Social Services Legislation Welfare Reform
Posted on Thursday, 7 September, 2017
Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (11:04): I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. At the heart of the raft of reforms that were in the bill presented on I think 22 August is the implementation of drug testing for welfare recipients. This really highlights the very big philosophical debate here: what are welfare payments supposed to do? Are they obligation free or do they come with a mutual obligation? Are they simply, as the definition would say, government provided support for those unable to support themselves, with no strings attached? Or is it taxpayer support to bridge the gap to allow recipients to, firstly, live with some dignity and, secondly, return to the workforce if they've been in it previously or enter the workforce for the first time where it's deemed, of course, appropriate that they should present for work?
I think all of us in this place accept that the best form of welfare is a job. Quite simply, the best form of welfare is a job. I'm an absolute disciple of the second definition—that welfare payments are about assisting one through a tight period in one's life. Then government services bring the tools to get that person into the workforce. Not only is that good for the individual person; it's fundamental to the long-term viability of their families. We know that children who grow up in households where no-one ever works, in households that are totally reliant on welfare payments, will find it harder to achieve the levels of education that they need to be a success in their life. We know that, while anyone can fail at parenting, the level of failure for those households is higher. Every member of this House knows that because those people come to us for help when their lives are falling to bits—'I don't know how to handle this. I'm having trouble with Centrelink. I can't manage my payments. I can't keep the payments up on my kids' mobile phones.'
Everything we do in this place should be about bringing about a better future for the citizens of Australia. Not all those decisions are easy. Sometimes you have to take a tough line. I listened to the last two speakers with great interest. There has been a long list of naysayers who say that this will not work, this is flawed and this will cause fundamental damage in our society. Not quite as long a list of people but a very similar list of people opposed the introduction of the cashless debit card in Ceduna and in the East Kimberley. I spoke in this House earlier this week on the outstanding 15-month report that we've received on that particular reform. Of course it was opposed by the Greens and by any number of academics. They said it would be counterproductive and that we didn't have good evidence to introduce it—all the same arguments. I know the Labor Party supported us through the introduction of that trial, and I thank members of the opposition for that support. I suspect it would not have come about if it were not for the then member for Brand's support. He was a passionate believer that this was the right path. I think he met some strong resistance within his own party room.
But it has been delivered, despite the predictions of doom. People said that people would go around it, they would alter their behaviour and there would be a swing up in the crime rate. There are very similar arguments in this debate at the moment—if we force welfare recipients to take a drug test, it will drive them to prostitution and crime. That has been alleged. That's the kind of thing that was alleged about the cashless debit card as well, but that wasn't the outcome. It's not what we've seen at all. In fact, we've seen in those communities huge improvements on a whole raft of measurable statistics. I think this amendment, which addresses schedules 12 and 16, should absolutely be supported.
The transition to work, for those who have been unemployed for some time, is a difficult task. The drug testing will identify those who are taking illicit drugs, because we know it's difficult to engage with training at the right level if you are under the influence of drugs and alcohol and, for some workplaces at least, it's impossible to get on the work site, because that where you could be tested there as well. There is not testing at all work sites; there are some where you can operate under the influence of drugs and alcohol—it's not permissible, but you may not be detected.
One of the things I think every member of this chamber is facing is the reality of the ice epidemic. Like probably every other member of the chamber, I've attended a number of ice forums around my community and met with local groups that are trying to respond on behalf of families and victims. One of the things that parents say to me is: 'Can't you do something about the money? We don't have any control over the money. Our children need help, but they get money from the government and they go and spend it, and we don't have any control over it.' Well, that's difficult to do because once you're 18 you are an individual and you will be treated as an individual. But I think those people are expecting help from us when they look into our eyes and say, 'Can't you do something?' Well, we've been trying, and previous governments have been trying.
This government has put $685 million over four years into drug and alcohol services and $300 million into the National Ice Action Strategy. But it's not enough and it's not solving the problem. So I think we have to look further at this group of welfare recipients. I think a previous speaker was taking the line that welfare recipients aren't drug takers and that this was not a particular issue in this group of people. In fact, the statistics tell us that they are about 2.4 times more likely to be drug users than the general population, and it's an absolute block to their progression.
Those who test positive will come under extra management. There will be an income management part of this remedial action, but I think the most important parts are the associated services that will accompany it, and those will be extra counselling and extra assistance with weaning themselves off drugs and alcohol—drugs, particularly, in this case. That person will be treated as an individual with issues. They won't be treated as just a great block of humanity, if you like; they will be treated as an individual with issues and they will have tailored programs to assist them to make this change. Those who rail against this legislation tend to focus on that part that looks like big brother or government treading on the individual. It's nothing like that at all. It's not meant to be like that. It's meant to be about assisting these people to make the changes that they need. I think that to ignore these issues is a failure of government and a failure of all of us in this place.
It's important to remember that this is a trial. I said to the people of Ceduna: 'Remember, it's a trial. If it's no good, we'll get rid of it.' We don't keep doing things that don't work. Well, sometimes, unfortunately, people do, but it's not my intention to keep doing things that don't work. If we have this trial of 5,000 people around Australia and it's as bad as those opposite tell us it's going to be, well, we won't keep doing it. But, if it works, like the cashless debit card works, we will keep doing it. We will expand the trial. If it is making a change to people's lives and delivering the things that they need—delivering safer households for their children, delivering long-term educational outcomes—then it's something we should back. But we won't know unless we try it. So I think it is so important that we go ahead. I commend the minister. We are having a trial to see whether this is the thing that can make the difference—the kind of turning point that the cashless debit card may be. I often told the good leaders of Ceduna: 'It is highly likely, quite possible, that in the future we will look back on this time in history and say, "You were the brave people that changed the course of the way these things are done in Australia."' It is quite likely—I hope it comes about—that we will say the same thing about this particular piece of legislation in 10 years time, but I don't know. We'll see how the trial eventuates.
In 2015-16 there were 4,325 occasions when people did not meet some form of their obligation because of drugs and alcohol. That's a lot. Certainly a lot of people could still meet their commitments under the influence of drugs and alcohol, so these are very concerning figures. The member for Bruce made a very heartfelt and personal contribution. I thank him for that. It's not easy to expose your past in this place and talk about people close to you. He didn't want to go into detail, and I certainly don't blame him for that, but it was a heartfelt contribution, and I thank him for that. One of the points he made in it stuck with me. He said, 'It doesn't help to make drug use a criminal offence.' Do we extrapolate from that that the member for Bruce actually thinks we should decriminalise drug use around Australia? There might have been a time, when I was a very young man sitting around a table with my mates, having a glass of red, when that might have sounded like a good idea, but I tell you what: once you've had children and had a look at the bigger world, it doesn't seem like a good idea. It seems like a very, very bad idea. Anyone who would entertain that kind of proposal I will oppose vigorously. The damage that is being done in our community at the moment by drug use is absolutely huge. As I said, it will be intergenerational and it will haunt Australia and, in fact, most of the Western world and beyond. It will haunt us for generations. We need to try everything. We need to try out every tool we've got in our toolbox to have a go at this. This is one tool that's on offer, and I for one am very strongly in favour of backing it.