Standing up for Canberra

More support required for our most vulnerable

I join my colleagues in expressing grave concern about elements of this bill, and I commend the member for Moreton on that very powerful speech. There are a number of elements of this bill that Labor is very, very concerned about, and we have heard at length from colleagues today and throughout the course of this week about their concerns about the drug testing.

Concerns have been raised by many Canberrans about the drug testing. I've received a number of emails and messages. I've had conversations with people at my mobile offices and my coffee catch-ups about the fact that these are measures of grave concern, not just to Labor but also to the Canberra community and, I know, many parts of the Australian community, as well. I join my colleagues in expressing concern about this—and, as I said, there are a number of concerns about this bill which I will outline. These are concerns of not just members here on this side of the chamber—our Labor members who have fought the good fight on this issue—and not just members of the Canberra community and not just members of other communities but experts throughout the country.

The member for Moreton highlighted the question: where is the evidence? There is no evidence that this drug-testing idea is going to work. Judging by what has happened internationally, it would suggest that it has been less than a success. In 2013, the New Zealand government instituted a drug-testing program among welfare recipients. In 2015, only 22 of 8,001 participants tested returned a positive result for illicit drug use. This detection rate was much lower than the proportion of the general New Zealand population estimated to be using illicit drugs. And similar results were found in the United States. In Missouri's 2014 testing program, of the state's 38,970 welfare applicants 446 were tested, with 48 testing positive. In Utah, 838 of the state's 9,552 welfare applicants were screened, with 29 returning a positive result.

These were costly initiatives that drove people into poverty and crime. The suggestion from this government is that this idea, which has been roundly condemned, is essentially what they want to do to these people. It has been roundly condemned by the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Australasian Chapter of Addiction Medicine, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, St Vincent's Health Australia, the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, Catholic Social Services Australia, the National Social Security Rights Network, Community Mental Health Australia—and the list goes on and on.

The recent Senate inquiry heard overwhelmingly from medical professionals that these proposed drug-testing trials are deeply concerning. They made it clear that these drug-testing trials will not work. What did they say? I am quoting here from Matt Noffs from the Ted Noffs Foundation:

This bill is not only going to fail, it will increase crime in the community and that should be a major concern for all Australians …

Dr Marianne Jauncey from the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and Other Drugs has said:

At a time when we desperately need money for frontline services, it's being spent in a way all the available evidence tells us won't work …

Doctors don't necessarily speak with a united voice—we're a very varied group of specialists and people with different backgrounds across the country, so when you do hear doctors speaking with a united voice I think people should listen.

Minister for Health, when you hear doctors speaking with a united voice, I think you should listen. Dr Reynolds from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians has said it is:

… an expensive, unreliable and potentially harmful testing regime to find this group of people. Existing evidence shows that drug testing welfare recipients … is not an effective way of identifying those who use drugs, and that will not bring about behaviour change.

On top of the evidence that we heard from this range of medical professionals, there was also an open letter from 109 addiction specialists, 330 doctors and 208 registered nurses to the Prime Minister calling on him to drop the drug-testing trial. To the minister, who is sitting here in this chamber, I say: please listen. As Dr Marianne Jauncey said, it's very rare that you get united voices across the medical profession, but 'when you do hear doctors speaking with a united voice I think people should listen'.

As I said, there are a range of measures in this bill that are deeply concerning to Labor and to members of my community. My dear 78-year-old mother lives by the mantra 'old ain't dead'. That was a message that we got loud and clear at a recent positive ageing forum that I held with the shadow minister for ageing and mental health, the member for Franklin. I thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to listen to the concerns of Canberrans about impediments to their positive ageing. These are impediments to their being able to realise their potential to live an intellectually and physically stimulated life that is healthy and fulfilled until the end of their days—a life where they're fit, they're healthy, they're being intellectually stimulated and they're actively participating in the community. At this positive ageing forum we heard from over 80 Canberrans about the impediments to their achieving that aspiration. The forum was such a success that we'll be holding another one either later in the year or early next year. These Canberrans met to discuss their experiences and to talk about how they stay fit and healthy, and the value that they bring to our nation's capital and the fact that they want to stay active, be recognised and make an active contribution to our community until the end of their days.

At the forum, the discussion ranged from aged care and retirement villages to the role of pets, nutrition, exercise and access to sunshine for health and wellbeing. It came up with a number of positive ideas, but it also provided the opportunity for Canberrans to vent their frustration about the impediments that serve as barriers to their actively participation in our Canberra community, in our nation's community, in the lives of their grandchildren and their children and in the broader citizenry of this nation. They raised concerns about the lack of support to navigate the My Aged Care portal and the complex nature of accessing aged-care services, healthcare cards and the pension.

Aged care is of significant concern for many Canberrans, and the stories provided at the forum were personal, powerful and saw many participants in tears just talking about their experiences. It was clear that, while community organisations work to help senior Australians—senior Canberrans—to stay active and engaged in our society, the Turnbull government has sat on its hands and provided no positive ageing strategy.

A major concern raised at the forum was the lack of housing for older Canberrans, particularly women. There have been reports that a number of older women are couch surfing. We've all heard these reports. It's happening in our electorates each and every day. Older women are couch surfing or sleeping in cars as a result of unaffordable housing or the lack of crisis accommodation.

In Canberra, 316 people aged 55 years or older sought help from homelessness services last year, and 44 per cent of this group were women, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. A number of factors contribute to the homelessness of older women. They include the breakdown of a relationship. One of the major issues, though, is domestic violence—women fleeing domestic violence. It includes rent prices and insufficient superannuation to retire on.

Whenever I speak on the fact that we do, as a nation, have a challenge in homelessness among older women and older men, I get women, particularly, coming out of the audience, coming up to me after I've spoken, in tears, talking to me, and the pattern is the same. These are women who are working. They're on very modest incomes. They're in the private rental market—and rents here in Canberra are high. They have very little superannuation, because they've been out of the workforce quite a bit. They're invariably divorced or they've had a relationship breakdown. A number of them have been victims of domestic violence. They've brought up the kids on their own, and they are terrified of their retirement. They are absolutely petrified about ensuring they have a comfortable retirement, because renting a property in Canberra—and I'm sure it's the same in many parts of the nation—on the aged pension is a real challenge, let alone heating that property and maintaining a car on very little superannuation. This is a major challenge for us as public policymakers. It's a major challenge for our nation. It's a major challenge for Canberrans, and it was one of the most significant issues raised at my aged-care forum.

Also raised was the need for women to have access to decent superannuation and a decent retirement income through superannuation. We all know there have been countless surveys, and just recently the Not so super, for women study revealed a woman's median superannuation total by retirement was $80,000. My dear old mum retired with less than $20,000—she's on the age pension now. Now, that is just 47 per cent of what a man the same age accumulates over the same time—$80,000. The author of the study said that, on average, women retire with less than three years worth of modest retirement living. I speak to these women whenever I make speeches about the challenge of homelessness.

This government has shown, through its policies, how out of touch it is with Australia. A main concern for the forum was the plan that the government has to increase the pension age, with particular reference to the discrimination that older Australians face in the workforce. There are measures in this bill that make the situation even worse. Around 375,000 Australians will be hit by the Turnbull government's plan to increase the pension age to 70, and the hike to the pension age means that, between 2025 and 2029, Australians who are currently in their 50s, who have been planning their retirement, will be stung by this change. I was just talking to my uncle, and my cousins are going to be affected by this—my cousins live in Wodonga. We were going through the charts just recently and found that they will have to work for longer.

The proposed changes will likely see Australia on track to have the highest pension age by 2035. Rather than increasing the pension age, the government should focus on the ever-increasing delays in the processing of age pension claims. The amount of time that some Canberrans have had to wait for their simple claims to be processed is deeply concerning. Members of my community and throughout our society have contributed to our economy their entire working lives, yet they are being forced to wait months for their age pension applications to be processed.

We know this government has a very poor track record when it comes to looking after the most vulnerable in our community, but turning its back on age pensioners and forcing them into uncertainty is completely unacceptable. It's not just the pockets of age pensioners that this government has its hands in. Some special benefit recipients aged between 55 and 59 are volunteering in our communities for 30 hours per fortnight to meet their contribution requirements so they can receive Newstart, and part of this legislation will require recipients to make up 15 of those 30 hours with paid work. I'm not sure where this idea came from and I'm not sure whether this government has actually had any engagement with women and men who aren't in the workforce and are over 55 and looking for jobs.

I have had two men aged over 55 working in my office as volunteers. They had lost their jobs. I couldn't afford to pay them, but they made a significant contribution. From that work, they have managed to get a paid job, but they went through some very significant challenges. The fact that this government has introduced this requirement is just breathtaking. What evidence does the government have that this is actually going to work? Where is the evidence that this is going to work? These people are already finding it very, very challenging to get work due to the ageism that is prevalent in Australian society, and the government is making the situation even worse.

I join with members of my party, the Labor Party, who have spoken against the unfair measures in this bill. It's been a common theme over the last four years that, in the absence of adequate support being provided by the government, Labor has been the only voice for vulnerable Australians, the only voice protecting vulnerable Australians. (Time expired)