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Social Sector Slams Mandatory Drug Trial for Welfare Recipients

10 May 2017 at 9:04 am
Rachel McFadden
The federal government’s announcement that it will launch a drug testing trial to 5,000 new welfare recipients has been met with outrage from the social sector’s leading advocacy groups.

Rachel McFadden | 10 May 2017 at 9:04 am


Social Sector Slams Mandatory Drug Trial for Welfare Recipients
10 May 2017 at 9:04 am

The federal government’s announcement that it will launch a drug testing trial to 5,000 new welfare recipients has been met with outrage from the social sector’s leading advocacy groups.

The proposed drug trials, announced in Tuesday’s budget, have been slammed by the social sector, which called them “shameless” and “humiliating”, and said they were “criminalising welfare recipients” in an apparent war on welfare.

The mandatory drug testing, along with a further rollout of the controversial cashless debit cards and a ruling that disability pensions will be cancelled for people whose medical conditions are “caused solely by their own substance abuse”, was announced in the 2017 budget.

Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison said the tough new measures were designed to claw back $632 million from the welfare system.

“We want to support job seekers affected by drug and alcohol abuse, but to protect taxpayers, it has to be a two-way street,” Morrison said in his speech.

“We will continue to stop people trying to take an easy ride on our welfare system to protect it for those who need it most.”

Social commentator and activist Eva Cox told Pro Bono News the government’s welfare reforms were “punitive and controlling” and “persecuting and trashing the most vulnerable” in a bid to save money and take a hard-line approach to win conservative votes.

“I think it is deeply amoral to run such policy lines because it draws lines around ‘people like us’ and ‘them’,” Cox said.

Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers also raised concerns that the budget was divisive.

“This year’s budget is a lost opportunity to tackle inequality. Instead, we’ve gotten another budget that pits Australians against each other,” she said.

“Australians on low incomes are struggling to make ends meet. But instead of offering relief, people who need help from the government are being scapegoated, with the budget targeting Centrelink recipients with a demerit scheme and expanding the cashless welfare trial.”

Under the government’s overhaul of the welfare system, people who fail their drug test will be placed on the government’s controversial cashless debit card scheme.

Australian Greens spokesperson on community services senator Rachel Siewert asked where the government’s compassion was for people who “off the back of their addiction have a physical or mental disability and desperately need help.”

“The Government has sunk to a new low – drug testing people accessing the social safety net then dumping them on the cashless welfare card,”Siewert said.

Disabled People’s Organisations Australia (DPOA) said the cashless debit cards scheme was a “patronising and controlling measure”.

“We believe that income management and the use of the cashless welfare card, should not apply to anyone, but particularly people with disability. It is an ineffective and expensive policy measure that should be abandoned, instead of expanded,” DPOA said in a statement.

Morrison also introduced a demerit system whereby any unemployed person who misses an appointment without a “reasonable excuse” will have their payment suspended until they “re-engage” with their job services provider, with demerit points to be accrued for each incident.

If four demerit points are accrued within six months, the job seeker will be placed on a “three strikes and you’re out” intensive compliance program.

Under the compliance program, recipients will lose 50 per cent of their fortnightly payment for the first strike, 100 per cent for their second, and have their payment suspended for four weeks for their third strike.

UnitingCare Australia’s national director Claerwen Little said: “The very worst elements of this budget impose harsh compliance measures on job seekers for no apparent benefit to their employment prospects.

“The language of three strikes and demerits in the government’s proposed welfare reform effectively make it a crime to be unemployed.”

The government announced that despite overhauling Centrelink categories, with one working age payment replacing seven types of welfare – rolling in the Newstart allowance with the sickness payment, wife pension, partner allowance, bereavement allowance, Widow B Pension and widow allowance  –  the payment rates would remain the same.

But those in the sector said this was no big win.

“This budget has frozen those payments at dangerously low levels, ignoring calls from the business and community sectors to increase them as a matter of urgency,” Chambers said.

“Support payments for job seekers, pensioners, and people with disabilities have become a poverty trap. They’re so low that paying rent means you can’t then afford to buy food, clothing, transport or go to the doctor.”

People receiving unemployment benefit will also be exempt from receiving the one off $75 Energy Supplement.

ACOSS chief executive Cassandra Goldie said despite the government’s accusations some were taking the welfare system for a ride there was “no convincing evidence that the welfare system is widely abused”.

“Given the severe impact that penalties have, the system should not be restructured without a public review,” she said.

In a statement Anti-Poverty Network South Australia (APNSA) said the government’s reforms to the welfare system were likely to cause more harm than good.

“Preventing those whose health issues are the product of substance abuse from accessing Disability Support Pension is moralistic and mean-spirited  –  and it will have devastating consequences,” APNSA said.

“Substance abuse should be treated as a medical issue. Those battling addiction should have access to drug and alcohol services  –  but these services have experienced severe cuts under the Abbott and Turnbull governments.

“Access to Disability Support Pension should be based on need, not judgments about deservingness. Substance abuse is often a form of self-medicating  –  a response to severe trauma and hardship. Forcing addicts with significant health issues to languish on the grossly inadequate Newstart Allowance has the potential to exacerbate their health problems.

“The government speaks of ‘mutual obligation,’ but what we have is a very one-sided, unmutual system, with lots of obligations on job-seekers, but few on the government.”

Justifying the social security overhaul treasurer Morrison said: “The best way to get your welfare budget under control is to get Australians off welfare and into work.”

But the sector said it saw little by way of securing the path from unemployment to paid employment.

“There was no mention in the budget of the fact there is one job for every 11 job-seekers (including the underemployed). Nor any mention of the fact that Newstart, at $267 per week, is $160 per week below the poverty-line, and has not been raised in real terms since 1994, meaning that job-seekers experience significant financial and personal hardship, with impacts on their health, social connectedness, and ability to search for work,” APNSA said.

Chief executive of Uniting Communities Simon Schrapel told Pro Bono News the proposed changes would not assist those seeking jobs to get into employment.

“Indeed, perversely, it is likely to do just the opposite by reducing financial independence or my making it tougher to seek employment by reducing what is already a meagre income for many,” Schrapel.

Key spokespersons from the social sector also lamented that funding was directed towards “punitive measures” in the social welfare system over creating real pathways for employment, support for Australians living below the poverty line and rehabilitation programs for drug and alcohol users.

The rollout and administration of cashless credit cards is estimated to cost $10,000 per participant while the government is yet to disclose the cost of the drug trials for 5,000 new welfare recipients.

In addition, the government will also spend $145 million over three years to extend the income management scheme in 14 locations where it is operating in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia, and the Northern Territories.

Rachel McFadden  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Rachel is a journalist specialising in the social sector.

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