Punitive Welfare Conditions Don’t Address Drug Addiction, Unemployment or Service Needs
Wednesday, 6th February 2019 at 5:02 pm
The most appropriate method to tackle the social harms related to substance use is to invest in targeted, accessible, well-resourced and stigma-free counselling and rehabilitation services, write Priya Kunjan and Susan Tilley, in response to the rollout of the Cashless Debit Card in Hinkler.
As of last week, the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) is being progressively rolled out to approximately 6,700 people under the age of 36 who receive Newstart, Youth Allowance or Parenting Payments in Bundaberg and Hervey Bay in the federal electorate of Hinkler, Queensland.
The CDC, which locks 80 per cent of welfare payments onto a bank card and cannot be used to withdraw cash or be spent on alcohol or gambling, has been trialled in the East Kimberley and Ceduna since early 2016, and in the Goldfields region since March 2018.
Minister for Social Services Paul Fletcher, stated that the CDC was being introduced in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay areas “to address social issues such as high youth unemployment and intergenerational welfare dependence … a person’s welfare payment cannot be used to buy alcohol, gamble or withdraw cash”.
According to a recent survey by the Queensland Council of Social Service (QCOSS), conducted in the Hinkler electorate during the two months prior to the CDC rollout, when asked to consider major issues facing the community, the majority of participants also cited youth unemployment (74 per cent). But while the CDC’s stated aims are to address “welfare-fuelled alcohol, gambling and drug misuse”, the QCOSS Survey found that drug misuse (41 per cent), alcohol (31 per cent) and gambling (26 per cent) were identified as much lower-priority issues for the community.
Given the government’s emphasis on the CDC as a significant contributor towards addressing alcohol and other drug (AOD) issues in trial communities, it is surprising that so little investment is being made in providing AOD services as a first priority.
Recent media articles have highlighted the lack of community support services available in the Hinkler region – more specifically, the lack of a central detox and expanded drug rehabilitation facility in Bundaberg.
The QCOSS survey found that the majority of AOD service providers (62 per cent) did not know whether their service would have adequate resources to address the issues supposedly targeted by the CDC, while 32 per cent of service providers said that their service would not have adequate resources to address these challenges. Multiple respondents noted that they currently have to refer all clients to other services for support with these issues.
Echoing the words of a respondent to the QCOSS survey, who stated that “drug and alcohol misuse are health-related concerns, so government needs to increase help in these areas rather than taking steps to punish everyone”, Uniting Communities and a number of other organisations providing AOD support services believe that AOD addictions need to be treated as health and psycho-social issues that require appropriate treatment and support. This would require government to commit to sustained investment in evidence-based and community-supported programs and services that provide Bundaberg and Hervey Bay with the support its residents have identified as necessary.
This approach was supported by federal opposition leader Bill Shorten, in a recent visit to Queensland, where he stated: “The experts tell me that there are much better ways to use important taxpayer money to help people engage and get back into work and deal with challenges of addiction than this particular system [the CDC].”
The Coalition government has committed $1 million over two years to fund additional services in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay area. However, besides indicating that this investment will “support services to assist participants to transition onto the card”, it is still unclear exactly where and how these funds will be used. It does not currently appear that they will be directed towards drug and alcohol treatment services, or towards facilitating access to employment.
Given the government’s stated intention to address the high level of unemployment in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay area, one would assume that greater consideration would be given to the failing labour market and the need for more long-term investment in job creation and pathways to employment.
Bundaberg and Hervey Bay are in the Wide Bay region, which is listed as one of the top three areas with the highest jobless rates across Australia. According to CommSec’s chief economist, Craig James, Queensland’s coastal regional centres, including Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, are experiencing difficult economic and labour market conditions and have elevated jobless rates that are well above the national annual average.
However, this high level of unemployment has not been matched with a commensurate level of government investment in infrastructure or job creation. In fact, the reverse was highlighted in 2018 by the Queensland Master Builders Association, which reported a reduction in state government spending in public sector building and construction over the past seven years from $11 billion to $6 billion, dropping to an historic low of 1.8 per cent of Gross State Product.
According to Queensland Economic Advocacy Solutions, reaching the capital expenditure benchmark (2.7 per cent of GSP) would result in 1,614 jobs in Wide Bay. Extra jobs created by spending the full current budget allocation would result in an additional 839 jobs in Wide Bay.
This highlights just some of the options available to the federal and Queensland governments in responding to the high level of youth unemployment, rather than misdirecting budget allocations to punitive income management policies that have no accompanying strategy to support people into employment.
Given that the rollout of the CDC in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay area has not been accompanied by necessary investment in job creation or AOD support services and is viewed by many as a humiliating and misdirected response to the challenges faced by those living in the area, it is not surprising that it is being met with community opposition.
This has taken the form of both sustained local grassroots action against the program, as well as a somewhat jaundiced response to the Australian prime minister’s pledge to create more than one million jobs across Australia over the next five years, in the absence of any genuine commitment to improve the material conditions of people’s lives.
The most appropriate method to tackle the social harms related to substance use is to invest in targeted, accessible, well-resourced and stigma-free AOD counselling and rehabilitation services, rather than expand a discriminatory and broken program of compulsory income management.
Such a response, combined with consistent state and federal investment in job creation and the resourcing of vocational education and training services in the Hinkler region, presents a realistic and constructive alternative to punitive welfare conditionality.
About the authors: Priya Kunjan is the administrator of the Accountable Income Management Network, a network of researchers, community organisations, income management cardholders and other interested parties with a shared interest in ending compulsory income management in Australia.
Susan Tilley is the manager of Aboriginal Policy and Advocacy at Uniting Communities, a not-for-profit organisation which works with South Australians across metropolitan, regional and remote areas of South Australia through more than 104 community service programs.