The VICE Guide to Right Now

Labor To Block the Controversial Welfare Drug Testing Scheme

Experts say the Government's plan to drug test young people on Centrelink will be ineffective, and expensive.

by Katherine Gillespie
08 August 2017, 12:28am

Image via Flickr user David Jackmanson

It's only Tuesday, and this has already been the rockiest week in Australian politics all year.

For starters, the Federal Government decided against holding a free vote on marriage equality. Instead, they are taking the expensive marriage equality plebiscite bill back to the Senate one more time before offering Australia... a "postal plebiscite," which is non-compulsory and non-binding. According to The Australian, postal voting could start as early as next week.

Turns out though, while Liberal MPs locked themselves away to discuss whether or not LGBTQI Australians deserve the same fundamental rights enjoyed by non-LGBTQI Australians, the Labor Party was having some talks of its own.

According to shadow social services minister, Jenny Macklin, the Opposition will no longer vote with the Government on its Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017. This is the new Centrelink drug testing policy, which was deemed ineffective in both the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

"Labor has listened to expert advice from health professionals and will oppose the Government's proposed drug testing trial of social security recipients," Macklin said in a statement on Tuesday morning.

The proposed drug-testing policy includes a two-year drug testing trial in three locations for 5,000 new recipients of Newstart and Youth Allowance. Those on Newstart or Youth Allowance who live in the trial locations and return "an initial positive drug test" will continue to receive the same amount in welfare payments.

However, these payments "will be quarantined to help them manage their payments to meet essential living costs and to limit their ability to fund drug abuse." This means benefits will be put on a Cashless Debit Card, which has so far been trialled in the Ceduna and the East Kimberley.

If a welfare recipient tests positive a second time, they will be referred to a medical professional who will assess their circumstances and identify appropriate treatment options. There is still no detail about whether the government will subsidise the costs of treatment—or dedicate more resources to the public rehabilitation facilities—which already face long waiting lists.

Similar drug testing schemes in Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand have seen little success. And in 2013, a report funded by the Australia Government found drug testing welfare recipients was not only ineffective in curbing drug addictions or helping people find work, but also highly unethical.

Numerous experts from organisations including the Youth Support and Advocacy Service, Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, and Harm Reduction Australia told VICE back in May that they thought the Federal Government's proposal wouldn't work.

Given the Greens have previously ruled out supporting the bill, the Coalition will need support in order to assure its safe passage through the Senate. The Nick Xenophon Team have yet to make up their minds, although Xenophon told BuzzFeed News he was open to the proposal pending further discussions with colleagues.

Follow Kat on Twitter