Welfare Recipients in Sydney’s Southwest Face Random Drug Testing in 2018
Tuesday, 22nd August 2017 at 4:59 pm
Welfare recipients in Sydney’s southwest will be the first to undergo a random drug testing trial, which the Turnbull government announced will be implemented from the beginning of next year.
Canterbury-Bankstown is the first of three locations for the two-year trial, which will test 5,000 new recipients of Newstart Allowance and Youth Allowance for illicit substances including ice, ecstasy and marijuana.
Social Services Minister Christian Porter said the trial was designed to help people overcome drug issues and give them a better chance of securing work.
“This trial is focused entirely on helping job seekers overcome drug problems and to receive the help they need to get on a path towards securing a job and building a better future for themselves and their families,” Porter said.
“It is not about penalising or stigmatising people who have a barrier to employment which is as serious as drug abuse. We want to help people in this situation. Failure to do so simply leaves people at risk of a cycle of welfare dependency.”
The trial will only affect new job seekers receiving payments from 1 January next year, who will be placed on cashless welfare cards and have their payments quarantined if they fail a drug test.
Recipients who fail more than one test will be referred to medical professionals for assessment and treatment, with the government pledging $10 million to assist those testing positive to multiple tests.
Porter said this will provide those suffering from drug issues with support, and ensure they are not left behind.
“We know that without assistance, many people with substance abuse problems can’t or won’t take action to help themselves and that drug abuse issues tend to be higher amongst people who are unemployed,” he said.
“Drug testing of new jobseekers will help ensure that those with barriers to securing work are identified and supported.”
But the scheme has been met with scathing criticism from social groups, medical professionals and youth organisations, who say the drug trial will be extremely harmful to the community.
The CEO of the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), Dr Cassandra Goldie, told Pro Bono News that the scheme was nothing more than “a political diversion”.
“Mandatory drug testing and income management is not a health response, and as experts have indicated, it will cause more harm than good, with the potential of driving people into destitution and homelessness,” Goldie said.
“The government’s own advisory body on drugs counselled against implementation of this kind of policy. This is a political diversion when the government should be focusing on creating jobs, not causing further stigmatisation of people who are being assisted by our social safety net.”
Dr. Nadine Ezard, the clinical director of alcohol and drugs at St Vincent’s Hospital, echoed these sentiments and told Pro Bono News she had a number of serious concerns with the scheme.
“This bill does more than implement drug testing, it also seeks to introduce a range of harsh measures which could see crucial income support taken away from some of our most vulnerable citizens,” Ezard said.
“There’s three issues we are particularly concerned about. The first is that there is no evidence that drug testing of welfare participants helps to create jobs or to help people into treatment.
“These measures also aren’t cost effective. The government hasn’t revealed the cost, but we know from experience in New Zealand in 2015, the government spent around NZ$1 million [A$900,000] testing just over 8,000 people with only 22 testing positive. So that’s a very expensive measure to detect a very small number of people.
“And thirdly we are concerned that this trial punishes rather than helps. It will just further stigmatise people with severe substance abuse issues. And we know that discrimination and stigma actually increases those barriers to accessing treatment.”
Ezard would instead like to see “an expansion of treatment places across the board”, to better combat the issue in the community.
Youth Action’s Western Sydney Project coordinator Natasha Lay, also raised concerns that the scheme will make it even harder for young people to find work.
“I think the trial is absolute nonsense, it is punishing people who are looking for work,” Lay told Pro Bono News.
“There are already a number of forces working against young people trying to find work. We don’t need another one.
“I think this is an absolute waste of money. If the goal is to get young people into jobs, we need to look at the real barriers that they’re facing and invest money in education, in training and in skills development.”
Labor and the Greens have both stringently opposed the trials, with Greens Senator Rachel Siewert believing the government’s plan has “no real substance.”
“This is a flawed measure that will further vilify people who need our support. Drug addiction needs to be treated as a health issue in Canterbury-Bankstown area and across Australia, we need to move past this so called tough on drugs approach,” Siewert said.
“Overseas experience shows that it is a very costly and ineffective measure that does not reduce addiction.”
With the government requiring crossbench support to pass the legislation, there are no guarantees the tests will be ready to launch by its scheduled commencement in late January 2018.
For news on the second trial site see here.