Drug testing for welfare recipients

07 September 2017

DR CHALMERS (Rankin) (10:49): I commend the member for Bruce for the many good points he made about this Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. My contribution will be made from the perspective of someone who represents one of the communities which has been singled out for these drug trials. I was born in that community. I grew up there. I have lived there most of my life. I am raising a family there. I have seen the absolute best of that community. I also care deeply about our most pressing and persistent challenges. I am not naive about those challenges and I don't pretend them away. I care deeply about people who are dependent and people who have fallen behind or have fallen down. I am in this place, as so many of us are on this side of the parliament, to try and help people up and not kick them while they are down.

Unfortunately, this bill is not about genuinely helping people. It is not a genuine attempt to get people off welfare and into work. It is about chasing cheap, tabloid headlines and it is about denigrating Logan city, where I am from, in the government's usual, sneering and snobby way. This drug trial, this policy, has been tried elsewhere and it has failed dismally. Medical experts, one after the other, have said that this is a terrible idea; that it won't work, that it's likely to be counterproductive. As I said, we do have our share of challenges in my community, but pushing the most vulnerable people to the brink will make homelessness, unemployment and crime worse not better, with consequences for the entire community.

This Turnbull government, it pains me to say, is so desperately out of touch that they would rather waste money on schemes that won't work, instead of genuinely supporting local jobs in Logan city and the surrounding suburbs. If those opposite spent more time caring about those jobs and less time chasing cheap headlines or running my community down, we would all be better off. You can see why, Deputy Speaker Mitchell, a lot of people in my community feel, with some justification, that ministers from the other side of this parliament only ever show up in Logan city to bag it. So they can spare us their lectures about our community. They wouldn't know the first thing about our challenges and this bill shows that they don't have a clue about how to properly go about addressing them.

The bill includes a whole range of budget measures from the 2017 budget across the social services, employment and human services portfolios, and implements a whole range of complex measures. Others have made contributions on those. I would like to focus exclusively on that drug-testing trial, including in my electorate and in Logan. I want to focus on five reasons why it is a bad idea. The first is the most obvious: it won't work. As I have said, the experts have told us and it has been tried elsewhere and it didn't work. It failed dismally in New Zealand in 2013; it didn't meet its objectives. It failed in the US states of Missouri and Utah. The experts have voiced their very real concerns that testing could encourage people to use less traceable drugs like synthetic cannabis or even just switch to alcohol. There is a six-week lag for people who are trying to give up cannabis, which still shows up in the tests. We will have long waiting lists, which mean that people who do want the help they need won't be able to get the help in a timely fashion. That brings us to the second concern: the issue around health outcomes.

The list of health experts who oppose this trial is too long to list in a 15-minute speech. That is how many people have come out saying that this is a terrible idea. Let me just pick out a few of those organisations, Deputy Speaker. The Australian Medical Association described it as, 'A mean and non-evidence based measure that simply won't work.' The Australasian College of Physicians said, 'This will fail and it will lead to poor outcomes.' The president of that organisation said, 'All indications are that it will further marginalise people who already experience a greater burden of social, physical and personal disadvantage.' The Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs said, 'Not only will this fail to reduce drugs; it will increase crime and drive social division.' St Vincent's Health Australia, the Rural Doctors Association Australia, Harm Reduction Australia, the Australian Council of Social Service, UnitingCare Australia—almost 1,000 doctors and nurses signed a letter, and they have more than 20,000 combined years of experience—said, 'There is no evidence to suggest the policy will work or help people with drug addictions.' Not one health or community organisation has come out in support of this trial.

The third reason I think this is a horrible idea is that it will be counterproductive when it comes to things like addressing crime in our community. This point was made very effectively and very well by the Mayor of Logan City, Councillor Luke Smith, not by any stretch a Labor person. Our mayor in Logan City has come out courageously, I think, against these drug trials. He wasn't consulted on them, but he's made some very good points. There was a story in The Courier-Mail under the headline 'Crime spike warning over drug test trial', in which Mayor Smith said:

They're going to find a different way to feed their addiction. We're concerned this could lead to crime spikes.

That is a very real concern that a whole range of people in our community have—that pushing vulnerable people to the brink will force them to find other ways to feed their addiction.

The fourth reason it's a terrible idea is that, as I alluded to a moment ago, there was no consultation with our community. The community doesn't want this drug trial. I don't just mean people associated with the political parties; I mean people right through the community. We've got terrific community organisations in Logan City. They are the best in the country. People are spending all of their days, all of their time, often all of their careers, trying to help people who have fallen behind or fallen down. They are trying to help them back up—that great objective that we should all share. They don't want this drug trial. They weren't even told about it in advance. The media knew about it before the council and all of these community groups. The Mayor of Logan City said that this policy was based on an 'atrocious lack of understanding of what's going on on the ground', and he described it as a 'disgrace'.

But it's not just the mayor who is saying that. Cath Bartolo—one of the best people in my community—who runs a terrific organisation called YFS, described the measure as 'punitive' and 'not backed by evidence'. She is on the front of our local paper, the Albert & Logan News, and is quoted as saying, 'It would not reduce unemployment in Logan. It's a punitive approach.' That's just one of the community groups that has come out and slammed it. Our local churches have also spoken about this. Father Dave from St Paul's at Woodridge, one of the great Catholic Churches in my electorate, has spoken on this. It's not usual for Father Dave to come out and have a spray about government policy but, in the Catholic Leader, Father David Batey from St Paul's, said:

At a human level, it could be heartless. At a practical level it could be something … but it probably needs more sociological consideration of what happens to people.

It seems like one more thing that is going to make people who are poor, even poorer.

'Make people who are poor, even poorer'—the words of one of our very highly regarded local Catholic priests. Logan Rosies is an organisation that goes to Woodridge station and other parts of our community to hand out food to the homeless. The coordinator of that organisation said:

What it's doing is increasing the stigma.

I could go on and on, but all of these community groups have made the point that it won't work and that it stigmatises our community unfairly.

The fifth reason that this is a bad idea is that it's a waste of money. It makes no sense given the mess that those opposite have made of the budget. We've got gross debt at half a trillion dollars. The deficit for this year is 10 times greater than it was expected to be in Joe Hockey's first budget in 2014. We've got debt and deficit through the roof. They can't tell us how much this program will cost. They're throwing good money after bad on a proposal which all of the experts say won't work. The government don't even know how much this testing will cost because they haven't decided what kind of testing it will be and there are very different costs associated with the different kinds of testing. We also know that, if they try to do it on the cheap, there's a real risk of some false positives. If they try to do it cheaply, just to get to some kind of half-hearted outcome, they might get more positives than is actually the case. The more expensive tests, of course, will blow out the budget problem even further.

So, despite overwhelming expert advice, local objections, a lack of consultation and a lack of evidence—despite all of these things—the Turnbull government is pushing ahead in my community of Logan City. It just goes to show how arrogant and out of touch this Prime Minister and his government are. They think they know better than thousands of nurses and doctors, community organisations like those in my electorate, the churches, the health groups and the AMA. In their arrogance, they think that they know better than people who have spent their entire lives trying to help people who have drug addictions. And that really is what this is all about. They are chasing headlines and going out of their way to denigrate Logan City, and they think that they know better than the experts.

Of course, they've got plenty of form in wasting money on these sorts of ideological exercises. We know the High Court is dealing with one of them today: the $122 million that is being wasted on another ideological frolic because they don't have the Australian community's best interests at heart. If they genuinely cared about helping people out of welfare and into work, they wouldn't, without evidence and at a significant cost to the budget, demonise jobseekers. They wouldn't fly in and out of communities like mine just to bag them; they would actually consult with communities about their genuine needs and the sorts of programs that actually have some prospect of helping people who are in this awful situation that we would not wish on anyone.

That the minister responsible for this drug-testing trial, Minister Tudge, was the same guy who brought so much pain into my community—and, indeed, into lots of the communities of those on this side of the House, including the member for Moreton's community—with the Centrelink robo-debt debacle says everything about this government. Only the Liberal Party could allow Centrelink to stuff up something as badly as robo-debt was stuffed up and then promote them to handling drug trials in communities like mine. If you can't even handle debt recovery, what possible hope do you have—whether it's Minister Tudge, Minister Porter or anyone else—of successfully delivering this program the right way.

To make it worse, the member for Forde has just been bumbling around the electorate. Countless people who are just desperate for an alternative have come up to me in Waterford and Loganlea on his side of the Rankin-Forde border. When it comes to issues like this, they know they will never get from the member of Forde a member who will stand up for the interests of the community when ministers fly in and bag Logan City. They will not get that from the current member for Forde, and we hope that, after the election, there will be a very different member for Forde.

Those opposite haven't heard the end of this. We will oppose this policy proposal for all the reasons I have identified, including the five I have principally mentioned. We will fight this. It's badly motivated. It's mean-spirited. It won't work. It's costly. The community doesn't want it. It's counterproductive. The list of problems with this ridiculous policy goes on and on. We will oppose it because we listen to the experts. We will oppose it because we consult with our communities. We will oppose it because we care about helping people who need help—not punishing and demonising them with policies like this.

We are always up for a genuine conversation, a genuine discussion, about how to help people who are battling addiction receive the treatment they need. But we will never, ever be in the cart when it comes to kicking people in the guts when they're down and out. They need us to be in this place standing up for them, speaking up for them and devising policies that actually have some prospect of working for people who find themselves in a situation where they are addicted to drugs. It is not the role of the federal government to make these lives worse; it is the role of the federal government to do what we can to make these lives better. I'm proud of how we work together in my community to address our challenges. I'm disappointed to see this legislation brought before us when it will jeopardise all of those efforts, when it will damage the community, when it will be counterproductive and when it will fail anyway.