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Compulsory drug testing is no silver bullet

  • 29 August 2017


Christian Porter, the Minister for Social Services, has been trying to make his mark as an upcoming minister in the Turnbull Government.

Social security is a demanding portfolio. In an age of budget repair, steady five-plus per cent unemployment, high underemployment, and sluggish or non-existent wage growth for most workers, it is difficult to make a mark. No matter how job ready you make the unemployed, their prospects of finding work are not going to be greatly enhanced in this environment.

For those who have been unemployed for a long time, life can be very dispiriting. The policy challenge is to get the settings right, providing real and workable incentives to get the unemployed into the job market, while providing sufficient financial and other support to allow the long term unemployed a dignified though frugal existence.

In an age of 'budget repair' when both sides of politics are trying to contain the welfare budget, the search for savings and silver bullets is relentless. Despite 64 per cent of the social security and welfare budget being spent on aged pensions and family tax benefits, a silver bullet aimed at the unemployed and with broad public appeal turns to gold. Porter thinks he might have found the perfect silver bullet: mandatory drug tests for unemployed welfare recipients.

Porter and Alan Tudge, Minister for Human Services, have announced drug testing trials for new welfare recipients (Newstart and Youth Allowance) as 'a way of assisting people to get off drugs and back into work'. They have chosen three trial sites where mandatory drug tests will be conducted on 5000 welfare applicants over the next two years. Those sites are Canterbury-Bankstown in western Sydney, Logan south of Brisbane, and Mandurah south of Perth.

They have been very critical of health professionals and social welfare advocates who have opposed the proposal on the grounds that compulsory drug testing is no way to assist people get off drugs and that the major obstacles stopping people getting back to work are the lack of jobs and the strong competition for extra working hours with so many Australians feeling underemployed. Opposing the proposal, Catholic Health Australia and Catholic Social Services Australia have told a Senate committee:

Mandatory drug test regimes are a failed policy solution, based on international experience. Mandatory regimes which are proven failures also fail to respect the dignity of people afflicted with drug addiction. This measure will stigmatise drug users and in particular