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'I have not seen anyone who works in the field come out saying that this is a positive thing.' ABC Hobart Breakfast Radio Interview, Wednesday 23 August 2017




SUBJECTS: Welfare drug-testing; Marriage equality; Refugees on Nauru

LEON COMPTON: On mornings around Tasmania, it's time for 'Senators in Space'. Look, we've gone into this with the idea that there is no political spin in space, that there's no political gravity. I don't know – we'll talk about the issues this morning – some of the most hotly contested social issues in Australian political life at the moment are going to come up for discussion and it will be interesting to see if we can stay the course. Let’s welcome our guests this morning. Liberal Senator for Tasmania, Eric Abetz-


COMPTON: Good morning to you. And Lisa Singh, Labor Senator for Tasmania. Good morning to you.


COMPTON: Drug-testing. Happy to be drug-tested and alcohol-tested at any time as you are about to step into the chambers in Parliament House in Canberra, Lisa?

SINGH: I don't mind being drug-tested but I don't think this is what it's all about, Leon. I really don't think that politicians need to be drug-tested but I don't think welfare recipients, more importantly, need to be drug-tested. I'm on this Senate inquiry, so next week in Melbourne and Sydney we've got public hearings and we'll be listening to all of the witnesses on why the government wants to bring this forward. And that's where it all boils down to, because as politicians we're not experts in a number of fields so we need to listen to experts. I've been looking at a number of the submissions; I've met with some clinicians, some physicians – particularly the Royal Australian College of Physicians – as well as St Vincent's Hospital physicians. They have all made it very clear that they do not want this to be policy. And that they have grave concerns if the government goes down this path and that it won't lead to a reduction in welfare recipients who may have drug addictions being resolved of those issues.

COMPTON: Are there others though that have come out in support of this that you've spoken to? Let's jump to the other side of it. What are the pros that potentially might flow from this if it was done with compassion?

SINGH: Well that's the thing, Leon. I cannot find any pros. No one wants people to take illegal drugs, and indeed if they do have a drug addiction of course we need to provide them with all of the supports that they need. But that needs to be an investment in treatment, in rehab services. And that's why there's been so much opposition, because there doesn't seem to be any evidence that this type of drug-testing of welfare recipients – we're talking about the most vulnerable people in the community – is actually going to lead to any outcome benefit for them, and indeed to an increase in employment. That's what the government's saying, so where's the evidence I suppose?

COMPTON: Let's have the conversation. Senator, why is it that the party put this measure into the budget and are looking to secure support for it at the moment?

ABETZ: From a social justice and social policy point-of-view, I think it's cruel to simply say to a drug-dependent person on welfare, 'Fine – you're on drugs, you're on welfare, we will abandon you to that lifestyle for as long as you like, just as long as you can make ends meet.' I don't think that's fair to them, nor to the Australian taxpayer. Keep in mind, it's your next door neighbour – if you're on welfare – that is paying your welfare through their taxes, so we owe responsibility to them. But to the welfare recipient, it stands to reason that in general terms, if you have a drug issue you are less likely to be able to be gainfully employed.

We want to be able to assist those people out of that lifestyle so that they can become more economically and socially self-sufficient. We know that if you're in a job, your mental health, your physical health, self-esteem, social interaction; all of those things are improved. Not only for you, but everybody else in your household. So there is a good social good in seeking to assist people off drugs and into a more engaged and economic social lifestyle, and that's what it's all about. 

SINGH: Eric, no one denies that. It's about how you get there. All of the experts in the field, the health professionals, are saying drug-testing welfare recipients not only stigmatises them but it doesn't actually reach that outcome – that social justice outcome – that you just outlined.

ABETZ: Lisa, it doesn't stigmatise welfare recipients just as much as it doesn't stigmatise road users. Like the other night when I was driving home, I was subjected to a random breath test. Nor does it stigmatise truck-drivers if they have to have drug-testing because there are certain requirements and standards in our society. If you're a welfare recipient and you test negative to drugs, no problem whatsoever. If you test positive to some of these illicit drugs, then we are saying, 'To assist you we will give you a card which will give you exactly the same amount of expenditure power, but you won't be able to use it for drugs.' I think that is fair to the welfare recipients, and to our fellow taxpayers who – I think – are rightly aggrieved that their hard-earned taxes being paid to welfare recipients then get spent on these illegal substances.

COMPTON: So Lisa, that would be the first move? You fail one of these drug tests, I'm imagining...I don't know if you do that at the Centrelink office and have to go off like when you fail a breath test how it would work.

SINGH: That's a good question. 

COMPTON: Do you know how it would work, Senator?

ABETZ: It is a trial. Let's put everything into perspective. We are talking about this as a trial. Let's see how it works, and rather than saying everything's too hard and throw our harms up and say, 'It's stigmatises everybody!' What we're saying is we want to give this a trial, see how it works, noting that the cashless welfare card has worked exceptionally well in indigenous communities in driving down especially the alcohol and then the violence and other social consequences. So it has worked in that particular sphere. What we're now saying is let's try it elsewhere, and we will accept whatever the findings are.

COMPTON: A part of the test, Lisa Singh, or the question I 'spose that you're asking is it's a pathway towards being put on the basics card. You must be asking questions about the basics card? 80% of your welfare being quarantined for things like rent, food and bills.

SINGH: Leaves you with $50 left in your Newstart. That's what it will leave people with. $50. And I guess what I ask Eric again, and the government, is where is the evidence? Where are the positive speakers on this? Other than politicians? Because we need to back it up with evidence, and that's what we're really looking for here. And if we look at New Zealand, who in 2015 went down this path of testing 8,000 welfare recipients – what came out of that $1,000,000 test of just 8000 people, so it's a very high cost involved – is 22 people that tested positive. So there is not only the cost issue, but there is the fact that you are just stigmatising a huge amount of people – many of which, the majority, are not on drugs-

ABETZ: Of course they aren't.

SINGH: To go through this process when the experts out there – and indeed, Matthew Knox has come out, who runs the largest drug and alcohol rehab and treatment service in this country – are saying that this is a bad idea. I have not seen anyone who works in the field come out saying that this is a positive thing. Eric, you and I don't work in this field. We are not experts when it comes to assisting people off severe and inherent drug and alcohol addiction issues. Of course we want that to happen, but-

COMPTON: Let's give the Senator a chance to respond and then we'll move on to our next issue.

ABETZ: Look, this is an innovative approach. It is a trial. Let's see how it works. I think the Australian people and the welfare recipients deserve to see how it will work. It was part of our election platform. We have got a government now committed to implementing this election platform and my view is give it a go, let's see what the trial says and this talk of stigmatisation – sure, the vast majority of road users that are randomly breath-tested, keep moving on because they are not under the influence of alcohol. So, to say that every road user is stigmatised because of a random breath-test is just as unsustainable as suggesting that every welfare recipient who is tested is somehow stigmatised.

COMPTON: Let's move on, but a quick question before we do it. Western Sydney was yesterday identified as the first site. The mayor of Logan – that's in Southern Queensland – was in our news this morning saying he is next. You're on the committee. You're party's proposing this. Is Tasmania one of the three trial sites?

SINGH: Leon, this has got to get through the Senate first. This is not legislation yet, and at this stage we don't know how the Senate is going to vote on this. Obviously my party, the Labor Party, is not going to support this bill. And we have to go through the Senate process, which will be next week. The government's really jumping the gun I think, in already announcing trial sites before we've got the legislation through the parliament.

ABETZ: And then we are criticised for not having everything worked out beforehand. It's one of these Catch-22s isn't it Lisa, that-

COMPTON: You've been heavily involved in deciding Senate strategy over the years. It isn't decided yet. You don't have the power to enact-  

ABETZ: These days, it's very difficult to determine what the Senate is going to support and reject. In relation to this, I'm not sure when and if that Tasmania will be another trial site.

COMPTON: Will you be pushing for it, Senator?

ABETZ: If it is determined that there is a particular hotbed and some people are suggesting that there are elements of the North-West coast, if that be so, then give it a try, let's see if we can assist these people out of the drug culture, into a more mainstream lifestyle which allows them to gain employment and to interact socially without being dependent on welfare and illicit substances. 

COMPTON: Via text this morning, people texting in and talking about being on building sites this morning, somebody in Kettering has said that, 'I'm on a building site. We get tested all the time. Get on with it.' Nick says, 'Drug-testing – great idea, people need to be held to account. Welfare recipients are accessing our tax dollars.' Another text has said, 'Drug-testing has failed in the UK and the USA. Why are we even looking at this?' So an interesting balance this morning.

Let's talk about the same-sex marriage debate and how that is rolling out. People have 24 hours to get on the electoral roll or get their details updated if they want to participate. Eric Abetz, is the debate as it's happening so far, happening respectfully?

ABETZ: Overwhelmingly yes. There are the ugly posters on which I tweeted about yesterday – condemning them. And you will unfortunately find in any political debate, any issue, that there will be elements on the extremes, be it the sad situation of somebody now, it would appear from the police evidence, targeting the Australian Christian Lobby headquarters in Canberra in his attempted suicide attempt. Just very ugly. On the other side, JoyFM the radio station, had a bomb threat made against it. Sadly, on either side of the debate you will have these extreme elements. But that should not put off the 99.9 per cent of Australians that can and will have a very civil debate about this issue.

SINGH: Labor warned that this would happen. That having this postal survey – which we simply do not even need to have – would lead to hate speech. I've been contacted about such speech towards gay men and I'm worried and concerned how far this is going to go. I'm aware of the poster as well that Eric referred to.

I do want to really plug though Leon, that today is the last day – the last 24 hours – for people to update their enrolment. If we have to go through this farce of a process through the ABS and have this postal survey, then let's encourage as many people as possible to ensure they're on the electoral role and they get out there and vote. That is the most important thing that happens in the next 24 hours but who knows how far this is going to go. Eric-

ABETZ: Leon-

SINGH: I've noticed that you were talking about people marrying buildings like the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

ABETZ: Lisa, Lisa, Lisa-

COMPTON: Were you being quoted? You were being misquoted, I read?

ABETZ: I was absolutely misquoted.

SINGH: Well, I'll take that back then.

ABETZ: And Lisa, Buzzfeed...if anybody takes Buzzfeed as their source they really are extremely naive. 

SINGH: But weren't you being interviewed by them?

ABETZ: Beg pardon?

SINGH: Weren't you being interviewed by Buzzfeed?

ABETZ: I was interviewed by Buzzfeed and I've put up on my website the full transcript of the interview and anybody who reads the interview will see that what Buzzfeed did was, I think, nearly bordering on the malicious in misrepresenting me, to try to denigrate. Sadly, this is what's happening on the other side of the equation. Those that support, like Buzzfeed support, changing marriage, will denigrate anybody who is campaigning on the ‘no’ side.

COMPTON: Senator, what do you say to the people who argue that this is the thin edge of the wedge? That a change to marriage – to allow two people in love to get married versus a man and a woman in love to get married – is a pathway towards polygamy, bestiality. What do you make of those arguments?

ABETZ: Polyamory, yes. The Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court – Chief Justice Roberts – a greater legal mind would be very difficult to get, has said as soon as you strip marriage down from the man-woman thing, being one man one woman, you will then have the issue of polyamory and indeed that is already being campaigned for and the Senate committee on which I sat – we got submissions saying, 'If love is love then polyamory ought be allowed,' but look, it's more the consequences-

COMPTON: Can I just ask you though-

ABETZ: Of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

COMPTON: Can I just ask you a question in response to that? Think about the agony that Australia is going through over, now years, on this issue to change it to just two people in love. The entire conversation would need to be had again, by that argument, to change the definition of marriage again. And I can't see any sort of majority support for polyamory or bestiality or any of the other things that are raised on this issue. It just wouldn't happen.

ABETZ: In relation to polyamory, that is what people asserted and it is now being, as I understand it, sort of civil unions in Holland and some of the other countries where they had same-sex marriage upfront. But look, those issues are issues for consideration, but it is the freedom of speech and freedom of religion – and we're now seeing that in Ireland – now that they have moved in relation to same-sex marriage, they are now stripping away religious freedom and freedom of speech in relation to the issue of a gender-less society et cetera, and I still think there's a very strong case within our community with people saying – the recent opinion polls show that in fact – that people are concerned that religious freedom and freedom of speech not be stripped away with this change, and that is the concerning element. 

SINGH: There is no problem with freedom of speech in this country, hence the hate speech that's currently going on around this debate. Nor freedom of religion. These are weak arguments that are raised against allowing people who love each other, no matter what their sex, to be able to marry. Now, until 2004, the Marriage Act in Australia actually didn't have man and a woman in there. We know that John Howard inserted that-

ABETZ: That is wrong, section 46, section 46!

SINGH: He inserted that. But on a positive note, and I really want to keep this debate positive because it is something that we should be feeling positive about, despite the ridiculous farce of a process this government is making this country go down, I'm really excited that the Hobart City Council made a decision at its recent meeting to fly the Rainbow Flag on the Hobart Council building until marriage is legal. I think that is  a unifying position that the Council has made for our city.

ABETZ: That is propaganda at its worst and you know that Lisa. Lisa would you be happy if the council-

SINGH: It is not propaganda

ABETZ: Ii the Council were to have voted to fly the ‘Vote No’ flag on top of the building, and-

SINGH: Is there a ‘Vote No’ flag?

ABETZ: I take a very principled stand on this. The City Council should not be campaigning with flags on one side of the debate or the other, and what is the height of arrogance is to say we will keep flying this flag even if the people of Australia vote no. What absolute arrogance for the City Council to make such a-

SINGH: Well they’re elected.

ABETZ: To make such a determination. 

COMPTON: It is interesting, yes.

ABETZ: Look they are elected to collect the rubbish not to talk rubbish and that is what they have been doing in recent times, very sadly.

COMPTON: Is it another way of looking at this, that this is just an issue that is happening in federal politics at the moment where the gymnastics are that in many other places – just like in many other countries – the issues been decided. They have the power to talk about what they think as a branch of government, don’t they?

ABETZ: Everybody is entitled to do it and talk about it, there’s no difficulty with that. The question is whether it is wise, whether they were elected on these policies et cetera. and clearly it’s not the role of local government to try to change Australia Day or fly rainbow flags.

SINGH: Well, I say good on them, good on them!

COMPTON: Mornings around Tasmania. Our Senators are in space this morning debating some of the issues.  As often happens the time flies and we have relatively little time to talk about the issues that our Senators bring from home. Briefly, Senator you wanted to mention a book that is being launched that is co-authored by a local?

ABETZ: Yes, two locals – Terry Whitebeach and Sarafino Enadio have given me the honour of launching the book titled ‘Trouble Tomorrow’ on Wednesday 5pm at Cosgrove High School. It talks about the journey of Sarafino as a refugee coming out of Sudan to Australia. A very moving, compelling story and it is a great honour to be allowed to launch that next week.

COMPTON: Lisa let’s just describe this as an issue you would like to people to think about this morning, what is the issue that you want to talk about?

SINGH: I’ve written to Minister Peter Dutton about the 50 refugees on Nauru, including three women refugees who require terminations, needing desperate medical treatment, surgery and the like here in Australia that they can’t access on Nauru.  The Doctors have asked for them to be able to be sent to Australia to access that, including the AMA President I heard this morning and I’m urging Peter Dutton to change the Border Force policy back to allow them to access that desperately needed medical treatment.

COMPTON: To both of you, thank you for coming in to the studio this morning.

ABETZ: Thanks a lot, Leon.

COMPTON: It’ll be interesting in two weeks to see how the citizenship issue plays out in federal politics over the next fortnight. To both of you thank you for coming in this morning.

SINGH: Thanks.

ABETZ: Thanks Leon.