Drug tests add to winter of welfare discontent


Tuesday August 22nd, 2017.

It has been a long cold winter for Australia’s disadvantaged. Massive increases in energy costs and record disconnection rates were recorded and for people who don’t own a house the proportion of affordable rental accommodation slipped to a record low.

Meanwhile, Australia’s 750,000 Newstart recipients began their 23rd year of no real increase in their welfare payments, gradually slipping further below the poverty line. And as poverty is the main driver of homelessness, this winter at least 105,000 people were homeless, many of them sleeping rough and outside in freezing temperatures in the southern parts of Australia.

Meanwhile back in Canberra, a small team of officials assembled to receive submissions on the federal Government’s welfare crackdown bill which the Senate referred to a parliamentary committee in the dying days of the autumn session.

The committee will report by 4 September, but the Government today announced it was going ahead with plans to drug test Australia’s young unemployed and will establish the first pilot scheme in Canterbury-Bankstown, Sydney.

Many of Australia’s organisations who are close to the coalface of welfare distress have voiced their concerns on this bill.

No-one can argue against the notion that Australia’s welfare dollars must go to the most needy and there should be no sympathy for those who deliberately defraud or manipulate the system. Indeed there are many aspects of the Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 that deserve community support, including the streamlining of benefits and consolidation of seven different payments into one Jobseeker payment.

But there are three provisions that should not be part of a prosperous, generous society like Australia that prides itself on our social safety net. The most ill-informed is the plan to drug test unemployed youth.

About 5000 young job seekers in three areas are to be demonised by being forced to undergo tests for illegal drugs and, as a result, face the severe consequence of cuts or cancellation of their payments if they return multiple positive tests and fail to meet requirements for treatment.  They will also have to pay for drug tests out of their welfare payments if they are asked to have second or third tests.

Two things need to be said. First, the Government has presented no evidence that this works anywhere in the world. Secondly it has failed to say how much the system will cost and save. It is a wrong-headed punitive approach to both income compliance and drug rehabilitation and, on the Government’s own admission, contravenes two articles of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which uphold the right of everyone to social security, an adequate standard of living and equal treatment.

The Government chooses not to consider that punitive measures will cause more intractable and long-term problems that are more difficult, but more importantly costly to solve. The measure risks turning more people to homelessness, poverty and possibly crime when people are denied welfare payments, even for short periods.

The tests will be for drugs including amphetamines, heroin and marijuana. There are two things to be said about testing for marijuana. Firstly, a single one off inhale of marijuana can leave a trace in the system for many weeks thus questioning the relevance between a positive test and the ability to seek or attend work. And secondly, how many MPs can put their hand on their heart and say they never tried marijuana in their younger days? A test that the Government has so far said it is unwilling to apply to its own members.

Given the long waiting lists and lack of treatment beds for even the severest addictions, it is unlikely that people will be able to get the treatment they need or for that matter justify a treatment response, if found positive in the testing.

The welfare bill has a harshness and meanness that is not appropriate in Australia. This nation has just created a world record for continuous economic growth. Our economy has survived better than most the successive global buffetings of the last 30 years.  Yet the rich have done much better than the poor and the inequality gap is widening. Our nation has been at the forefront of fair-go welfare for most of its history. We should not be going backwards when Australia’s least fortunate need a leg-up more than ever.

If we target the poor and needy, if we demonise the have-nots, we risk the dangerous polarisations that have torn at the fabric of community stability in the US, Britain and other parts of the world.

Welfare systems based on demeaning people are under attack in most civilised countries. Enlightened societies in Scandinavia, Europe and Canada are experimenting with guaranteed income schemes that provide a right to a living wage – whether they are working or not – with limited administrative discretion. The philosophy is based on providing economic security for the sake of social order, economic security and equality of opportunity. Its ultimate goal is to eliminate poverty.

If the Government persists with its approach, it should be challenged to also run a parallel trial of a guaranteed income scheme, supervised by an independent reputable organisation, and see which group of individuals come out on top in contributing to their economic and social well-being.

Paul McDonald is the CEO of Anglicare Victoria.