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Thursday, 10 May 2018
Page: 3759


Mr LLEW O'BRIEN (Wide BayDeputy Nationals Whip) (17:47): I rise to support the government's reforms to social welfare. I listened carefully to the speech from the member for Jagajaga before me. It was quite interesting. She pinpointed some statistics, particularly around international trials of this nature, where many, many thousands of people on welfare have been drug tested. I think the numbers she came back with were that 29 in one country and 22 in another country were detected. All I can say is: what an amazing preventative measure this is. If it is stopping people from taking drugs—because they know there is a drug-testing regime—to the point where we are getting such low numbers returned, I see that as a great success and another reason why we should support the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2018 and make sure that it happens.

Another point the member for Jagajaga made was that, unlike her, people on the other side—I think those were her words—hadn't been to Odyssey House and spoken to those who are addicted. I must say that I haven't been to Odyssey House, but I did spend 17 years as a police officer dealing with drug-addicted people. I saw people in terrible situations addicted to drugs, and they were on welfare. They were some of the most horrible circumstances you can imagine. There were mothers prostituting themselves. I saw kids abused in the most disgraceful way. I saw the absolute lowest standards of living because of drug addiction, and these people were on welfare. And do you know what? They had slipped through the cracks. This bill is about finding those people and helping them. This is not about punishing them. To say that it's too expensive or too hard, as I heard before, is just a disgrace. We have to do everything to help these people. That's what this bill is about. This bill, through the drug-testing trial, will help people take control of their lives. It's aimed at identifying people who need help to break the cycle of addiction and welfare dependency so we can help them into work. This is targeted at Newstart and other welfare designed around employment.

We all know that the best form of welfare is a job. The best way to ensure that people receiving welfare make it into the workforce is, first, to ensure the economy has jobs for them to take and, second, to ensure that they're able to perform those jobs. This means helping those people to have the capacity and the desire to get into work. Australia's annual welfare budget is around $160 billion, accounting for about 35 per cent of the budget. There is no doubt that society needs a social security safety net, and we should be proud of the one that we have in Australia. It needs to be able to help and sustain people who, for whatever reason, need support to get a job, but there also needs to be a degree of mutual obligation.

Like any other major cohort in Australian society, people receiving welfare are, in the main, very decent, contributing citizens, genuinely trying to live a productive life. But, like in other areas of society, there are some who are caught in a vicious cycle of substance abuse—who spend their money on illicit substances which, in turn, prevent them from getting ahead. The cycle of abuse can destroy lives. We need to take action to stop the cycle and put services in place to help people get their lives back on track. It's a sad reality that drugs are a scourge within many of our communities. Illicit amphetamine use is reaching frightening levels in some places. Over the last decade, drug convictions have increased by some 330 per cent. Tragically, the number of Australians killed by methamphetamine use has doubled in the past six years, with nearly half of those deaths in regional Australia. Illegal drugs are tearing apart families and destroying our communities. What's more, in most cases, behind these victims of drug addiction are those seeking to profit through the production, supply and trafficking of drugs to these vulnerable people. The scum of society are predominantly members of organised crime or outlaw motorcycle gangs, which are really one and the same.

Substance abuse has many contributing factors. Welfare dependency is just one factor, but it is one that government is able to influence but has neglected for some time. In society, drug addiction can contribute to a cultural dependence which, when passed on from generation to generation, becomes a difficult cycle to break. There are around 100,000 people receiving welfare support who have breached their mutual obligation tasks. If drug dependency is the cause of this, we need to identify it and we need to help these people. There is considerable research which shows that substance abuse does prevent some people from working and contributing to society. The data shows that in 2017 there were over 4,850 occasions when jobseekers cited substance dependency as an excuse for not meeting their mutual obligation requirements. In September of last year, around 5,200 people were temporarily exempt from their mutual obligation because of drug and alcohol dependence and abuse, an 86 per cent increase since 2011. Is what has been identified the tip of the iceberg? That's what we need to know. How many more of these 100,000 people need our help desperately?

I'm very pleased that the government has responded to these challenges by establishing the drug-testing trial for 5,000 new Newstart and other youth allowance recipients. They will be in three discrete locations: Canterbury Bankstown, Logan and Mandurah. These locations were selected on the basis of thorough research which examined crime and drug-use statistics. As part of the new package worth $10 million, jobseekers who test positive will be helped by being placed on income management and given essential support to deal with their substance abuse. For the first time, substance abuse treatment will be an approved activity within welfare recipients' job plans, giving them an incentive to get treatment, rehabilitate and find a job.

If someone refuses to take the test, the government's response is very clear: they will not get the benefit. This is not about cutting the social security safety net. Jobseekers who return an initial positive test will continue to receive the same amount in welfare payments. It's about giving those who do test positive the tools to take control of their lives and once again be productive members of society.

Tests will be carried out by contracted drug tester providers, and jobseekers will have the right to dispute a positive return and request a retest. After the two-year trial, a thorough evaluation will be conducted with stakeholders and experts, and this will inform the government on the possibility of rolling out the testing more broadly in high-risk areas. I believe in evidence based policy. While I do not want to second-guess the outcome of this two-year trial, there's no reason not to give it a go. It's incumbent upon us to try and save vulnerable people, for their own sake and for their family's sake. As a policeman, I know too well the scourge of drugs in regional communities. If the trial gets even one young person off these destroying poisons then it's worth doing.

The trial comes in addition to a suite of reforms to social services payment agreements, including the introduction of a demerit point style system to target people that game the system. These measures will return welfare to the support system it was designed to be—for people looking for a hand up rather than a handout. This is all part of the coalition's comprehensive plan to reduce drug and alcohol abuse, providing $689 million since 2016, including almost $300 million over four years as part of the National Ice Action Strategy.

It's disappointing that our political opponents are more supportive of raiding superannuation accounts of pensioners and senior Australians than supporting a program that will help to prevent taxpayer funds being stripped from the addicted and going to criminal motorcycle gangs. The Labor and Greens approach encourages those addicted to drugs to avoid identification, keeping them in the cycle of unemployment, poverty and abuse.

As far as I'm concerned, if you're being paid by the taxpayer to look for work or do a job, they have every right to know what's going on and whether you're fit to do that task. When I was a policeman there was, rightly, a drug and alcohol testing regime, and I didn't hear any civil libertarians jumping up and down about how unfair that was. As a member of parliament, I'd have no problems with or reservation about submitting myself to a drug and alcohol test at any time, and I wouldn't have any problem with seeing these tests extended to the judiciary as well.

I thank Minister Tehan and the Attorney-General for spearheading these innovative reforms to the welfare system. I look forward to working with them in the future to reduce the impact of drugs in regional communities. The government knows that there is much more needed to reduce drug use and get unemployed Australians back to work. But the first step has to be an acknowledgement that people have to take responsibility for their own actions. This trial will help them do that and, together with adequate support, it will help them end their dependency and become productive members of society.

Debate adjourned.