FRANK BRENNAN. Compulsory drug testing is no silver bullet.

Sep 1, 2017

Christian Porter, the Minister for Social Services, has been trying to make his mark as an upcoming minister in the Turnbull Government.  Porter thinks he might have found the perfect silver bullet: mandatory drug tests for unemployed welfare recipients. 

Social Security is a demanding portfolio. In an age of budget repair, steady five-plus per cent unemployment, high underemployment, and sluggish or non-existent wage growth for most workers, it is difficult to make a mark. No matter how job-ready you make the unemployed, their prospects of finding work are not going to be greatly enhanced in this environment.

For those who have been unemployed for a long time, life can be very dispiriting. The policy challenge is to get the settings right, providing real and workable incentives to get the unemployed into the job market, while providing sufficient financial and other support to allow the long term unemployed a dignified though frugal existence.

In an age of ‘budget repair’ when both sides of politics are trying to contain the welfare budget, the search for savings and silver bullets is relentless. Despite 64 per cent of the social security and welfare budget being spent on aged pensions and family tax benefits, a silver bullet aimed at the unemployed and with broad public appeal turns to gold. Porter thinks he might have found the perfect silver bullet: mandatory drug tests for unemployed welfare recipients.

Porter and Alan Tudge, Minister for Human Services, have announced drug testing trials for new welfare recipients (Newstart and Youth Allowance) as ‘a way of assisting people to get off drugs and back into work’. They have chosen three trial sites where mandatory drug tests will be conducted on 5000 welfare applicants over the next two years. Those sites are Canterbury-Bankstown in western Sydney, Logan south of Brisbane, and Mandurah south of Perth.

They have been very critical of health professionals and social welfare advocates who have opposed the proposal on the grounds that compulsory drug testing is no way to assist people get off drugs and that the major obstacles stopping people getting back to work are the lack of jobs and the strong competition for extra working hours with so many Australians feeling underemployed. Opposing the proposal, Catholic Health Australia and Catholic Social Services Australia have told a Senate committee:

“Mandatory drug test regimes are a failed policy solution, based on international experience. Mandatory regimes which are proven failures also fail to respect the dignity of people afflicted with drug addiction. This measure will stigmatise drug users and in particular punish drug users by compulsory testing and changing the way their welfare payments are managed. We oppose drug testing of entire categories of recipients without obtaining their consent or without considering their individual circumstances. We also oppose any welfare payment schedules that discriminate, or have the potential to discriminate, against Indigenous people.”

Introducing the legislation, Porter, relying on research by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, claimed that ‘those who were unemployed were 2.4 times more likely to use drugs such as crystal methamphetamine than those who were employed. Last year there were 4325 occasions when someone gave drug or alcohol dependency as a reason for not meeting their mutual obligation requirements.’ Presumably most of the non-compliant applicants were alcohol dependent.

Countering their critics, Porter and Tudge argue that a trial is warranted given that existing policy settings result in too many unemployed people engaging in illegal drug use. It’s important to note that the proposed drug testing does not include alcohol use and abuse. It will include testing for ice (methamphetamine), ecstasy (MDMA) and marijuana (THC). Announcing the first test site, the Ministers said, ‘We will see ice usage among unemployed people continue to be 2.4 times higher than those in work. In Canterbury-Bankstown, one of our trial sites, the hospitalisation rate from ice will continue to climb. It has already increased by 21-fold in the last five years.’

But the figures released by the government paint a very different picture on this 21-fold increase. The 21-fold increase covers the period from 2009 to 2016. The latest two-year trend for drug offences in New South Wales shows that for the whole of NSW, there were 134.3 offences per 100,000 for use or possession of amphetamines, while in Bankstown the rate was 107.8 and in Canterbury 48.5.

The Department of Human Services has produced statistics providing the rationale for the choice of Canterbury-Bankstown, pointing out that the number of job seekers in the area who were granted an exemption from compliance with conditions for job seeking ‘increased by 162.50 per cent from June 2015 to December 2016’. Yes, there was an increase from eight persons in June 2015 to 21 persons by December 2016. However, it is worth noting that the number decreased from 24 to 21 over a six-month period in 2016. There are 11,765 persons on Newstart Allowance in this catchment area.

St Vincent’s Health Australia, a national leader in treating substance abuse, has pointed out to the Senate that ‘in 2015 the NZ government spent NZD$1m testing 8,001 people, with only 22 testing positive (0.27 per cent)’. The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, refusing to co-operate in any such drug testing trials for welfare recipients has said: ‘There is no robust evidence to suggest that income quarantining reduces drug or alcohol consumption or results in an increase in healthy behaviours. Many health experts have noted that the proposed amendments are not an effective way of testing people who might require treatment.’

Experience from New Zealand and the United States suggest that drug use among welfare recipients is far less frequent than assumed, and schemes such as those proposed in this Bill are expensive to administer with few savings ultimately achieved.

If Ministers Porter and Tudge are really seeking ‘a way of assisting people to get off drugs and back into work’, they should start by seeking the advice of the health professionals. Then they should convince their Cabinet colleagues of the need to increase the Newstart and Youth Allowance so that it might provide a real start for assisting people to survive with dignity while preparing for and getting back into work. It’s now five years since the Business Council of Australia told the Parliament: ‘The rate of the Newstart Allowance for jobseekers no longer meets a reasonable community standard of adequacy and may now be so low as to represent a barrier to employment.’ And still there has been no increase to Newstart, and a government looking for a narrative has decided to demonise the recipients.

 Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

First published in Eureka Street, 28 August 2017.


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