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Labor fails the test on welfare over drug testing trial

24-August-2017

It appears that the Labor Party, ACOSS, and health groups who oppose our drug testing trial would rather see the continuation of the same destructive path, than try something new to avoid it.

 

This week, the two of us announced drug testing trials for new welfare recipients as a way of assisting people to get off drugs and back into work.

 

No one loses a cent if they test positive. Rather, they will be placed onto income management whereby 80 percent of their payments are quarantined for the essentials and can't be withdrawn as cash. If they test positive again 25 days later, they will be required to undertake tailored drug treatment as part of their mutual obligations.

 

The Labor Party, Australian Medical Association and other health bodies have opposed the trial on the basis of there being "no evidence" for it working. However, it is a trial, in the very sense of the word, similar to how every major health advance occurs; through experimentation and trial and error. Why is trialling good in health policy, but not in social policy?

 

Further, while the precise method of our drug testing trials has never been done before, the essential components have all been done and shown to work.

 

Consider each of the three elements. First, the drug testing itself. This is now common practice across much of Australian society. Many in the construction, mining, transport, defence, and emergency services are subject to random drug testing. Of course, anyone who drives is equally so. Drug testing is not a radical idea and there are good methods for doing it quickly and easily.

 

The second element is the quarantining of welfare payments for the basics if someone tests positive the first time. This is designed to ensure that less welfare cash is available for drug habits and that the basics are covered, particularly when children are involved. The independent evaluation of our cashless debit card trials (which also involve quarantining 80 percent of people's welfare payments) shows that drug use is lower as a result and that families are better able to look after their children.

 

Providing restricted welfare for those with addictions is also recommended by peak social service bodies.  The Australian Council of Social Services, for example, recommends in their Emergency Relief Handbook to not give cash out to people with addictions; rather to give stored-value cards, like a Coles card. It states clearly that "cash may not be an appropriate form of Emergency Relief for people with addiction issues who may be tempted to use the cash to support their addiction.”

 

The final element is requiring a person to undertake treatment if they test positive the second time. Again, this principle of requiring a person to undertake treatment is not new; the judicial system uses this frequently instead of incarceration. Further, the Australian National Council on Drugs report delivered to government in 2013 showed that using a lever to compel a person into treatment does help people get off drugs.

 

Given the evidence of these three individual elements, surely combining them together is worth testing in discrete locations?

 

The alternative is that we continue on the same path. Of course, there is good evidence of the outcomes from this. 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. Those individuals with drug problem will effectively continue to exclude themselves from the workforce - particularly those jobs which require workers to be drug free - and will be welfare dependent for longer.

 

As many critics suggest, more services will make a difference, and the Government has put $685 million of more funding into this, including $300 million through the National Ice Strategy. We are putting in a further $10 million as part of the drug testing trials. However the evidence also shows that you can have a saturation of services but if a person doesn't use them, they will continue on with their problem.

 

There is barely a community in Australia that is not affected by drugs, particularly the drug 'ice', which is so destructive. Walk down any rural or suburban street and individuals will have stories of friends, loved ones or people they know that have been caught up in it. The police will tell you that in many locations, ice underpins nearly all the crime.

 

At the very least we should be ensuring, where possible, that taxpayers are not facilitating the problems by handing over cash to addicts.

 

Let's see if we can identify those with drug problems and get them the treatment they need.

 

Alan Tudge is the Minister for Human Services

Christian Porter is the Minister for Social Services

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