Senate Committee Endorses Plans to Drug Test Welfare Recipients
Tuesday, 8th May 2018 at 2:07 pm
A Senate inquiry has endorsed the Turnbull government’s plans to drug test welfare recipients, in the face of sustained criticism from health experts and the community sector.
The government’s drug testing trial bill was referred to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry on 22 March, and on Monday the committee released its report recommending the bill be passed.
The legislation establishes a mandatory drug testing trial of 5,000 Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients in Canterbury-Bankstown, New South Wales; Logan, Queensland; and Mandurah, Western Australia.
Those who test positive to an illicit drug during the trial would be placed on income management for 24 months, while those who return two positive drug tests in the 24 month period may be required to undertake drug treatment.
Drug test trials for welfare recipients were originally introduced as part of a broader welfare reform bill last year, but after facing fierce backlash from health experts and welfare groups, the government removed drug testing from the bill.
It was later revived as a stand-alone bill in February, with Social Services Minister Dan Tehan telling parliament the legislation was not intended to be cruel or punitive.
“The trial is not about taking away payments for those who test positive. This is about helping those people with a problem to get treatment, helping them to help themselves and then get a job,” Tehan said.
“People who are part of the trial and test positive to illicit drugs would have access to treatment and rehabilitation to assist them in getting a job… [And] their treatment will be included in their mutual obligation for welfare payments.”
But the during the Senate inquiry, health experts and the community sector spoke out against the bill, arguing that drug testing measures were a flawed approach.
St Vincent de Paul National Council CEO Dr John Falzon, told the inquiry that the proposed legislation would unfairly burden those experiencing feelings of disempowerment and hopelessness.
“It’s our very strong view based on our on-the-ground experience with people in this situation that a program such as the one suggested in this legislation is clearly going to lead not only to greater material deprivation in some areas but a heightening and an intensification of that kind of emotional stress, stigmatisation and demonisation that people already feel,” Falzon said.
“Particularly when you consider that the people who will be caught up in the net will be people who have no issue with substance abuse but are being targeted simply because they need to make use of the social security system.”
Of the transformation
Of social security
Into harassment & insecurity:
Senate inquiry endorses Coalition's plan to drug-test welfare recipients https://t.co/AXTQYkrFQ4
— John Falzon (@JohnFalzon) May 7, 2018
The Australian Council of Social Service’s (ACOSS) submission to the inquiry said drug testing welfare participants was “an extraordinary and alarming departure from the key aim of our social security system, which is to provide a safety net for people in need”.
ACOSS noted 2013 findings from the government’s own Australian National Council on Drugs which found: “There is no evidence that drug testing welfare beneficiaries will have any positive effect for those individuals or for society.
“In addition, there would be serious ethical and legal problems in implementing such a program in Australia. Drug testing welfare beneficiaries ought not be considered.”
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) also expressed “significant concerns” about the proposed drug testing trial in their inquiry submission.
“Elements of the proposal are unnecessarily punitive and will increase stigmatisation among the most disadvantaged in the community,” the AMA said.
“There is a widely agreed upon need to increase the capacity of the drug and alcohol treatment sector, which is often unable to meet demands.
“The proposal will increase demand for treatment services in the trial sites, and may result in delays in accessing treatment for those actively seeking it (independent of the trial).”
Despite this, the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee recommended the bill be passed.
“The committee considers that this is a modest drug testing trial that has the potential to benefit up to 5,000 individuals across the three trial sites,” the report said.
“Whilst the committee looks forward to the evaluation strategy being published prior to the commencement of the trial, the committee considers that there is merit in a trial being conducted to assess whether there is a better way to assist welfare recipients to overcome their drug abuse issues and find employment.”
Labor and the Greens however, remained steadfast in their opposition to the legislation, producing dissenting reports urging the Senate to reject the bill.
“In light of the overwhelming evidence presented to this committee on a number of occasions that these trials will not be successful, Labor Senators on this committee are nonetheless strongly of the view that the bill should not be passed,” the Labor report said.
The Greens’ report said the bill was “the government’s attempt, in the face of universal opposition from health, mental health and addiction experts and community-based organisations, to bring back the punitive drug testing of income support recipients”.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said the committee had rejected “overwhelming evidence” that drug testing trials were harmful.
“I share the disappointment and dismay of the experts and community organisations at the re-emergence of this plan to drug test Australians accessing our social safety net,” Siewert said.
“The measure would see unemployed Australians put on income management for two years if they test positive, which will do more harm than good. There is overwhelming evidence from addiction experts that this is a flawed approach.
“For the government to continue in its pursuit of this flawed policy shows total failure to listen to the advice of those with expertise in this field, and dogged determination to pursue a punitive, ineffective and damaging policy in the face of all the evidence.”
The committee has also recommended that the Department of Social Services (DSS) establish and publish the evaluation strategy of the drug testing trial prior to commencement, and publish the outcomes of the trial after its completion.