Politics

The Government’s Plan To Drug Test Welfare Recipients Is Lazy, Unfair And Just Awful Policy

"It's a punitive policy that further demonises people on welfare, especially young Australians."

One of the most surprising policies announced in last night’s federal Budget is the government’s plan to start drug testing welfare recipients. Starting from next year 5,000 Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients across three as yet unidentified locations will be tested for marijuana, ice and ecstasy use.

If welfare recipients fail the tests they will have their payments quarantined and will be forced to use a cashless debit card for future purchases. According to the social services minister, Christian Porter, the new policy will “ensure taxpayers’ money is not being used to fund drug addictions for dangerous substances such as ice and that people in these situations are given every assistance to improve their lives.”

It’s a punitive policy that further demonises people on welfare, especially younger Australians. The policy isn’t about creating a fairer welfare system. It isn’t expected to raise a bunch of money. It’s about generating some tabloid-friendly headlines and creating the perception of a “welfare crackdown”.

But it’s reflective of a much bigger problem in terms of how we approach drug policy, and it needs to be resisted now before it becomes part of our policy framework more broadly.

This Is All About The Headlines

It’s important to understand why the government is introducing this policy. It’s not about raising revenue. In fact it will cost money. The cost of the program hasn’t been outlined because it’s “commercial-in-confidence”, but setting up a new drug-testing regime is unlikely to be cheap.

The measure is about creating a perception that the government is taking on people who are ‘rorting the system’. Despite the fact that the proportion of the population on welfare dropped from 24.9 percent in 1997 to 16.7 percent in 2013, the government is intent on perpetuating the myth of the ‘dole bludger’.

It allows them to create a simple ‘us and them’ narrative. ‘Us’: the hard-working, true blue Aussie bloody hard yakka taxpayers slogging away, paying our tax and living our life. ‘Them’: the lazy bloody slouchers sitting around at home smoking cones, living it up on their welfare cheque and refusing to look for work.

It’s an incredibly lazy dichotomy, but it’s regularly egged on by some of the country’s most popular newspapers:

The only thing the Tele loves writing about more than an NRL cocaine crisis is ‘bludgers’, apparently.

In previous years we’ve seen the government target young jobseekers on welfare by trying to force them to wait four weeks before they can access their payments. There was no evidence the plan would do anything other than punish young people, but again the government wasn’t trying to implement good policy. It was about trying to drum support by attacking a marginalised group who can’t always defend themselves.

Drug Testing Welfare Recipients Is Pointless And Offensive

While the government didn’t spell this bit out in detail, the drug-testing policy will disproportionately impact young people. It will impact those on Youth Allowance and new recipients of Newstart. Additionally, the government will use “data-driven profiling tools” to find those people who are most likely be using drugs. Thank god there’s no been no recent huge issues involving Centrelink and data.

The policy hasn’t worked elsewhere around the world and there’s no evidence it will work here. Associate Professor John Fitzgerald, a drug policy expert from the University of Melbourne, told The Guardian that a similar policy rolled out in the US didn’t detect many drug users and was expensive to roll out.

In New Zealand the same policy led to only 54 recipients having their welfare quarantined last year, out of 18,000 tests. That’s 0.3 percent of tested recipients. There’s no evidence here, or from overseas, that welfare recipients are disproportionately using drugs, or that they deserve to subjected to this kind of regime.

There are other problems with the test as well. Why does it actually matter if a student on Youth Allowance took ecstasy or smoked a joint during a night out? Under this policy the government is saying it’s fine to spend money on alcohol and tobacco but as soon as you smoke marijuana you’re liable for a welfare crackdown. It’s illogical and inconsistent.

There’s a whole bunch of practical problems as well. What happens if someone tests positive for drugs they might have taken months ago, before they were on welfare? Will they lose their payments?

According to Malcolm Turnbull the new policy is actually a great thing for welfare recipients. “You’re doing them a favour, you’re doing a huge favour,” he said. “You know as well as I do that substance abuse… you’ve got a very high correlation with unemployment.”

Here’s the thing though: people who take drugs know they take drugs. Testing them and quarantining their welfare isn’t doing them a “favour”. If you want to help people with real substance abuse issues then let’s fund drug and alcohol services. Let’s fund mental health services. Let’s improve economic opportunities for young people.

All of those things make more sense than this punitive approach.

This Policy Is Indicative Of A Bigger Problem

One of the worst things about this new plan is that it reflects a completely backwards approach to drug policy more generally. Marijuana is being legalised in more and more US states. Canada is about to legalise recreational marijuana as well.

Not only does our government have no plans to reform our drug laws, it’s going down the opposite path by introducing punitive new measures like this. It reflects an outdated, paternalistic attitude to drug consumption. It’s also an incredibly unfair approach.

Consider the communities the government targets when it comes to drug law enforcement. In Sydney sniffer dogs are clustered around Redfern, a suburb that has traditionally had a high proportion of public housing tenants and Indigenous residents. How often do you see them in Bondi, Woollahra and Point Piper? It’s not like people in the eastern suburbs don’t take drugs.

Police regularly organise drug operations at music festivals and around nightclubs but where are they at big awards nights or racing galas? I’m not arguing that the cops should start arresting TV celebs for doing coke, but the fact is we don’t police these crimes equally.

And introducing drug tests for welfare recipients is an extension of that. It’s a broken approach to drug policy being extended to a dangerous new area. It needs to be resisted, because even though the government might be starting with a “limited trial” targeting the youngest welfare recipients, don’t be surprised if it ends up going much further.

Osman Faruqi is a Sydney based writer and broadcaster. You can follow him on Twitter at @oz_f.