Jenny Macklin speaks to Labor’s position on drug testing welfare recipients – TONY BURKE

Jenny Macklin speaks to Labor’s position on drug testing welfare recipients – TONY BURKE


Ms MACKLIN (Jagajaga) (10:30): I’m speaking
today on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. I move: That all the words after ‘That’ be omitted
with a view to substituting the following words:
‘the House: (1) declines to give the bill a second reading
because it is a cynical attempt by this Government to distract from its political problems; and
(2) calls on the Government to: (a) drop their costly and unproven drug testing
trial of social security recipients that medical experts say won’t work;
(b) listen to medical and health experts by implementing proven ways to assist people
battling drug addiction by investing in treatment and rehabilitation services; and
(c) stop demonising vulnerable Australians who rely on our social security system.’
The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Rob Mitchell ): Is the amendment seconded? Dr Leigh: I second the amendment and reserve
my right to speak. The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The original question
was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Jagajaga
has moved an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting
other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the amendment
be agreed to. The question now is that the amendment be agreed to. Ms MACKLIN: From the title of this bill, one
might get the false impression that this was part of some big, once-in-a-generation reform
to the social security system. It is not. Mr Deputy Speaker, after nearly four years
of trying to rip up Australia’s social safety net, you might think that the Liberals and
the Nationals had finally come to their senses and were embarking on sensible and substantive
reform. They are not. For years, the Liberals have said the only way to make the pension
sustainable was to cut pension indexation—a $23 billion cut to the age pension. For years,
they said the only way to end the problem of youth unemployment was to make young Australians
wait six months before being able to access any income support. So you might like to think
that this government had learnt its lesson. But on closer examination, it becomes very
apparent that this government continues to be desperate to attack the most vulnerable
members of our society. The government could have set about implementing
policies that would have helped Australians trying to recover from drug addiction. It
could have done that by listening to the health experts and investing in the proven ways of
helping people battle with addiction. Yet the Turnbull government has chosen not to
do that. Instead, it has decided to pursue a costly drug-testing trial that every health
expert says won’t work. It hasn’t worked when it’s been tried overseas, and no health or
addiction experts were even consulted in the design of the policy. Of course, this begs
the question: why is the government adopting a policy when there is no evidence that it
will work? And the answer is that this Prime Minister is desperate to find any issue to
distract from his own political problems. That is why this is happening. It’s why this
issue is being debated today. Labor did refer this bill to a Senate inquiry.
The report of that Senate inquiry is coming down only today, but here we are, debating
this issue now in the House of Representatives—because of the political problems of this Prime Minister. Some of the measures in the bill are so concerning
that Labor will oppose them. These include the cessation of bereavement allowance, schedule
4; a change to the start date for some participation payments, schedule 10; removal of the intent-to-claim
provision, schedule 11; establishment of a drug-testing trial, schedule 12; removal of
exemptions for certain recipients with drug or alcohol dependence, schedule 13; changes
to reasonable excuses, schedule 14; and information management, schedule 17. And, after closer
scrutiny through the inquiry process, we’ll also oppose schedule 3, the cessation of the
wife pension. If the government persists on keeping all of these harsh changes in this
bill, we will oppose it as a whole. If the government does finally see some sense and
agrees to split the bill, then Labor will support some of the remaining schedules. We
plan to move amendments in the Senate to separate these schedules. For the most part, Labor does not oppose the
changes made to payments as part of the so-called—this is the government’s term—working-age payment
reform budget measure, which are schedules 1 to 8 of this bill, although reform is certainly
a total overstatement. While Labor is opposing the schedules ceasing the bereavement allowance
and the wife pension, we would not oppose schedules 1 to 2 and 5 to 8 if they were presented
separately. We’re also not opposed to schedule 16, streamlining tax file number collection,
nor are we opposed to schedule 18, aligning social security and disability discrimination
law. I just want to go through Labor’s rationale
for taking this position. I will leave it to my colleagues the member for Gorton and
the member for Chifley to speak on the measures relating to the Employment portfolio that
are in this bill, and the member for Barton will speak on the measures relating to Human
Services which are also on this bill. First of all: the drug-testing trial. From
1 January 2018, the government is proposing to establish a two-year trial of drug testing
for 5,000 recipients of Newstart allowance and youth allowance in three locations: Logan
in Queensland, Mandurah in Western Australia and Canterbury-Bankstown in Western Sydney.
I want to make it clear—this is a really important point—that nobody doubts that
we face significant problems with drug addiction in the community. The task for all of us,
and most particularly for the government, is to apply policies that actually address
the problem of addiction in the community and help people get treatment. Unlike the government, Labor has actually
met with a range of health experts, addiction medicine specialists and community organisations
about this proposal. All of them have made it clear to us that they do not support this
drug-testing trial. The health experts all say this trial will not work. The experts
say this measure will increase crime in the community. The evidence is clear. In jurisdictions
around the world where similar trials have been conducted, they have not worked. In New
Zealand, in 2015, only 22 people of 8,001 participants tested returned a positive result,
at a cost of around NZ$1 million. This detection rate was much lower than the proportion of
the general population estimated to be using illicit drugs in New Zealand. In short, it
was a total waste of money. I’m glad to see the Minister for Human Services
is at the table. In his contribution, I ask the Minister for Human Services to say which
one of these organisations that opposed or have expressed serious concerns about the
trial the government has actually spoken to and whether they’ve listened to any of them?
We have the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australian College of Physicians,
the Australasian Chapter of Addiction Medicine, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College
of Psychiatrists, St Vincent’s Health Australia, Rural Doctors Association Australia, Harm
Reduction Australia, the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, the National Drug and Alcohol
Research Centre, the Penington Institute, the Kirby Institute at the University of New
South Wales, the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, the Australian Council of Social
Service, UnitingCare Australia, Homelessness Australia, St Vincent de Paul Society, the
Wayside Chapel, Anglicare, Catholic Social Services Australia, National Social Security
Rights Network, Odyssey House, Jobs Australia, Community Mental Health Australia, Public
Health Association of Australia and the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services. What
an extraordinary job this minister has done in gathering the opposition of each and every
one of those extraordinary organisations! All of them are either opposed to or have
very strong concerns about the government’s proposal to have a drug-testing trial. We saw an open letter from 109 addiction specialists,
330 doctors and 208 registered nurses. They wrote to the Prime Minister calling on him
to stop this drug-testing trial. By way of contrast, let’s just remember who the proponents
of the trial are. The chief proponent, the Minister for Human Services, who happens to
be at the table, is also, of course, responsible for the Centrelink robo-debt disaster. This
is the minister who actually sent debt collectors to hound pensioners for money they didn’t
owe. We have the Minister for Social Services, who when he was asked on television which
experts supported the proposal, couldn’t name one—not one. We have the member for Bowman,
who said that he doesn’t care if this policy means people turn to crime in their desperation,
because ‘they can detox behind bars.’ There’s no need to worry about the victims of crime,
according to the member for Bowman. Is it any wonder that we have only these people
supporting this ill-conceived mess? The Senate inquiry hearing revealed that the
Department of Social Services, who are responsible for the trial, admitted that they do not have
data on the wait times for drug treatment services in the three trial site locations.
They don’t have any information about how long people have to wait to get into drug
treatment. The government made the decision to choose these three trial site locations
without having any data—no information—about how long people have to wait to get treatment
in these areas. We know the local councils weren’t consulted. The mayor of Logan, Luke
Smith, only found out after a call from the ABC. He said: I think to announce this from the top down
is a disgrace and the lack of consultation is something I am quite amazed by.
The government originally said they were going to use the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring
Program. That wasn’t possible because it doesn’t give data on specific reasons. It’s increasingly
apparent that this is just policy on the run from the government. They are much more interested
in chasing a headline—particularly a headline attacking people on social security payments—than
in good public policy. Let’s do what the government failed to do.
Let’s actually look at what the experts have had to say about this ill-conceived mess.
Matt Noffs, from the Ted Noffs Foundation, said: This bill is not only going to fail, it will
increase crime in the community and that should be a major concern for all Australians.
The Australian Medical Association described the measure as: … mean and stigmatising. The AMA considers
substance dependence to be a serious health problem, one that is associated with high
rates of disability and mortality. The AMA firmly believes that those affected should
be treated in the same way as other patients with serious health conditions, including
access to treatment and supports to recovery. Dr Marianne Jauncey, from the Australasian
Professional Society on Alcohol and Other Drugs, said: At a time when we desperately need money for
frontline services, it’s being spent in a way all the available evidence tells us won’t
work. Doctors don’t necessarily speak with a united voice — we’re a very varied group
of specialists and people with different backgrounds across the country, so when you do hear doctors
speaking with a united voice I think people should listen.
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 the Department 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. There will
be more crime, more family violence, more distress within society. We can expect at
Centrelink offices there will be aggression and violence as people react to this. Had
[the government] spoken to the various bodies who work in this area and know about this
work, we would have been able to advise them this is not the right way. Pushing people
to the brink won’t make it better. Dr Alex Wodak, the President of the Australian
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? There is no evidence that it will work, there
was no consultation with the experts and they have no idea about how expensive the trial
will be. The government haven’t even disclosed how much it will cost taxpayers. The experts
say it will result in increased crime. What sort of government brings a proposal to the
parliament that will see an increase in crime? Labor will not support this measure and we
do not support this ill-conceived drug-testing trial. I recently visited Odyssey House in my electorate
of Jagajaga in Melbourne. They have a very significant rehabilitation facility on the
banks of the Yarra at Lower Plenty. I was given the opportunity to sit down and talk
with some of the men and women who are undergoing treatment for addiction at Odyssey House.
I want to take a moment to personally thank each of the men and women who were so willing
to speak with me and to talk so openly. One man in his late thirties talked to me about
being a ‘highly-functional’, as he described it, drug addict. He was married with a couple
of kids and had a well-paying job that he was good at. He carried on with this life
for quite a long time, even though he was addicted. One day, he checked himself into
rehab. He knew that he could no longer control his addiction and his abuse of drugs was taking
its toll on his family. In most cases, people cited their poor health or a desire to protect
their loved ones as the major motivators for why they sought treatment for their addiction,
and they made it clear that taking away control over their money won’t trigger them to stop
using. Most people who are addicted and abuse drugs
do so to mask some terrible pain or trauma that has happened in their lives. Often this
is abuse that they experienced as a child. The motivation to mask that pain and suffering
means that they’ll find a way to get drugs. One young man made it very clear to me that
people will turn to crime to get money for drugs. Some of the people I spoke to at Odyssey
House also indicated that this trial would mean that addicts would just shift to synthetic
drugs or GHB, which are more dangerous and much harder to detect. So there’s a serious
risk of unintended consequences with this measure. As one of the residents told me,
she ended up in a coma as a result of taking one of those synthetic drugs. One of the risks
is that by forcing someone into treatment who isn’t mentally prepared for rehabilitation
it will actually damage other people who are in rehab seeking to overcome their addiction,
because they’ll try to undermine the treatment program. Odyssey House is one of the largest not-for-profit
providers of drug treatment services. It has around 600 places available each year for
people seeking rehabilitation, but they have around 5,000 requests for support each year.
So, sadly, just one in nine people who apply for treatment for drug addiction end up in
rehab. This is in large part because of the long waiting times for treatment services.
One of the health professionals there that day told me that often a drug addict will
only have a short window of a few days when they’re mentally prepared to seek treatment
and go into rehab, and yet the system as it is now means that people seeking treatment
are forced to wait one to three months to get access to the treatment services, depending
on where they live in Australia. Put simply, the number of people seeking treatment for
drug addiction far outweighs the number of treatment services available. The government
is pursuing a policy that doesn’t address the problem. In fact, it won’t release the
data that it has that shows the unmet demand for drug treatment services across the country.
Instead, it’s chosen to pursue a costly drug-testing trial that every health expert says won’t
work. It’s a costly trial but, of course, the government still won’t say how much it
will cost. They could also have done something about the workforce shortages. There are serious
workforce shortages in the drug treatment system. I am told that for every 10 jobs available,
there are only six workers. But instead, this Prime Minister, who is desperate to find any
issue to distract from his own political problems, chooses to demonise vulnerable Australians.
It is just not good enough, and Labor will oppose this measure. I’ll speak briefly about schedule 13. Currently,
income support recipients with participation requirements can be granted temporary exemptions
from these requirements where they’re incapacitated due to sickness or injury, with a doctor’s
certificate, or where there are special circumstances, such as a personal crisis. Schedule 13 of
this bill would prevent temporary exemptions being granted where the reason is wholly or
predominantly attributable to drug or alcohol dependency or misuse. This includes any sickness
or injury or special circumstances, such as eviction associated with drug or alcohol misuse.
Health and welfare groups have also raised significant concerns about this change, including
ACOSS, St Vincent’s Health and UnitingCare. The experts are clear that these proposed
changes fail to recognise the complex nature of substance abuse as a health condition and
a doctor’s medical opinion that a job seeker cannot meet their requirements for a temporary
period. This would relate not only to acute episodes of substance abuse but also to secondary
health problems associated with drug and alcohol use. To give an example: someone receiving
treatment in hospital with cirrhosis of the liver associated with alcohol use would no
longer be able to use a medically-recommended temporary exemption. I’ll briefly talk about Schedule 14 as well.
Currently job seekers can be penalised for a range of very common ‘participation failures’,
as they’re called, including not turning up for an appointment with Centrelink. However,
these penalties are not applied where the person has a reasonable excuse. Schedule 14
of this bill provides that a job seeker who uses drug or alcohol dependence as an excuse
for a participation failure will be offered treatment. But, as with schedule 13, health
professionals have raised concerns that these changes fail to recognise that substance abuse
disorder is a health condition. Experts warn that this will not help people overcome addiction,
but instead they’ll be pushed into crisis, poverty and homelessness. Again this proposal
has been put forward by the government without consultation with medical and health experts
and, again, the advice from the health experts is that this proposal misunderstands what
addiction is and how it should be treated. By contrast to the government, Labor has listened
to the doctors and heard their concerns, and we will oppose this measure. In relation to schedules 1 to 8—the working
age payments schedules—the government proposes to consolidate seven working age payments
and allowances into a new Jobseeker payment. This includes: Newstart, the sickness allowance,
widow pension, wife pension, widow allowance, partner allowance, and bereavement allowance.
I want to remind the House—and most people would not be aware of this—that the Widow
B pension, the wife pension, the widow allowance and the partner allowance are all currently
closed to new recipients and have been for some time. They are being phased out as existing
recipients reach age-pension age. While the government claims this is a major reform,
the changes are, for the most part, essentially cosmetic, because most of the payments will
end under the existing policy settings. Nevertheless, if the government were to present some of
these separately, we would consider supporting them, but there are two we will not support. Labor is very concerned about the proposed
changes to the bereavement allowance. I just cannot believe that this government is going
to cut the bereavement allowance, which is paid to people whose partner has just passed
away. It’s just beyond imagination the lengths to which this government will go. The changes
to the bereavement allowance in this bill will leave vulnerable people around $1,300
worse off after the death of a partner. 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
age pension. It’s also paid to a pregnant woman who has lost her partner. The allowance
is for 14 weeks or for the duration of her pregnancy, whichever is longer. So, if a pregnant
woman’s partner dies early in her pregnancy, she will be even more than $1,300 worse off.
Once again, how does the government even imagine introducing such a policy? It is absolutely
beyond me. Schedule 4 of this bill will replace the bereavement
allowance as it currently exists with short-term access to the jobseeker allowance, paid at
the lower rate with a more stringent means test. Future recipients of the bereavement
allowance will receive only the rate of the jobseeker payment, which is $535 a fortnight—the
same as the Newstart allowance. So, as I said, that will leave a bereaved person in need
of income support receiving $1,300 less over the 14-week period than they currently do,
or possibly more for a pregnant woman who loses her partner. This is just an extraordinary
change. As Charmaine Crowe, from the Australian Council of Social Services, noted: Someone in that circumstance … it’s very
difficult to cover the cost of a funeral and other associated expenses. So cutting the
bereavement allowance will just place these people into further hardship and make it even
more difficult for the period of time after bereavement.
This government has absolutely no shame. We will oppose this. It is unfair and unjustified. As I mentioned earlier, Labor will also oppose
the cessation of the wife pension, in schedule 3. The wife pension is a non-activity tested
payment and has been closed to new applicants since 1 July 1995. It’s paid to female partners
of age pension or disability support pension recipients who are not eligible for a pension
in their own right. It’s granted to women solely on the basis of their partner’s eligibility
for age pension or disability support pension. Although the majority of wife pension recipients
would move on to the age pension or carer payment and be no worse off—and obviously
we don’t disagree with that—around 2,900 women will have the indexation of their payment
frozen until it becomes equal to the significantly lower rate of jobseeker payment. Around 200 people on the wife pension who
reside overseas will no longer be eligible for any social security payment as a result
of this proposed change. These people are under the age pension age and would not be
eligible for either another payment under any international agreement or a reportable
payment. This would mean they would be up to $670 per fortnight worse off. It would
seem reasonable that this group should be grandfathered to avoid them being plunged
into a personal financial crisis, particularly given the small number and therefore minimal
cost in doing so. So, in summary, as we have done so often over
the last four years, Labor will stand up for fairness by opposing the measures in this
bill that will hurt the most vulnerable Australians. If the government puts this bill in its current
form to a vote, Labor will have no choice but to vote against it.

One thought on “Jenny Macklin speaks to Labor’s position on drug testing welfare recipients – TONY BURKE

  1. The LNP have been shown to be narcissistic, elitist, sneaky and judgmental for so long. Oh, don't forget filthy rich too, looking down their noses on the proletariat. They are thieves. They give billions in overseas aid they've taken from the Australian wage slaves. They cut pensions
    and family assistance and give themselves pay rises. I could go on but I don't think there would ever be enough space. Thank you Jenny Macklin for standing up for us.

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