Concerns Over Welfare Remain as Govt Abandons Drug Testing Scheme
4 December 2017 at 4:39 pm
The federal government’s move to abandon its controversial drug testing scheme will “stop unnecessary harm being inflicted on thousands of Australians” but the welfare bill could “still make life tougher for people already struggling”, according to voices in the social sector.
Social Services Minister Christian Porter reaffirmed to The Australian on Monday that he would remove the drug testing trials of welfare recipients from the welfare reform bill in a bid to secure wider reforms that would consolidate working-age welfare payments and simplify the compliance system.
He confirmed to Pro Bono News he would not “hold up the entire bill” over the initiative, which was due to come into force for welfare recipients on 1 January, but has been blocked in the Senate.
“What I will be saying to crossbench senators is that everything we are doing to move people from welfare to work is working and the welfare reform bill before the senate is the next critical step in reforming the welfare system to get even more people to break the cycle of welfare dependency,” Porter said.
“I have already publicly said that I would not hold up the entire bill and the significant reforms it provides to consolidate working age payments and a simpler compliance system, if the drug testing measure appears unable to win adequate support at this time.”
But he said the government would “not give up on trying new things to break cycles of welfare dependency and contour our success in moving people from welfare to work”.
It comes after Porter revealed last month that the planned trial to drug-test dole recipients could be pushed back.
“The bulk of that bill, which reforms the compliance system, is so critical to what we are trying to achieve that I wouldn’t want to sacrifice the bulk of that in terms of timeliness while we are still negotiating around drug testing,” Porter told reporters in Canberra in November.
GetUp campaigns director Django Merope Synge said it was encouraging to see the senators had “listened to the experts on this”.
“From former AFP commissioner Mick Palmer to doctors and drug policy experts right across the country, they all agree that treating drug addiction with punitive measures like cutting off payments would only aggravate the issue,” Merope Synge said.
“The truth is, you simply can’t punish people into recovery from addiction. Drug addiction is a health issue, and needs to be treated as such.
“If the government is serious about decreasing addiction and drug related harm, it should direct more funds to frontline treatment programs with proven results, rather than trying to score cheap political points by demonising people receiving income support payments.”
More than 32,000 GetUp members petitioned against the scheme.
Health, legal and law enforcement experts have previously raised concerns the policy could have increased crime, homelessness and poverty.
ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie told Pro Bono News while drug testing may be off the table, the bill still had a “raft of other social security cuts and changes that will make life tougher for people already struggling with poverty in Australia”.
“Disturbingly, the bill cuts bereavement payments to pregnant women who have lost their partner. Women recently widowed will lose up to $5,000 as a result of this cut, while still being expected to set up a home for the newborn and manage their grief,” Goldie said.
“The bill removes protections for people who, because of extenuating circumstances, cannot get all the paperwork for their income support claim into Centrelink. This means that people in hospital, people going through a separation or women escaping domestic violence will have to wait longer to get their Centrelink payment because it is impossible to get the paperwork together.
“80,000 people seeking work will have their payments cut under the proposed compliance changes for people receiving an unemployment payment. Australia already has one of the harshest set of job search requirements in the OECD. Cutting people off income support will simply serve to increase homelessness and destitution in our community.”
She called on the government to work with the sector to guarantee people on the lowest incomes a better standard of living.
“The government is talking about election year income tax cuts at the same time as pushing on with this bill to further cut supports for people who are already struggling,” Goldie said.
“It also maintains a view that social security payments are adequate, completely out of step with community, expert, business and academic assessment.
“Instead of trying to push through more social security cuts, we urge the government to focus on securing an increase to the Medicare Levy, and to work with us all to guarantee people on the lowest incomes a better standard of living. This should be the priority for parliamentarians this week.”