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Issue #1793      September 6, 2017

Govt’s substance abuse disorder

The government describes it as an initiative to help job seekers for whom drugs have become a barrier to securing work. In reality the bill before Parliament this week is yet another weapon in the government’s war on the unemployed. The outcome will be increased stigmatisation, marginalisation and harm to people who require support.

The Social Welfare Reform Bill seeks to trial mandatory drug and alcohol testing of new unemployed Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients.

“This trial is focused entirely on helping job seekers overcome drug problems and to receive the help they need to get on a path towards securing a job and building a better future for themselves and their families,” Human Services Minister Alan Tudge claims.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of providing the assistance that the already marginalised unemployed need, the government is determined to hit them with callous and cruel cuts to their payments, put them onto humiliating cashless cards or even deny them an income.

Under the legislation agreement to undergo mandatory drug testing becomes a condition for job seekers to receive the Newstart Allowance or Youth Allowance (non-student). Five thousand new job seekers from three designated regions will be summoned to Centrelink offices for a drug testing. If they fail to attend, their payments will be cancelled immediately.

Those who test positive to the initial drug test will then receive 80 percent of their payment through a cashless card, restricting where and what they spend their income on. They will be subject to further random tests during the trial period, the first of which will occur within 25 working days of the initial positive test.

A cashless card is not a solution to drug dependency. It makes a mockery of the government’s claims to be helping job seekers.

Anyone testing positive to more than one drug test in the 24-month period will be referred to a contracted medical professional for assessment. If the medical professional recommends treatment, the recipient will be required to complete one or more treatment activities designed to address their substance abuse as part of their Employment Pathway Plan. These activities may include rehabilitation, counselling or ongoing drug testing.

They will also be required to repay the cost of these tests through ongoing reductions in their fortnightly social security payment.

Newstart and job seeker Youth Allowance recipients will no longer be able to use severe drug or alcohol dependency as a reason for exemption from applying for jobs or studying. If they don’t jump through the hoops they lose their income.

Their income will cease if they are incapacitated by sickness or an accident deemed to be caused by their drug or alcohol issues.

The Minister makes the rules regarding the keeping and destroying of records relating to samples for use in drug tests.

Drug or alcohol dependency is not a simple condition that can be addressed through coercion and punitive measures. Similar overseas programs in New Zealand, UK and parts of the USA failed and were eventually abandoned. There is not an iota of scientific evidence that such methods are successful. The evidence says it will undermine their recovery and do more harm.

Almost one thousand health care professionals have signed an open letter to the Prime Minister, the Opposition leader and members of Parliament, opposing the government’s plans for mandatory drug and alcohol testing of job seekers.

The letter, “Help Not Harm: An Open Letter from the Front Lines of Addition” says “Doctors, nurses, addiction specialists and health advocates stand shoulder to shoulder, united against the government’s plans to punish Australian struggling with severe alcohol and drug problems.

“We do not and cannot support policies that will push people suffering from difficult alcohol and drug problems further into the margins.

“If we had been consulted, we could have said that people cannot be punished into recovery. Using drug testing to coerce people into treatment treats drug and alcohol problems as some sort of personal failing – not the serious health problem it is ...

“Parliament should take immediate steps to redirect public funding away from harmful and expensive drug testing trials and expand non-punitive referral pathways to treatment services,” the letter concluded.

Alcohol and other drug treatment services in Australia are chronically underfunded and overstretched.

“Drug testing will not be able to distinguish between those who have clinically significant drug problems and recreational drug users who do not require treatment services. If government refers everyone who tests positive to treatment services, they will waste scarce resources and increase waitlists for people who actually want and need treatment,” the Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD) warned.

The ACND also pointed out that there is no requirement in the legislation for Department of Human Services “contracted medical professionals” to have any specific qualifications relevant to addiction medicine.

If a person is required to participate in treatment to receive payments, the treatment would be chosen by an employment services provider rather than an addiction specialist, the ACND noted.

“Drug addiction is a chronic relapsing, remitting disorder characterised by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, difficult to control and persists despite harmful consequences.

“The assumption that people with substance abuse disorders will change their behaviour to meet new compliance arrangements is not evidence-based. Many people with substance abuse issues are therefore at very high risk of losing their welfare payment as a result of these changes. This will compound their existing health issues and disadvantage,” the ACND said.

In particular, someone experiencing an acute mental health episode that was triggered by their drug or alcohol use would be at high risk of losing their income, and hence at severe risk of poverty and homelessness.

The trial is set to run for two years commencing in January 2018 in three locations. The working class, largely immigrant Canterbury-Bankstown area in western Sydney and Logan City in Queensland have so far been announced as two of the locations.

As John Falzon, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council, said, “You don’t build people up by putting them down. You don’t create jobs by punishing people experiencing unemployment and exclusion.

“For those relying on income support, this is an ideological distraction from the real issue, which is lack of decent paid work available. This is where the government should be focusing their efforts.”

The Senate can still block the bill, it ultimately lies in the hands of the cross-benchers, who should be lobbied now.

Next article – Editorial – Water: Harsh reality, real solutions

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