minister discretionary power over the design and implementation of an entirely new social security arrangement for remote jobseekers.

The measures proposed in this bill appear to go further than the earlier CDP bill, by allowing the government to set up separate social security arrangements for any group of program participants, including, but not limited to, those in CDP. On the face of it, the changes could extend to changing entitlements and appeal rights and to outsourcing delivery. The separate arrangements need not be more favourable than those applying to others, nor is any consultation process required. No requirements for monitoring, evaluation or reporting are included. Does the government intend to use these powers to make changes that would undermine the rights and conditions of CDP participants even further? Ms Fowkes raised a concern that:

The mechanism proposed for excluding CDP participants from changes in the Bill would give the Government extraordinary powers over these participants. … the Bill would open up the possibility for future Governments of making rules that reduce the rights and entitlements of any group of unemployed citizens.

According to the Department of Employment estimates, of the 40,000 people identified who might be affected by the new jobseeker compliance framework, 25 per cent are Indigenous, even though only 10 per cent of the total case load are Indigenous. I understand these figures exclude the CDP participants. We know that, over the last decade, the rate of financial penalties applied to Indigenous people under social security law has increased. Around 12.5 per cent of those within the total jobseeker case load are Indigenous. According to analysis by Ms Fowkes:

… the percentage of all penalties applied to Indigenous people since June 2010 has increased from 15% in the quarter ending June 2010, to 61% in the quarter ending March 2017. The percentage of penalties applied to Indigenous people for 'persistent non compliance'—that is, where at least 3 minor breaches have occurred—went from 17% in the quarter ending June 2010 to 84% in the quarter ending March 2017.

Why? Where is the evaluation? Where is the scrutiny? Where is the care and the concern as to why the number of penalties has risen to such an enormous number over that period of time? What has been the impact of those penalties?

By contrast, the rate of penalties applied to Indigenous people for refusing or abandoning suitable work averaged 11 per cent over the whole period. Have a think about that. Indigenous people are substantially overrepresented in that group who fall foul of program requirements, but there is no evidence that they are more likely to avoid work—no evidence of that at all. So what is the issue? What is it about these serious penalty breaches that keep coming back time and time again?

It is this group that will be subject to harsher measures under the proposed compliance framework—further punishment. What will be the effect of increased penalties on a group that are generally poorer and have poorer health? How much will this widen the gap even more?

We've heard from jobseekers recently in Brewarrina, in western New South Wales, about the issues with Work for the Dole there. Mostly Indigenous jobseekers are frustrated with the menial tasks and lack of real training being offered. Of course, it is even worse under the CDP Work for the Dole scheme, where participants have described it as demeaning and akin to adult child care. The compliance framework, of course, is that much tougher. We already see, under CDP, how making it so much tougher does not work. It doesn't get jobseekers into work. It doesn't create jobs where there are few and far between. It increases the stresses on families, people go hungry and old people get humbugged, and there is some evidence that crime increases. Do we want to extend this to other jobseekers? Probably not.

I'd like to draw attention to another group in our community that will be further impacted by this bill: the millions of Australians who contribute to our community by volunteering. Currently, people aged 55 to 59 are required to carry out 30 hours of activity per fortnight to meet their mutual obligation requirements. The person may fulfil this requirement by doing 30 hours of volunteering alone. The proposed amendments in schedule 9 outline that 15 of the 30 hours per fortnight must be allocated to job search or another job-related activity, like Work for the Dole. This represents a large cohort of volunteers who were previously engaged in volunteering but will now have to cease volunteering if the proposed amendment is passed. The tightening of the activity requirements will do little to improve the job prospects of older Australians, who are already a disadvantaged group in this job market, and it will affect their compliance. It will also affect the service provision, workforce capacity and long-term financial viability of volunteering support services and volunteer organisations who provide essential services to the community.

Volunteering can be an incredibly effective way to engage in society. It acts as a pathway back to gainful employment, encourages economic participation, builds work skills, keeps people healthy and active, and is a social network. These punitive measures for older Australians fail to recognise this; instead, forcing people to give up voluntary work to undertake job-related activities that fail to improve their job prospects. This bill does nothing to increase the job prospects and build the potential of Australian jobseekers. Instead, it takes an even more punitive approach towards people who are already amongst our most vulnerable.

1:33 pm

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

As somebody who has, throughout the course of their life, had reason to rely on the support of Australia's social safety net and, indeed, as somebody who has many friends and family members who have had to do the same, it has been a struggle for me personally to consider how to speak upon this intellectually vacant, morally-stunted and procedurally-moribund package of legislative instruments without having to come very close to breaching parliamentary behaviour. However, I think I can best sum up my feelings on this bill by saying that it is an utterly fact-free zone. Within it exists nothing but a laundry list of ideologically driven, evidence-less nonsense measures predicated on prejudices regarding those who access Australia's welfare system. So potent is the ideological blindness of the conservatives of this place in regard to this matter that it seems as though they have been robbed of the ability to do simple math. Well, thank God that there are Greens present within this chamber—and I think particularly of my colleague Senator Rachel Siewert when I say this—who are able to correct that blindness.

For the benefit of those still present within this chamber who are seeking to have this bill passed, I will remind them that, for every entry-level job in Australia, there are five applicants. In my own state of WA, for every entry-level job, there are seven applicants. This is a really quite serious issue. We are not talking in the abstract about caricatures of human beings. We are not talking about bludgers. We are not talking about criminals. We are not talking about druggies. We are talking about people, some of the most vulnerable people in our society, some of the people who have had it hardest, those people our society has failed most profoundly.

The attitude which is embodied in this bill is utterly repellent to me. It says that, if you find yourself without work, if you find yourself addicted, then it is your fault; it is your moral failure; you have done something wrong. It is a disgraceful attitude. It has seen this country develop one of the most onerous, compliance-heavy and fundamentally insufficient social safety nets in the world. People are left behind, people fall through the cracks, simply because there is not enough work. It is well within the knowledge of those who propose this bill that thousands of people in this country are homeless. It is also well within the knowledge of those who propose this bill that not one of the measures therein will go anywhere near addressing that issue. In fact, the bill will drive more and more people into poverty.

I was forced, when originally reading this legislation, to stifle a fit of hysterics at one of its most central contentions—that the rollout of online services in relation to social services in Australia, and the ability to submit claims online, means that it is no longer necessary for the government to account for a period in which there might be a time difference between application and claim. If you needed an example of the reality that those who support and have drafted this legislation have not come close to our social security system in decades, I can think of no better example. Let me tell this chamber: the services and systems which are meant to enable claimants to file claims online do not work. They are down as often as they are up. They are dysfunctional as often as they are functional. This bill seeks to make that reality the problem of those in need. It is a joke—an absolute joke.

I cannot think of the intellectual gymnastics that must have been performed for the government to believe that this was anything close to a solution to the challenges faced by the most vulnerable people in our society. It reeks of the ideological belief that poverty is a result of moral deficiency. Nowhere is that more clear than in the now postponed element of this bill in relation to drug testing. Dead, but most certainly not buried or cremated, it will now hang over the welfare debate in this country, like a putrid spectre, in the same way that the welfare card does in northern Australia. These things wait in the wings for conservatives in this place and the other place, if they ever have the opportunity, to ram them through. I'm so thankful that, in that context, there are Greens in this place who are willing to stand up, call them out and push back.

I will vote against this legislation later this afternoon as somebody who would not be here without the support at certain times in my life of our social safety net, who lives in a community where those services are needed, who has friends whose health, happiness and progress depend on these services and who knows to their core that there is no lower act than demonising people who ask for help when they need it. I thank the chamber for its time.

1:42 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to this debate on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. It's very unfortunate that yet again we see an attempt by this government to get its budget under control by targeting some of the most vulnerable people in our community. Even in the short time that I've been in this place we've seen this over and over again, with reforms and changes introduced designed to cut pensions and to cut social security payments to the unemployed. It's always people at the more vulnerable end of the spectrum who seem to suffer from this government and its need to find budget savings.

I don't think that there would be anyone in this house who disagrees with the idea that governments do have to live within their means and do have to run a budget responsibly. Of course, that doesn't always mean running a surplus. There are some on the government side who think that everything must be sacrificed in order to get to a budget surplus. In coming up with budget policy and economic policy it's very important that governments do pay attention to the economic conditions that are in place at any one time. That's why after the GFC it was entirely appropriate for the then Rudd and Gillard governments to run an expansionary fiscal policy, which did allow for deficits, so the government was filling the gap in the economy that was created with the private sector contracting so much.

Many years after the GFC this government remains incapable of coming up with a responsible budget policy. Rather than actually doing the hard yards and finding where the savings can be made within the government's budget without doing damage to the economy and without doing damage to the most vulnerable in our community, the government always take the easy way out—they always come after those who are the most poor in our community and least able to defend themselves. I say to vulnerable Australians in that situation: you will always have a friend in the Labor Party and you will always be defended by the Labor Party. That is why yet again we rise to oppose various aspects of this bill.

As I say, everyone acknowledges that it's important to run a budget responsibly. Even though we are in opposition, Labor have put forward a number of savings measures that would actually create billions of dollars in savings for this government and get its budget back into shape without actually hurting the most vulnerable in our community. I will give you one example. The changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax that we took to the last election would, if the government adopted those changes, save billions of dollars in the budget that could be used either to pay back debt or to deliver services, or for whatever other priority the government decided it was necessary to meet. Even beyond the budget savings that would be realised through those changes, if the government adopted them, they would also have the effect of putting some brakes on skyrocketing housing prices that we see in many parts of the country that are shutting particularly younger and poorer people out of the housing market. Adopting those changes would generate billions of dollars in savings and play an important role in moderating skyrocketing house prices.

Again, rather than doing those kinds of things, rather than making changes to the taxes paid by big business and large mining companies, rather than cracking down on multinationals who are avoiding paying their fair share of tax, the government always decides to go after the poorest in our community. It knows the poorest in our community are easily picked on and not very capable of defending themselves due to their lack of power in our democracy.

The other extremely frustrating aspect of this debate every time we have it is that ministers and government speakers continue to make out that we have a massive problem in terms of rorting in our social security system and that good, hardworking Aussies are being ripped off because of the huge numbers of people rorting the system. Again, no-one denies that there are people out there who do the wrong thing. Even when we were in government, Labor made sure that people did not get more than they were entitled to, and we deployed a lot of resources to recoup overpayments made to people who were not entitled to them.

If you listen to government speakers and government ministers, they would have you believe that our social security system is out of control and that it's particularly the fault of those who are unemployed or on disability benefits. In fact, any objective observer will tell you that Australia has the most targeted social security system in the world and one of the least rorted systems in the world. Our social security system is not being rorted on a grand scale. Money is not being handed to people who are undeserving of that money on a grand scale. In fact, our social security system is highly targeted at people who are most in need of income support to keep them out of poverty.

If we want to be honest about our social security system and where the real growth is, it's in the age pension. Labor does not support some of the changes that have been put forward by this government to grossly cut back age pension supports. But the government tries to pretend that our ballooning social security costs are the fault of bludgers who are unemployed or rorting disability benefits, and it is just not true. The government's figures actually prove that.

In preparing for this debate, I noticed a very interesting article by the highly respected Australian economic commentator Ross Gittins in yesterday's Fairfax press. I might just read a little from that column because it really captures my views and those of many Labor speakers about why this government is getting it so wrong with the social security system, particularly in this bill. Mr Gittins says he has:

… nothing but contempt for comfortably-off people who try to solve their problems by picking on the down-and-out.

That is what we see time and time again from this government. The fact is all of us who are elected here are in a highly privileged position. We are very well paid. Surely we can come up with better ideas to come up with budget savings than picking on the down-and-out, as Mr Gittins puts it. As he says:

If Australians can't do better than that, what hope is there for us?

He goes on to say:

The expected savings (which may or may not eventuate) of $478 million over four years are minor in a budget of almost $2 trillion over the same period.

We recognise that there will be times when governments need to make savings to their budget but, when you think about the immense pain that some of our most vulnerable people will be put through in losing benefits under this bill, all for the sake of raising $478 million, at best, over four years, any cost-benefit analysis would show that these changes are not worth pursuing. Mr Gittins makes the point that while those savings are relatively 'minor in a budget of almost $2 trillion', those savings will:

… be coming out of the hides of those most in need, those whose first lack of moral discipline was failing to pick the right parents, those whose luck has been worse than ours, those who've failed to deny themselves and their children the slightest treat at any time, the way we undoubtedly would had we been in their shoes.

And then there's the kicker—this is where Mr Gittins really nails what this bill is about and how this government approaches the job of finding savings. Mr Gittins says the cuts in this bill are:

… the cuts a government makes when it wants to be seen to be acting to reduce the budget deficit, but lacks the courage to take on a fight with the medical specialists, drug companies, chemists, mining companies or other powerful interest groups guarding their own, much bigger slice of budget pie.

I would have more respect for this government if they did the hard yards and identified where the real rorts are happening in this system. It may be that that involves sometimes taking on their powerful corporate donors or the big business groups who tend to back their side of politics. But that's where you will get the large savings that are necessary to get the budget back into shape without inflicting harm on those who are most vulnerable in our community. It might even be possible to do it in a way that doesn't damage the economy.

Again, any objective observer or economic analyst will tell you that it is the poorest in our community who spend the biggest proportion of their income on consumption, on simply staying alive. If you are on jobseeker payments, which are already very meagre, you are not building up lots of savings, you are not putting money away that isn't spent in the economy; you are spending every single dollar on food, on accommodation, on clothing and on transport. All of that money that is spent is good for the economy. It's not being offshored or put in Cayman Island tax havens; it's actually going back into the economy. Targeting people who can afford to pay more and getting more money out of them wouldn't damage the economy anywhere near to the same degree as it would to target the vulnerable, as this bill proposes to do.

Much of the debate around this bill focused on the proposal to drug test social security recipients. I have had a bit to say about that already, so I won't go into a great amount of detail here. Labor have consistently opposed that measure, and we're pleased to see that the government finally accepted the evidence—well, I'd like to think that they accepted the evidence—that was presented by every single health and drug and alcohol expert to the Senate inquiry that was conducted into this bill. I sat on that inquiry, and heard expert after expert—people who were actually in the field or have studied these issues for many years—say, without exception, that drug testing social security recipients would not serve the benefit that the government was saying it would; that it wouldn't get people off drugs; that it wouldn't get them back into work; and that, instead, other types of support are necessary in order to do that.

In any other jurisdiction that has tried this kind of drug testing, it has been shown to fail. Very expensive programs that were set up in other jurisdictions to drug test welfare recipients, didn't get people off drugs and alcohol to the degree that the government was claiming. So the money that was being spent did not achieve the desired outcome and did not help the welfare recipients to move into work. The evidence at the Senate inquiry showed what is necessary is some proper investment by this government in drug and alcohol rehabilitation services—rather than the cuts which have been made—and much better employment and training supports, than what currently exist, to get people into work. That's what would work and that's what would get people who are suffering from drug and alcohol addictions back into work, rather than the punitive testing being put forward by the government. It's like their approach to these budget savings; they didn't have the ingenuity to come up with programs that would work. They went for the quick, headline-grabbing stunt of imposing drug tests on welfare recipients with no regard, whatsoever, to the evidence that was put forward.

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Because you're an expert on budget savings of course!

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If you were here for the earlier part of my speech, Senator Williams, you would have heard me talk about the fact that Labor has already put forward a number of savings measures, most particularly around negative gearing and capital gains tax, which this government continues to ignore. That's because the government always takes the easy option. Rather than taking on the powerful interests of property investors, some of whom are in your own ranks owning multiple properties and getting tax concessions to make those investments, it's always easier to come in and kick the unemployed and the disability-pension recipients, all to save, as Ross Gittins says, $478 million over four years. If the government actually tried hard, there are much better ways to find budget savings that don't hurt vulnerable people and that deliver bigger savings with less economic fallout than what's being proposed here.

In the evidence received in the Senate inquiry, it was very clear that what was really necessary, if the government was sincere about trying to get people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol off those substances and into work, was real investment in drug and alcohol rehabilitation and much better investment and programs around employment and training. Not only did the evidence that we received in the inquiry show that everywhere else in the world where this had been tried had failed but, in actual fact, even if the government had managed to get this proposal around drug testing through, there was not enough trained drug and alcohol counsellors in Australia to be able to provide those services. From memory, the original proposal was that this trial would run from 1 January next year—whatever date it actually was. We ran the very real risk that, had this program got up, welfare recipients would be required to be drug tested without drug and alcohol counsellors there to help them get off the drugs and alcohol.

Regardless, the government charged on. It's only at the 11th hour, when they've realised they haven't got the numbers to get that aspect of this bill through, that they've backed off. I hope that they have backed off in a permanent sense. I hope that they really do have a good look at the evidence in that inquiry and that they apply themselves to some genuine measures that would really help people who are drug and alcohol addicted to get back into work and off those substances.

There have been a number of other measures that have been put up in this bill that haven't attracted the degree of attention that the drug testing proposal did. Again, I will use Ross Gittins' article to say what some of the other aspects in this bill include. He says they include:

… freezing benefit rates to wives and widowed pensioners until they're no greater than the "jobseeker payment"—


getting rid of the 14-week bereavement allowance.

What kind of government does that? What kind of government decides to target people who have lost their spouse and are entitled to a 14-week bereavement allowance? They're going to rip it off them as a way of generating savings. They're not going to go after big mining companies and they're not going to go after big banks—in fact, they want to give them tax cuts. Instead of that, they'll pick on people who've lost their spouse and they'll rip away their 14-week bereavement allowance. The other proposals include tightening the job search requirement for those aged 55 to 59, who already find it incredibly difficult to find work, and making it easier to suspend people's dole payments, even if they haven't done the wrong thing.

I can't put it any better than Ross Gittins does on the types of cuts this bill contains. He says:

They're the cuts a government makes when it wants to be seen to be acting to reduce the budget deficit, but lacks the courage to take on a fight—

with the big end of town—

with medical specialists, drug companies, chemists, mining companies or other powerful interest groups guarding their own, much bigger slice of budget pie.

If this government was actually serious about getting its budget back in order, it would be targeting the real rorts in the system, rather than the rorts they make up in this area.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President, Special Minister of State) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Watt, you will be in continuation upon the resumption of debate. It being 2.00 pm, we move to questions without notice.