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Plan To Drug Test Welfare Recipients Leaves Many Gobsmacked

A revived plan to drug test welfare recipients has been condemned as demeaning, hypocritical, stigmatising, and ultimately ineffective.

Controversial legislation proposing a two-year drug testing trial will be introduced into federal parliament next week.

First introduced under the Turnbull government but rejected twice by the Senate, the legislation would drug test 5000 new recipients of Newstart and Youth Allowance in three locations across Australia, taking control of money payments if they test positive.

The Australian Council of Social Services (ACSS) accused the revived legislation as being demeaning, ineffective, and nothing more than a deflection from overwhelming support to increase Newstart payments.

“This Government’s proposal is designed to stigmatise people struggling to get by on the lowest incomes in the country," ACSS director of policy Jacqueline Phillips said.

Critics say the plan to drug test welfare recipients is a distraction from broad support to raise the Newstart allowance. Photo: AAP

“Let’s be clear about what the Government is asking people to do – it’s particularly demeaning to have to provide a urine sample just because you’re unfortunate enough to have lost your job, even when you may be in your fifties and have never touched drugs your life."

“People on Newstart are trying hard to find paid work – they include older people who’ve faced age discrimination in the workforce, with half of the people on Newstart over 45; young people trying to get a foot in the door after uni or TAFE; and single mothers searching for employment that allows for their caring responsibilities."

READ MORE: Labor Says 'Bells Are Ringing' For Newstart Payment Raise

Dr David Caldicott, a specialist and harm reduction advocate, told 10 daily it was an ill-thought-out policy that you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in healthcare or alcohol and drug policy who would support this legislation.

"It seems to me like there are no positive benefits, and there are many negative outcomes," he said.

"It's a 'political thought bubble' to demonstrate again how tough on drugs [the government] can be, when the reality is, if you want to be tough on drugs, you need to undermine the drugs market, not the people on the verges of surviving in a very poor society."

drugs marijuana
The medical community is broadly against the legislation. Photo: Getty

He added that is was important to question on whose medical recommendation and guidance had the legislation been advanced, "because I'd be very surprised if any medical expertise has been used in its formulation."

"Is the intent to ensure welfare recipients don't spend money on drugs? One could argue that isn't a terrible idea, but there is no evidence from any jurisdiction in the world where this has been implemented before to show that it works this way."

READ MORE: Global Drug Survey: Australia Tops World In Drug Policing 

The Australian Medical Association has previously said elements of the bill were "unnecessarily punitive". It's submission to a Senate committee in 2017 raised "serious concerns" about the legislation, and pointed out that it could likely increase delays in accessing drug and alcohol treatment from those actively seeking it.

Shadow Social Services minister Linda Burney said it was an "indiscriminate policy" that was as ineffective as it was expensive, using money that could instead be spent on front-line services.

"We have seen in the past experts come out and say repeatedly that this policy will not work," Burney said.

"It has been tried in the United States, it has been tried in New Zealand and it has been proved a failure."

The Australian Greens have also rejected the policy, calling it ideological, rather than evidence-based.

"The evidence further indicates that this 'tough love' approach actually entrenches disadvantage and poverty rather than addressing underlying barriers," Greens spokesperson on Family and Community Services Senator Rachel Siewart said.

Senator Rachel Siewert. Photo: Facebook.

"I'm frankly gobsmacked that the Government could even think of introducing this legislation which flies in the face of the medical evidence. Their claim that this is different because they aren’t making people pay for the tests is absolutely farcical."

Both the Greens and Labor opposed the legislation last time around. This time, the government needs four of the six crossbench Senators to pass it.

READ MORE: Why Bashing Welfare Recipients As 'Dole Bludgers' Ignores The Unfair Reality

Last time, Senator Jacqui Lambie said she would only support it if federal ministers also agreed to undergo drug testing. She has yet to comment this time around, but she's not the only one with that viewpoint.

"Should federal politicians be required to submit to random drug tests?" lawyer Josh Bornstein tweeted on Friday.

"What a great idea!" columnist and academic Jenna Price tweeted. "Let's include politicians and staffers!"

Caldicott agrees with that mindset, although acknowledges it is shockingly unlikely.

"I think if people are going to insist that others are going to remain drug-free, then those people should probably live by the same rules," he said.

"I believe there is a word for people who live by one rule and insist on another for others, and that word is 'hypocrite'."

The legislation will be reintroduced to when Parliament resumes next week after the winter break.

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au