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Thursday, 17 October 2019
Page: 4504


Mr WILKIE (Clark) (10:47): I think this Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019 is a particularly good example of where politicians think they know more than they do, that they don't need to rely on the advice of experts and that they can go to their own ideology or perhaps their close circle of political advisers. The problem with that is you get bad public policy. When you go to experts and ask them what they think about this proposal that Centrelink recipients be pill tested, there is an overwhelming weight of opinion that it's a bad idea and that, instead, it looks like an ideological response from a conservative government who would sooner demonise and marginalise Centrelink recipients than genuinely look at the best way to support them and help them deal with their disability, their age, their unemployment or whatever it is.

I think particularly good experts to go to are the college of physicians. I'm going to take the time to read out a media statement made a week ago by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians on 10 October. This was their response to the Senate report endorsing the idea in this bill, or largely supporting it. I think it's a lovely summary of why this bill should not be supported. It's a lovely summary of why I will not support this bill. It reads:

Australia's largest specialist medical college is disappointed in a Senate Inquiry report released today, which neglects to consider wide ranging evidence that drug testing welfare recipients leads to more harm than good.

The Senate Inquiry report into the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2019 has today recommended that the Government pursue their plan to trial drug testing of 5,000 welfare participants across three trial sites.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) remains strongly opposed to this Bill, on the basis that it is not evidence-based, goes against all the expert advice provided to the Government on the matter, and is likely to be clinically harmful to people suffering with drug and/or alcohol addiction.

The Bill's stated aim is to improve a recipient's capacity to find employment or participate in education or training by identifying people with drug use issues and assisting them to undertake treatment. It is our careful assessment—

that is, the college's—

that drug testing will have an adverse rather than positive impact on achieving that outcome. The RACP supports the need for Government action to help overcome drug and alcohol addiction in the community and improve employment outcomes, but drug testing welfare recipients is in no way a solution - in fact, it creates further health problems in the community.

The recommendations of this report contradict the expert advice and evidence from all the addiction, health and social care experts, who are united in their opposition to drug testing welfare recipients

If the Federal Government is serious about addressing addiction and assisting people to gain employment, it needs to invest in quality, evidence-based alcohol and drug treatment services and a suitably trained workforce.

It finishes by saying:

Drug testing welfare participants is in no way an effective strategy to improving employment or health outcomes in the community and the RACP urges all Parliamentarians to oppose this Bill which flies in the face of evidence.

So why we in this place would ignore the unambiguous, the very strong and clear advice of the RACP beggars belief. I think it could only be explained by ideology run amok.

There has been a lot said about exactly why drug testing won't work. If I could branch out and take this opportunity to give some advice to the government on perhaps what they should be doing to assist Centrelink customers, there are so many other things the government could be focusing on. For example and probably most obviously, why don't we actually support Centrelink recipients, all of them, by raising government pensions and payments to levels people can actually live a dignified life on? We talk a lot about Newstart but I think this point really goes to all government pensions and payments. How does, for example, a single age pensioner paying market rent get by? I can't see how they do. They must—I hear this—go without the essentials of life. They go without meals, they go without medicines, and they go without travelling to interact with old friends to foster their health in all those sorts of ways. I've said this before and I'll say it again: I have met age pensioners who will live on a 99c can of baked beans or an 80c can of dog food, and that is in one of the richest countries in the world.

Of course, Newstart is perhaps the most striking example of where Centrelink and the government are letting people down. Newstart for a single person with no dependent children is $279 per week. Yes, there are modest other payments that might bolster that, but Newstart for a single person with no dependent children is $279 per week. I recall listening to ABC Radio in Hobart a couple of months ago now. They went out and took the trouble of finding out what the cheapest rental in Hobart was at that point in time. The cheapest rental they could find in Hobart was $280 a week. That was for a little cement block flat which, if you were to see it, you might think was an old toilet block next to an old playing field. So how on earth can anyone live on that level of money?

Let's think about jobs. If people are going to get a job, they need to be in good health, they need a roof over their head, they need to be well groomed, they need to have a smart set of clothes, they need to be healthy and in good order, and they need to pay for the transport to get to the job interview. Even things like getting a haircut—20 bucks—you can't do that on that sort of Centrelink payment, so how can you be expected to very promptly get off and get a good job? You can't.

When I stand up here as an independent and make these points about the problems with the way we support people through Newstart, some of my colleagues will say, 'Independents, all care, no responsibility, who is going to pay for this?' Let's not forget we are one of the richest countries in the world. Our GDP is the 13th largest in the world. Our GDP per capita is the 10th largest in the world. We are mind-bogglingly lucky and wealthy. This federal government will spend, this financial year, about half a trillion dollars. I propose that the issue is not about whether or not we can support Centrelink customers better; it's: how do we reprioritise the budget to make sure we do look after those people better? While I'm offering advice to the government about how it might better help Centrelink customers, how about the government finally focuses on improving Centrelink service generally?

I've jotted some examples down here. People have been waiting months for their application to be assessed and can't get an answer from Centrelink about when their application will be processed. Often any communication these people receive from Centrelink is so brief or poorly drafted that they can't understand what it means. People are spending hours on the phone trying to get through to Centrelink—at a high personal cost—and still not being able to get through; they're hanging up in exasperation or being hung up on. People have called Centrelink multiple times, or been into the office to inquire, only to be told something different every time. People are trying to do the right thing and declare their income correctly, but they can't, because myGov is broken. They go into the actual Centrelink office, and they're referred back to the phone lines or to the broken myGov website. People have been told to email information to Centrelink or to upload it online but have had no confirmation that the information has been received or processed. Often people think that the information has been submitted correctly, but it hasn't and it won't get acted on.

People come to me all the time talking about issues with frontline Centrelink staff and lack of communication and the fact that the rush to online Centrelink services has occurred too fast. It has been poorly designed and it's simply unavailable to a lot of Centrelink customers. It's self-evident that Centrelink customers include elderly people, who may not be technologically literate—they may not even have access to the internet—or very disadvantaged people, who can't afford it. There are any number of other reasons why this rush by government agencies to move to online services is happening way too fast for many consumers.

I'm not going to miss this opportunity to mention robo-debt again. My colleagues on the crossbench, like the member for Mayo here, and, to their credit, the federal opposition have been very outspoken about all of the problems with robo-debt. For years now Centrelink has been sending out inaccurate debt notices, and it continues to do so. These notices are either entirely unwarranted or the amount is wrong, and there's no explanation of how the amount has been calculated. We've lost track, in our office, of the number of genuinely distressed people who are at wit's end, getting these very official letters. At one stage they even had the AFP logo on some of the Centrelink letters. It was sending people into panic. It was not unusual to have people in tears and even, occasionally, people threatening self-harm.

The role of Centrelink is to help the community. It's not to frighten them. It's not to make them feel demonised. Despite the fact that very few Centrelink recipients will have a drug or alcohol addiction, they all live with the threat of drug testing hanging over them. If the government is interested in the perils of illicit drug use, why doesn't it get behind pushing the COAG process in the direction of national pill testing? If we really care about people, let's bolster drug and alcohol services in the community and let's have a national approach to pill testing.

Senator Richard Di Natale and I co-hosted a demonstration of pill testing in the parliament several weeks ago. Everyone who was there was mightily impressed by the effectiveness of pill testing. No-one was there saying that we were encouraging our children to take illicit drugs to a party or to a festival. We're not encouraging that. What we're saying is that if someone does have a pill in their pocket then the penalty for using it should not be death. It's that simple. We should have a harm minimisation approach and do everything we can to help our kids. I've got two young children myself, and I'm soon to have three young stepsons. I'm not going to kid myself and think they're not going to experiment. I just want to ensure they're in as safe an environment as possible if they unwisely elect to do that.

That's been a bit of a Cook's tour about Centrelink, but it was a good opportunity to talk about the things the government should be focusing on. Let's stop demonising Centrelink recipients. Let's stop scaring Centrelink recipients. Let's stop sending this message to the community that they're either bludgers or drug addicts. They're not. Most people who are on Centrelink pensions and payments—most people who are on Newstart in particular—are just regular people who are having a difficult patch and need a bit of help, and that's what we should be doing: providing help to those people.

It is absolutely unambiguous that drug testing is expensive, it's ineffective, it doesn't address the root causes of drug and alcohol addiction and it doesn't provide effective help in itself for people who have an addiction to an illicit drug or to alcohol. So I'll oppose this bill, and I encourage the government to think again about what measures would be more effective and to, for once, make this the area of public policy where they don't just default to their ideological position but instead approach this area of public policy with a genuinely open mind and talk to the experts. When you've got experts like the RACP, the largest medical college in Australia, saying things like, 'Drug-testing welfare participants is in no way an effective strategy to improve employment or health outcomes in the community and it flies in the face of evidence,' and you just treat that with contempt, you're not doing your job as an effective government. You're not governing in the public interest. You're just implementing an ideological agenda, and you should be condemned for it.