By Toby Hall
The government is proposing to trial drug testing of new income support recipients. (Jonathan Beal: ABC)
Fifty-two. That’s how many submissions were made to the Senate inquiry into the Government’s drug testing bill for welfare recipients, which handed down its findings this week.
The bill aims to trial drug testing for new income support recipients at three sites: Mandurah in Western Australia, Logan on the outskirts of Brisbane and Bankstown in south-west Sydney.
It’s estimated that 5000 people will be drug tested over two years as part of the trial.
Those who test positive will be placed on income management for the trial’s duration.
If a welfare recipient tested positive to drugs, 80 per cent of their income would go onto the BasicsCard under the trial. (ABC News)
How many submissions to the Senate inquiry were unambiguously in favour of the idea? One … from the Government’s own Department of Social Services.
And those against?
Some of Australia’s leading health and medical organisations such as St Vincent’s Health Australia, the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Public Health Association of Australia, the Kirby Institute, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists … the list goes on.
Add to that the Salvation Army, Anglicare, St Vincent de Paul, Mission Australia, Uniting among others and it’s pretty much a “who’s who” of Australia’s pre-eminent health and community service organisations.
A ‘who’s who’ in opposition
These are the organisations entrusted to treat and care for Australians experiencing addiction every day of the week. What would they know?
It’s not as if the Government hasn’t heard these blanket objections before.
In 2017, when the drug testing proposal was part of a welfare reform package in last year’s federal budget, a similar inquiry was held.
Then, of the 43 organisations which raised the drug testing bill in their submissions, all 43 strongly opposed it.
In the face of such overwhelming, almost universal opposition, it’s worth asking: why is the Government persisting with this proposal?
What does it hope to gain from a policy that has been uniformly condemned by the individuals and organisations who treat, care for and support people with drug and alcohol issues?
I read a piece the other week about the double standard that is often encountered in Australia when it comes to people with drug and alcohol problems.
If you’re a famous Australian — a footballer, an actor, someone from privilege— and you experience addiction, the public and media’s response is mainly sympathetic. The individual is, on the whole, surrounded by goodwill; it’s largely recognised that they have a health issue. People want them to get better and return to their best selves.
But come from a disadvantaged background or be on income support, and you’re a deadbeat, a bludger, deserving little or no sympathy.
The Federal Government has used this proposal to dog whistle community prejudices towards addicts, seeking to make political mileage out of it, all the while saying they’re acting in peoples’ best interests — it is nothing short of disgraceful.
If they were serious about helping people, they would have come to health and community service organisations before they announced this proposal and asked for our input.
They would have responded to approach after approach from organisations like ours, which have offered to help redesign their policy to achieve their aims without stigmatising vulnerable people.
Help those already in the system first
The Government says the drug testing trial would identify people with addiction problems and help them access treatment. But there are already thousands identified that they could help today.
In 2016-17, the Department of Social Services issued more than 22,000 temporary exemptions from income support mutual obligations to 16,000 people due to substance use dependency. That’s three times the number of people who will be tested as part of this trial.
Why not try helping them first?
Drug testing could worsen addiction
Threatening people who have a substance abuse disorder that their income support will be taken away is not going to change their behaviour.
By clinical definition, people with severe substance use disorders are unable to modify their behaviour, even in the face of negative consequences.
In fact, an increase in stigma and anxiety for people in this position will likely exacerbate addiction issues rather than address them.
Addiction is a health issue. It’s as much a health issue as obesity or diabetes is.
Can you imagine the uproar if the Government announced an initiative to publicly identify income support recipients who are diabetic and then threatened their welfare payments?
Good intentions, poor policy
The organisations opposing this bill do not condone or encourage people using their income support to purchase drugs.
I share the government’s stated intention of helping addicts access treatment while keeping them in touch with employment and training.
But this is not the way to go about it.
How many more times — and from how many more experts — does the Government need to hear it before it listens?
Toby Hall is chief executive of St Vincent’s Health Australia.