Speech on Inequality, Disadvantage and Unemployed Young People

2.01pm | January 25, 2018

I rise to speak specifically about schedule 12 of the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. I understand that government senators indicated in earlier speeches that it is not their intention to implement the drug trial that is outlined in schedule 12, but I note that, in providing that information, senators, such as Senator Brockman, indicated that they do remain committed to the measure, just not to legislating it today. So I want to take this opportunity today to speak about why this measure is so damaging, so unfair and so wrong.

This schedule proposes a two-year trial of compulsory random drug testing for 5,000 new recipients of Newstart and youth allowance. Under this trial these 5,000 welfare recipients will not be able to receive benefits without agreeing to be tested and their welfare will be cancelled if they refuse a test. Recipients who test positive will have income management for two years and will have to pay the costs of the second and any subsequent positive tests. It is hard to think of anything more punitive.

In speaking about it, Mr Turnbull said:

… I think it's pretty obvious that welfare money should not be used to buy drugs.

He went on to say:

If you love someone who is addicted to drugs, if you love somebody whose life is destroyed by drugs, don't you want them to get off drugs?

Well, certainly, but it offends the intelligence of participants in this debate to suggest that the only mechanism to support people into a drug-free lifestyle is a punitive measure of this kind. Of course, we wish to support people to beat addiction, Prime Minister, but what your government is proposing is not going to help people on welfare not to take drugs. But it does do something—it creates additional risks of causing very great harm to vulnerable people.

If you want to help people with addictions, you work with medical experts and addiction experts. If you want to make social change, you work with communities and you identify the relationship that drug use might have with other problems. You tackle the issue with evidence, with experts, with logic, with respect for human rights and, in recognition of our social contract to support the vulnerable in our society, by not forcing them into great hardship.

This ill-informed policy—shelved for now, but not forever, apparently, according to the speeches given earlier by senators in this chamber—is consistent with the government's simplistic and dismissive approach to young Australians. But this policy actually goes further than that. It is ill-informed and simplistic but it is also unproven and has the potential to have a significant and negative impact on vulnerable people.

When the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee looked at this, they found that not only had the minister failed to consult with anybody who had expertise in these areas but when those experts were asked, they were nearly universal in condemning the policy. In expert evidence from Associate Professor Adrian Reynolds, the President of the Australian Chapter of Addiction Medicine at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, he said:

We are quite honestly at a loss to see why a drug testing trial is considered a necessary or effective way to address these issues.

He added:

Our analysis and advice is that the measures will be costly and ineffective and that government should consult with the sector on the development of evidence-based solutions to prevent and better address substance use disorders and increase the availability of treatment services …

It's a direct criticism. The AMA submission argued that it considers substance dependence to be primarily a health problem and those affected should be treated in the same way as other patients with serious health conditions. This approach includes access to treatment and supports for recovery, and they added that currently services for people with substance dependence is severely underresourced in terms of equitable and sustainable funding and personnel and geographical reach. They stressed their concern with the approach, arguing:

… [it] could inadvertently result in increased incarceration for welfare recipients with a substance dependence. Moves to disregard or discount medical advice about the capacity of those with substance dependence is also problematic. In order to minimise the risk of unintended consequences associated with the Bill, thorough consultation and refinement of the Bill is recommended.

This is something that government ought to have done well before a bill reached the committee stage. Why is it that both the AMA and the Australian Chapter of Addiction Medicine at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians felt that consultation hadn't taken place? Why wouldn't you ask them? Why wouldn't government go and seek the advice of experts? The answer is: it is part of an ideological campaign, not one aimed at supporting people who are afflicted with substance dependence.

The RACP, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, were very, very clear. They argued that substance abuse is a complex issue, not simply a personal choice. And they damned the government's refusal to engage with the medical evidence on this question. They were amazed that the minister and the department asked for but ignored their advice. They were dismayed by what they described as no genuine consultation with addiction medicine, nor with the alcohol, tobacco or other drug sector more generally, or the wider health sector, as far as we're aware. They added:

Instead of pursuing these, at best ineffective and at worst directly harmful, measures we call on the Australian Government to appropriately invest in alcohol and drug treatment services and suitably trained workforce and work with experts in the field of addiction medicine and alcohol and other drugs …

Submission after submission continues in this vain. The National Drug Research Institute perhaps put it most succinctly. They said:

In our expert assessment this proposed amendment is poorly conceived and counterproductive. It is not based on reliable research, and there are no grounds for adopting it as a measure to reduce alcohol or other drug use or related harm. Instead it has the potential to increase harm, including stigma, marginalisation and poverty.

So it doesn't do much about addiction. What might it do as a measure around unemployment? The evidence suggests that drug use is not necessarily a major barrier to employment.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey in 2016 found that 43 per cent of Australians had used an illegal drug in their lifetime and almost 16 per cent of Australians have used an illegal drug in the last year. But these figures refer to all kinds of drug use at any level. In presenting this policy, the government has no idea how many of these people have taken drugs once in the last year or are regular drug abusers facing addiction. And just like the household survey, the proposed drug tests contained in this measure cannot differentiate between users and addicts. Neither the minister nor the department has provided any evidence on prevalence of addiction amongst welfare recipients and no evidence on the impact that addiction may or may not have on finding employment. What we do know, though, is that drug use is often connected with other health, economic and social issues. The National Drug Strategy Household Survey data does show that people suffering from mental illness or people who report psychological distress are much more likely to use drugs. People living in regional and remote areas are more likely to use drugs. Twenty-five per cent of people in these areas reported that they were recent users, compared with approximately 14 to 15 per cent in cities and inner and outer regional areas.

But what the evidence does point to is that there is never a simple fix. Research by Scott Macdonald published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that many factors—such as physical and mental health problems, lack of job skills, perceived discrimination and lack of transportation—are major barriers to employment. He and his colleagues argued that a disproportionate emphasis on drug use as a factor for not obtaining employment could be ineffective if these other factors are not addressed as well. Other writers, other researchers, find the same thing. Lisa Metsch and Harold Pollack examined welfare reform and substance abuse in the United States and drew very similar conclusions. They found that broad trends of substance abuse amongst temporary welfare recipients appeared to reflect trends in the general population. They found that widespread substance use was not a major cause of their continued economic dependence. Their findings included:

Although substance use disorders attract widespread attention, they appear to be no more common, and are no more important to employment and welfare receipt, than are such concerns as poor physical health, poor academic skills, psychiatric disorders, transportation difficulties, and more general concerns such as racial minority status, language barriers and immigration concerns.

Where was the evidence that led the government to introduce a bill that so closely linked drug use to unemployment without tackling the myriad of factors that actually drive worklessness and are, we all accept, so significant in driving poverty and disadvantage in our country?

These tests also breach the human rights of welfare recipients. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights looked closely at this and made two very important findings. They first said that the measure is unlikely to be compatible with the right to privacy. While the measure is aimed at a legitimate objective, there appear to be other less rights-restrictive ways to achieve this objective. Second, they said that the measure is likely to be incompatible with the right to equality and nondiscrimination, noting that the measure appears likely to have a disproportionately negative effect on particular groups and it appears that the measure is unlikely to be the least rights-restrictive measure. You have to work pretty hard to get a statement as fierce as that when you introduce a bill into the committee system.

The committee noted the lack of evidence from the minister that the policy would work. In fact, when they sought a response from the minister on the policy rationale, the objectives and, most importantly, the evidence that the policy was based on, the minister responded that international evidence on the effectiveness of drug testing of welfare recipients is limited. He admitted that his plan was essentially—and this is to paraphrase him; not his words—to use Australian welfare recipients as guinea pigs. The committee observed that income management may be effective when it's applied to participants after considering their individual circumstance and consensually, rather than where it is applied coercively and compulsorily. It is, therefore, not evident that the measure, which is not targeted to appropriate individual cases or consensual, is effective to achieve its objectives. And they questioned the effectiveness of withholding payments when there is evidence that addiction often involves cycles of relapse before recovery. This evidence comes from the Australian National Council on Drugs and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

There are, of course, other approaches. We know that this measure would have impacted very significantly on young people, and we know that many of our young benefits recipients are living below the poverty line. There are other things that we might do to engage young people, and I want to talk about one such measure. It's particularly relevant given that the trial that was planned was in the Canterbury-Bankstown region in New South Wales, because there were three test sites proposed, and in New South Wales they intended to subject 1,750 of the people in my state to a trial of this kind. The Canterbury-Bankstown area in Sydney's south-west includes the suburbs of Bankstown, Bass Hill, Canterbury, Campsie, Chester Hill, Earlwood, Eastlakes, Lakemba, Milperra, Padstow, Picnic Point, Punchbowl, Revesby and Roselands. We talk a lot about an ageing population, but this is an area with a lot of young people. Almost one-quarter of the residents there are aged 17 years or younger. And it's really multicultural. It's home to people from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific Islands and Africa. And it is a community with strengths and with challenges. Sometimes it's better to look at the strengths, because the strengths in this area include local leadership, strong local leadership, and a solid commitment in the community to work together to help young people rather than punish them.

Earlier this year, Canterbury-Bankstown council formed a partnership with Mission Australia, Barnardos, Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, OzHarvest, Metro Assist's Dress for Work and Bright Hospitality to create a two-month program for 240 young men aged 15 to 24 years in a program that's called MENtors. Through MENtors, these young men learned practical life skills, including how to cook healthy food, how to dress professionally and, importantly, how to apply for work and prepare for job interviews. The program also helped young men to understand the risks of drugs and alcohol. At the end of the program, these men left the course with a suit, a CV—electronically and in paper form—and a range of practical skills to help them live healthy and productive lives. These men gained skills and confidence, buttressed by the knowledge that their community believes in them and supports them. I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate the MENtors program and its community partners for winning the 2017 Outstanding Partnership award at the recent New South Wales Youth Work Awards. I want to congratulate the young men who completed the course and I want to encourage others to join in when the course is run in 2018.

The Labor-led Canterbury-Bankstown local government works closely with community service organisations. This isn't a political leadership seeking to punish; this is a community working together to build a social plan, built on evidence, that will actually support young people in the area. The council is developing partnerships with local businesses and with youth agencies to raise awareness of training and apprenticeship opportunities. The council is working with Police-Citizens Youth Clubs to develop employment opportunities. There are drug and alcohol programs at the Belmore Youth Resource Centre and the Canterbury Bankstown Youth Service. The community is looking at building youth engagement through sport and music. They would like to be able to fund more outreach and harm minimisation programs. This is a community attempting to engage with the complex relationship between mental health, drug use and unemployment.

The government haven't revealed the costs that they expected of their proposed testing program but, I tell you what, you could have a pretty good guess that the money would be better used in this community supporting these leaders with a serious commitment to working on the ground. And that's how we on this side of the chamber approach social policy. We are committed to working with communities, not against them—not crushing them, punishing them and humiliating them. We're committed to working with them to address their needs with policy ideas that are relevant, evidence based and focused on positive change.

The thing about the proposal that the government brought forward is that we don't know if it would have worked. We don't know how much it would have cost. What we do know is that the advice of medical addiction experts was ignored. We do know that organisations that included the AMA, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the National Drug Research Institute thoroughly condemned the approach. We do know that there were serious concerns around human rights, privacy and the right to welfare raised by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights. We do know that this is dangerous political grandstanding. And we do know that it targets vulnerable and young people and it creates risks of harm.

This bill forms part of a long list of pointless and expensive uses of taxpayer money by the government to punish the poor and the young. It is polarising, moralising and dangerous rhetoric. It's a mythical creation—the deserving and non-deserving poor, where poverty and unemployment are recast as personal or moral failure rather than a result of complex people facing complex challenges and often dealing with health issues alongside their social and economic factors. We should reject this. We should reject it now and we should reject attempts to introduce it in the future. The government should go back to the drawing board rather than insisting on retaining this as part of their policy plans. The government should go back and engage with complexity. They should use evidence and they should take the advice of experts. Most importantly, the government should work with local communities, like the community in Canterbury-Bankstown, and see if they have ideas that could be used to address serious social and health issues in a way that might actually make a difference.