I’m lucky that my electorate is home to one of Odyssey House’s residential rehabilitation programs. In Lower Plenty, Odyssey House provides a place where people with drug and alcohol addictions and problems come to change their lives. I visited on Friday, and I want to say thank you to the residents and staff who spoke with me. It was really helpful for me in understanding some of the big issues that are before this House.
One of the residents who spoke with me had been there for nearly a year dealing with his drug and alcohol problems and turning his life around. He explained to me where he had come from. He told me he had had two jobs: his second job was as a jockey; his first job was to make sure he had enough alcohol and opium to get through the day. He told me that, when he first arrived at Odyssey House, he was confronted. What he was confronted by surprised me. He told me he was confronted by being shown love and empathy; he’d never seen those before in his life. Imagine that—never having seen love and empathy. What he had to learn to do at Odyssey House was form relationships—to build the sorts of relationships that those of us who are lucky enough to have a stable upbringing learn to form when we are very small. He had been working hard on that. He had been working through his problems—to the point where he is turning his life around and becoming a leader in the community there.
I spoke to the staff at Odyssey House. They said the people who came to the program there were often dealing with intergenerational trauma—an ongoing legacy of distrust, broken relationships and a view of authority that sees only harm. These are people who will shut down on you if you begin with an approach of distrust and suspicion. They explained to me that it is not easy to turn your life around; you have to want it and you have to be shown that it is possible.
Odyssey’s track record shows that it is possible and that we need more of the approach they are taking. Yet this government is proposing precisely the opposite. Instead of an approach that invites people to turn their lives around and do the work they need to do to get back on track, an approach that invites them in for help, they are looking for a punitive approach. So these people, who for all their life have been suspicious of authority and have been knocked down, will get knocked down again by the system that is meant to help them. It is a proposal that is indiscriminate, ineffective and demeaning: drug testing for all people on welfare. We have heard from medical experts that this simply won’t work, that we should expect more crime, more family violence and more desperation. And what about the poor staff at Centrelink who are expected to enforce this? They are already overstretched. What’s it going to be like when they are dealing with desperate people and forcing them into tests when they come into the office?
Of course, the government would like us to think that this is just about a certain group of people in our community. But that’s not the case. This type of program will affect single mums who looking after their kids. It could affect people who have been retrenched and are looking for a job, and those who are trying to return to the workforce. One in four people on Newstart is over 55. There could be grandparents who are forced to take part in this policy—to urinate into a cup, to have their hair plucked or to spit into a jar—just so they can continue to help their families to put food on the table. We have seen this approach tried overseas in countries like New Zealand and the US, and it has been proven a failure.
But let’s get real about this. We know that the main reason for governments proposing this approach is to distract. It’s all too easy to make vulnerable people the target when you don’t have a plan—when you’re in here dealing with political strategy and not the reality of people’s lives; when you’re in here thinking about how to make up for the fact that Australia is struggling and our economic growth is at its lowest since the global financial crisis; when we’re seeing wages stagnate and living standards and productivity going backwards; and when we’re seeing workers underemployed and new apprenticeships at their lowest level for two decades.
There are people out there who genuinely need help—and they need help from this government. What I saw at Odyssey House was that the approach being proposed by this government will not be effective in supporting these people. It’s time that this government decided that it is no longer focused on distracting from its lack of agenda and that it genuinely wants to support people in need. It’s time that the government moved away from thinking about new ways to humiliate and harass people who do want help and want to get their lives on track. It’s time the government put in a real plan to support people with drug and alcohol addiction.