Experts Urge Centrelink Drug Testing To Be Blocked

Key crossbenchers will support.

A controversial plan to drug test Centrelink recipients may finally become law in coming weeks, as the government tries to cobble together enough support from an ever-shifting Senate crossbench.

But experts have again asked for the parliament to reject the bill, saying the proposal will do more harm than good.

The proposal, first mooted in the 2017 budget, to randomly screen 5000 recipients of Newstart and Youth Allowance in Canterbury-Bankstown, Logan and Mandurah was met with fierce opposition and criticism from many public health bodies, drug services and charities. Under the plan, those who test positive for marijuana, methamphetamine or ecstasy would face being placed on income management with a basics card that can only be used to purchase essential goods, as well as being diverted into drug treatment programs.

Experts warned such targeting of welfare clients could further stigmatise or marginalise drug addicts, as well as unnecessarily diverting occasional or one-off users into already overcrowded treatment programs.

Reuters

The legislation passed the House of Representatives last year, but faced stiff opposition in the Senate from Labor, Greens and a smattering of crossbench senators. The government was forced to split the drug testing plan from a wider social services bill, and the plan lay on the sidelines until it was reintroduced into the House earlier this year. In December 2017, then-Social Services minister Christian Porter said the bill would be reintroduced because "there will be a few new faces in the Senate, because I am very, very close in terms of getting the support that we need."

Indeed, since the bill was last considered by the upper house, a number of senators have left and new ones have taken their place, while others have switched parties.

ten daily can confirm Senator Derryn Hinch will support the bill when it comes up for debate again. Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff of Centre Alliance are still to finalise their position. The support of these three senators would give the government the necessary numbers to pass the proposal into law.  Liberal Democrats senator David Leyonhjelm also supported the proposal in principle, but wants to see the testing program extended to include alcohol as well as the illicit drugs.

Centre Alliance Senators Rex Patrick and Sterling Griff (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Independent senator Tim Storer, who joined the Senate under the Nick Xenophon Team (now Centre Alliance) ticket after replacing disqualified NXT member Skye Kakoschke-Moore, told ten daily he would consider his position once the bill officially appears before the Senate.

The bill could come up for debate and vote in the upper house as soon as the next few weeks.

Hinch told ten daily he would vote in favour of the plan. ten daily also understands the two Centre Alliance senators are still considering the proposal. Leyonhjelm will support the proposal only if alcohol were added to the testing protocols -- this appears an unlikely outcome, but even without his support, 39 votes will pass the legislation.

Social Services Minister Dan Tehan (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Dr Nadine Ezard, clinical director of drug and alcohol services for St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, said experts still saw the policy as problematic.

"There is no evidence this kind of approach will create jobs or assist people into treatment. This has been developed without any clinical input, as far as we are aware," she said.

"This is basically a punishment rather than being helpful. It could further stigmatise people, stop them coming forward for treatment."

"If someone has a drug dependence, by definition they can't stop. They won't stop just because someone is testing them."

New social services minister Dan Tehan would not confirm when the bill would be brought before the Senate again -- only saying "we expect it... in the coming months" -- and asked opposition senators to reconsider their position.

Reuters

"If drug use is a barrier to someone getting a job, we want them to get help, which is the aim of the drug testing trial," he told ten daily in a statement.

"I urge Labor, the Greens and the crossbench to support this legislation because doing nothing is not an option. Doing nothing is not helping Australians to get off welfare and into work."

Tehan also outlined that the amended proposal would include $10 million for extra treatment support in the trial locations, and $1 million for an independent evaluation of the trial.

Dr Ezard said not enough had been done to help people who were actually struggling with drug issues.

"We think of it as a missed opportunity. Of course we want to better help our clients, and better link the welfare and treatment system," she said.

"If the plan is to genuinely help people, it would be better to fill the treatment gap. It's estimated there are up to half a million people who would benefit from treatment, who are currently not in treatment. That's a better use of money."

"A positive test doesn't mean you've got a disorder. This could fill up the centres with people who don't need treatment. It's a misdirection of scarce treatment resources, because someone who smoked a joint a few weeks ago is quite different to someone using meth every day."