Fresh warnings drug testing welfare recipients would 'stigmatise' most disadvantaged

A man walks into a Centrelink in Salisbury, north of Adelaide. Source: AAP

The Morrison government’s revived attempt to drug test welfare recipients has been criticised for stigmatising disadvantaged people.

The Morrison government's plan to drug test welfare recipients has drawn backlash over concerns it would stigmatise the vulnerable and create a double standard.  

There are calls for more focus to be placed on investing in rehabilitation support for drug users rather than using welfare policy to change their behaviour.

Under the proposal to go before the federal parliament next week, welfare recipients who test positive would be placed on income management.

Ted Noffs Foundation’s chief operating officer Mark Ferry told SBS News those most disadvantaged should not be demonised under the twice-rejected legislation.

“This is just increasing the stigma on people who are definitely doing it tough," he said.

“It is treating it as a social issue when all the experts agree it is a health issue.”

Mr Ferry said welfare groups questioned the hypocrisy of the government targeting welfare recipients and not the wider community. 

“The argument has been put up why don’t we test politicians?”

"Some of the highest cocaine use in Australia is in Canberra - why because they have got a bigger disposable income."

“If they are going to test welfare recipients... why not test other people?”

Mayor of the City of Canterbury Bankstown Khal Asfour’s Western Sydney council is one of three locations selected to host the two-year trial.

The others are Logan in Queensland and Mandurah in Western Australia.

Councillor Asfour told SBS News the direction of the government’s revived plan was “highly flawed”.

“Quarantining their allowance payments isn’t going to help people get a job,” he said.

“This is just a punitive measure that won’t resolve the issues of higher unemployment.”

About 5,000 new recipients of Newstart Allowance and Youth Allowance would be tested on a range of illegal drugs as part of the trial scheme.

The government justifies its plan saying placing positive testers on income management for up to two years would rehabilitate users and help them find work.

"This measure is not about punishing people, it is about identifying people who need our help," Social Services Minister Anne Ruston said.

Mr Ferry said if politicians are willing to place these conditions on unemployed people - they should be willing to face them too.

"I'm not advocating that we should start drug testing everyone."

"[But] we are kidding ourselves if we don't think drug use is throughout society," he said.

Two previous attempts at the bill have stalled on opposition from Labor and the Greens after medical and welfare groups raised concerns.  

And fears of a double standard being placed on welfare recipients have been echoed again in the wake of the government’s most recent announcement.

“Quarantining those payments in my view will cause significant social problems,” Councillor Asfour said.

“The proportion of drug takers on benefits doesn’t differ from the general population.”

“They should be investing in long term rehabilitation centres.”

The Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services Linda Burney is seen addressing media in Sydney, Friday.
The Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services Linda Burney is seen addressing media in Sydney, Friday.

Australian Council of Social Services Director of Policy Jacqueline Phillip shared concerns about the plan. 

“Not only is this proposal demeaning, there’s no evidence that it would work,” Ms Philip said.

The Australian Council of Social Service is among 40 welfare and medical groups who have previously warned against the plan, including the Australian Medical Association.

"Many health experts have expressed concern that drug testing income support recipients is ineffective and could threaten the health and wellbeing of people affected," Ms Phillip said.

Minister for Families Anne Ruston in the Senate chamber.
Minister for Families Anne Ruston in the Senate chamber.

The government has tweaked its revived legislation in a bid to see it passed through the parliament.

It will no longer charge those who test positive the cost of drug tests taken and has added heroin and cocaine to the list of drugs to be tested, which already included ice, ecstasy and marijuana. 

A $10 million treatment fund would also boost drug treatment services in trial sites alongside the Morrison government’s proposal.

“[That] is a drop in the ocean of what is actually needed,” Mr Ferry said.

“And to do on the back of misery that they are going to create for a lot of people is counter-intuitive.”

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