Mr RAMSEY (Grey–Government Whip) (17:21): I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Drug Testing Trial) Bill 2018. I spent some time in my electorate meeting with local action groups and people trying to deal with the scourge of drug addiction in our community. I remember sitting down at a meeting one day with parents, with survivors and with a handful of people trying to kick the habit. A mother looked at me and she said, ‘My daughter is trying to get off drugs. She’s really trying hard, but every one of her friends uses drugs. She makes a bit of a break and then the friends are all around her, and she falls back.’ Then she looked at me even more intently. She looked into my eyes, I suppose you could say, and she said, ‘And you keep giving her money.’ When she said ‘you’, she meant that the government kept giving her daughter money. It was money that she couldn’t control and money that went directly into drugs. She’s right: it’s a challenge-it’s a real challenge. We do give money with no strings attached. There’s no compulsion to spend it on food, on shelter, on education or on help to get off drugs. We just give them cash.
We know this is not what Newstart and youth allowance are meant to be for. Newstart and youth allowance are meant to sustain a person and to help them prepare to get into a job. One thing you can’t do-or not in too many places-is get into a job if you’re on drugs. If you do get into a job, OH&S will probably rule you out pretty quickly and you won’t be in a job anymore. Let me tell you, it can be hard enough to find workers in regional Australia-perhaps that too is part of the debate. Why is it that we have pools of regional unemployment, where in fact we can’t seem to shift those people that are in that regional pool of unemployment into work when we know there is work available? I know local businesses that have reached out to these groups of people who are unemployed and have had a red-hot go at trying to get them into the workforce. They need workers, so they were willing to give it a go. They’ve taken starters in for training, educated them, assisted them and counselled them, only to have them fail at a drug test either in training or on the job.
This scourge of drugs in our community is a cancer. The members on the other side are right: it is a health issue. Absolutely, it’s a health issue. Absolutely, it’s a drug addiction that is beyond the means of those who are suffering from it. But we have to identify them, we have to find out who they are and we have to try to get services to them so that we can actually interrupt that lifestyle to make a real difference. Every time an employer is burned in the way that I’ve just described, it makes it that much harder next time to get that employer to consider someone with similar problems. It is that much harder for them to take the risk. Every time a worker is struck out, their record of failure is extended. Every time they fail, their self-esteem is further eroded. Every time they fail, the call of the drugs becomes ever stronger.
We simply have to try. At this place, of all places in Australia, we simply have to try. We’ve tried many things over the years-so many programs. The previous speaker was speaking about her life in trying to work with people in rehabilitation programs. Boy, there have been some resources thrown at it over the years, and I would have to say the record isn’t all that good. So we have to try something different, I think. It is time to really try something different, because, if we can’t keep that trainee or that employee off drugs, they will lose their job and they will fail.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing the merits of the cashless welfare card trial in Ceduna. I know it’s not the same, but there are enough similarities here to draw a parallel. Certainly the 80-20 split on income is the same split that operates under the cashless welfare card, so in that case it’s directly comparable. In Ceduna, the introduction of that card has made a real difference. It’s certainly made a difference to alcohol consumption in the community. It’s made a difference to the way that children are treated in their homes. It’s made a difference to the amount of money that is spent on food in that community. So I think we can easily draw that parallel to this program for drug testing of those on Newstart and youth allowance and those who enter the programs.
This bill is about a trial of 5,000 people. It’s not nationwide. We’re not doing it everywhere in Australia. It’s a geographically discrete trial for Canterbury-Bankstown, Logan and Mandurah. I say let’s give it a go. Absolutely let’s give it a go. I wonder what those on the other side of the House are scared of. Perhaps it might be that it would work. What if it works? It is a trial of 5,000 people. What if it actually works and starts making a significant difference in getting these people off drugs and getting them into the workforce, taking control of their lives? For pity’s sake, let’s move to help our young and most vulnerable. Let’s help that mother who looked into my eyes and stop sending cash. Let’s help those people try to kick their drug addictions.
Step 1 is failure of the first drug test. That leads to 80 per cent of income going on the BasicsCard, which is just like the cashless welfare card, and 20 per cent to spend as the recipient wishes. Sadly, that can still be spent on drugs. There is no reduction in income at all-not one cent. There is just a requirement to spend the money on the good things in life.
I’m reminded, Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews-and I think you were probably there too-of when we had Twiggy Forrest come into our joint party room to brief us about the cashless welfare card. He was suggesting at that time that it should apply to 100 per cent of income. Subsequently, after negotiation in the Ceduna community with various people-the leadership of the Indigenous groups and also the local council and other people in the town-it was decided there would be an 80-20 split. I raised the question with Mr Forrest. I said: ‘I get what you’re saying, but you don’t think 100 per cent’s a bit harsh? You don’t think maybe we ought to give a bit of money to people to make decisions about their lives, to have a bit of cash to go to the pub or whatever it might be?’ He said: ‘Well, you can if you like. It’s up to you. You could make it 80-20 or fifty-fifty. You do whatever you like. But you should ask yourself the question: is it the taxpayers’ responsibility to fund somebody’s alcohol, drug and gambling addictions?’ That’s a very good question. I think you clearly understand, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I think those on the other side do as well, that that is not what Newstart and youth allowance are for. They are not to fund drug addictions. They are to try and get people through a tough spot and then get them into the workforce. That’s step 1.
Step 2 is the second failure: no loss of income at all as long as the recipient is prepared to stay involved and engaged with the scheme. Where there is a loss of income is if they refuse to engage-that is, refuse a drug test. That would most certainly cease the payments, because somewhere in this pile of tools we have to have some stick; there are plenty of carrots. That would mean that their payments cease until they re-enter the program. However, the most important part of step 2 is that the recipient is referred to medical assessment and then rehabilitation. This is where the rubber hits the road, where we help these individuals take control of their lives and take the first steps to getting rid of their dependency on drugs. The government has provided $10 million for that medical assessment and rehabilitation service, which is around $2,000 per person for the 5,000 people that will be involved in the trial.
The whole program is about identification. It is about finding those people in the community who are abusing their bodies. Step 2 becomes about wellness, the steps to recovery and putting people in control of their lives. Those who oppose medical assessment and treatment for people with drug addiction should probably stand up and say so quite clearly. They shouldn’t prevaricate, saying it is not fair and is victimisation; they should state how they don’t mind if taxpayer funds are used to feed drug habits. It is pretty depressing. The trial is to be evaluated by an independent body, information on individuals will remain discreet, and drug users will not be referred to the police. As I said, the drug testing is an identification tool. Once we find out who these people are, we can get the right people in their lives to help.
We want people to engage and to attend treatment courses, and we are going to treat that as a jobseeker activity. As you would well know, people on Newstart are required to engage: to attend interviews or be in education. If the person involved is attending treatment, that will count as a jobactive activity. That’s because the government wants the individual to change and take control of their life. Young people in Australia are perhaps those most heavily suffering through drug use. Out of 18 comparable European countries Australia has the second-highest usage of methamphetamine. Only quite recently have we seen those figures about the sewage content of our major cities. It is really scary stuff. We need to take action.
It is time to stop wringing our hands and say, ‘We’re going to do something; we’re going to have a go at some early intervention.’ Let’s hope it works. Maybe it won’t work or make a scrap a difference, but it is a trial, just as the cashless welfare card is a trial, and the runs are on the board with the cashless welfare card. We know it is a good thing and we are looking to extend that trial into other areas. We want to do the same with this: just give it a go. If it’s no good, those on the other side can knock it down as a complete failure and say, ‘We told you so,’ but at least let us not stand here in a few years time and say, ‘We had a good idea, but we were all too gutless to give it a go, quite frankly.’ We need to get on board.
According to Newspoll 73 per cent of voters back the trial. Why? The voters see the damage on a daily basis. They are the parents of children in trouble. People know what’s going on in our communities. I get told constantly-as just about every member of this House does, I bet-about the ravages of drugs in their community, and to do something about it. Well, this is a chance to do something about it. It’s a chance to give it a red-hot go, a chance to try to get people to take control of their lives and to give them the tools to do so. But we can’t do that if we refuse to engage with them. If we’re just waiting for them all to step forward and have the moment of realisation that they’re no longer in control of their life, then we’re going to lose a lot of them along the way. This is the early identification program. This is the thing that can change your life. If you’ve been unemployed for five, six or seven years and you’ve got a drug habit, there’s a fair chance it’ll be for the rest of your life. We need to get in earlier than that and make a difference earlier. So, I implore those on the other side to think about what it is they are trying to oppose here and come on board and give this trial a fair dinkum go.