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Dangerous Welfare Reform Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Andrew Bartlett 7 Dec 2017

7 December 2017, 17:30

"I rise to speak to this bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. I follow my Greens colleague Senator Rachel Siewert and commend her for her longstanding interests in the community affairs and social welfare area. She is certainly someone who has a lot of expertise in this broad field and the specific aspects that have been dealt with by this legislation. I would encourage people who want to know more about the specifics of why this package of measures is such an unwise step to examine her remarks in the second reading debate on this piece of legislation, as well as the comments that Senator Siewert put in Senate committee report on the inquiry into this legislation and the dissenting report she issued on behalf of the Australian Greens. Senator Siewert has also circulated a range of amendments on behalf of the Greens that will go more explicitly to some of the problems in this legislation.

I want to speak on this bill in the context of my own personal experiences and knowledge in this area and some aspects of the legislation and my wider experience both in this chamber and more broadly in the wider community with regard to social security and income support issues as well as in the area of drug and alcohol addiction and dependency.

The area of this legislation that has perhaps received the most attention—although there are a whole range of measures proposed in this legislation—is the drug-testing trials. One of those trials was to be within the city of Logan in my state of Queensland, a city just to the south of Brisbane. It, effectively, sits in between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. As many people in Queensland and South-East Queensland would know, Logan City and the region are often very unfairly stigmatised and seen as having a high proportion of people who are on income support, and the community is portrayed negatively because of that.

All you have to do is listen to the public debate on this, much of the political debate by some of those involved in it out in the wider community, and commentary in the media from the general public to know that this drug-testing proposal is seen as a punitive measure. I know the government is not trying to frame it that way in a technical sense, but, when you scratch the surface, it's very clearly seen as a punitive measure and as stigmatising, very unfairly and unreasonably, income support recipients—playing on the myth that people on welfare are supposedly bludgers and are more likely to be people experiencing drug addiction issues.

In policy debates in this place we often hear about the importance of evidence based policy. The Senate committee inquiry into this legislation, and also people involved in this area, have been pulling together a lot of evidence. The evidence of people who actually work in the real world, in the community, at a community level on this issue shows that the approach the government have taken, whatever their agenda may be, whether it is miserable partisan, narrow politics or a genuine attempt to help—I will leave others to make that judgement; my commentary here today simply goes to whether or not it will work—simply won't work and that, in many respects, it will make things worse. It is also quite likely, as previous speakers have indicated, to increase rather than decrease crime. Another of the myths that is put forward about this sort of measures is that it will somehow reduce crime. Well, it won't, because it won't deal with the underlying issues, the systemic issues, that create some of these issues with regards to drug and alcohol dependency.

As Senator Siewert's dissenting report on this legislation said:

This measure—

the drug-testing trial—

fails to understand, and indeed actively ignores the … nature of addiction and the complex biological, psychological and social underpinnings of drug addiction ...

If you don't want to listen to Senator Siewert or the Greens, because you think that that is a partisan argument, listen to the evidence of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. They specifically talked about the inadequate funding provided for alcohol and other drug treatment services. If we are not providing enough services now to deal with the issue, why on earth are we introducing a punitive measure that blames the victim and that will clearly make things worse?

Let's hear from Mr Noffs from the Ted Noffs Foundation. I hope everybody would acknowledge that he has immense expertise. He has devoted years of his life in a genuine attempt to assist people. He is not somebody who has a vested political or personal interest in this. He is someone who has clearly shown his personal commitment to help people in ways that are effective. In his evidence to the Senate committee inquiry he was scathing about this measure and these types of measures, because they do not work. They have been tried in other locations in other countries and they have been shown to fail. Other efforts to introduce them have been withdrawn because it was clear that they weren't going to work and, if anything, would make the issues worse.

So why is it we are not listening to the people who actually have the expertise, the people at the coalface and the people in the community? Why is it that in my home state of Queensland the community of Logan is going to be again unfairly stigmatised and unfairly targeted? Many people in that region of South-East Queensland are not aware that the city of Logan is experiencing enormous growth, enormous economic opportunities and enormous problems because of inadequate infrastructure funding and support for people in the community to enable them to stay and work within the community.

We are talking about income support and welfare payments and people who are having difficulty finding jobs or finding permanent and stable jobs. If you actually want to help rather than stigmatise, victimise, blame and target, you need to look at what the barriers are in that community. So let us put the resources that are being proposed for this punitive, ineffective measure instead into providing assistance and removing the barriers for people in places like the city of Logan to enable them to access employment and stay in steady jobs. One of the key issues in that region is transport infrastructure. It is a huge, growing region but, because of a whole range of planning failures and planning problems with state government laws, there is the classic problem of big developments being put in place before the social infrastructure, the transport infrastructure, the schools, the social services and the health services to support people who may have substance dependency or substance abuse issues are there. Adequate social infrastructure supports are not there. Bringing them in under the cover of a punitive drug-testing trial is totally distorting the best way to use those resources.

This is also targeting just one group of people in regard to drug use and completely ignoring the much larger proportion of people in the community who are also drug users and also have alcohol and drug dependency or abuse issues. They are not being targeted. Why on earth would we be specifically targeting people who are on income support payments and putting extra stress and pressure on people who are already, by definition, disadvantaged, are on low incomes and often have insecure housing and other circumstances? Why put extra pressure on them? Why put up extra barriers? Why put up extra challenges, extra difficulties and extra threats in regard to their already inadequate income support? The only reason I can see, frankly, is because it is just part of an ongoing ideological and, presumably, also politically motivated approach of targeting, attacking, deliberately penalising, punishing and stigmatising the poor.

In the short time I've been back in this place, I've spoken already a number of times about the real problem with inequality and the real problem that so many of the decisions made in this place do not consider the actual impacts on the people that the measures are relating to, and they particularly do not consider the impacts on those who are already disadvantaged. They don't consider that they're already under massive stress when it comes to the lack of affordable housing, the lack of social infrastructure and the lack of other supports in so many parts of the community, including the community of Logan, which is going to be targeted by this trial.

It's the same thing we're seeing in a separate piece of legislation with regard to the cashless welfare card, which, thankfully, isn't going to be pushed through this year. I certainly urge the Senate to reject that measure. That's another measure with which communities in my state of Queensland are specifically being targeted. The people who are being targeted certainly do not want it. They do not support it. They recognise that it's going to make life harder for them. They are battlers. I met with a number of them on a visit with Senator Siewert when she came to the community of Hervey Bay in Queensland a few months ago. Some fabulous people were there who had self-organised their own local opposition—people on pensions, people who are carers, people who, by any description, are battlers and are, nonetheless, making it through and making a fist of things. They recognise that these measures will just make things harder for them. They recognise that these measures are targeting them and stigmatising them, when they are doing a better job than, frankly, I bet most of us, and certainly I, would manage when it comes to finding ways to get by on incredibly low incomes.

These are people who are often more resourceful, more capable and better at managing money than many of us here or in the community would be, and that's because they have to be. The fact is that they have survived for so long in so many circumstances and through so many challenges that many of us would have great difficulty dealing with. They have got through and they have survived. The last thing they need is to be stigmatised and singled out as somehow a problem, as somehow undeserving, as somehow potentially rorting or needing to have their income managed and their lives managed—to have even less power and control and agency over their own lives. I just think: how would any of us like it if we were told how we had to spend 80 per cent or 75 per cent of our income?

We've seen these measures time and time again, where the Big Brother government comes in and tells people, 'You must do this. You must do that,' taking all power away from people. Particularly when you're talking about people who, because of a whole range of circumstances, are in a situation where they have drug dependency issues, it simply doesn't work. It's the same with the welfare quarantining approach we've seen. It's no coincidence that that approach has, more often than not, been targeted particularly at Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal people, often directly and explicitly, as we saw with the Northern Territory intervention or some of the earlier trial sites for the cashless welfare card. It's targeted at communities with a high proportion of Aboriginal people because governments are so used to being paternalistic with regard to Aboriginal people, and they are extending their paternalism with regard to this to other people who are poor, disadvantaged and easy to stigmatise.

It's particularly ironic that, since One Nation returned to this chamber, they have been, by far, the party that most regularly supports the Liberal-National Party's agenda in a whole range of areas. They like to portray themselves as friends of the battlers, yet they support measures like these that are specifically targeted at making life tougher for battlers. We see it time and time again. Since I've come back to this chamber after being away for 10 years, people often ask, 'What's changed?' Some things have changed, but one thing that sure hasn't changed is these bits of legislation coming forward with the words 'welfare reform' in the title that are actually just about making life harder for people. For how many more years will it happen? Are there no other ideas? Clearly, that's the case when it comes to the coalition. They just have no other ideas when it comes to how to assist people who are on income support or how to assist people who are lower-income earners other than making life harder for them and putting it under the guise of welfare reform and more of this new paternalism—the pretence of being here to help. It's actually just about stigmatising, making life tougher again and again, with an underlying narrative—sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit—that somehow these people are undeserving, that they shouldn't be able to receive these things or that they should jump through yet another hoop. The size and expense of the bureaucracy put in place to create hoop after hoop after hoop, to make life tougher for people, are just extraordinary. It's been going on for decades now.

If the government wanted to do one thing to make life easier for people on income support, they would make Centrelink actually answer the phone. Let's do that. I can recall, over 10 years ago, asking questions in this place about the outrageous length of time people had to wait on the phone for Centrelink and how many times they couldn't get through, how many times they had to call back, how many times they'd fall off the line and how many times they'd lose payments because of their inability to contact and have a proper conversation and communication with Centrelink. The only thing that has changed since then is that it has got 10 times worse. It is scandalous. This is a Public Service department—and I'm certainly not blaming the staff there, but how simple can it be to actually get a department that is meant to be there to service and support people, battlers, whose income is crucial?

As we all should know, if you miss just one payment when you're a low-income person with virtually no money in reserve, and you've got rent to pay and all these other bills, like electricity bills, to pay—and you've got a problem with Centrelink and you can't get through—it can be a catastrophe. And you want to target them for taking some drugs? Get your own act together if you really want to do some proper reform. Actually assist people rather than making life harder and harder and stigmatising them again and again. The stigma should be on governments, of all persuasions, that have simply failed to fix that basic problem of not having a department that can provide proper service to the people they are meant to be helping, people who are clearly known to be in need and in need of assistance. Let's see if we can fix that up instead.

There are a range of other measures in this legislation as well, and some of those will be dealt with in the committee stage, so I won't go on about those now. But there are other measures here that, again, are just about making tougher new compliance frameworks. Before I came into this chamber the first time around, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was a social worker with what was then called the Department of Social Security. It was before Centrelink existed, when the old Commonwealth Employment Service existed. I can recall even back then this focus on compliance and the mindset that would come down through the political narrative and the internal directions about compliance. Of course we need to make sure that people are not rorting the system, but the obsession with more, harsher and more complicated compliance, and just doing more and more on that whilst letting things get worse and worse when it comes to the basic service and support provided to people, is ridiculous.

I was in Townsville a couple of weeks ago, speaking to people at a local community legal centre there about the challenges that so many of their clients face, particularly with regard to dealing with Centrelink, actually being able to get a problem sorted out with Centrelink. We all know about the scandalous robo-debt attack and farce that this government has been perpetrating on people on income support. How about actually helping the battlers instead of bashing the battlers? That's what we need to see if we want to get a real change here. If we actually want to help people, we need to see investment in proper assistance to people, including through the social services that the Senate committee inquiry highlighted as not being provided now. And let me take the opportunity to put on the record the need to significantly increase the scandalously low basic payment for Newstart, which has been going backwards in value for years. The gap between Newstart and the pension has been getting bigger and bigger. As I said in this place last week, people on income support trying to afford a home anywhere in any capital city in the country—certainly in Brisbane in South-East Queensland—are paying over half of their income just on rent. That's before food. That's before childcare. That's before getting to a job. That's before everything else. Let's see some action on that, rather than this latest hotchpotch of measures that is mostly focused on making life harder and reinforcing that political narrative which targets and stigmatises people on income support. It's about time we had a change in that regard. Some of the Greens, including myself, will continue to push on into the future."

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