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Welfare drug tests: Social Darwinism or necessary evil?

12 September 2019
This week, the federal government tabled a Bill that, if passed, will trial drug testing among welfare recipients in three locations. Labor and the Greens have opposed this since it was first proposed in 2017. University of Sydney health, policy, and welfare experts, too, condemn it.

The government’s proposal to trial drug-testing of welfare recipients, first flagged in 2017, is back on the parliamentary agenda. Initially opposed by the Senate, the LNP will be reliant on the crossbench to pass the Bill, which was tabled yesterday. Most recently, independent Senator Jacqui Lambie said she won’t support it unless money is earmarked for rehabilitation facilities for drug addicts. 

While Finance Minister Mattias Cormann says drug addiction prevents people on Newstart from gaining employment, many experts disagree. The AMA, for instance, says the plan stigmatises jobseekers, while others, like former federal police commissioner Mick Palmer, say it simply won’t disincentivise drug use. 


It works very well to add to the demonisation of people on Newstart
Dr Ruth Phillips

Some University of Sydney academics agree with the government's critics. Dr Ruth PhillipsAssociate Professor of Social Work & Policy Studies in the Sydney School of Education & Social Work, says the plan is emblematic of the "conservative morality" of the religious right in government, and it won't work.

"There is no evidence that this type of intervention has been successful as a means of getting the unemployed into the workforce," she said.

"It works very well to add to the demonisation of people on Newstart - associating 'dole bludgers' with drug use, addiction and by association, crime."

Asserting it is linked with the Liberal National Party's "Social Darwinism", Dr Phillips says it disregards the social and economic reasons for unemployment, "especially given the rise in the number of people over 55 currently on Newstart."

It only adds to the stigma and the shame that we know many unemployed people already face
Associate Professor Gaby Ramia

Associate Professor Gaby Ramia, a public policy expert in the School of Social and Political Sciences, concurred. He referred to the "very high" rates of welfare stigma in Australia, despite the fact that it has one of the strictest welfare regimes in the world. "Unemployed people face this [stigma] more than any other benefit recipients," he said.

"If and when governments add drug testing to this scenario, it only adds to the stigma and the shame."

Like Dr Phillips, he pointed to the lack of evidence linking drug testing with lower rates of welfare dependency. "In fact, benefit recipients who are sanctioned by having some or the bulk of their payments docked, for whatever reason, will find it even harder to find work," he added. 

Punitive responses to health issues are not the answer
Associate Professor Katherine Mills

Though she held the same view as her University of Sydney colleagues, Professor Maree Teesson AC, Director of the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use, naturally took a medical approach to the issue.

"Drug and alcohol problems are health problems. We have effective treatments for them," she said.

"A caring society would offer help rather than take away their payments."

Associate Professor and NHMRC Senior Research Fellow Katherine Mills, also from the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use, echoed this perspective: “Punitive responses to health issues are not the answer.” 

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