Julian Hill MP speaks on the drug testing of welfare recipients – TONY BURKE

Julian Hill MP speaks on the drug testing of welfare recipients – TONY BURKE


Mr HILL (Bruce) (10:34): Reform is to make
changes to something, especially in institutional practice, in order to improve it. The Social
Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 is not reform. It’s a mishmash of
semi-reasonable stuff dressed up as reform. There are a few administrative improvements,
but really it’s just a crucible for the government’s latest instalment of damaging, mean measures.
Time only permits me to focus on a few of the schedules. Indeed, I was going to talk
about other bits, but I am going to make some remarks on the drug-testing trials. It is
the most ridiculous and offensive part of the bill. I want to try to step out the reasons
that I say so, and I will try to remain somewhat measured and logical on this. I actually woke up at about 4 am this morning
and I was thinking, as you do in that blurry first moment, what city am I in, where am
I and what has to be done today? And I remembered that I was listed to speak on this bill and
I hadn’t really prepared anything—although I’d read it. While wishing that I was still
asleep, I was thinking about the part of the bill dealing with the drug-testing trials,
and it made me mad—furious—and woke me up. The things running through my head then
were exceedingly and totally unparliamentary: ignorant, prejudiced, scuzzbucket, brain-dead
moron and bottom feeders. They were the kindest epithets to describe those amongst those opposite
who dreamed up this particularly special piece of public policy. I was reflecting on why I felt so strongly.
It is because addiction has touched my family story for my entire life in ways that I have
never talked about and cannot fully talk about publicly as they are not my stories to tell.
I can say that my father died when I was four. He was a doctor. He battled alcoholism and
addiction to prescription drugs. My mum loved and lived with this, and talked to me when
I was an adult. My mum went back and did a Year 12 subject, because she never finished
high school, and studied psychology. She actually topped the state and won the prize. She beat
all the VCE and mature-age students. She did her research on addiction. It made sense,
I suppose, of parts of her own life but it also showed the genetic predisposition, which
always made me a little scared. I’ve actually got this weird little totem, or homage, to
self-protection in the form of a little Valium tablet that a doctor gave me 15 years ago
for something. I never took it and I still have it in the cupboard, knowing perhaps that
I have bad genes and hoping that my refusal to ever take a Valium will somehow protect
me. My extended family and friendship group, though,
has also been touched by addiction through my entire adult life. I have supported people
close to me to recovery over the decades and been there through the relapses. I’ve pulled
needles out of the arms of overdosed victims. I’ve resuscitated people I love. I’ve called
ambulances. I’ve also attended funerals of people who had lost their battles. I wish
I could truly share my experiences and speak from the heart but, as I said, they are not
all my stories to tell—perhaps one day. From 2000 to 2002, I also led a large inner-city
community in Melbourne as mayor at the height of the then heroin epidemic. People were literally
dying in front yards, dying in shop doorways and dying in laneways. I was deeply engaged
in the policy and advocacy work with the then state government to battle the heroin epidemic.
I recall one moment I was particularly proud of where I was interviewed by Derryn Hinch
when he was a broadcaster. He was ranting, in his particularly’ ranty’ mode, about how
we should just let them all die. I was very proud of my self-restraint, because what I
didn’t share was that I’d just been punched in the head and wrestled to the ground in
the Bourke Street Mall by someone I loved because I wouldn’t give them money. These experiences have given me at deep conviction,
a firm belief, that addiction is a health issue—a health issue, a health issue, a
health issue—which must be treated as a health issue like other health issues. Making
it a moral issue simply does not help and criminalising addiction does not help. It’s
a health issue, a health issue, a health issue. I firmly believe that as a community we must
do much more to help people battling addiction. I detest what heroin addiction does to people.
It takes prisoner their conscience and makes them do awful things while they have to watch,
chained inside the box in their head. It does not destroy their morality. I detest what
ice addiction does to people. It drives them crazy with irrational rage, hurting themselves
and everyone around them, and does lasting damage. I despair at the impact on my community.
I heard stories while doorknocking. The particularly hard ones are from the mothers, begging, wishing,
that society would understand this is a health issue and provide more help. I firmly believe that, with regard to health
issues, legislators and policymakers must listen to doctors, researchers, experts; not
politicians, shock jocks or ignorant, prejudiced views. Public policy should be based on evidence,
reason and research. If this is a health issue, it’s notable that the Minister for Health
is not listed to speak on this bill—alas, poor Yorick. What advice did the government
take when deciding to legislate to remove this illness from the list of reasonable excuses?
Did we hear from the Chief Medical Officer? Doctors groups? Scientists? Researchers? Other
jurisdictions around the world? No; none. It was dreamt up as a political measure in
the monkey pod. Even worse, it flies in the face of evidence from overseas and from our
own experts that this doesn’t work. I will just read a small segment of the quotes
from the Bills Digest in the submissions from expert groups. The National Drug and Alcohol
Research Centre said: There is no evidence that any of these measures
will directly achieve outcomes associated with reductions in alcohol or other drug use
or harm, and indeed have the potential to create greater levels of harm, including increased
stigma, marginalisation and poverty. The Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association
said: This proposal does not have an evidence base
and is likely to engender greater harm to the community. The Penington Institute—I actually worked
with David Penington when he headed up the then Victorian government’s inquiry into heroin
reduction and the crisis, as I said, back in 2000. I came to have the most enormous
respect for that man. He had been vice-chancellor of Melbourne uni. He’d been dean of medicine.
He was a conservative establishment figure, but he had the courage to change his view
through the course of the inquiry through listening to the evidence, and he did that
publicly. The Penington Institute said: In Australia there is a real lack of funding
for drug treatment services—including medically supported drug treatment. The Government would
have been better off making stronger investments there rather than attacking the vulnerable. The Australian Council of Social Services,
which opposes the measure, said: No expert in drug and alcohol addiction has
supported the random drug testing of social security recipients. Trials elsewhere have
failed to achieve any positive results. … … … It is unclear what these measures hope to
achieve. They are highly unlikely to address people’s addictions if they have them and
will lead to more people living in poverty. The drug-testing trial will likely be expensive
and achieve nothing. We could go on. We’ve got submissions of the
same ilk from Anglicare, Catholic Social Services Australia, UnitingCare Australia, Melbourne
City Mission, the Samaritans and so on—people who actually work in this field. Perhaps the most nauseating part of this debate
has been watching our humble battler millionaire Prime Minister talk about this being a policy
borne of love. A policy borne of love would seriously examine the true state of drug and
alcohol treatment and rehabilitation services in Australia, and provide funding and do something
about it. A policy borne of love would understand that addiction is an illness. Stopping using
heroin is—and this may sound strange, but I have supported people through this—something
harder than any of us in this chamber, I expect, will ever have to do. But, in terms of recovery,
that’s the easy bit. That’s why people relapse time and time again, because rehabilitation
takes months and years and years, plus community support. You have to confront the mess you’ve
made of your life. You have to confront the shame, the humiliation, the stigma and the
damage to relationships, and you have to rebuild life as an adult from nothing in so many instances. A policy borne of love would talk to the families
who have lived through these experiences. It would listen to those in the community
working in this area who know what is needed. A policy borne of love and a desire to actually
do something would not be conceived with no evidence, no advice and no implementation
planning that will further stigmatise people. They are making it up on the run. They have
no idea of the cost. It would make rehabilitation and recovery less likely, if implemented. If the government were interested in a policy
borne of love and a desire to actually do something, they would be calmly, logically
exploring—and even debating here based on expert advice, not prejudiced opinion—what
the experts, doctors and researchers say may actually make a difference and help long-term
addicts, save lives, reduce harm to families and reduce harm to communities, particularly
through crime. To be honest, we all—I know what we all
get—get a lot of the same mail in this place. We all hear from experts. We hear lots of
models, pleas, evidence and examples of what happens elsewhere that seems to be working.
For example, for heroin addiction, we could pay some greater attention—or the government
could—and at least properly assess the potential benefits and the arguments for and against
things, rather than pre-emptively ruling things out based on some sort of flawed moral framework.
They are things like safe injecting facilities and assisted treatment for the hardest-core,
longer term heroin addicts. We are written to about this stuff. Only last
week there was another study sent to us all. I don’t know. Does it work better than methadone?
There’s lots of evidence in other countries from recent trials that it does for some people.
I’m not saying it’s the right or wrong thing. I’m not a bloody doctor, scientist or expert.
I don’t know. But I think we do a terrible disservice to the community, families and
people we represent when we moralise and point-blank refuse to innovate or keep our minds open
in responding to the scourge of addiction. The Bills Digest and submissions coherently
set out the many issues and reasons why this aspect of the bill should be consigned to
the bin. In the time I have remaining, I’ll turn my
attention to a couple of other aspects that, again, make life even harder for those who
have the least. One is the proposal to kill the bereavement allowance. It is a short-term
payment for up to 14 weeks for people when their partner has died. Getting rid of this
is really nice; it’s classy stuff, government! It’s paid for a maximum of 14 weeks at the
rate of the age pension and is subject to the same income and assets test. For a pregnant
woman who has lost her partner, the allowance is paid for 14 weeks or the duration of her
pregnancy, whichever is longer. Schedule 4 of this bill will replace the bereavement
allowance as it currently exists with short-term access to the jobseeker allowance—paid at
a lower rate and with a more stringent means test—to save $1 million. That’s going to
make a big difference to the debt and deficit disaster you mob are creating! But I’ll fess up here: as an Australian, I’m
happy to agree—right here, right now, government—that it’s okay to not treat pregnant women who’ve
just lost their partner as jobseekers or students. We could find the $1,300 extra over 14 weeks
for them to grieve. We could keep this payment. I’m okay with that. You can imagine the job
interviews, can’t you? Your partner has just died and the government’s saying, ‘Hey, you’ve
got to go to job interviews next week. You’ve got to do four job interviews. We’ll give
you extra kleenex.’ This schedule could be removed, meaning that the measure does not
include changes to the bereavement allowance. Another one that picks on the vulnerable—and
particularly hits people in my electorate—is removal of the intent to claim provision.
This is a pretty simple rule that says, ‘When you go to Centrelink, you can have your claim
backdated to the day you first turned up and were eligible for a payment.’ This change
would further add hardship to people who aren’t able to collate the required information immediately.
I know it happens. Not everyone gets their paperwork done on day 1, particularly people
who are homeless, in the middle of a separation or in hospital, or those who have serious
health issues or can’t access technology—because, God knows, you could die and need the bereavement
allowance for someone else while you were trying to get through to Centrelink on the
1800 number! There’s a particularly huge impact on people
in my electorate—particularly migrants—as 55 per cent in my electorate were born overseas,
with at least 60 per cent speaking a language other than English at home. These are people
who often have to find additional documents to keep the Centrelink beast happy. They often
have to get copies of these documents from other countries, which is not a quick process.
They can rush themselves, but they can’t always rush a foreign embassy or international mail
service. Some people need a bit of a hand to fill out forms or understand what clause
72B actually means. They can find it difficult. The changes to the liquid assets test currently
before the parliament—proposed in another bill—to extend the waiting period up to
26 weeks, depending on your liquid assets, would effectively mean that, before you get
5c from Centrelink, you have to basically run down every last dollar of your savings.
It’s a nasty, mean little measure designed to make people run down their savings, push
them to the brink of poverty and take away that tiny bit of dignity, in terms of a security
blanket of a grand or two that they might have built up for hard times. I’ve said enough and I think you get my sense
of frustration with many measures in this bill. The government could choose to strike
out the ridiculous bits—the bits that are there just to bait us to oppose it or as some
sort of sop to the right wing of your party—but we’ll see. Some bits of the bill, of course,
are worth supporting, but I think we’ve heard enough on those in other speeches.

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