Speeches

Drug testing trials 13/8/18

August 13, 2018

DR CHALMERS (Rankin) (15:47): At the core of the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2018 are the three drug-testing trials which are planned for Canterbury Bankstown in New South Wales, Mandurah in Western Australia and my own community of Logan City in Queensland. This bill is not a genuine or meaningful attempt to help out some of the most vulnerable people in our community. It's all about denigrating, demeaning, diminishing vulnerable people and pushing them to the brink. It's all about chasing a cheap tabloid headline at the expense of community cohesion. And it's all about a government so blinded by ideology that they won't listen to expert after expert after expert in the health field, the law and order field and beyond who say that this won't work and that it will be counterproductive.

This is a dangerous approach to people on social security payments because it will further marginalise them and it will push them to the brink, and that will have all kinds of consequences not just for the person immediately affected but for communities right around the country. This is a bit personal for me, because I do represent, proudly, the community that I was born in, grew up in, live in and love; I am raising my family there now. I tell you, we are a little bit sick as a community of being singled out by this out-of-touch Prime Minister and the LNP time and time again for this kind of denigration.

We are sick and tired of the fake concern shown by those opposite, including in the most recent contribution—this pretence that they care about vulnerable people. It makes us sick, Deputy Speaker. We are sick and tired of the lectures from Point Piper about what it's like to be on a low or a fixed income and battling with drug addiction. We are sick and tired of being the first port of call every time—and it's quite frequent—those opposite need a distraction from the latest scandals, whether it be half a billion dollars going to the Prime Minister's mates or by-election failures and other humiliations. We are sick and tired of being the first port of call when the government needs a distraction.

I will be voting against this legislation, as will every one of my colleagues, because we understand that what's being proposed here won't work, because we've listened to the experts and the experts have said that this will actually lead to worse health outcomes, it will lead to more crime, it will lead to more marginalisation and it will lead to more poverty. I think it speaks ill of those opposite—it says everything about those opposite—that, in the face of overwhelming expert opinion, they are so blinded by their extreme ideology and so keen to chase that cheap headline that they want to persevere with this ridiculous bill anyway.

This is not the first time that these drug-testing proposals have been before the House. They were attached to the broader social services legislation, and they failed then because those on the crossbench, thankfully, listened to the experts, as we did. So they have failed before. This bill is a little bit different in that it actually names the three sites—the three sites I mentioned at the outset. The trials were supposed to commence on 1 July this year, and that deadline has obviously been missed. The costs of the trial haven't been published, but the government has announced the money for drug testing. But it isn't clear how the treatment fund will be allocated and if it will be in sufficient time before the trials are scheduled to commence. So we will oppose this bill.

Thankfully, a whole range of groups right around Australia have come out and pointed out the flaws in the approach proposed by those opposite. Let me just do you a very quick roll call. These are just some of the health experts, medical professionals and community organisations that have opposed the measures that are being proposed here: the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, St Vincent's Health, the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, Harm Reduction Australia, Penington Institute, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, the Australian Council of Social Service, UnitingCare Australia, Homelessness Australia and the St Vincent de Paul Society. All of these groups are united in their opposition to the government's proposals for these drug trials.

Let's consider for a moment that the other piece of paper I'm holding contains all of the groups who have come out in support of this legislation: absolutely none. Across the board, no community organisation, no expert group, no peak body in health or law and order has come out in support of what is being proposed here. This is the complete list of the organisations which have come out in support of what the government is proposing! That just shows you the folly of what's being imposed on communities like mine.

Just consider some of the quotes from some of those organisations. The Director of St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne's Department of Addiction Medicine said:

International experience shows when you push people to the brink, like removing their welfare payments, things just get worse …

There will be more crime, more family violence, more distress within society.

The Australian Medical Association said:

… the AMA considers these measures to be mean and stigmatising.

The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre said there was 'no evidence' that any of these measures will directly achieve outcomes associated with reductions in alcohol or other drug use or harms, and indeed have 'the potential to create greater levels of harm, including increased stigma, marginalisation and poverty'. These experts know, as we on this side of the chamber know, that this has been trialled and has failed elsewhere, including in 2013 in New Zealand. In 2015 in New Zealand, only 22 of 8,001 participants returned a positive result. This was a detection rate much lower than the proportion of the general New Zealand population estimated to be using illicit drugs. Similar results came back in trials in the US states of Missouri and Utah.

There are other very real concerns that testing could encourage people to use less-traceable drugs. There are a whole range of other issues around long waiting lists, meaning that people testing positive might not be able to get the help they need. There are all kinds of issues around Centrelink staff possibly being put at risk of aggression and violence as they attempt to enforce drug testing of participants, and that's before we even get to the fact that those opposite haven't been able to organise anything in the social services space without getting it horribly wrong, whether it's robo-debt or right across the board in IT—things like the Census, or Medicare information being sold on the dark web. Even if this was a good idea, those opposite wouldn't have the capacity to implement it properly. So, what they're proposing to do is to commit a whole bunch of money to something that won't work, hasn't worked overseas, won't work here, would be counterproductive and is not supported by any of the experts—which is a pretty remarkable situation that they've found themselves in.

In addition to the national peak organisations, in my community of Logan City, to the south of Brisbane, there has been a fierce local reaction to what's being proposed here. And I commend the local council; I commend Acting Mayor Cherie Dalley and all her colleagues for the way they've gone about this, and all the community groups. They weren't even given the courtesy of being notified that they'd been singled out for these trials. They found out about it when they read about it in the newspaper, which is a pretty appalling way to treat a community in which you'd like to implement your drug trial. If you think about some of the most respected people in our community, they have come out fiercely in opposition to what's being proposed. For example, Cath Bartolo, the CEO of YFS—a terrific group in my electorate that helps disadvantaged and vulnerable people—has described the measure as 'punitive and not backed by evidence'. Here is Cath on the front page of our local paper last year. The story says:

A Logan-based social services group has slammed last week's federal government decision to test welfare recipients in Logan for drugs.

Cath Bartolo also came to a Senate committee hearing in Logan about the proposed legislation. There she said:

For young people, I'm really worried if they lose income and are not linked to positive things about trying to get employment they'll turn to crime or other means, like prostitution.

These fears are shared pretty broadly in our community. Julie Fursey, from LECNA, the Logan East Community Neighbourhood Association, said:

We see this as a discriminatory policy. It's going to discriminate against the most vulnerable people in the community. It's going to really hurt Logan City. We'll be looking at increased crime, increased domestic violence and robberies.

Geoffrey Davey, of the Queensland Injectors Health Network, said to the committee:

It may actually have the effect of increasing socialisation, stigma, discrimination and marginalisation of what is already a very vulnerable population.

Rebecca Lang, of the Queensland Network of Alcohol and Other Drug Agencies, said:

There will be a proportion of people who will move into activities that maybe previously they wouldn't have thought about doing, like sex work or crime, usually property crime, to get things that they can pawn or sell to buy drugs or swap with their dealer to get drugs. The reality is that people who are experiencing drug dependence live fairly grim lives.

The list goes on and on. People have come out against this. The acting mayor of Logan City, Cherie Dalley, said:

In the light of concerns raised by the medical community, the lack of consultation and the lack of evidence about the effectiveness of similar measures internationally, Council believes there is further work to be done in order to be able to proceed.

Logan City also has very serious concerns about how we as a community have been selected for this drug trial. The member for Tangney in his contribution talked about the testing of the local sewage to determine which communities were picked. He may not appreciate—and I mean this respectfully—that the testing done to pick my community in Logan City was actually done on the Brisbane sewerage plants to which many communities, many councils, feed into. So there have been errors in that part of the selecting of the site. The relevant council officer, Nick McGuire, Acting Director of Community Services, said:

It became apparent that the data was really about the convenience of choosing a location like Logan rather than the data actually putting together a strong business case for Logan being one of the locations.

He also said:

The data doesn't really stack up from a Logan-specific purpose: it points to some wastewater treatment reports that are really targeting towards Brisbane and it points to the Logan district police service district, which is really not the entirety of Logan either.

So there are a whole range of flaws with how we've arrived at this absurd proposition not just as it relates to my community but as it relates to all three of the communities.

I want to commend Senators Lisa Singh, Murray Watt and Louise Pratt, because they have done an excellent job highlighting the problems with these trials in their dissenting report to the Senate committee report. They pointed to a lot of the issues that I've talked about in some detail so far.

Finally, the government is unable to tell the Australian people how much these trials will cost taxpayers, which is a pretty reckless approach when you consider we've got record debt in this country. It's pretty amazing that they won't fess up about what they're spending on the ideologically-driven proposals that we're debating today. The reason they can't tell us how much it costs is that they don't know what tests will be used. They don't know a whole range of things. There is a whole range of unanswered questions, including the cost of these tests. We're not going to give the government a blank cheque to demonise jobseekers in my community.

For all those reasons, Labor opposes this bill and the drug testing that it seeks to implement. We have listened to the experts, we have consulted with the communities and we genuinely care about helping people who need help. We don't want to see more of the punishing of those people, more of the demeaning and demonising of them that we've seen from those opposite. We're up for a genuine discussion about how we help people battling addiction, how we help ensure they receive the treatment they need and how we stop kicking people in the guts when they're down, which is at the core of what the government is proposing in this legislation which should not be supported.

WE'LL PUT PEOPLE FIRST