Government condemned over ‘tough love’ drug testing policy by Opposition Health Minister in Parliament—but Senate has recommended it be passed

A Senate committee has recommended the “welfare reform” bill behind the controversial proposal to carry out drug testing among welfare recipients be passed.

The committee said that while it acknowledged the concerns raised by stakeholders, “the Minister and the responsible departments have indicated a willingness to review aspects of the reforms, where issues have been identified during stakeholder consultations”.

It also found the proposed reforms “will create a simpler, more efficient and better targeted welfare system”.

“The changes will provide an opportunity to trial and evaluate a new way to assist people who are facing specific challenges in entering or re-entering the workforce.”

However in parliament, Labor MPs have slammed the government’s proposal.

Opposition Health Minister Catherine King said the bill goes against expert advice, with medical practitioners in the drugs and alcohol space saying it could make the drug crisis in the Australia even worse.

“We know that the government has made this decision because it is a savings measure … at the expense of a very vulnerable, addicted group of people,” said Minister King.

“This policy showcases some of the worst excesses of this government. It is an ill-thought-out policy. It is not evidence based when you come to drug and alcohol policy.”

She pointed out that while the government is posing the legislation as a health measure, Health Minister Greg Hunt has not publicly spoken about it.

“I look forward to his staff now scrabbling for him to come and defend why this is good drug and alcohol policy—because it is not.”

Defending the proposal

Minister for Social Services Christian Porter said the measures mean that, for the first time, “all jobseekers are able to undertake drug or alcohol treatment as an approved activity in their job plan”.

Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge, another of the ministers behind the bill proposal, also defended the “welfare reform package”.

“Every single element of this package is designed to help people get off welfare and back into work,” he told the House of Representatives.

“No-one loses a cent under this drug-testing proposal. The idea is to identify those people who may have a drug problem, provide assistance to them, and hopefully get them back into the workforce.”

However under the bill, recipients who test positive to drugs in the second test and consequent tests will be required to repay the cost of the test.

In addition, welfare recipients with mutual obligation requirements will no longer be granted a temporary exemption if they are sick or incapacitated due to drug or alcohol use.

This means a person receiving treatment in hospital with cirrhosis of the liver associated with alcohol use, for example, would no longer be temporarily exempted from welfare participation requirements—resulting in a financial penalty for that person.

“The experts are clear that these proposed changes fail to recognise the complex nature of substance abuse as a health condition,” said Jenny Macklin, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services.

“[This bill] is a cynical attempt by this government to distract from its political problems.

“The House calls on the Government to drop their costly and unproven drug testing trial of social security recipients that medical experts say won’t work.

“Stop demonising vulnerable Australians,” she said.

In support of the bill, Liberal MP Tony Pasin (Member for Barker, SA) responded that the welfare system is designed to provide a safety net for those who find themselves out of work or unable to participate in the workforce.

“It’s not created to perpetuate people’s drug habits. Taxpayers have the right to expect that their taxes are not used to fund illicit lifestyles.

“We also know that, without assistance, many people with substance abuse problems can’t or won’t take action to help themselves,” said Mr Pasin.

“The key principles underpinning the National Drug Strategy are evidence, informed responses, partnerships, coordination and collaboration, and national direction with jurisdictional implementation.

“The government considers that the drug-testing trial is consistent with these principles.”

What’s the evidence?

Members of the medical profession have argued that the trial is not based on evidence, and no collaborative efforts have been made.

Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, said if the government had consulted experts before unveiling their plan to drug test welfare recipients, they would have been advised to drop it immediately.

“We have tried punishing people struggling with severe drug problems for half a century and it hasn’t worked. When people are down, don’t push them down even further: help them to get up. These proposals are exactly the opposite of what we should be doing,” said Dr Wodak.

Dr Adrian Reynolds, Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) President of the Chapter of Addiction Medicine, predicts the policy will “fail”.

“Addiction is a complex health issue. Drug testing welfare recipients and removing their support won’t connect them with the treatment and rehabilitation services they need,” said Dr Reynolds.

“This policy will fail and it will lead to poor health outcomes for this community.”

Dr Michael Gannon, president of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), called the measures “mean” and “non-evidenced-based”.

“It simply won’t work. The aspiration of [Social Services Minister Christian Porter], the aspiration of his Department, I’m sure the aspiration of everyone in this room is for people on welfare to, wherever possible, return to a productive life in the workforce.

“This is not an evidence-based measure which will not help. We don’t expect people in most industries to have drug testing before they turn up to work. It’s simply unfair and it already picks on an impaired and marginalised group,” said Dr Gannon.

“It’s not evidence-based. It’s not fair. And we stand against it.”

Dr Marianne Jauncey, medical director at the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, said it wasn’t often that doctors from a variety of backgrounds wholly agreed on an issue.

“So when you do hear doctors speaking with a united voice I think people should listen,” she said.