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Monday, 7 March 2005
Page: 15

Senator FERGUSON (1:31 PM) —I rise to speak on the Defence Amendment Bill 2005, which was introduced into and passed by the House of Representatives in February this year. I have listened intently to Senator Bartlett for the last 20 minutes and, in that 20 minutes of rambling, I still do not know whether he supports the bill. At least when Senator Bishop spoke earlier—apart from a couple of cheap shots, which I would not want to elaborate on too much—he said that the bill had the support of the opposition, and I was very pleased to hear that. Senator Bartlett raised the issue of privacy, and I will speak more about that later. But, as a general rule, I would have thought that the only people who have anything to fear from drug testing, or expanded drug testing, not just in the defence forces but anywhere in the community are those who are breaking the law or using prohibited substances. That is one of the reasons for the introduction of the bill.

Senator Bartlett emphasised the fact that there should be more parliamentary scrutiny of certain issues and the opportunity for disallowable regulations. Having just been through a week of estimates, I do not know where there is more parliamentary scrutiny than in the estimates process, where officers of the department are able to be questioned at length. There is far more than you would ever get in this chamber when you are debating a disallowable regulation. There could never be any more intense scrutiny of any operation or any activity of our defence forces than that which applies to the estimates process. It is one that we are all in support of. It means that we have a very transparent process. People are there to answer questions, and those who are interested and those who have a particular concern about what might be going on in the defence forces have an opportunity to ask questions directed to the officers concerned and to the minister. I have never yet seen a disallowance motion in this chamber which is treated with the intense scrutiny that the estimates process allows opposition, government and crossbench members to carry out.

The Australian Defence Force has a policy of zero tolerance of the abuse or misuse of drugs. It is a policy that is strongly supported by both the Australian government and the Australian community. The misuse of drugs can have a serious effect on the operational effectiveness of the ADF, through reduced performance, impairment of health and increased security risks. Public confidence in the ADF is of vital importance, and the reporting of the incidence of drug abuse has the ability to seriously undermine public confidence as well as the confidence of those people serving in the armed forces in relation to the people who are serving with them and around them.

The creation of an effective prohibited substance-testing regime is intended to act as a strong deterrent to drug misuse, whether through the use of prohibited substances or the misuse of prescription or over-the-counter medications. This bill will amend part VIIIA of the Defence Act 1903 to provide a more comprehensive regime for the drug testing of members of the Australian defence forces. The principal purpose of this bill is to expand the range of drugs that may be tested for, beyond those narcotic substances currently provided for under part VIIIA, and to broaden the circumstances when testing could be required, beyond those relating to ADF members undertaking combat and combat related duties. It will make provision for testing by means other than by urinalysis, as new tests and new drugs are developed. It will clarify the power to terminate employment after return of a confirmed positive test result. It will clarify the power to take other administrative action, to enable details of the drug-testing regime to be set out in defence instructions, issued under section IXA of the act. It will allow for flexibility in the regime’s administration and enable it to keep pace with modern developments in drugs and drug-testing techniques.

The amendments will extend the scope of part VIIIA of the Defence Act from its current limited application. The drug-testing provisions of part VIIIA were developed in the early 1990s. Since that time, drug-testing technology has developed and improved substantially. We note the substantial improvements in techniques that have taken place in the past years, particularly in relation to sports drug testing. There is a continual improvement in the ability to test for drugs, and it is only right and proper that we should continue to move with the times and use these modern techniques. The existing provisions do not meet the needs of the ADF. The existing section in the act allows for testing only through urinalysis. The current provisions allow testing of only members on combat or combat related duties and are confined to testing for narcotic substances.

The amendments in the Defence Amendment Bill 2005 will allow all members of the ADF to be tested at any time. This includes members of the Reserve on duty and defence civilians who are contractors accompanying the ADF on operations and who have agreed to be subject to Defence Force discipline. That is an important addition to this bill and to the current testing regime that is in place, because all of the people whom I have mentioned are people whose jobs and operations affect all of the people who are working around them. So I think it is a very important addition to the drug-testing regime that is currently in place.

This bill is part of the government’s commitment to ensure that the Australian Defence Force is drug free and operationally ready. We have the highest respect for Defence Force personnel. I noticed, and I cannot help mentioning, that Senator Bishop in his earlier remarks mentioned that he had never seen a Prime Minister or ministers who were so keen to have their photographs taken with the Australian defence forces. Senator Bishop, that is because on this side of the chamber we are intensely proud of the Australian defence forces. Anybody would want to be seen with the Australian defence forces because of the pride that we on this side of the chamber have in them and the fact that throughout the rest of the world they have earned a reputation that is second to none.

Who would not want to be associated with the Australian defence forces? Senator Bishop, I can only suggest that perhaps your former leader and some other members of your party do not have quite the same pride and tend to want a couple of bob each way. They say, ‘We support the defence forces, but we are critical of the government’s decision.’ ‘We support the defence forces—but.’ We hear these ‘buts’ all the time. I can tell you that on this side of the chamber we are tremendously proud of our defence forces. My colleague Senator Sandy Macdonald and I, and any senator on this side of the chamber, would be delighted to have our photos taken at any time with any member of our defence forces because we hold them in such high regard. They are held in high regard not only here but also abroad. Inappropriate behaviour by individuals within the Defence Force can tarnish this reputation. This amendment will act as a deterrent to those individuals who might be so careless as to tarnish the reputation of their colleagues in the defence forces.

I stress that prohibited drug use is very low amongst ADF members. In 2004 some 7,637 ADF personnel were tested for prohibited drug use, with only 110 members testing positive to drugs. If you compared that statistic with the use of prohibited drugs amongst the general Australian population, you would find it is absolutely minimal. It is a very sad state of affairs that prohibited drugs are used so much in the community. I think the defence forces can be proud of the encouragement they give to their own people and the responsibility that they feel for their fellow servicemen, such that out of 7,637 ADF personnel only 110 members tested positive to drugs. I think it is a statistic they can be very proud of but one that we would like to make even smaller or eliminate.

To further confirm those statistics, a survey undertaken by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care in 2000 reported that 23 per cent of Australians over the age of 14 had used prohibited drugs in the preceding 12 months. Almost one in four Australians aged over 14 had used prohibited drugs in the preceding 12 months. It is a very sad statistic. Unfortunately, that is something that pervades our community right now, whereas in the ADF there was such a small percentage of people who tested positive. The ADF’s policy of zero tolerance of the inappropriate use of drugs has been fully supported by the government.

The principle of privacy was raised during the second reading debate on the bill in the House of Representatives. We are aware of the concerns raised by the Privacy Act and of the rights of people to privacy. The Privacy Act principles will cover dealing with the test results and will place appropriate limits on the ability to disclose information to third parties. I understand, and I think Senator Bishop confirmed, that the opposition have been briefed on this issue. The privacy principles require Defence to ensure that the collection of any personal information, including test results, does not unreasonably intrude upon the personal affairs of the person being tested. That is a very generalised phrase, but I think that ‘does not unreasonably intrude’ is a very good way of describing it. It would also place appropriate limits on the ability to use or disclose the test results. I think that has put at rest the minds of people who were concerned about privacy issues, but we still need to keep in mind the fact that we are desperately trying to make sure that people who use prohibited drugs within the armed forces are found and are dealt with.

I would like to emphasise again that the Australian government and the Australian community have an enormously high regard for our defence forces. This bill can only improve their reputation. This bill will act as a strong deterrent to individuals in the ADF who seek to misuse drugs and subsequently threaten to tarnish the reputation of the Australian defence forces. The community has a high expectation of Australian Defence Force behaviour, and this bill will ensure that the ADF continues to meet these expectations through continuing high standards and professionalism.

It is an important bill because it enlarges the scope to test for the use of prohibited drugs. I do not think there is a person in this chamber who would want to say anything that would oppose the extension of this testing of prohibited drugs, because it is important, as we have all stated many times, for the defence forces and those working with Defence Force personnel to be at the highest level of readiness, and the use of prohibited drugs can only diminish their ability to serve this country. We want to make sure that this bill is passed so that we can continue to hold the defence forces in the high regard in which we have always held them and so that members of the community can be confident that the use and misuse of prohibited drugs is restricted to the very minimum. I commend the bill to the Senate.