The Australian Government’s proposed random drug test trial for welfare recipients, announced during Budget 2017/18, could be the first step a slippery slope according to Greens leader Richard Di Natale.
Treasurer Scott Morrison announced last week that he wants 5000 people on Newstart or Youth Allowance to undergo random drug testing in three locations from January next year.
The Government will collect saliva, hair follicles and urine samples to test for traces of drugs including ecstasy, marijuana and ice. If drugs are detected, the user could find their welfare quarantined.
During his Budget reply, Greens leader Di Natale outlined that this harsh and prescriptive treatment of welfare recipients may not stop at the young and unemployed.
“If we open this gateway to government applying a morality test for government support, what is next?” Di Natale asked. “We are setting a very dangerous precedent.
“Imagine failing a drug test because you take a pill at a festival or smoke a joint and losing your HECS funding as a result. Imagine losing access to Medicare or the pension.
“It is a dangerous move by the government, and there is no way it will pass the Senate on our watch.”
Drug counsellors and social service experts have also attacked the welfare proposals, warning that the measures will do little to help the vulnerable and risk driving them to further despair.
Mary Ellen Harrod, the CEO of the NSW Users and AIDS Association (NUAA) and a board member of the Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL), wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that the measures could have catastrophic consequences for drug users.
“The evidence tells us social exclusion and punishment are exactly the wrong ways to treat people who experience issues with drug use,” Ms Harrod wrote.
“Targeting people who use drugs with punishments such as the ones proposed by the Treasurer pushes them further to the margins of society and increases the already heavy stigma associated with illicit drug use.”
Independent senator Jacqui Lambie suggested in the wake of the Budget that she would support the drug-testing measures but believes they should be extended to politicians.
“These people up here (Canberra) are paid by the taxpayer as well,” she told Sky News.
“Start leading by example. I don’t see random drug-testing on that side of the house, or the Senate side of the house, when you walk in. Why can’t that be done?”
There are also questions being raised about the cost-effectiveness of the drug-testing scheme and the Government did not release the costings for the proposal, saying they were ‘commercial in-confidence’.
The Government’s newest attack on welfare recipients smacks of good politics over good policy.
The Government gets to demonise jobseekers while looking like it is getting tough on drug addicts in a cynical exercise that will only exacerbate the problem.
Fortunately, voters appear far too clever to fall for this trick. All of the post-Budget opinion polls show no bounce for the Government, despite several measures that the majority of voters think are fair and reasonable.
A Guardian poll showed 69 per cent support for drug testing jobseekers on Newstart allowance, which is a clear majority, but still a lot lower than what we may have expected.
That is mainly because people are a lot more aware these days that drug addiction is a serious problem, and there are no quick fixes.
As Greens leader Richard Di Natale, who has worked as a drug and alcohol clinician, pointed out in his Budget reply, people addicted to drugs are already at rock bottom.
“By the time someone is addicted to an illicit drug they have often lost their job. Their marriage has often broken-down. They have no contact with their family and they might even have contracted a disease like hepatitis C. They might be living out of their car or on the streets. If all of that is not enough to stop someone from using drugs, what fool thinks that taking away income support is going to succeed?” Di Natale asked.
It is clear that the Government hasn’t introduced this measure to help drug addicts, but rather to try and make the prospect of applying for welfare so unappealing that they don’t bother.
This stigmatising of people on welfare starts with jobseekers, but it doesn’t take long before it starts extending to other forms of welfare, such as the age pension.
If it ever does get that far how will we deal with the issues such as the abuse of prescription medication and medicinal marijuana?
Do you support the drug testing of welfare recipients? Should the Government extend its trial to cover all welfare recipients?