Focus on rehab before drug tests: experts

Experts are calling for an extra $1.2 billion for drug and alcohol programs, as federal politicians prepare to debate welfare drug-testing trials.

Health experts from across the country have descended on Canberra to caution federal politicians against drug-testing welfare recipients.

Instead, the 40 representatives of peak welfare groups are urging MPs and senators to plug existing shortfalls in the drug and alcohol treatment sector.

They're calling for an extra $1.2 billion in annual funding to help 200,000 Australians with addictions.

The Morrison government has on Wednesday reintroduced to parliament legislation to enable the drug-testing of 5,000 Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients.

"The community has the right to expect that taxpayer-funded welfare payments are not being used to fund drug and alcohol addiction and job seekers are doing all they can to find a job," government minister Ben Morton told the lower house.

Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ben Morton.
Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ben Morton.

People who test positive for illicit substances would be moved onto cashless welfare cards, and anyone who fails twice would be offered drug counselling.

The two-year trial would take place across three trial sites.

Labor social services spokeswoman Linda Burney said there was no way the opposition would support the "punitive, unworkable" policy.

With Labor and the Greens opposed to the plan, the government will need support from the Senate crossbench, and experts are pleading with them to reject the proposal.

The group, which includes representatives from St Vincent's Health Australia and rehabilitation service Odyssey House, said hundreds of thousands of people are already struggling to get help.

In many places, treatment options are not available, or waiting lists are too long.

St Vincent's chief executive Toby Hall said services were unevenly distributed, crisis-oriented and poorly integrated with other programs.

St Vincent's Chief Executive Toby Hall.
St Vincent's Chief Executive Toby Hall.

Labor is also opposed to the government's desires to roll out cashless welfare cards nationally.

The coalition is yet to reveal draft laws to that end, but Government Services Minister Stuart Robert introduced legislation to the lower house on Wednesday to extend trials of the card in existing areas for another year until June 2021.

The draft laws also give effect to cashless debit card trials across the Northern Territory and in Cape York, to begin April next year.

Many people in those areas are already on the Basics card - another income management tool - and will move onto the cashless debit card over a period of nine months.

Mr Robert says the cashless debit card can be used at more stores than the existing system.

The federal government is examining plans to drug test some welfare recipients.
The federal government is examining plans to drug test some welfare recipients.

Interpreters will be available for people living in indigenous communities who require information about the changes.

The Cape York trial - where 150 are expected to transition to the new card each day - will run longer than the other trials, until the end of December 2021.

The cashless welfare cards quarantine 80 per cent of payments so the money can only be spent on essential items.

Ms Burney said the technology should only be expanded on a case-by-case basis, describing the evaluation of existing trials as "quite inadequate".

"If a community has proper consultation and proper consent, and that community wants the cards, then Labor would not stand in the way," she told ABC radio.

"But we do not support a national rollout of this card."

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