Social Services - Drug Testing Trial - 16/10/2019

16 October 2019



I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019. This week is Anti-Poverty Week and I am disgusted that, instead of discussing what we could be doing to address poverty in this country and to create jobs, we are discussing yet another attempt by this government to demonise and penalise social security recipients. This is not the first time that Labor have fought against the drug testing of Newstart recipients under this government; actually, it is the third time. We're proud to again stand with the vulnerable in our community, and with the experts and the doctors in opposition to this disgraceful excuse for a policy. Perhaps the worst part is that those opposite pretend it is about helping people—as the member for Canning has just done—but it is not.

This is a proposal in search of a problem. There is no evidence to suggest that people receiving social security are using drugs. In fact, a trial in New Zealand found that rates of drug use among social security recipients were less than one per cent, much lower than in the average population. I'm not sure how the government thinks Newstart recipients can even afford drugs. Newstart forces you to live $1,000 below the poverty line. It hardly pays for food or housing, let alone illicit drugs. Does it help people get off drugs? No, because that is not even the genuine aim of this policy. It isn't about genuinely supporting people to overcome drug addiction. This will just put pressure on already stretched services, pushing people with genuine problems who genuinely want help further down huge waiting lists for rehab and other support.

I want to talk about the mechanics of this bill because, as they say, the devil is in the detail—or lack thereof. And if you need any more proof that this proposal is all about ideology and has no substance, it is this: the government only started to put together any detail about this proposal when Labor started asking questions about it in the previous parliament. This is not about removing barriers to finding work, as the leaked talking points might tell you; it is a thought bubble from the darkest part of this conservative and cruel government. If passed, this bill will require 5,000 Newstart and youth allowance recipients in Canterbury-Bankstown, Mandurah and Logan to submit to random drug tests, and the trial will run for two years.

For two years, people in the outer suburbs of Sydney, Perth and Queensland will be the Morrison government's guinea pigs. If recipients refuse to participate in the trial, their application for social security will be denied and they will not be allowed to reapply for four weeks. So, potentially, they will have nothing to live on for four weeks. Recipients placed on the trial will have to submit to saliva, urine and hair follicle tests in a Centrelink office or at a nearby location on a random basis. The tests will be designed to detect cannabis, heroin, cocaine and amphetamines. If a person tests positive, they will be placed on income management through the BasicsCard. That means 80 per cent of their payment will be quarantined to pay bills and purchase goods, and only 20 per cent will be put into their bank account—because the government don't think that people on social security can manage their own money. Well, they can. They're very good at it, because the payments are so low that they have to be extremely clever to even get by. The government move to impose restrictive income management techniques such as these at every opportunity, but never in their blue-ribbon inner city electorates. They only demonise the poor.

If a person fails a drug test, a follow-up test will be conducted within 25 days. If the person fails a second test during the trial, they will be referred to a medical service for recommendations about treatment. If treatment is recommended, attendance will become mandatory as part of a person's job plan and as a condition of receiving social security. If the person doesn't attend treatment activities, they will be sanctioned, and that includes having their payment entirely suspended for up to four weeks. This step is the most shocking to me—that the government think that the best way to deal with people dealing with substance issues is to make them poorer, to make their life harder, to isolate them through poverty and to push them into crisis. The government think that it is acceptable to take away someone's only source of income, potentially forcing that person into homelessness or crime—because people will completely disengage with the social security system.

Perhaps that's what the government wants, but this is not an outcome that the government should pursue. This undermines all the objectives of our social security system, which began at Federation to provide a safety net for those unable to work. The social security system is designed to alleviate poverty and inequality and to enable people to keep a roof over their head while they are looking for work. Driving people into poverty does not create jobs and it undermines our egalitarian values. This process has been developed in the back rooms of Liberal ministers' offices without the advice or guidance of medical professionals or researchers.

But it gets worse. If a person disputes the results of their test, they can request a retest, and if that's positive the person must pay the cost of the retest. The cost will be deducted from their payment at a rate of up to 10 per cent of the payment. It is a social security measure that further impoverishes a social security recipient—classic conservative tactics. People in the trial will be subjected to random tests throughout a two-year period.

As I said, the detail is not really there either. The government have said that most of the operational arrangements for the trial will be contained in rules that will be made by the minister. Critical details of the trial have either not been decided or not made public. Who will be contracted to deliver the drug-testing services? We don't know, because the government has not made it public. If we are going to implement this system, how will Centrelink make sure the samples are genuine and how will this be observed? Is the government just going to add this responsibility to the already onerous responsibilities of our Centrelink staff? Will they be trained to administer these tests?

How much will testing cost? This is a significant point. In New Zealand the cost of the trial to implement a similar yet abandoned policy of drug testing was millions of dollars. I will repeat the stats I began with. This multimillion dollar trial found that less than one per cent of those tested were positive to using drugs. One per cent is far below the average population's drug use. Newstart recipients are not generally drug users. They are paying for rent and food and bills, not drugs, with their payment. How will people be selected to be part of the trial? What will happen if a person cannot participate in the drug trial due to, for example, legitimate health reasons, legitimate religious reasons or legitimate human rights reasons?

There is one thing I believe to be true, and that is that the social security system is fundamental to Australian society. It fosters cohesion and should ensure that people do not get left behind. It should not mean that people's rights are diminished.

One of the biggest concerns when it comes to this bill is with regard to treatment. If people do fail two tests and are referred to drug treatment or a rehabilitation service, what treatment services will people be connected to? Will extra funding be provided to these already stretched services? Fundamentally, we do not know, because the government refuse to tell us. They refuse to tell us because they know that drug and alcohol treatment services and rehabilitation clinics in the public system are already woefully underfunded and overstretched in Australia. The system has been neglected by this government.

Furthermore, just because someone uses drugs does not mean they need to be forced into rehabilitation. Ask the medical professionals who treat addiction and ask the people who deal with these issues. They will tell you that it is useless to pursue addiction treatment for someone who isn't ready to do something about their addiction. Also, it is even more useless to pursue addiction treatment for someone who is not addicted to drugs. Just because you fail a drugs test does not necessarily mean you are an addict; it could be that you a recreational drug user, like many thousands of Australians who choose to do this recreationally, despite drugs clearly being a risk to health and illegal to sell, buy and use in Australia.

If the government does plan to force these people into treatment for addiction, it will increase the burden on this sector and rob treatment places from those who really do want to address their drug issues. As it is, waiting lists are so long that many miss their moment when they want to access treatment and can't. Forcing people who are not addicted to drugs or who are not ready to address their addiction will only exacerbate this issue—and you can ask the experts if you don't believe me.

Concerns about this measure have been raised by health and welfare groups, including St Vincent's Health, the Royal Australian College of Physicians, ACOSS and Uniting Care. Not one single health or community group has supported this proposal. Key concerns about this proposal, previously expressed through the Senate inquiry process, include—I come back to the New Zealand trial—that it has been tried in several countries and there is no evidence to show it is effective. The member for Canning acknowledged this in his speech just now. As mentioned earlier, in a two-year trial in New Zealand, only 22 of 8,000 participants returned a positive test for illicit drug use, or refused to be tested—22 out of 8,000. Enough said. This detection rate of less than one per cent was much lower than the proportion of the general population estimated to be using illicit drugs.

The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales has found that between 200,000 and 500,000 Australians a year can't access the addiction services because they are underfunded and unavailable. The alcohol and other drugs services sector estimates $1.2 billion a year in additional investment is needed to meet demand for services. Furthermore, there are many issues with drug-testing technology. How does this trial deal with this? Again, we just don't know, because the government doesn't care to figure it out. That's not the point; it's not about genuinely helping anyone. The government has not released the cost of the trial, as it involves tendering to a private provider to conduct the drug tests. Overseas experience suggests that this will be a significant cost to the budget, with no evidence to support its efficacy.

Addiction medicine specialists have raised serious concerns about the technical aspects of the trial. With lower-cost tests, there is a higher risk of false positives. For example, if a person is taking antidepressants, they could test positive for amphetamines. Reliable tests can be extremely costly and are likely to be unaffordable. For example, according to the Royal College of Physicians, a gold-standard urine test costs between $550 and $950 to administer. So how expensive is this going to be if we do it properly? This an incredibly expensive thing to undertake, and it pales in comparison to the actual rate of Newstart that people are actually receiving. The amount of literature, and the number of organisations, that show this approach will not work is overwhelming. The CEO of the Penington Institute, John Ryan, says the government would be better off making stronger investments there, rather than attacking the vulnerable. As someone who has dedicated most of my career to considering the Australian social security system, I emphatically agree with him.

The social security system is an investment in creating equal opportunity. Along with the right to decent wages, it has been fundamental to alleviating poverty and inequality in this country. Despite what the government would have you believe, we have the most tightly targeted social security system in the OECD, and each payment is designed to serve a particular objective. Like universal health care and public education, Australians should be proud of our social security system as a great enabler of equality and inclusion. But this government wants only to attack those who receive social security, and this bill is a great example of that. It will not create one job. It will not do anything to address our floundering economy.

In Anti-Poverty Week, we should be looking at increasing the woefully inadequate Newstart allowance. That actually would help people into work because, as many have noted, including the Business Council of Australia, Newstart is so low that it is actually preventing people from finding work, because they can't afford petrol for their car or bus fares, haircuts or new shoes, let alone the cost of retraining to get jobs. An increase in Newstart would help stimulate our economy, as confirmed by the RBA governor when I asked him about this on the economics committee. The RBA are calling for the government to take action to boost the economy, and this government is instead focusing on punitive measures to hurt jobseekers and single parents receiving Newstart.

Never before has Australia seen such a coalition of groups in support of raising Newstart. Obviously, there are organisations like ACOSS and other community peaks, who have been advocating for this for years, but also the Business Council, big banks and consulting firms, medical organisations—the list goes on. They all support an increase because they know it will stimulate the economy and they know it is fair. Instead we have a social services minister who says that an increase to Newstart will simply give more money to drug dealers. What an absolute disgrace! How out of touch and how irresponsible, frankly, as a minister to say something so misleading without any basis in fact, while people are suffering in dire poverty because of the government's refusal to accept that Newstart is too low.

Labor opposes this bill, and I encourage the government to utilise the potential of the social security system and to stop misleading people about it and about people receiving social security, both for the people who access it and for the economy. Raise the rate of Newstart and stop distracting from the issue with destructive and wasteful things like this ridiculous drug-testing trial. It is demeaning, it is wrong and we oppose this bill.