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‘Dead-end strategy’: Centrelink drug test proposal slammed

Pictured: Centrelink logo, drug test and Australian cash suggesting Newstart payment. Images: Getty
Welfare recipients could face drug tests under a new trial. Images: Getty

Social groups are slamming the federal government for reigniting its controversial plan to have welfare payments contingent on recipients passing drug tests, describing it as “demeaning”.

Under legislation due to go to federal parliament next week, around 5,000 Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients in Logan in Queensland, Mandurah in Western Australia and Canterbury-Bankstown in New South Wales would be tested for illegal drugs and put on income management should they test positive.

That management could see up to 80 per cent of their welfare payments moved to a cashless debit card.

Those who test positive could also have their obligation to seek work swapped for an obligation to attend drug counselling sessions, under the proposed two-year trial.

This isn’t the first time such legislation has been introduced: the Coalition government in 2017 introduced a similar plan. However, that bill expired before it could be passed amid criticism that selective drug testing was unfair and discriminatory.

‘Designed to stigmatise’: ACOSS

Today, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) has reaffirmed those critiques.

“This government’s proposal is designed to stigmatise people struggling to get by on the lowest incomes in the country,” ACOSS director of policy Jacqueline Phillips said.

“Let’s be clear about what the government is asking people to do – it’s particularly demeaning to have to provide a urine sample just because you’re unfortunate enough to have lost your job, even when you may be in your fifties and have never touched drugs your life.

“People on Newstart are trying hard to find paid work – they include older people who’ve faced age discrimination in the workforce, with half of people on Newstart over 45; young people trying to get a foot in the door after uni or TAFE; and single mothers searching for employment that allows for their caring responsibilities.”

Older Australians are making up a growing number of people at need of financial support. Image: Getty
Older Australians are making up a growing number of people at need of financial support. Image: Getty

Nearly a quarter of jobseekers close to retirement age have been receiving welfare for over a year, which is around $40 a day on Newstart.

A Salvation Army report found older Australians also make up the fastest growing group in need of support.

Drug testing trial about ‘making a political point’

Professor Nadine Ezard, clinical director of St Vincent’s Sydney’s Alcohol and Drug Unit said every major medical and health organisation in Australia has opposed previous iterations of this legislation for clear reasons.

“We’re against it because we know the evidence is not there,” she said, referring to St Vincent’s, the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Public Health Association of Australia, the Kirby Institute, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.

“We’re against it because our expertise and experience tells us that this isn’t the way to help people into treatment.

“In the face of such overwhelming and universal opposition, why is the government persisting? It’s hard not to conclude that this trial is not about helping people at all, but about making a political point.”

She said by the clinical definition, people with severe substance use disorders can’t modify their behaviours, even when faced wth punishment.

“In fact, an increase in stigma and anxiety for people with substance use disorders will exacerbate addiction issues rather than address them.

“Threatening people who have a substance abuse disorder – that if they test positive they’ll be placed on income management – is not going to change their behaviour.”

She said up to half a million Australians need support from services that aren’t there.

“We have been telling the government repeatedly that if they were serious about helping people into treatment this should be where their efforts are directed, not pursuing this dead-end strategy,” Ezard said.

What would the drug testing program be?

Recipients would be tested for ice, ecstasy, marijuana, heroin and cocaine use with positive tests placing recipients on income management. Positive tests would not, however, result in criminal charges.

A secondary test would occur within 25 days of the first positive test, with those who make a second positive test referred to a doctor who will look at treatment options.

Does drug testing welfare recipients actually work?

Social Services Minister Anne Ruston, who is introducing the legislation, says the plan will help welfare recipients make the most of themselves.

"People on welfare who take drugs are denying themselves the best opportunity to take advantage of the jobs we are creating," she said.

"That's why the Morrison government is trialling reforms the welfare system to ensure that we can identify and encourage people with substance abuse issues to get treatment, rehabilitate and make them job-ready."

She also said taxpayer money should be spent on helping welfare recipients pay for essentials like school and food, rather than drugs.

Speaking to Channel 9 this morning, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton also described the proposal as “common sense”.

“It’s a commonsense approach (that) I think it reflects community values. It’s a measured approach which I think the Opposition should support.”

‘No clear evidence’, ‘potential to create greater levels of harm’: ANCD, RACP, UNSW

However, the research doesn’t back it up.

A position paper from the Australian National Council on Drugs, published in 2013, found “no evidence” that drug testing welfare recipients would have “any positive effects for those individuals or for society” and could actually incur greater social and economic costs.

"There is no clear evidence that drug use in and of itself is a barrier to employment for a significant proportion of the people — nor that it is a more significant barrier than other factors, such as transport problems, mental or physical health problems, or discrimination," the paper said.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), in a submission on the previous bill, also said such policies fail to address the sheer difficulty in overcoming a drug addiction and the high likelihood of relapse.

“The proposed changes do not take this into account, nor do they acknowledge or address the severe shortage of available addiction treatment and support services across the country,” the submission read.

“No explanation has been provided as to why that advice is now being ignored, nor why the poor results from similar trials in other jurisdictions has seemingly not been heeded. There has been no genuine consultation with addiction medicine, nor with the alcohol, tobacco and other drug sector more generally or the wider health sector as far as we are aware.”

The RACP said the government should instead invest in alcohol and drug treatment services.

The University of New South Wales’ Drug Policy Modelling Program, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre made a similar submission.

It warned that such policies “have the potential to create greater levels of harm, including increased stigma, marginalisation and poverty”.

“There is also evidence that when drug testing regimes are implemented, some people switch from better known drugs (those that are included in the testing regime) to lesser known drugs, which may be more harmful.”

Concluding, the submission warned that the policy was “ill-placed, ineffective and damaging”.

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