‘It’s a joke’: Backlash over plans to drug-test welfare recipients

Welfare recipients will be drug tested over two years in the trial. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Plans to trial a process of drug testing welfare recipients across three local government areas in Australia have been met with a backlash from politicians and experts, despite a promise from the federal government that the trial will get people back into work.

The trial will be based in the Canterbury-Bankstown area of New South Wales, Logan in Queensland, and Mandurah in Western Australia.

The Mayor of Canterbury Bankstown City, Khal Asfour, has openly opposed the experiment, making a submission to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, and speaking openly to media.

“I’m upset with how the Federal Government continues to pick on the community of Canterbury-Bankstown. The reality of it is, illicit drug use is a national problem. It is not just pertaining to Canterbury-Bankstown, Logan, or any one area,” he told Hatch, addressing the stigma that surrounds his community.

“It’s a joke to think that getting Newstart or Youth Allowance recipients off drugs by testing them, and then quarantining their payments, is going to work,” added Mr Asfour, referring to the government’s plan to withhold 80 per cent of the welfare payment of those who test positive for drug use during the trial.

“If the government was serious about getting people off drugs, then it would invest in rehabilitation facilities. We do not have one in Canterbury-Bankstown, and the closest facility for residents is actually in Rozelle or Campbelltown.”

Khal Asfour, Mayor of Canterbury-Bankstown. (Photo: Supplied)

A statement from the Department of Social Services released in September said the government will introduce legislation to trial drug testing for new welfare recipients as part of its ‘commitment to remove barriers to employment’.

“People on welfare who take drugs are denying themselves the best opportunity to take advantage of the jobs we are creating,” said Anne Ruston, Minister for Families and Social Services, in a statement

The trial is planned to run for two years, during which a portion of people who have recently begun receiving welfare payments through the Newstart and Youth Allowance programs will be tested.

These individuals are to be notified of their selection for the test during appointments with the Department of Human Services, after which they will be referred to a local Centrelink or nearby facility to be tested.

The testing process will search for illicit substances including methamphetamines, ecstasy, marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

A fact sheet provided to those who might be tested within the Canterbury-Bankstown LGA states that the area “will benefit from this type of measure” as data shows it has relatively high rates of hospitalisation related to drug use combined with a high number of job seeker welfare recipients.

Western Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert has echoed his statements, calling for the Senate to reject the legislation that would allow the trial, and labelling it a “harmful and dangerous” proposal.

“The stigma experienced by people with addiction will be further compounded through this trial by subjecting participants to compulsory income management,” she said in a press statement.

She also referred to the “overwhelming evidence” of the damage that will be caused to individuals in these communities.

The decision to drug-test welfare recipients has been studied extensively by experts, particularly Australian writer and researcher, Antony Lowenstein, who authored the book Pills, Powder, and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs.

He told the Sydney Morning Herald that the plan to “drug test welfare recipients is counter-productive, futile and immoral”.

“Rather than motivating people to find work, this type of policy is modern-day scapegoating,” he explained.

“The plan is likely to further marginalise these people, worsen drug addiction and push people into criminality to support their drug habits.”

Mr Lowenstein contrasted Australian policies with those of Portugal, which decriminalised all previously illicit substances in 2001 and has since seen a decrease in the consumption rate of 15-24 year olds, who are traditionally a high-risk group.

Another international case study is that of New Zealand, which has a similar program to the one being introduced.

Approximately 40,000 welfare recipients undergo drug tests each year, but individuals are only tested if they are referred by government services to potential employers who request a drug test for their job applicants.

From 2017 to 2018, only 170 individuals gave a positive result, equating to 0.3 per cent of those tested.

Ross Bell, director of the NZ Drug Foundation, has admitted he finds the policy “is all a bit silly”.

“But certainly, that process is much better than what the Australian federal government is looking at,” he told The Guardian.