When Treasurer Scott Morrison announced the government’s plans to randomly drug test 5,000 people on welfare from January 2018, I turned to my partner – a square of chocolate pinned between my teeth – and mouthed “good”.
The trial is, in part, looking to crack down on welfare-fuelled substance abuse and addiction, and promises to catch those trying to “take an easy ride” on government payouts.
The selected dole recipients in three locations around the country will face a “three-strike” demerit point system and be tested for marijuana, ecstasy and methamphetamines, including ice.
Failure of the first test will see recipients of welfare placed on a cashless debit card, which restricts them from purchasing alcohol, gambling or withdrawing cash. A second positive test will get them a referral to a doctor for substance abuse treatment. Failing a third test will result in the cancellation of their $535.60 a fortnight payment, which they can apply for again after one month.
Under the new plan, drug addicted individuals will also no longer qualify for the disability support pension (a maximum of $808.30 a fortnight) for their substance abuse problems.
When I announced my support of the proposed changes in the Mamamia office meeting this morning, the looks on many of my coworkers’ faces said it all: How could you?
The words “dehumanising” and “belittling” were sprinkled through the air along with a heavy dose of disdain. And then articles from Buzzfeed trickled in, pointing out these “random tests” are not quite so, well, random at all.
In fact, the three yet-to-be-announced locations across the country will be decided with “data-driven profiling tools”, meaning those with a drug problem could be specifically sought out.
But for each colleague who disagreed with me and hated the policy, it seemed there was one who liked it. A glance on Twitter and Facebook produced the same even split.
For a budget that proposed significant changes to housing affordability and education, a tiny little drug test – one that will affect 0.00021 per cent of us – has certainly sparked a whole lot of chatter.
And that, according to Dr. Kathryn Daley, a researcher in the Centre for Applied Social Research at RMIT University, is exactly the point. After delivering a 2017 Budget that looked and smelled like something the Labor Party might serve up, the government needed something – anything – to remind the country, ‘Hey, we’re still anti-welfare’.
So a teeny 5,000-person drug trial of some of our most vulnerable people presented the perfect solution – maximal impact for minimal output.
“I don’t think this policy has been thought through,” Dr. Daley told me.
“[It seems like it’s been put in] as a talking point.
“This will please most people, especially far-right conservatives. People love the tough-on-crime, tough-on-drug-users rhetoric, so drug testing those on welfare has been put in there for a strategic purpose more than anything else.”
The way the drug testing program will work – and the results the government predicts it will achieve – shows Dr. Daley it is built on a problematic premise. For it to be successful, the government doesn’t just need people to fail, it is hoping they will.
While a policy that screams ‘we don’t like dole bludgers’ might do wonders from a conservative branding perspective, the government’s shiny new policy has myriad “grey areas”, too.
For example, why is the government testing for drugs like ecstasy and marijuana when they are largely recreational?
“Alcohol is actually of larger concern in regards to intimate family violence, as is addiction to prescription drugs,” Dr. Daley said.
“That’s like saying it’s okay to be drunk all the time, but it’s not okay to take an ecstasy pill at a music festival once a year, and that’s a very slippery slope.”
There’s also no clear outline on how the groups will be tested and, given substances like cannabis can linger in people’s systems for months, the testing process could “impinge on people’s rights”, the professor said.
Listen: For something a little more uplifting, two great things happened in Parliament this week. (Post continues.)
To suppose taking away money to buy drugs would mark a legitimate end to drug addiction is fanciful and oversimplistic, Dr. Daley added. Removing the ability to purchase drugs is like relieving a single symptom in a maelstrom of disadvantage.
“If you magically took away the drug use, the other problems – homelessness, poverty mental health problems – would still be there. There are so many other things going on, and this policy doesn’t tackle any of them,” she explained.
“If anything, this policy will see an increase in crime rates. What we might save in welfare payouts, we will pay for in rehab, in legal aid, and in psych wards.”
A heavy-handed, punitive approach to drug abuse – something that is a mental health problem, not simply a lifestyle problem – could yield “really dire consequences” in the years to come.
Economic benefits or downfalls aside, Dr. Daley says the weaknesses of this policy lie in its very foundations; ones that lack empathy, depth, and rehabilitation.
“Because ultimately all of us benefit from care and support, especially those who need it most.”
And just like that, I realised how misguided my gut reaction to the government’s new drug testing policy was.