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Thursday, 7 December 2017
Page: 10132


Senator KETTER (QueenslandDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (17:13): I wish to advise that, regrettably, Senator Pratt cannot be here in the chamber to deliver her speech. I wish to make very clear that I am delivering this speech on behalf of Senator Pratt.

I rise to note concerns on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. There are some measures in this bill that Labor would support. They are separated from other measures in this bill, which is why we will be moving a series of amendments. Labor is asking the government to separate the controversial aspects of this bill to ensure that the sensible measures can go ahead. But Labor cannot support some of the measures in this bill. Many of them do not have enough detail for us to consider them properly. Many of them have been included with little consultation or consideration of their broader impacts. We're particularly concerned about the impact some of these measures will have on some of the most vulnerable people in this country—the very people we should be protecting. This is yet another attempt by the government to attack jobseekers and to attack those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society.

The bill introduces strict new compliance measures, applying penalties to people who fail to comply with obligations tied to their welfare payments. The government's proposals are expected to double the amount of penalties that are currently applied, but they are yet to make a case that demonstrates that punishing people by cutting off their payments will lead them into work in the short term or even in the long term. There is no evidence to support that these tough measures will do anything except create more problems. This bill removes the use of waivers and discretion for service providers and the secretary, which creates an unnecessarily harsh system that does not recognize the complexity of many of the situations that would require some kind of discretion. Uniting Care have said the removal of waivers was 'punitive' and would have, 'Sustained impacts on jobseekers, as well as any dependents they may have.' Mission Australia said this change could:

… increase the risks of people becoming homeless and have negative outcomes for their physical and mental health, self-esteem, relationships and engagement with the labour market.

Labor will be moving an amendment to keep these waivers in place, which we believe is an important part of maintaining the fairness of the system.

On the issue of drug testing, one of the most significant parts of this bill was, of course, the establishment of the government's drug-testing trial for jobseekers. This week we've heard reports that the government will seek to remove these provisions—yet another example of flawed policy from Minister Porter and Prime Minister Turnbull. The drug trial will not work; the evidence tells us that. It will not help people who are suffering from drug addiction. Mick Palmer, the commissioner of the Australian Federal Police from 1994 to 2001, has even said the flawed policy could see an increase in crime. He made the comment:

It certainly hasn't got much chance of reducing crime. It does have the potential in some cases to aggravate it …

He also said:

All of my experience tells me that this policy won't work.

… what it will do is create more damage, and most damage and most harm to those people who are most vulnerable and most in need of support and protection.

He goes on to say, 'It's pretty stark that this can only aggravate an already pretty serious problem and make more vulnerable people who already need more help than they're now getting.'

Labor has formed its position on this trial after extensive consultation with experts. What do these experts actually say? Dr Marianne Jauncey, from the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs, has 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 of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians has 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.

Patrick McGorry, a mental health expert, has said:

It's an absolute disgrace. It fails to recognise that mental illness and drug and alcohol problems nearly always coexist, they're a health problem and not a lifestyle choice.

Associate Professor Yvonne Bonomo, director of St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne's department of addiction medicine, has 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.

The Australian Medical Association has said:

… the AMA considers these measures to be 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 Michael Gannon of the Australian Medical Association said:

It simply won't work.

…   …   …

If you discriminate against them, if you impair their return to full functioning by labelling them as a drug user, then you impair their ability to get their life back on track.

…   …   …

It's not evidence-based. It's not fair. And we stand against it.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Australasian Chapter of Addiction Medicine had this to say:

The RACP and AChAM are concerned that these measures are not based on evidence of what works—either at a policy or a clinical level.

In our view, they will not only fail to achieve the Bill's stated aim of assisting people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction to access treatment and secure employment, but will harm an already vulnerable group of people and increase their social and financial disadvantage.

Nadine Ezard of St Vincent's Clinical School had this to say:

What it can do is actually make people's social circumstances even more precarious and perhaps tip people into more dangerous ways of living, and even more criminal ways of living if they can't support themselves.

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 harms, and indeed have the potential to create greater levels of harm, including increased stigma, marginalisation and poverty.

Mr John Ryan, CEO of the Penington Institute, said:

I strongly urge the Government to reconsider and reverse this retrograde approach to welfare before we see the increase in crime it is likely to create.

   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.

No health, community or welfare organisations have come out in support of the trial, and addiction specialists have expressed deep concern about how this trial will operate and its effectiveness. Anglicare's submission to the Senate inquiry said that involuntary referral results in high levels of noncompliance by those referred and leads to poor rehabilitation outcomes. Further, having people who have been forced into rehabilitation present in facilities primarily designed and run for people who have voluntarily referred themselves is likely to also undermine the outcomes for others. So it may indeed have the opposite impact on the drug problem this government purports to solve.

The majority of community-based drug and alcohol counselling and rehabilitation services are set up with a model based on voluntary referral and attendance. There will be a significant shortage of services that are designed to deal with the kind of forced referral that this legislation provides for. These are also services that are already overloaded, with long waiting lists for treatment around the country. Experts have warned us that these changes will not help people to overcome addiction, but they will throw people into further crisis, poverty, homelessness and even crime. Nobody doubts that we face significant problems with drug addiction in the community, but there is no evidence that this trial will work. Labor supports the idea of helping people with drug addiction. Welfare should not be used to support drug habits, but we will not support measures like this that will not work. The time has come for Minister Porter to rule out ever bringing in such a measure. Instead, the government should invest in drug rehabilitation services that are proven to work.

On the issue of volunteering, Labor also opposes schedule 9 of the bill, which makes changes to mutual obligation requirements for people aged 55 to 59. Currently, people in this age bracket are required to carry out 30 hours of activity per fortnight to meet their mutual obligation requirements. This requirement can be fulfilled by doing 30 hours of volunteering. The changes that the government are proposing in schedule 9 of this bill will require that half of those hours are allocated to job or job search activities rather than volunteering. Senator Pratt met with Volunteering Australia recently, who are strongly opposed to these changes because of the impact they will have on the volunteering sector. Their submission to the Senate inquiry noted that, if this schedule were to pass, these people will have to significantly decrease or even cease their volunteering. Of the total volunteer engagement in Australia, 278,496 people are aged 55 to 59. What a shame it would be to lose any number of these people from our volunteering sector, to stop them doing their bit for our communities. It's important to them, it's important to the community and it certainly should be important for us. This is short-sighted, punitive policy that fails the importance of volunteering and its usefulness to the volunteers themselves and the broader community.

On the issue of discrimination against older Australians, these changes are also simply quite unfair. We know there are more jobseekers than there are jobs, and older Australians are already disadvantaged in the job market. The Willing to Work: National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination Against Older Australians and Australians with Disability found in 2016 that older people experienced greater levels of discrimination in the workplace and when applying for jobs. The evidence given to the Senate inquiry overwhelmingly pointed to the challenges faced by mature jobseekers, particularly age discrimination. It can be demoralising, frustrating and often fruitless.

Volunteering Australia's response to this bill includes a case study from a volunteer manager in Victoria. It sums up this problem perfectly. I quote:

As an experienced and respected leader in the volunteer sector, I am responsible for a (400 strong) volunteer program in Geelong, Victoria. This region, encompassing a Victoria's second city and outlying townships, has experienced drastic changes in the employment market in recent years with closures at Ford and Alcoa and other employers in the region forcing many folk into early redundancies and unemployment. I meet many hundreds of potential volunteers each year and a significant number of these individuals are 55 to 59 years of age and above. Invariably, the experience recounted to me is of a demoralising period of job hunting, applying for roles that they are never offered, let alone interviewed for, within a job market so competitive that they rarely if ever receive an acknowledgment for the considerable effort made in each application.

The government don't have an adequate plan for getting older Australians back into the workplace. They have provided no additional support to this cohort to assist them in getting back into the workforce. The Career Transition Assistance Program won't come in until two years after these changes come into effect. Too late. Instead of addressing the real cause of the problem, they plan to punish 55- to 59-year-olds by forcing them out of meaningful volunteering work where they make a very important contribution to our communities. They will now need to spend that time looking for work that either doesn't exist or that they won't be hired for. Engaging these people to serve their communities in volunteering is a much better use of their time and makes a much better contribution to our communities and to our economy. We hope that the government come to their senses on this schedule.

In conclusion, Labor opposes many of the measures in this bill. Many of the measures in the proposed bill only further disadvantage already vulnerable people. They contribute to inequality; they do not address it. It is yet another example of this government attacking those most vulnerable in our community. Labor will not stand for it.