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Thursday, 7 December 2017
Page: 10128


Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (16:51): I too rise with many of my colleagues from the Labor Party here to put a very particular view about the reasons that we oppose this bill and to give, in my commentary here, some encouragement to the members of the crossbench to make sure that they do not allow the government to get away with this further attempt—to add to their many attempts—to marginalise those already marginalised and to make harder the life of those who are vulnerable.

The piece of legislation that is up for discussion here in this place this afternoon is the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. I have actually spoken quite a bit in the chamber this week, and I have been able to describe so many of the names of the bills that we have been discussing as misnomers. This one is just a cover. Sometimes the government attempt to pretend that they're doing something that they're not doing. This time they want to again signal to the Australian population that they're the 'welfare reform government'. The problem is that the people they are attacking are people in our community. They're our brothers and our sisters and they're people who live near us.

Maybe it's different for the government. Maybe where they live they don't see so many people who actually need the support of welfare. Maybe they live in a rarefied world where that's not something they have to encounter. They're making their policy in the vacuum of a lived experience that simply denies the reality of the needs in our community, particularly with regard to drug and alcohol treatment. This bill has been in the papers over the course of this year and we've heard things like, 'We're going to crackdown on those really, really bad people, those terrible druggos'—those people they take their names away from and categorise—and 'We're the only government who'll do it.'

The problem is that drug and alcohol addiction exists across the entire community, and people who are in need of health care need to be able to receive it. That's what's so wrong about what they've proposed here. People walk around this building every single week saying, 'We need more resources in our health sector. We need resources for people who have drug and alcohol issues so that they are able to access the services that they need.' The government know that. They know that they're not meeting that need already. Yet, despite that reality on the ground, they've just looked for a headline. They've looked to create an impression of toughness—that they're big and strong and tough and they are going to clean up all those dirty bludgers out there. That's the implied language. If it's not always the language that Malcolm Turnbull uses, it's embedded in what he says. So we end up with a very divided community. We end up with people whose needs are demeaned and whose access to services is limited—and this bill, if it is passed, would only exacerbate the problem even more.

Today, we've had the government say that they're going to take the drug testing of welfare recipients from this bill, and the question you have to ask is: after having beaten their chests for such a long period of time, why did they do that? This morning Minister Christian Porter had this to say:

… we are absolutely committed to that policy of drug testing welfare recipients in a trial … and the reality is at the moment we can't quite get the crossbench support …

So let's be clear that there hasn't been a change of heart. It's not that the government's figured out that people want to access treatment for addiction and health services that will help them manage their addiction and then move to taking themselves from addiction. It's not that the government's heard that there's great need in the community. It's just that they haven't got the numbers right now. And I dare say there'll be a huge amount of pressure going on behind the scenes to try and get the crossbench to push this through. If they're unsuccessful tonight, then we've got a clear indication from Minister Porter that he's ready to come back and have another go.

The problem is what they're proposing is such bad policy. It's based on prejudices and, as we've heard many speakers in this debate say, moral judgements on people who end up in addiction. I will always say—in the many years I was a teacher, I was very clear in talking about social issues with my students—'It would be much better not to take drugs. Don't start. If you start, try and stop early. Get services and get help. If it's bigger than that, get the treatment that you need.' But a life of addiction is not a life of freedom, and people who need treatment for addiction are provided with that care—not as much as we'd like in this country; certainly not as much as Labor would like to see—by a number of agencies that are held in high esteem in this country, and one of them is the Salvation Army.

I want to go to the Salvation Army submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill. The Salvation Army table of contents in itself is an instruction of why what is proposed in this bill is so wrong. Given the option to deal with the bill and give evidence-based advice about what would be helpful for people who find themselves in addiction—about which the Salvation Army know quite a bit—some of the key concerns they listed were, firstly, that there was a lack of evidence to support it. Secondly, it was likely to lead to increased poverty. The third point was that it increased stigmatisation. The fourth issue was a lack of clarity around assessment process. The fifth was an increased burden on AOD treatment services and emergency relief agencies. Sixth was the potential shift in consumption patterns.

We know that a lack of evidence can only lead to bad policy. If you haven't got evidence to back up what you're attempting to prosecute, clearly, you're basing it on something else. This government has a significant track record of prejudicial attitudes towards people who find themselves out of work, unwell and unable to work, and who find themselves in addiction. This is what the Salvation Army had to say with regard to the lack of evidence for the government's proposal. They refer to studies in Florida reported in an academic journal by Rachel Bloom in 2012. They said:

In many cases, testing costs more than it saves monetarily, for example, a four month trial occurred in Florida in 2011, the cost of this trial outweighed the savings in welfare payments.

How can you attempt to run a trial when the cost of running it is more costly than actually giving people the basic living allowances that they need?

The Salvation Army also talked about the problem of increased poverty, and we know that adverse effects of substance use are unlikely to deter those with substance use disorders from problematic substance use. They wrote very eloquently in the report about their encounters with people who experience poverty through the course of their treatment and how significant the concept of harm reduction is. Harm reduction is a part of the National Drug Strategy—to create a context in which poverty is not an additional problem that people have to deal with when they're trying to get their treatment. The government's calls for this, even before they have got to an implementation phase, have led already to an increased stigmatisation of people with addiction. We know that this bill should not be supported. We know that the support that it hasn't been given— (Quorum formed)

I was about to remark that we know why the minister can't get support for this trial: because it fails the test on so many measures. It's expensive; it will, as I said, further stigmatise welfare recipients; and, worst of all, it won't even work for those who are experiencing drug addiction. Labor absolutely understands that addiction to alcohol and other drugs is ruining lives, tearing families apart and disrupting communities. We know that, when people are struggling with addiction and they attempt to seek help, there's a very small window of opportunity to intervene and help them and their loved ones. This was never more clearly brought home to me than on one occasion when I was teaching at a school on the Central Coast, and the Salvation Army, as part of the treatment for young addicted people they were looking after, brought a few people to the school to talk to the students. Telling a story and explaining what was happening was part of the therapeutic model that they were adopting and implementing.

They brought along a wonderful young woman who described the way that she had fallen into addiction. She was at university, she was smart, and it looked, for all intents and purposes, like everything was going really well in her life. She met a slightly older man who was an irregular user of heroin. He encouraged her to use with him one evening. She was introduced to it. He moved on, left her life and never fell into addiction—from what she said—but she, very, very quickly, became addicted to heroin. She was a very resourceful and smart young woman. She told the students how she managed to never get caught up in the justice system. She was able to do high-paying work in a corporate situation and managed to get her way through that. However, it got to the point where her life was just about falling apart. Her parents were aware of the issue. They tried to offer her support. They couldn't get her treatment at a time when she was ready. The cycle continued for some time. Suffice to say, it was about Christmastime and she ended up on the steps the William Booth Centre in the middle of Sydney, down in Surrey Hills. She said, 'I had already earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. I had no car. I barely had any clothing. I had nothing to show. I'd spent nearly every dollar that I had on securing heroin. I thought I was fooling everybody.' She was standing there with two green Glad garbage bags with the sum total of her possessions. That is what she said about her experience of addiction.

She encouraged the students not to go there. The thing that was so significant for her when she explained why she went and sought treatment at that point was because in her life she was actually ready to undertake it. She had got to a point of impairment in her life and a sense of loss and a sense of loss of control. With the support of her parents, she found that small window of treatment—which could be as narrow as 24 to 48 hours. The Salvation Army know that. The treatment access for people is already limited. Those windows of opportunity and response are already limited.

What this government are basically proposing with this legislation—and I'm glad they removed this part for the moment—is to drive people to the cliff's edge, supposedly having to get into treatment to maintain some form of payment, putting that person in that context where we know there is already an unmet need. That's what is so wrong about it. When you know that, how can you possibly construct a system that is going to put more pressure on a system that is already failing, where the cost of failure is people's lives?

It's remarkable to me that this government remains committed to drug testing 5,000 recipients of Newstart allowance and youth allowance in three locations, when all the experts continue to say it will not work. The lack of support across the entire sector has actually been a critical element in ensuring that the resistance to this bill has been raised, and people in this place have been listening to it. I know that we have comments from the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, which indicated that had the Turnbull government consulted experts before unveiling this plan they would've been advised to drop these measures pronto. Clearly that didn't happen.

Unsurprisingly, the government has not provided a single skerrick of evidence to support the establishment of the trial, except that it is their will against the experts, it's their will against common sense, it's their will against everything that we might hope in terms of fair and equitable access to treatment services when required. The reason they haven't provided any evidence is because none exists. Medical professionals, including mental health professionals, and a range of drug and alcohol treatment sector advocates continue to condemn the proposed government trial. The serious concerns I've indicated already from the Salvation Army have been raised by very many people. We know that the Salvation Army declared that there are far more effective measures for decreasing drug-related harm among welfare recipients, but their plans and their insights into how to achieve that have not been taken up by the government. Places like the Salvation Army and other providers of services such as Odyssey House and WHOS are well placed to make such an assessment, managing more than $5 million in the case of the Salvation Army of alcohol and other drug services and programs across Australia.

No health or community organisation has come out, publicly, to support the trial—not one. Mental health expert and former Australian of the year, Professor Patrick McGorry, called the government's plan to drug test welfare recipients an 'absolute disgrace', and who could disagree with him. We saw an open letter from hundreds of addiction specialists, hundreds of doctors and hundreds of registered nurses who wrote to the Prime Minister, begging him, really, to halt this drug-testing trial. This is what they said collectively: 'If we'd been consulted, we could have said that people cannot be punished into recovery. Using drug testing to coerce people into treatment treats drug and alcohol problems as some sort of personal failing, not the serious health problem that it is.'

Drug testing has been tried and has failed in the international context. In New Zealand, there was a spend of about a million dollars on testing around 8,000 people. The find was that there were 22 positives. It was a huge cost. If this government was serious about giving people relief from addiction, they would be investing in services and not investing in testing. The UK government consulted on drug testing, and the experts absolutely did not recommend random drug testing. Experts warn that these changes will not help people to overcome addiction because they understand that that is not how addiction works.

We already know, as I've said, that there are very long waiting times for access to public rehabilitation programs. The scale of that is something that is important to put into context in light of this piece of legislation. There are 32,000 requests a year for Australians to get into rehab and there are 1,500 residential rehab beds. That is not a fair match. That is not a good match—I see Senator Williams looking up. I know he's a great advocate for his community for access to those sorts of services—32,000 requests for addiction treatment and 1,500 residential rehabilitation beds. The alcohol and other-drugs sector estimates that the waiting times for residential services can be several months on average and up to six months in some jurisdictions. Professor Ritter hypothesised that resources in the three trial sites—Canterbury-Bankstown, Logan and Mandurah—would need to double to meet existing unmet demand in these three areas. It would need to double to meet the demand right now, before adding anything on to the top. The treatment regime that we see just does not meet people's needs. This government isn't committing to doubling treatment services. This is an absolute mismatch. If someone fails the first-time test, as proposed by this government, they are going to be placed on income management for 24 months. I know that other contributions in this place, in the course of the day, have talked about how sensitive some points of the recovery journey can be for people who have finally come to a point where they go and seek drug treatment and support.

I would like to conclude with the comments of Sandra Goldie from the Australian Council of Social Services: 'There is no evidence that this drug testing proposal will lead to improved health, social or employment outcomes for people. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary. Drug test measures would direct very precious dollars to a measure that has been widely condemned by leading health experts.' That should be the last word on this. It's not evidence based; it's punitive and it will cost more than it will deliver.