By JOHN MOYLE
The Morrison Government’s revival of the 2017 Turnbull policy to drug test welfare recipients should come as no surprise, as the Government is awash in a wave of “compassionate conservatism”.
The two-year trial will see 5,000 welfare recipients of Newstart and the Youth Allowance have their payments suspended if they test positive to cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, ice or heroin.
If the recipient fails the test a second time they will be referred to a doctor and presented with treatment options while being placed on income management that will quarantine 80 per cent of their payment to be locked up in a cashless debit card that cannot be used for drugs, alcohol, cigarettes or gambling.
Alcohol and cigarettes are still legal in Australia and widely used across the community.
Heartless cruel measure
“Apart from being the antithesis of compassionate, it is a heartless and cruel measure that appeals to the penal popularism that is rampant in Australia,” said Matt Noffs, CEO, Ted Noffs Foundation. (Ted Noffs Foundation treats young people with drug and alcohol problems and in particular those with comorbid mental health issues.)
“It has proven to be an abysmal failure in New Zealand, across the US, the UK and Canada so why would we bother testing it in Australia?”
The Department of Social Services told City Hub “The trial is about testing new ways of identifying job seekers with substance abuse issues, helping them overcome these issues and increasing their chances of gaining employment.”
The chances of the Government getting the Bill through the Senate with cross-bench support are looking a lot better than the two previous attempts, which were blocked by Labor and the Greens.
“The Government has tried this before and Labor has opposed it, and will continue to do so,” Linda Burney, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services, said.
If passed, as is likely in the next couple of weeks, the Bill will see the test program rolling out at Mandurah, south of Perth, at Logan, south of Brisbane, and Canterbury Bankstown in Sydney’s south-west.
“We weren’t consulted about this plan, and the reality is, illicit drug use is a national problem, not just pertaining to any one area,” Khal Asfour, Mayor, Canterbury Bankstown said.
“If the Government was serious about getting people off drugs they would invest in rehabilitation facilities.
“We do not have one in Canterbury-Bankstown and the closest facility for residents is actually in Rozelle or Campbelltown.”
Ten million dollars has been set aside to boost drug treatment facilities with no provision to train extra staff for already over-extended services, often with long delays.
The only unity that this proposal has brought has been to get over 40 of Australia’s peak health, welfare and drug agencies to agree that it is an ill-conceived plan hatched without any proper consultation.
“Penalising job seekers with drug and alcohol dependence issues through removal of welfare payments will increase disadvantage not only to the jobseeker themselves, but also to any dependants they may be caring for,” David Templeman, Chief Executive Office President, Public Health Association of Australia said.
“It is disappointing that the feedback provided in the previous Bill does not appear to have been taken into consideration in the development of the current Bill, reflecting an apparent lack of consultation with experts on drug policy.”
Anglicare said, “Mandatory drug rehabilitation has been repeatedly found to be one of the least effective ways for people to overcome a drug addiction.”
Drugs – use or dependence?
Professor Alison Ritter from the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre, who recently delivered a keynote paper on drug testing welfare recipients, said “Drug use per se is not related to employment and what the Bill fails to attend is the fact that 50 per cent of Australians have taken an illicit drug at some time in their life and there is a big difference between using an illicit drug and being drug dependent.”
Professor Ritter sees the Morrison Government playing a low hand to the lowest common denominator.
“More and more across developed nations welfare has become conditional on acceptable behaviour. Australia has a long history of these kinds of provisions, and while it is not a new idea, it seems to be particularly virulent at the moment,” Prof Ritter said.
Matt Noffs said, “If they are truly compassionate they would listen to doctors and they would listen to people like ourselves who have been successful for half a century.”
As Australian society flirts with “compassionate conservatism,” and with the Morrison Government on an electoral roll, this seems unlikely.